The Morality Of War


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:28 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 16:18-21:9
Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Havdalah: 8:28 p.m.               

The winds of war emanating from last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza have subsided, but we still hear loud and clear the raucous shouts at the United Nations, of European and American leaders condemning Israel’s “extreme and disproportionate military activity” during the ”cycle of violence,” and the fact that so many more Palestinians were killed than Israelis.

The never was a “cycle of violence,” only Hamas kidnappings and missile attacks launched from heavily populated areas, hospitals and schools, in Gaza against the Israeli civilian population to which we were forced to respond if we were to protect our soldiers and citizens within Israel. If the death count was disproportionate, it was not because of our enemy’s sensitivity.

The Torah insists that we never wage war, even a defensive war, without first asking for peace. Nevertheless, the Bible does prescribe that if the enemy refuses peace, “You must not leave any living being alive; you must utterly destroy them” [Deuteronomy 20:16-17]. This would seem to include women and children.

Is this compassion? In order to compound our question, only two verses after the command “to utterly destroy” we see the following curious — and exquisitely sensitive — Divine charge [Deut. 20:19]: “When you lay siege to a city … to wage war against it and capture it, you may not destroy a fruit tree to lift an axe against it; after all … the human being derives his sustenance from it,” or as alternatively rendered, “Is the tree of the field a human being, who is capable of escaping a siege?” Can it be that our Torah cares more about a fruit tree than innocent women and children?

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, dean of Yeshivat Volozhin at the end of the 19th century, in his masterful commentary on the Bible known as Ha’amek Davar, provides a key to our understanding. He insists that when the Torah ordains that we “utterly destroy” even the women and children (as it also commands in Deut. 7:1-2) this is limited “to those women and children who are also gathered against us in battle. …”

It is almost as though this great yeshiva head saw the kind of war we are being forced to wage with Hamas and Hezbollah. To rephrase Golda Meir, “I do not hate Hamas for trying to drive us out of our homeland; but I do hate Hamas for causing us to kill innocent Gazans.”

Michael Walzer, in his classic work “Just and Unjust Wars,” maintains that a soldier’s life is not worth less than an innocent victim’s life. We must add to this moral insight: If the “innocent victim” has bought into the evil of the enemy by continuing to support that enemy’s rule, enabling that enemy to build tunnels to destroy innocent Israelis, or if the enemy is a terrorist purposely waging war from the thick of residential areas because that is the way they think they can defeat us and stop us from fighting back, then logical morality insists that we dare not allow them to gain the edge, that we dare not allow evil to triumph.

Yes, we must try as much as possible to wage a moral war; but the highest morality is never allowing immorality to triumph. Our Sages correctly teach: “Those who are compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate.” We can be justly proud of our IDF, which continues to do everything possible to protect innocents in warfare.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.