“Enough of being martyrs”: A Jewish response to Christian teachings on war

The Truth Between Us #2 – In last week’s post in The Truth Between Us series, Murray and I discussed Catholic Just War ideas and their application in our contemporary world of terrorism and religious violence.

The Truth series aims to generate vigorous discussion on ideas and issues that lie at the intersection of Jewish-Christian interaction and dialogue. Happily, the Just War examination did just that.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, the Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, offered to respond from a Jewish perspective to our discussion on the morality of war. In his conversation with Murray below, Rabbi Korn offers a passionate argument for a contemporary ethics of war that allows states and individuals to defeat evil, even if that means the (controlled and targeted) application of violence and war to protect the innocent.

I hope you enjoy this engaging discussion with a prominent scholar in the field of Jewish- Christian relations.

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Murray: Rabbi Korn, I am very grateful for your friendship, and for the many years of leadership that you have provided in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. Thank you for your willingness to be part of “The Truth Between Us” series, and to share your own reflections on the relationship of Christian and Jewish concepts around Just War.

In the last discussion in “The Truth”, Lazar and I offered an introduction to traditional Christian thinking about the morality of warfare, and especially how people who take their religion seriously might address questions of violence and conflict. Obviously you have devoted a lot of thought to these questions yourself, and I look forward to learning more from you. A few questions to start off the conversation:

Rabbi Dr, Eugene Korn (photo credit: Youtube/screenshot)
Rabbi Dr, Eugene Korn (photo credit: Youtube/screenshot)

Q: The Christian Just War tradition largely arose out of the tension between the sometimes brutal realities of life and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels (including concepts like “turning the other cheek” and “loving one’s enemies”). Obviously, Jesus’ teachings are not a central factor in the development of Jewish thought. What are some of the main sources for Jewish reflection on the idea of “just war”? Who are some of its greatest exponents down through the centuries?

EBK: Jewish tradition about the moral rules of war begins with the biblical passages in Deuteronomy chapters 7, 20 and 25. These texts lay out different standards for the Jewish people fighting a ‘local’ war, that is a war in the land of Canaan/Israel, and a ‘remote’ war beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. We already see in these ancient texts the rudiments of just war principles, namely the requirement to seek peace before going to war and the ban against targeting non-combatants. But these moral standards apply only in ‘remote’ wars according to the biblical texts.

Fifteen hundred years later the Talmudic rabbis conceptualized these categories into obligatory wars and discretionary wars, respectively, and declared that the divine imperative to annihilate all the local Canaanite people was inoperative because their original tribal identities could no longer be determined.

Seven hundred years after that Maimonides in the 12th century further refined the Jewish rules of war by declaring that peace must be offered before embarking even on a local obligatory war and that if the local Canaanite inhabitants accept peace, the biblical imperative to destroy those inhabitants does not apply. Basically war is justified only as a defensive measure against belligerent nations bent on destroying you first.

Much of the “Jewish Just War doctrine” fell into disuse until the birth of the State of Israel, when Jews again attained sovereignty and needed to assemble an army. For the first time in almost 2000 years Jews were faced with the practical question, “How do I defend myself and my people and yet respect innocent life?” This basic dilemma arises out of the Jewish religious and moral duty to preserve one’s own life vs. the axiom of all Jewish ethics that every person is created in the Image of God and hence each human life has intrinsic sanctity and worth.

This fundamental question rages today throughout Israel and the main proponents of both defending and developing Jewish ethical war principles are ethicists in Israel’s universities and the educators in the Israeli army. The Israeli army has a strict code of ethical military conduct called “the Purity of Arms” and it plays a central role in the actual engagement of Israeli soldiers with their enemies. Some modern rabbis, like the late Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, also contributed to this enterprise.

