Author Archives: Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Rabbi Donniel Hartman

About Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Rabbi Donniel Hartman is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a master's in political philosophy from New York University and a master's in religion from Temple University, and is currently completing his doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University (Jerusalem).

Rabbinic Limitations on War

In Mishnah Sotah 8:7, Rabbi Yehudah designates an expansionary war of aggression a milhemet chovah, an obligatory war. The majority rabbinic opinion, however, calls these types of wars milhemet reshut, discretionary wars. Whereas Rabbi Yehudah’s designation recognizes these wars as expressions of God’s will, the rabbis’ designation divests it of religious significance. The following article describes how this and other rabbinic laws sought to limit the validity and practicality of violent conflict. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991).

Discretionary Wars Do Not Exempt You From Mitzvot

When a war is obligatory, it has a priority status within the legal religious system, and one who engages in this war is exempt from fulfilling other commandments that claim one’s time and attention. A nonobligatory act [i.e., a discretionary act], however, has no such standing and does not provide such an exemption. Thus, discretionary wars must stand in line behind a lengthy and detailed list of mitzvot [commandments] that make daily if not hourly demands on every Jew.


For example, Talmud Torah [studying Torah], which one is obligated to do day and night, Shabbat, prayer, to name but a few, all take precedence over discretionary acts. Wars of aggression could thus become a permissible but rarely invoked policy. One opinion in the Gemara [Talmud] goes even further and attributes this position to Rabbi Yehudah as well, thus making wars of aggression milhemet reshut [discretionary wars] according to all opinions in the Mishnah. Though we cannot prove that the reclassification of aggressive war as milhemet reshut expresses a rabbinic critique of the biblical approach to war, the rabbis were fully aware of the implications of their legal innovation:

“One calls them commanded and the other voluntary, the practical issue being that one who is engaged in the performance of a commandment is exempt from the performance of another commandment.” (Sotah 44b)

If Sinners Cannot Fight, Then No One Can Fight

Two Types of Jewish War

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991).

The major biblical statement on morality of war, Deuteronomy 20, differentiates between two types of war. As to “towns that lie very far from you, towns that do not belong to nations hereabout” (verse 15), wars of conquest are permissible. As stated, these are wars against enemies that lie very far from Israel’s borders, and as such, are obviously not defensive wars but rather wars motivated by pure aggression. 

As to “towns of the latter peoples [who inhabit the land Canaan]…which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage” (verse 16), the justification for war is the Jewish people’s exercising their divine right to the land of Canaan, “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it for I have assigned the land to you to possess.”

The Threat of Idolatry

This divine right of conquest is not, however, the justification for the eradication of the seven nations from the land of Canaan, but rather the belief that “they [will] lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the Lord your God.” (verse 18)

jewish warThe Bible perceives these nations as threatening not simply the political survival of the Jewish people, but also the continuity of the covenant. According to the conventional view, monotheistic ideology had yet to take a serious hold on the Jewish people and the idolatrous practices of the people surrounding them were far more attractive and enticing. The Bible recognizes this threat as determinative of the interaction between the Israelites and their neighbors.

The fear of foreign contamination locates Deuteronomy 20 in its historical context and therefore inhibits attempts (especially in the modern Israeli context) to transform the biblically sanctioned war against the seven nations into a model for war against all non‑Jewish enemies of the Jewish people who either inhabit the land of Israel or who threaten her existence. The creation of a totally “Israelized” State of Israel is biblically prescribed only in the context of an idolatrous enemy such as the seven nations of antiquity, whose threat was theological and not simply political.