Russia and the United States (with NATO behind it) are eyeball to eyeball, and the world waits to see whether Vladimir Putin blinks, to borrow from Dean Rusk’s comment regarding the Soviet Union from 60 years ago, or whether he orders his military to invade Ukraine (which, as of this writing, he had not).
Tensions are running high throughout the world because of it.
War, though, is a constant presence these days because of the many ongoing global conflicts—in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, in various South American countries in one form or another, and even in Ukraine itself, among many others. Ever since Russia illegally seized Crimea in 2014, separatists in Ukraine’s southeast have been waging war with the regime in Kyiv, often with the help of regular Russian army units.
History argues that wars are inevitable. All too often, though, God is used as the excuse for those wars. That was the rationale behind the Muslim conquest that began in the 7th Century and the series of Christian crusades that followed beginning in the 11th.
God is often used today to justify conflicts in our world. We saw it in Bosnia in the early 1990s, where Christians waged war on Muslims. We see it today in such places as Nigeria, where Muslims wage war against Christians.
While it certainly can be argued that God approves of war, the evidence in Jewish law is that God in fact disapproves of war outside very limited situations.
God’s views on the sanctity of life are evident in the Torah from the very beginning. Because all humans are created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27), to maim or kill a fellow human is to commit sacrilege against God’s very own likeness. God says as much to Noah after the Great Flood, as will be seen further down.
Clearly, God disapproves of gratuitous physical violence of any kind. When Cain kills Abel, God’s agony is clear (see Genesis 4). Nevertheless, God sets a protective “mark upon Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” In pre-Flood days, one life was not to be traded for another.
God even tries to keep the pre-Flood humans from killing animals for food. In Genesis 1:29, the First Human is told, “I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, on which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.”
One verse later, God issues virtually the same command “to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all that creep upon the earth, where there is life.”
All life is sacred.
This changes after the Flood, but not because God’s had second thoughts.
In Genesis 9:1-6, God begins by conceding that humans now can eat meat, but only from a dead animal. Human behavior, it seems, had sunk so low that people did not wait to kill the animals to get their meat; they just ripped limbs right off (a practice that still happens in many non-kosher meat packing plants). God’s dispensation recognizes that human nature is baser than God hoped, and that the only way to prevent such bestial behavior by humans on animals requires making some concessions and setting new rules.
Next comes the equating of human life and animal life. Yes, God says, you can eat meat, but “your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it.” To make the point that taking animal life qualifies for life-for-a-life treatment, this is immediately followed by “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The positioning of these two statements makes clear that if man wants to be a meat-eater, the animal kingdom has the right to become blood-avengers, just as a man may become a blood-avenger for his beloved dead (although God is not keen on blood-avenging).
This message is brought home in Leviticus 17:3-4, where we are told that a person who kills an animal for food without some kind of sacred justification, “blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood….” In the immediate case, that sacred justification required that the animal be killed within the precincts of the Tabernacle, presumably as a sacrifice of some kind. The late 19th century founder biblical commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put it bluntly in commenting on those verses. Killing an animal for no “sacred” purpose “is to be taken as murder.”
If to all this we add the laws God makes prohibiting murder, severely restricting the taking of human life in general and otherwise protecting the sanctity and dignity of human beings, there should be no doubt where God stands.
On the other hand, God never issued a blanket ban on killing. God never said, “Thou shalt not kill,” that oft-quoted phrase that is nowhere to be found in the Torah. “Murder” is the word used in the commandment (see Exodus 20:13).
As God continues to set forth Israel’s laws in the Sefer Ha-b’rit, the Book of the Covenant, in the chapters that immediately follow the Ten Commandments, a distinction is made between murder and manslaughter (see Exodus 21:13). Then, in Exodus 22:1-2, God denotes a difference between justifiable homicide and cold-blooded murder.
While God does not like violence and bloodshed, God also is a realist. If someone is coming to kill you and killing that person is the only way to prevent being killed, that is justifiable homicide.
God’s pragmatism is evident in the commandment regarding an unbelievably cruel enemy, Amalek. As we are commanded in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Amalek’s goal was our annihilation. War against Amalek also is justifiable homicide.
Time and again, God also tells us in the Torah that we will have to go to war against the seven Canaanite nations living in the Land of Israel. And, in Deuteronomy 20:1-18, God sets out some of the rules of war, and even promises “to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.” It is hard to make a case that God is anti-war given such a declaration. (It needs to be noted, though, that these wars against the Canaanite nations had no religious motivation attached. They made war on us, and we were commanded to fight back, or strike pre-emptively.)
Based on all that the Torah has to say (both pro-life and pro-war), Jewish law deduces the existence of two kinds of acceptable war: the obligatory war and the discretionary, yet divinely sanctioned, one. (Women, by the way, are required to fight alongside men in obligatory wars, according to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sotah 44b.)
An unsanctioned discretionary war is obviously an “illegal war.” David’s war of conquest against Syria may be one such, because it was a discretionary war with no divine sanction. (See Sifre to Deuteronomy, Piska 51.) Any deaths that occur in such a war are considered to be outright murder.
The Talmud in BT Sotah 44b attempts to explain the two legitimate categories in this way: “The wars waged by Joshua to conquer [Canaan] were obligatory…, [while] the wars waged by the House of David for territorial expansion [that did have divine sanction] were discretionary….”
Obviously, the eternal war against Amalek also is an obligatory war since it is mandated by the Torah. That would seem to shut down the possibility of obligatory wars in the current day, since neither the seven nations of Canaan nor Amalek exist any longer. Maimonides, however, includes as obligatory a war waged to fend off an attacking army (see Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 5:1). Elsewhere, he refers to the defensive war as a “commanded” one, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from an “obligatory” war. Ostensibly, he bases this on Numbers 10:9, which recognizes the need to “go to war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you.” Others have argued, however, that “obligatory” and “commanded” are synonymous where war is concerned.
Pre-emptive strikes against an enemy who poses a credible and somewhat immediate threat fall under Maimonides’s definition of a defensive war.
If Putin invades Ukraine, that war clearly falls under the category of an illegal war, just as David’s war against Syria was illegal.
As for God wanting wars waged for religious reasons—in order to compel the people being attacked to “convert or die”—God never said any such thing. In fact, when Moses, speaking for God, warned Israel not to consider joining alien religions, he specifically said that those religions also were given by God (see Deuteronomy 4:19), so declaring war against those religions defies God. While it is true that the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus forcibly converted the Idumeans, that was an exception—and one of which Judaism disapproved.
God reluctantly approves of war in very limited circumstances, but to use God as an excuse for making war is abject heresy.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.