Judaism does not glorify war and advocates restraint before making any drastic moves. Self-defense is one justification for battle.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), is essentially Moses’ last sermon. Moses repeats many of the laws of the Torah previously mentioned in order to prepare the Jewish people for entering the Land of Israel.
He also recalls some of the major battles that the Jewish people fought during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. We get a review of the battles with the Midianites, Edomites Ammonites, and the conquest of Sihon and Og. As such, in this article, we are going to discuss “war in Judaism.”
Of course, Judaism is against war and teaches to exercise restraint before making any drastic moves. However, in Judaism, self-defense does indeed justify war. The eradication of evil also justifies war in certain contexts. We are told to always stretch out our hands in peace before proceeding to war.
Two Types of War
In ancient times there were two types of war. There was the obligatory war, known as “milchemet mitzva,” and the optional war, known as “milchemet reshut.” The only time war was obligatory was in order to conquer the Land of Israel and, at times, to destroy idolatry and sin. In the event that the King of Israel would want to launch an optional war – say, to expand the borders of the country – he would need to seek authorization from the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious authority, and secure Divine approval through the High Priest.
Jewish law forbids needless destruction during warfare. The destruction of fruit trees is especially grave. It is likewise forbidden to break vessels, tear clothing, pollute wells and springs, or waste food in a destructive manner. It goes without saying that needless killing of animals is forbidden (though there were some exceptions in which God insisted that even the animals of the enemy must be destroyed).
So, too, when besieging a city, we are told not to surround it on all four sides. Rather, we are to leave one side free as a means of escape for those who wish to retreat.
As mentioned, there are some wars that require the Jewish people to destroy the enemy completely. We are told to exterminate the seven Canaanite nations, which included the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. In addition, two other nations were especially worthy of complete elimination: the Amalekites and the Midianites. For example: “Now, go and crush Amalek…put him under the curse of destruction with all that he possesses. Do not spare him. Kill man and woman, babies and children, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15)
Although these wars of extermination seem harsh, we must keep in mind that they are commandments from God. It is explained that when the Bible calls for total annihilation, it is in reference to nations that were completely evil, violent and dangerous, and that wanted to prevent the Jewish people from living in their land.
Do note, however, that these wars and attacks only applied in Biblical times. There is no nation in existence today that must be exterminated. This is because virtually all the nations of the ancient world have assimilated out of existence. Do you know any Amalekites or Girgashites? I didn’t think so.
Indeed, the only ancient nation still in existence is the Jewish nation. Hence, it is forbidden to kill anyone today based on any seemingly Biblical permission.
The Torah exempted some people from military duty. Let’s look at the relevant passages:
“Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it…or planted a vineyard but not harvested it…or is engaged to be married but did not yet marry?…Let him go back home, lest he die in battle and another man do these things…And anyone who is afraid, let him go back home lest he bring down he morale of the others” (Deuteronomy 20:5‑9).
Exemption from Military Service
In most such cases, those applying for exemption from war under the categories just mentioned were re-assigned to alternative service, such as providing food for the troops, weapon supply, road repair, and other civil duties. There was one exemption, however, that was absolute: the newlywed. As it says, “When a man has taken a wife, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to any role. He will be exempt for one year…he will give happiness to the woman he has married.” (Deuteronomy 24:5)
There are a number of reasons for these exemptions. Some commentators say that it is because people under these categories are way too pre-occupied, they have too much on their minds to be able to properly focus on war. Others suggest that the reason is to ensure that the homefront and civilian life will continue to function to some extent by means of those who are exempt.
The newlywed, of course, is exempt in order to “gladden his wife” and establish a family. Interestingly, the newlywed might be exempt from service under all the possible exemptions. This is because in the process of maturing, a person usually first builds a house for himself, then “he plants a vineyard” to provide himself with a livelihood, and only afterwards does he take a wife. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah gives this advice to all young men. (Jer. 29:4-6). There are no exemptions based on occupation, education, or any religious issue.
Nowadays, exemption from the Jewish army, the IDF, is subject to the following criteria: Expatriates, medical issues, psychological considerations, religious considerations, matter of conscious, study in a yeshiva, marriage, pregnancy, and parenthood. (The last three are generally for women only.)
It is interesting to note that Israel is one of only a few countries in the world with mandatory military service for women. With minor exception, Arab citizens do not serve in the Israeli army, though most Israeli Druze do indeed serve.
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