Shlomo Goren as a young Israeli officer and rabbi heading the Military Rabbinate of the IDF (photo credit: PINN HANS/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons}
Shlomo Goren as a young Israeli officer and rabbi heading the Military Rabbinate of the IDF (photo credit: PINN HANS/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons}

Q: Are there any aspects of the Christian Just War tradition that you think could be fruitfully and appropriately “imported” into Jewish thinking on this topic?

EBK: I think so, such as the fundamental distinction between threatening combatants and non-threatening civilians, and the principle of proportionality. As I indicated, reflection on Jewish military ethics have the rudiments of these principles, but because Jews didn’t attend to the business of war during their exile of the last 2,000 years, we can learn from the development, nuance and sophistication of the Catholic war tradition. Of course, much of that tradition has been incorporated into the Geneva Conventions and international law of warfare, so Israelis and Jewish thinkers are indirectly influenced by the Catholic Just War tradition by adhering to the Geneva conventions and striving to adapt it to asymmetrical warfare.

Q: Given the bitter history of the Shoah, and the industrial murder of six million Jews under the Nazis and their sympathizers, are there some streams of Christian thought about war (and peace) that strike you as naïve, romantic and unrealistic, especially in light of the various terrorist groups which continue to actively target Israel and Israelis for violence?

EBK: Yes, the way some Catholics apply the Just War doctrine to essentially espouse thoroughgoing pacifism. (By the way I believe that the Catholic thinker Michael Novak is correct and this is a misapplication of the classic Catholic doctrine.) Judaism is not, and should not be, pacifistic—at least before the ideal messianic era arrives. Jews learned from the Shoah that using power without limit is evil, but so is unlimited powerlessness. Six million Jews died because they had no power to defend themselves. Using power to defend yourself and preserve your life is a religious duty. Absolute pacifism only abandons the world to the forces of destruction and allows evil to reign. This returns God’s creation to its original state of chaos and removes God’s image from the world. That is why the principle, “There is no Just War,” if it means there is no justification to fight any war, is more than just ‘naïve.’

IDF soldiers during a training exercise (photo credit: Israel Defense Forces: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
IDF soldiers during a training exercise (photo credit: Israel Defense Forces: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

From a Jewish point of view, it is deeply immoral and even evil. If we believe that human life has sanctity, then we have a moral and religious imperative to defend innocent life against those who seek to destroy it and God’s presence in the world. The original Catholic just war thinkers understood this well and never advocated absolute pacifism. God doesn’t want martyrs, he wants human beings to live and praise Him.

And on a practical level, Jews have enough of being martyrs. Of course, some Jews who are deeply scarred by the Holocaust and all of Israel’s wars preach that Jews should not follow any restraints in warfare and be indiscriminate in fighting others. This is deeply anti-biblical, anti-religious and anti-Jewish, and also represents evil. Somehow we have to find a healthy balance between these two unacceptable extremes. However with terrorism and Islamist extremism like ISIS rampant today, and when the distinction between combatant and civilian has been blurred, it is very hard find that balance.

Q: What originally inspired Lazar and I to discuss Christian Just War teachings was the fact that, in the spring, a Catholic organization called “Pax Christi” organized a conference (hosted by the Vatican) that suggested that the time had come to do away with Just War criteria (which they felt had been badly misused and exploited) in favour of a greater emphasis on promoting “just peace”. Some non-Christians are concerned about that kind of direction … What would be your own thoughts, as a rabbi and Jewish thinker?

EBK: Yes, we all need to learn how to live justly and morally in peace time conditions. That is part of the religious and biblical command to pursue righteousness and justice in life. But dropping the focus on Just War would be a tragic mistake—and it is a luxury reserved only for those ‘arm chair’ philosophers or theologians who are not tragically caught in the web of war and have no enemies seeking their annihilation.

When enemies come to destroy us—and there are many today—forgetting about just war principles only makes us fight either as barbarians did without moral restraint or forces us to succumb to absolute brutality and evil. If Jews have learned anything from the Shoah, it is that both these options are simply wrong and must be forcefully rejected.

