In order to emerge from the fear and mourning that signify our personal and national trauma, we need to consider the nature of the war that our soldiers and civilians are waging against Hamas. The vicious assault was specifically aimed at Israel as a Jewish nation; it is empowering to use a Jewish lens, Halakhah, to evaluate our situation.
Following Maimonides’ classification in Laws of Kings (chapter 5), we need to define the nature of the war we are fighting. It is not a milchemet rishut, an optional war fought to improve the country’s strategic or economic status. A war that Israel, as a sovereign nation, chooses to enter traditionally demands divine sanction through the oracular urim ve’tumim and agreement of The Great Sanhedrin of 70 wise men. We are no longer privy to divine sanction. And we certainly do not have 70 chachamim, as today our scholars are mostly divided between a quietistic bunch who prefer to literally sit this crisis out over holy texts and another group who are mainly messianic madmen baiting an apocalypse.
This war is also not a war of nikamah (revenge), as suggested by some whispers in study halls and alleys. Maimonides simply did not include such a possibility in his Code, knowing that revenge can never be satisfied and is, in itself, an “evil disposition”. I can’t get over how many people, including myself, fantasize about revenge scenarios and strain to find gruesome paybacks for Hamas terrorists. But Halakhah knows that this direction leads us into a confusing, unending set of tactical, legal, and moral tunnels, all psychologically boobytrapped. Ultimately, the road of vengeance does not align with core Jewish values of mercy and consideration for other’s lives.
Critically, this war must not be construed as an extermination of a renewed Biblical Amalek. Wisely, the Talmudic Rabbis wrote Amalek out of existence, as “lost and dispersed amongst the nations”, and so did Maimonides and the Sefer HaChinukh (unknown author, 13th c., Spain). Attempts to resurrect Amalek as a legal construct defining those who wish to destroy the Jewish people have been resisted by mainline Halakhah and dismissed by our greatest Halakhic thinker, my teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993, Belarus, Berlin, Boston). He knew that we cannot ever begin that route of fantasizing about total extermination of an entire people. We are not Nazis nor are we Hamas.
So what kind of war are we fighting? It is a “commanded war” – a milchemet mitzvah – that fits Maimonides’ definition as “saving the people of Israel from peril”. As such, this war is not optional in any way. It must achieve the result of rescuing the imperiled people of Israel. It derives from the principle: ‘He comes to kill you; rise up to kill him’ (Sanhedrin 62). This ruling refers to an individual and to a nation alike, even before they are attacked. Certainly, in our situation, in which the October 7th massacre was planned for, executed, celebrated, and set up by the perpetrators as the model for a full series of future attacks, we should be able to say to one and all: “We got the message.” Thus, this war is not limited to punishing a singular event – it is, indeed, a critically needed defense against genocide.
This war signifies more than punishment of the enemy and protection of our people. Explaining why we are instructed not to have mercy for a murderer or maimer, the Sefer HaChinukh (no. 521), expanding on Maimonides, states: “The root of this commandment is well known – that if we do not punish the injurer and purge this evil from among us, ‘a man shall swallow his neighbor alive’ and states will not be civilized.” For the Halakhah, it is obvious that murder is an attack on Yishuv Ha’Olam, the call to put the world in order, and that a murder’s moral liability is the greatest of all sins because of the “destruction to the order of the world”. Note the conscious use of the word “destruction,” Churban, evoking the paradigmatic tragedy of the ancient destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Hamas’ new-old methods of fighting, combining tunnels, rockets, and savagery, inspires other extremists. If Hamas survives, its attempt at genocide could still metastasize into an omnicide of all civilized nations.
This teleology of preserving the civilized, ordered world (Yishuv Ha’Olam) is not only an impetus to battle evil, it also places demands on its defenders.
- This must not turn into a total war against Palestinians. We need now to limit further harm to noncombatants, even as Hamas has contemptuously built its tunnels for terror and missiles under schools, mosques, and hospitals – all symbols par excellence of civilization.
- Those West Bank Jewish settlers who foment violence to gain territory and dominance must be completely and forcible stopped, tried, and punished. We have to prevent the trajectory of these thugs becoming complete terrorists.
- Halakhically, we are obliged according to the principle of ‘the law of the State is the Law’, to abide by international law governing war. But this must equally apply to all and not be used to perversely limit Jewish defense. It cannot be unfair in its governance.
Hamas brought terror to all Jewish people, to those living in the State of Israel and elsewhere. We have many responsibilities, but our war primarily is in defense of Yishuv Ha’Olam, the preservation of not only civilized nations but of civilization itself. This is our role, and if we fail, the world will suffer along with us.