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Jewish War & Peace 101

Jewish tradition takes it for granted that war is an inevitable part of human existence.

Peace, shalom, is one of Judaism’s most revered values. “Shalom” is, of course, the traditional greeting among Jews, and it is also a name used for God. And yet, Jewish tradition takes it for granted that war is an inevitable part of human existence and that peace on earth will not be achieved until the messianic era.

Combat and Conflict

Toward the end of Deuteronomy, as the Israelites are about to leave the desert, Moses speaks to them about war. The guidelines he provides are of practical significance. The Israelites are slated to occupy the land of Canaan (biblical Israel) through military force.

The first rule of Jewish war is to avoid it whenever possible. Prior to attacking an enemy, a Jewish army must offer peace. If that offer is not accepted, however, the Torah mandates that every male should be killed and the women, children, and livestock should be taken as booty. And this only applies to wars with non-Canaanite nations. The seven nations of Canaan–men, women, and children–should be completely wiped out if they do not accept the terms of peace offered to them.

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.

For 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.

In addition, the Torah lists several types of people who are exempt from military service. This list includes men who are engaged to be married and those who are “fearful” and “gentle-hearted.” Contemporary thinkers like Arthur Waskow have invoked the exemption for the “gentle-hearted” to raise the possibility of excusing conscientious objectors.

In summary, although Judaism may not be fundamentally pacifistic, the hope for peace, the pursuit of peace, and the expectation of a universally peaceful time at the end of history are among its most basic tenets.

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