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, by John Martin (photo credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, by John Martin (photo credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



Q: Sadly, the State of Israel has spent much of its history engaged in wars, battles and skirmishes of various lengths and intensities. Moral questions about warfare are not theoretical for Israelis. In what ways do you think Israel’s extensive lived experience of grappling concretely with these issues could give provide important insights for Christian groups in their own thinking, to keep these questions from becoming excessively theoretical?

EBK: Because of its extensive experience in modern warfare that has been forced upon Israel and the strong moral thrust running throughout Jewish tradition, Israelis are in an important position to contribute to modern thinking about morality in war—and particularly for Christians. I am appalled today at how the Christian world, including the Catholic Church, has taken almost no steps to stop the massacre, crucifixions, rape, forced conversions and expulsions that so many Christians are experiencing in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Egypt and other Middle Eastern societies. Christians are now “the Jews of the Middle East,” vulnerable with almost no defense. Why doesn’t the Christian world mobilize in every way possible to help them? Now is not the time for delicate theology or principled quietism. The State of Israel has awakened the Jewish people to have the determination to defend itself, even if that means leaving the “pure” religious life of prayer and study and using the levers of politics, military power, diplomacy and economic power. Prayer is necessary but it is not sufficient. Israel has liberated the Jewish people from its victimhood, and sometimes I think that Christian leaders around the world need to learn that too. And once again, all this can be done without abandoning justice and the morality that God wants us to live by. From my experience, there is no other society that struggles with and agonizes over this moral dilemma the way that Israel does.

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Lazar: Murray, what struck me about Rabbi Korn’s analysis was how stark the difference is between Jewish and Catholic moral ideas about war and peace. He stridently and eloquently he frames pacifism as an affront to God’s plan, as a decision that ultimately abets evil. Whereas pacifism can be presented as an ideal in Christian thought, Rabbi Korn is quite clear in his rejection of this idea. And I think you will find that many Jews share this position. The indelible scars of the Holocaust, and the ongoing horror of terrorism against Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, have created a starkly different position on the morality of war among Jews. I see ideas like “There is no just war” – which was expressed at the Catholic Pax Christi conference – as a position of the strong and secure. The threatened and beleaguered know that sometimes evil can only be stopped by force, which includes war.

Murray: Lazar, I absolutely appreciate where you’re coming from, and yes, there’s probably truth to what you’re saying, about critiques of just-war theory coming from those who are relatively comfortable and safe, and not from those who are most directly endangered. But I think that we need to appreciate that, as Christians and Jews, we approach this question from different perspectives, with very different sources informing our attitudes. Jews obviously don’t believe in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God—but Christians do. And because of that, things like “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies” are every bit as binding and authoritative for us as the laws of kashrut and Shabbat are for religiously observant Jews. They aren’t optional, and they can’t be set aside because they seem naïve, unrealistic or politically inconvenient.

For religious Christians, those commandments of Jesus mean that pacifism can never be entirely ruled out (even if it holds a relatively marginal position) … unless we are prepared to say that the one Christians worship as Son of God was himself “unrealistic” or “naïve”. It is for both reasons—because of our differing theological sources, and because the Christian experience has been one of power and control for much of Western history—that we will probably never arrive at a consensus about these questions, and about the exact logic of when and how political and military power should be employed. If we are willing to sacrifice the core religious principles of our traditions for reasons of political and military expediency, then … what value do these principles ultimately have? That, I think, is the larger question we are being forced to wrestle with here … and it is good that we are wrestling together, I’d say.

Lazar: Thank you for that point, Murray. Not only have the differences in the Jewish and Christian moral truths on war become apparent, but also what creates and informs these truths- both authoritative texts and lived experience as a religious community.

This examination makes me wonder how much these differences lie at the base of the criticism of Israeli military policies that come from Europe and from some American churches, and Israel’s frustration at its inability to gain understanding for its security situation in these quarters. Looks like the perfect subject for a future post in the Truth Between Us- stay tuned!

In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.