Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991).
The major biblical statement on morality of war, Deuteronomy 20, differentiates between two types of war. As to “towns that lie very far from you, towns that do not belong to nations hereabout” (verse 15), wars of conquest are permissible. As stated, these are wars against enemies that lie very far from Israel’s borders, and as such, are obviously not defensive wars but rather wars motivated by pure aggression.
As to “towns of the latter peoples [who inhabit the land Canaan]…which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage” (verse 16), the justification for war is the Jewish people’s exercising their divine right to the land of Canaan, “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it for I have assigned the land to you to possess.”
The Threat of Idolatry
This divine right of conquest is not, however, the justification for the eradication of the seven nations from the land of Canaan, but rather the belief that “they [will] lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the Lord your God.” (verse 18)
The Bible perceives these nations as threatening not simply the political survival of the Jewish people, but also the continuity of the covenant. According to the conventional view, monotheistic ideology had yet to take a serious hold on the Jewish people and the idolatrous practices of the people surrounding them were far more attractive and enticing. The Bible recognizes this threat as determinative of the interaction between the Israelites and their neighbors.
The fear of foreign contamination locates Deuteronomy 20 in its historical context and therefore inhibits attempts (especially in the modern Israeli context) to transform the biblically sanctioned war against the seven nations into a model for war against all non‑Jewish enemies of the Jewish people who either inhabit the land of Israel or who threaten her existence. The creation of a totally “Israelized” State of Israel is biblically prescribed only in the context of an idolatrous enemy such as the seven nations of antiquity, whose threat was theological and not simply political.
Jewish Wars of Aggression
By contrast, war against nations “that lie very far from you” cannot be justified as a form of religious self‑defense. As typified by the wars during the reigns of kings David and Solomon, they are wars of pure expansion and aggression. Yet they too are God’s wars:
“…and when the Lord your God delivers it into your hand (verse 13)…and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the Lord your God gives you (verse 14).”
Although it is true that the capturing of the land of Israel and the eradication of the seven nations is obligatory and wars of aggression and conquest are not, according to Deuteronomy 20, all wars embarked upon by the people of Israel are religiously sanctioned as God’s wars. There is little differentiation in the legitimacy or divine sanction of wars of self‑defense, aggression, conquest, expansion, capturing the land of Canaan, or eradication of idolatry from the midst of the Jewish people. The Jewish people’s battles are all God’s battles, in accordance with the expression of the divine will.
All Jewish Wars are Religious Wars
This perspective on the morality of war is adopted and further elaborated by Rabbi Yehudah in the Mishna tractate of Sotah. Recognizing that we are obligated to take hold of the land of Canaan, but are not required to embark on wars of aggression, Rabbi Yehudah identifies wars of conquest and aggression as commanded (mitzvah) and the war against the seven nations as obligatory (chovah).
Both categories, mitzvah and chovah, are very similar, with almost identical religious weight and authority. Both contain a sense of fulfilling God’s will as either metzaveh (one who commands) or as mechayev (one who obligates). Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, ca. 1040-1105] explains that there is no significance in the distinction between these two categories. However, as soon as Rabbi Yehudah designated wars of conquest as a mitzvah, he needed a slightly higher category to denote the war to capture the land of Canaan on which all are obligated to embark.
What Rashi implies is that the category of mitzvah sometimes signifies a religious duty that is subject to contingencies. For example, tzizit [fringes], according to some opinions, is a requirement only if you have or wear a garment with four corners. There is no chovah (requirement) to own such a garment, but if you do, the placing of tzizit on the corners is a mitzvah. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah chose the term mitzvah to categorize wars of conquest, and though there is no obligation to wage them, if the Jewish people choose to do so, they are still fulfilling a mitzvah.
Neutralizing Religious Wars
The biblical position and that of Rabbi Yehudah were rejected, however, by the majority opinion in rabbinic tradition. In an innovative move, the rabbis create a significant legal distinction between the two wars of Deuteronomy 20. They maintain the status of the war against the seven nations as a mitzvah and the fulfillment of a religious duty, but redefine the religious perception and evaluation of the wars of aggression against the “towns that lie very far from you.”
These wars are not perceived to be the fulfillment and reflection of God’s will but rather discretionary wars (milchemet reshut). As discretionary acts, wars of aggression are still legally permissible. Once divested of their religious value, however, their importance, legitimacy, and practical feasibility are seriously weakened.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.