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Behind the Headlines: War is Permissible in Jewish Law, but It Must Be Conducted Morally

February 7, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As war casualties mount in the Persian Gulf, religious leaders continue to debate the morality of the conflict.

While some religions consider war inherently immoral, the Jewish theological position is that war is justified and even mandatory in certain circumstances, say scholars of Jewish law.

“War ipso facto is not essentially immoral,” said Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, professor of Midrash and homiletics at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinic seminary.

“Judaism is a pacific tradition. We look at peace as the best thing,” said Kravitz, a former army chaplain. “We pray for peace. We greet each other with peace. But the world is unredeemed.

“Mashiach (the Messiah) hasn’t come. The world where nations don’t learn war any more hasn’t happened yet. Where evil still exists, what does the individual do? War is sometimes necessary in an unredeemed world.”

After the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbinic exegesis recognized three categories of war: milchemet reshut (permissible war), milchemet chovah (obligatory war) and milchemet mitzvah (commanded war). Ironically, these laws were codified during a time when Jews were under Roman rule and not able to make decisions of state.

The first rabbinic category, reshut, is understood as “optional war,” a war initiated to conquer territory, for example some of the wars undertaken during the era of Jewish kings.

There are several legal requirements before beginning milchemet reshut, including obtaining the approval of the Sanhedrin, which cannot be fulfilled in the modern era.


Milchemet chovah, according to Kravitz, is war “to enhance the land or to expand the land.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, defines it differently. Milchemet chovah, he said, is “something you are obliged to do to save the life of your society when its existence is threatened.”

Milchemet mitzvah, said Green, means war that is commanded by Scripture. That definition is “limited to wars of conquest in the time of Joshua, to rid the land of the seven Canaanite nations, and war for the destruction of Amalek.

“Since the Talmud says that the Canaanite nations no longer exist in recognizable form, there is no longer any reason for milchemet mitzvah,” Green said.

Other Jewish authorities disagree, defining milchemet mitzvah as war of self-defense, the one legitimate reason for war in the modern era.

“The only type of war permissible in this historical epoch is a defensive war,” said Rabbi David Bleich, rosh yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University.

This war is not only permitted, but is halachically required, said Bleich and other scholars.

Unlike milchemet reshut, divine approval is not required in cases of self defense, say these rabbis, nor is anyone exempt from the effort.

Deuteronomy lists several reasons why a soldier may be exempted from fighting in an optional war: if he has built a house he has not yet dedicated, if he has not yet harvested his crops, if he is newly married or even if he is afraid.

But in the case of milchemet mitzvah, said Kravitz, “even a hassan (groom) from under the (wedding) chuppah goes.”

And while every attempt to avoid war is supposed to be made, there are circumstances where negotiation is not required, according to some authorities.

“When you’re dealing with an act of aggression, you’re not obligated to negotiate. You’re permitted to strike,” according to Bleich.


Jewish law also dictates the behavior of a Jewish army during wartime, emphasizing the sanctity of life in Judaism.

“Even in war, the means by which it is fought must be moral,” according to Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, assistant professor of philosophy at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and religious leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Or Zarua.

An army is required to “try to avoid injuring non-combatants,” he said, adding that if there is a choice of weapons, the one that would target enemy soldiers without hitting innocents is preferred.

“You are not allowed to mistreat a prisoner of war,” said Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago and a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York.

POWs have to be “treated fairly, a concept which preceded the Geneva Convention by 22 centuries,” said Soloveitchik.

And according to Wechsler, “Maimonides says that when you lay siege to a city, you surround it only on three sides, allowing those who are innocent to flee. It illustrates the need to protect innocent life, because Torah prohibits murder as a capital crime.”

Behavior during war is regulated even down to the obligation to protect trees, according to Deuteronomy 20:19: “When you law siege to a city for many days, making war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its surrounding trees.”

Only if a tree is known not to be one which provides food may it be cut down, and then only to fortify areas under siege by the enemy.

Wechsler cited Nachmanides as saying that “it is well known that when armies go out to war, they will eat anything, they will plunder and commit wanton violence, and they will have no shame even to commit rape.

“Therefore, when you camp against your enemy you should be wary of all evil. Scripture wants to make sure that even in war, it is conducted morally.”

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