War is hell — but is it halachic?
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War is hell — but is it halachic?

War is hell – but is it halachic?

Shammai Engelmayer

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day When we marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror, we also began the inexorable march toward another 10th anniversary, that of the start of the war in Afghanistan. On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States and several of its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom, designed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors.

These were noble goals, and few argued that the war was anything but just. Was it, however, what God wanted?

Wars almost always have been seen as sacred conflicts. Each side has God’s sanction; each side is fulfilling God’s wishes.

Within the ranks of each side in a war, of course, there usually is an internal “other side,” the peace camp, which claims to know that God only wants peace and love.

Everyone, it seems, knows God’s mind when it comes to war.

Those who “know” that God “opposes” war have a lot of “evidence” on their side.

To begin at the beginning, they note that because all humans are created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26-27), to maim or kill a fellow human is to commit sacrilege. God says as much to Noah after the Great Flood.

God, they say, opposes any kind of physical violence. When Cain kills Abel, God’s agony is clear (see Genesis 4), yet He acts to protect Cain from vengeance.

God, in fact, hates killing so much, he even tries to keep humans from killing animals for food. In Genesis 1:29, He tells the first human, “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.”

God will not even allow the animals to kill for their food. “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, where there is life, I have given every green herb for food,” He says one verse later.

This changes after the flood, but not because God changed His mind about killing.

“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things,” God tells Noah and his family. “But flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God he made man.” (See Genesis 9:1-6.)

So goes the argument – and it is a pretty persuasive one if you disregard everything in the Torah that says just the opposite.

For example, God never said, “Thou shalt not kill”; He said, “Thou shall not murder” (see Exodus 20:13). This is not a blanket ban on killing. This becomes increasingly obvious in the chapters that immediately follow.

First, God almost immediately makes clear that a distinction exists between murder and manslaughter (see Exodus 21:13). Then, in Exodus 22:1-2, He suggests a difference between justifiable homicide and cold-blooded murder.

God does not like violence and bloodshed, but He is a realist.

He is also a “warrior God” when the need arises. It was He who literally sank the advancing Egyptian army. “The Lord is a man of war,” Moses declares (see Exodus, 15:3-4).

Only weeks later, after God helps Israel defeat an unbelievably cruel enemy, we are told that “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

Later on, we are told that God’s war with Amalek was ours to carry out (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

Time and again, God also commands us to make war on the seven nations that populated Canaan 3,500 years ago. In Deuteronomy 20:1-18, Moses sets out some of the rules of war, then assures Israel that “the Lord your God is with you…, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”

It is hard to make a case that God is anti-war when He assures us that He will stand beside us in battle.

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.

The discretionary war that has no sanction is obviously an “illegal war.” David’s war of conquest against Syria may be one such instance, because it was a discretionary war with no divine sanction. (See Sifre to Deuteronomy, Piska 51.) Any deaths that occur in the course of an illegal war are considered to be outright murder.

The Talmud attempts to explain the two legitimate categories (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sotah 44b) in this way: “The wars waged by Joshua to conquer [Canaan] were obligatory…, [while] the wars waged [with divine sanction] by the House of David for territorial expansion were discretionary….”

This 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, in an effort to distinguish it from the “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.”

Pre-emptive strikes against an enemy who poses a credible and somewhat immediate threat fall under Maimonides’ definition of a defensive war.

In truth, I have no doubt that God approved of the war against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – may his name be blotted out but his evil deeds never forgotten – because it is beyond reason to assume that God countenanced those evil deeds and was prepared to see those deeds multiply.

Unfortunately, Osama bin Laden also had no doubt that God approved of what he was doing. The atrocities al Qaeda committed, he said, were done on “the order of their Allah and prophet, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him.”

Where war is concerned, perhaps we would be better off if we just left God out of it altogether.

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