Pacifism in Jewish Law

Jewish tradition never embraced complete pacifism, though minimizing violence has always been a priority.

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The following article refers to situations in Jewish history when Jews chose death and martyrdom instead of conversion to another faith. It should be noted that this is not necessarily endorsed in Jewish tradition. Judaism recognizes three acts that require martyrdom instead of transgression: incest, murder, and idolatry. According to most authorities, Christianity and Islam are not idolatrous religions. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from "Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition," originally published on jlaw.com.

Difficult as it is in our current society to take a stand against pacifism as a societal or individual moral philosophy, it is clear that the Jewish tradition does not favor pacifism as a value superior to all other values or incorporate it as a basic moral doctrine within Judaism.war and peace quiz 

Pacifism is Recommended--Sometimes

Judaism clearly has accepted a practical form of pacifism as appropriate in the "right" circumstances. For example, the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) recounts that in response to the persecutions of the second century (CE), the Jewish people agreed (literally: took an oath) that mandated pacifism in the process of seeking political independence or autonomy for the Jewish state. This action is explained by noting that frequently pacifism is the best response to total political defeat; only through the complete abjuring of the right to use force can survival be ensured.

So too, the phenomenon of martyrdom, with even the extreme example of killing one's own children rather than allowing them to be converted out of the faith, represents a form of pacifism in the face of violence. However, it is impossible to assert that a pacifistic tradition is based on a deeply rooted Jewish tradition to abstain from violence even in response to violence. It is true that there was a tradition rejecting the violent response to antisemitism and pogrom. Yet it is clear that that tradition was based on the futility of such a response, rather than on the moral impropriety of such a response.

Even a casual survey of Jewish law on the appropriateness of a violent response to violence leads one to conclude that neither Jewish law nor rabbinic ethics frowned on violence in all circumstances as a response to violence.

At Other Points, the Law Demands Force

Three examples prove this point. Jewish law commands (compels) one to save the life of one who is being murdered even if it is necessary to do so at the expense of the life of the murderer. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) commands that one should have no mercy on the murderer and take his life if needed. Indeed, this is true even if the murderer could not be punished by a court for his crime after the fact (for example, if the murderer were a minor).

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Rabbi Michael Broyde

Rabbi Michael Broyde is an associate professor of law at Emory University and the rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta.