Rabbinic Limitations on War

Deuteronomy 20 permits wars of aggression, but the talmudic rabbis made it difficult to declare one.

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Whether this rationale was borne out in practice is another matter. In fact, the one rabbinic reference for procuring sanction for voluntary warfare does not seem to present the Sanhedrin as a force in controlling or curtailing these immoral campaigns:

At the coming of dawn, the Sages of Israel entered into his presence and said unto him, "Our Sovereign King, the people Israel need sustenance." "Go and support yourselves by mutual trading," David replied. "But," said they, "a handful does not satisfy the lion, nor can a pit be filled with its own clods." Whereupon David said to them, "Go and stretch forth your hands with a troop (of soldiers)." Immediately they held counsel with Ahitophel and took advice from the Sanhedrin and inquired of the Urim and Tummin. (Sanhedrin 16a)

The Sanhedrin are here portrayed as a rubber stamp in an ongoing and prevalent policy of correcting the Jewish people's financial woes with the aid of aggressive warfare.

Discretionary Wars Are Still on the Books

This last case is a good example of the limitations of rabbinic morality of war. Although creating legal criteria for exemptions from soldiering, and a decision process that institutes checks and balances before the Jewish people can legally embark on wars of aggression, this form of war was not abolished from the books. It became a voluntary war, which as such, was still legally permitted.

Only a people committed to using their legal exemptions, or a Sanhedrin pledged to peace and the abandonment of a policy of wars of aggression, would succeed in curtailing this immorality. No legal structure was set up to guarantee this result. As distinct from the laws of the rebellious son, voluntary wars of aggression and conquest remain formally and legally implementable.

When warfare is a not a practical option, such as was the case for much of Jewish history, gaps through which immoral discretionary wars can be justified are of less significance and their "plugging" is not a legal priority. With the return to statehood and military power, it becomes a serious concern that we have a legal system that maintains "on its books" the legitimacy of wars of pure aggression.

The total abolition of a law that reflected the policies of idealized kings such as David and Solomon was beyond the rabbis' self‑perceived authority. The rabbis might have nullified the law with their restrictive ruling, but they were not inclined to morally condemn it. They chose instead to curtail its implementation, thereby creating a legal framework that enabled the people to see wars of aggression as a part of their history and not an ongoing political option.

In addition, in their commentary on Deuteronomy 20, where Jewish law legitimizes all the wars of the Jewish people regardless of their purpose and motivation, the rabbis place statements that speak to the centrality of peace. They argue, in essence, that although the Bible legally sanctions these wars, military aggression is antithetical to the ethos of the Bible itself, which, in their opinion, places a central emphasis on the significance of peace.

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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).