Ekev: The Jewish “Just War Tradition”

In his article, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War”, George Weigel argues that the long standing “just war tradition” in which nations address the morality of going to war, has, of late, been lost or distorted and is in urgent need of revival.  This tradition, with origins dating back to ancient times, is comprised of two categories: (1) jus ad bellum – the justification to go to war; and (2) jus in bello – the just conduct of the war.

The problem today, laments Weigel, is that in bello considerations have taken precedence over ad bellum deliberations.  Exacerbating this inversion of priorities is the prevailing “presumption against violence” which assumes that any application of force is simply an evil to be avoided.  As a result, nations are severely hindered in their ability to make the executive decision to fight a just war.

Now, while the origins of the just war tradition are traced to Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine, such a tradition is extant within Jewish sources, and can, in fact, be traced to Moses in the opening section of this week’s parsha:

And it will be as a consequence of your listening (ekev tishmaun) to these judgments, and keeping them and doing them that the Lord thy God will keep the covenant and the mercy with you that he swore to your forefathers.  And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; and he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your corn, and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the breeds of your flock, in the land which he swore unto your fathers to give you.  Blessed will you be above all peoples, there shall be no barren male or female among you or your cattle.  And the Lord will remove from you all sickness, and all the evil diseases of Egypt that you know he will not put on you but upon those that hate you.  And you will destroy all the peoples that the Lord thy God, gives you; your eye shall not pity them, and you shall not serve their gods, for that will be a snare unto you. (Deuteronomy 7:12-16).

This paragraph, being technically demarcated as a “closed” section (parsha stuma), articulates a conceptually coherent idea – of blessings gained “as a consequence of listening” to the will of God.  However, while the first four of the five verses of the section do accord with this theme, the last verse takes an unexpected turn, directing the nation to go war and admonishing the people against idol worship.  In what way does this fit the theme of blessings as a consequence of listening to the will of God?  The answer, I believe, is that herein lies the blessing of moral clarity that comes with a proper “just war tradition.”

The verse begins, “And you will destroy all the peoples that the Lord thy God, gives you”.  Rabbi Chaim Benatar explains that this statement is a “mitzvat aseh”, a genuine divine commandment, to go to war.  As such, not only is the act of war not an “evil to be avoided”, it is, by definition, a moral act.  In this we see the first category of the just war tradition addressed, for fulfilling the will of God is clearly the ultimate jus ad bellum.  And indeed, the Jewish just war tradition predicates the decision to go to war upon divine assent (e.g., Rashi, Numbers 27:21) or at least upon the divine principles of milhemet mitzvah (obligatory war) and milhemet reshut (discretionary war).

Now, having addressed the justification to go to war, the verse continues, “your eye shall not pity them.”  This directive provides a powerful comment on jus in bello that roundly overturns the “presumption against violence”.  Rabbi Benatar explains that this directive is necessary to bring home the unintuitive notion of misplaced mercy.  That is, while feelings of pity and mercy are to be cultivated toward all people in everyday life, they are detrimental when applied to the enemy at wartime.

Finally, to mollify any reservations of conscience, the verse ends, “and you shall not serve their gods, for that will be a snare unto you.”  Rabbi Benatar writes that “mercy in this matter will give birth to a sense of idol worship, and that is why it states, ‘for it is a snare to you’; the ‘it’ [that snares] refers to ‘the other nation’, such that when you pity them you are being brutal toward yourself …” We are reminded of Colin Powell’s statement, “Decisive force ends wars quickly and in the long run saves lives.”

To pity the enemy, it must be realized, is a snare – a snare that traps the nation in in bello deliberations that prevent it from taking the decisive action demanded in war.  Furthermore, to apply pity in this instance is to apply one’s own subjective definition of morality – which is, in a sense, idol worship.  For, though idol worship is normatively understood as foreign ceremonial worship, it is seen here for what it really is: a rejection of God’s moral authority.  By applying pity toward the enemy, one rejects divine morality in favor of one’s own morality and, in this, undermines the moral basis at the heart of the just war analysis.

Now, having understood that a just war is to be fought without pity, Jewish thinkers deliberate if this directive is limited to combatants or includes non-combatants as well.  While there are arguments to be made for both sides, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in discussing modern Israel’s perpetual state of war with the Arabs, writes: “Israeli soldiers should shoot to kill when necessary and, as in times of war, may even punish or kill innocent Arabs when the situation calls for such action.”

It is important to note that Rabbi Schachter limits such use of force to cases “when the situation calls for such action.”  In consonance, Dr. Maeir Becker, in a discussion marshaling strong support for the inclusion of non-combatants as legitimate targets, writes that traditional Jewish sources “view civilians whose presence provides cover for enemy maneuvers, as well as those who identify with the enemy or support the war effort, as legitimate military target.”  As such, it should be clear that the directive to have “no pity” is not a license to kill innocent civilians indiscriminately but an in bello sanction to apply decisive force, as necessary, to attain ad bellum objectives.

Judaism, then, is informed with a clear and strong “just war tradition” in which in bello considerations are founded on the moral imperative to use all force necessary, indeed – mercilessly – to attain peace.  To deny this is to be caught in the snare of subjective morality that is tantamount to idol worship.  That being said, the “no pity” permit does not mitigate the need to deliberate the use of force appropriate for given exigencies.

In conclusion, the value of a just war tradition, as noted by George Weigel, cannot be underestimated.  As such, the Jewish just war tradition is encapsulated in the final verse of the “closed” section of blessings for it provides the nation with the moral clarity to wage a just war – and “moral clarity in a time of war” is a blessing no less important than health and prosperity.  But like all the other blessings, it is one that comes, it must be remembered, “as a consequence to your listening” (ekev tishmaun) to the will of God.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at http://www.divreinavon.com