Jewish War & Peace 101

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The rabbis of the Mishnah later expounded upon this distinction between wars with the Canaanites and those with other nations. The former they called a milhemet mitzvah, a commanded war. Wars against the Amalekites, the nation that attacked the Israelites as they left Egypt, and defensive wars were also put into this category. All other wars are referred to as milhemet reshut, permitted wars. This includes wars of territorial expansion, for example, the wars of King David.

israeli soldiersFor most of Jewish history after the biblical era, the laws of combat were merely theoretical. There were no Jewish armies and no Jewish wars. Therefore, practical ethics of war are not often discussed in Talmudic and medieval Jewish literature. Nonetheless, laws such as the prohibition against destroying fruit trees and, indeed, the unwarranted destruction of any property, do exist. A fascinating law prohibits besieging a city on all four sides. One side must be left open for people to escape.

Peace and Nonviolence

In addition to these ethical considerations, Talmudic and post-Talmudic rabbinic authorities tried to temper the militancy of the biblical record. They made it virtually impossible to declare a milhemet reshut, and also declared that the Canaanites and Amalekites were extinct. This leaves the defensive war as the only type of war executable in most situations, and it would also eliminate the requirement to kill every last enemy.

Although Judaism never embraced pacifism and nonviolence as absolute principles, there are certain examples of nonviolence in the Bible, and pacifism was employed on occasion in response to particular situations.

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