Pacifism in Jewish Law

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

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So too, Jewish law recounts that if one sees two individuals fighting in a circumstance where one could hurt the other, Jewish law allows the use of force to separate the two combatants. In a circumstance where force is the only means to separate the combatants, force is mandatory.

dove on a roofAs is noted by Rabbi Joshua Falk-Cohen (Sema) [1555-1614] and others, this rule encompasses two different moral duties. The first is to help one who is being attacked, the second is separating a person from sin. The use of force to hurt a person is wrong but Jewish law sanctions the use of force to prevent another from using force improperly.

A clearer rejection of the philosophy of pacifism is not possible. Indeed, one who examines even the ritual area of the law discovers that the use of violence in the service of that which is right is sanctioned as permissible. Thus, the Shulkhan Arukh [the medieval, authoritative work of Jewish law] (Orakh Chaim 329:6) mandates the use of force on the Sabbath in response to the threat of invasion of the Jewish community. It is simply untenable to claim that, as a matter of theoretical ethical duty, Jewish law perceives pacifism as the ideal response to evil in all circumstances.

Thus it is crucial to emphasize that the Jewish tradition does not reject pacifism as a practical response to immorality or evil. Rather, tactical pacifism has a place as the clearly superior alternative to either co-operating with evil or actively trying to separate one from evil and failing.

But the Least Violent Means Must Be Used

There is one element of pacifism that is clearly found in the Jewish tradition: the minimization of violence. In nearly all situations where Jewish law allows violence to prevent an evil from occurring, it mandates that the minimal amount of violence be used to accomplish one's goal. Thus, if one can stop a murderer from committing the crime without the use of deadly force, deadly force is prohibited (Tur, Hoshen Mishpat 425. Maimonides, Murder 1:13). If one can separate combatants without using physical force, non-violent means are certainly preferred (Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 421:11).

Judaism accepted that it is best not to use violence and violence was the last resort, but when no other action would suffice, violence was morally acceptable and typically mandatory.

Societal Pacifism is Not Simplehand making peace sign

The question of societal, rather than individual, pacifism, is a much more complex topic in Jewish law. Judaism does not require that society go to war in every circumstance in which war is permissible. The decision as to whether or not to wage war is a societal burden, one made by those who are part of the society that will suffer the consequences of waging the war.

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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.