Jewish Peace Offerings

Deuteronomy's laws of warfare include the requirement that a nation seek a peaceful settlement before engaging in war.

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But that does not mean that peace is mandated in all circumstances. There are wars that are obligatory (like the wars against Amalek or against the Canaanites) and wars that are discretionary (like the wars of King David to expand the borders of the land of Israel).

The Terms of Peace

According to Maimonides (although not according to Rashi), in all wars, even obligatory wars, Israel is commanded to seek peace first. Furthermore, the terms of that peace include conditions that will help assure Israel that the peace will be real:

One does not wage war with anyone in the world until one first seeks peace. This is equally true of both discretionary and obligatory wars, as it says, "When you come near a city to attack it, you shall offer it words of peace." If they agree to peace and accept the seven commandments incumbent upon the descendants of Noah, not a single soul among them may be killed, and they shall pay tribute… (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:1).

The Noahide commandments, described in tractate Sanhedrin (56b) of the Babylonian Talmud, form a rabbinic vision of basic, universal ethics. These rules--which include the prohibition on murder and the requirement to set up courts of justice--establish the norms of civil society and responsible government, which would ensure that a peace treaty was indeed an assurance of peace.

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi and other sources, Joshua followed this policy of offering peace.

Before entering the land of Israel, Joshua sent out a message, announcing that any people who want to leave, could do so; any who would make peace, could do so; any who would make war, could do so (Shevi'it 6:1, 16b).

The results, however, describe a stark reality. According to the Talmudic retelling of the biblical story, the Girgashites left, the Gibeonites made peace, and the other 31 kingdoms fell to Joshua's army. Then as now, finding partners for peace was and remains no small challenge.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.