Yuval Cherlow

This just war, and why minimizing civilian casualties isn’t the absolute priority

The evil depravity of this war matters, for it shows how the enemy wants our utter destruction, and why we must prevent it from rising again
Israeli soldiers pray at a staging area near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers pray at a staging area near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

As Israel enters a new phase of this brutal war, alongside the immeasurable pain from the horrific scope of loss of life and the ongoing fear to the Israeli soldiers and the home front, the country is now facing growing criticism from the global community over questions of the humanitarian toll on the enemy. 

While the arrival and intensity of such criticism is by no means surprising, it demands that we re-explore the notion of a ”just war” and strengthen our resolve for why this campaign is both necessary and ethical from the perspective of Jewish tradition.

War as a justifiable means of conflict resolution certainly has a place in Jewish tradition. Indeed combat and armed conflict can be traced back to the very beginning of the Torah — to Cain and Abel — and since that time countless fights and battles have occurred, warranted or not.

But the sharper question is what tools of war are acceptable, even when the fact of the given war can be justified. 

When we are forced to fight a just war, does that mean that we have a green light to wreak havoc by dint of its justness? What ethical limitations might there be on the types of weaponry? On how non-combatants are treated? On how we relate to hostage-taking? Among many other questions…

From the outset, it is difficult to approach the issue of a just war from an exclusively Jewish perspective.  There is no question that, throughout Jewish history, warfare has not always been guided by morality or justice.  The battles of the Bible were particularly brutal and questions of what was just and moral then were largely absent. 

Indeed, there is no specific mitzvah or story in the Bible that instructs us how to engage in battle based on ethical practices. For centuries thereafter, a long history of victimhood largely placed the Jews on the losing end of battles and the very question of Jewish just wars from a position of any military supremacy had no practical application. For that reason, the questions had little to no relevance for much of our scholarly tradition.

Despite that, if we dig deeper into the texts, we can identify indirect lessons about the concept of a just war in Jewish tradition.

The key distinction is between two types of war — a milchemet mitzvah (a war that is a mitzvah, commanded) and a milchemet reshut (a war that is fundamentally optional).

milchemet reshut is the use of force by a ruling regime for the sole purpose of advancing its political/diplomatic or economic power.  In ancient times, this was a common reason for going to war, and no one would question a king who waged a war for the sole reason of extending power with little or no other rationalization. But in modern times, unprovoked wars with “material” goals are viewed as unacceptable or even illegal in civilized society, and certainly Jewish law would not permit such actions.

But a milchemet mitzvah is a war that is mandated as just and necessary by both Jewish law and most advanced perspectives in our modern world.  As described by Maimonides (Hilchot Melachim, 5:1), it is “a war fought to assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them.” Apart from the most virulently anti-Israel critics, there is almost absolute consensus that the current war that Israel is fighting with Hamas fits into this category, and every Jew — and civilized human — is justified in supporting and participating in it.

The concept of a milchemet mitzvah is not just important for ethical purposes, but also for practical/halachic ones such as the commandment that “the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his wedding chamber, and a bride from her bridal bed.” Indeed, we have all been witness recently to countless stories of heroism of young men and women who did not think twice and reported to the military and civilian fronts to defend and serve our nation.

Even within the context of the milchemet mitzvah, where the overall military effort is certainly just, there nonetheless remain questions of justifiability of specific tools of war.  As noted, the halachic sources do not provide much in terms of what we are specifically prohibited from doing when called out to the battlefield. The Bible’s wars of thousands of years ago, which might serve as our main halachic basis, were characterized by actions that were acceptable in those times, but would likely have no such place in a more modern, civilized society of the 21st century.

But once again when we take the time for deeper analysis, it is clear that hints of morality and ethical military practice can guide our actions. Included are concepts that before engaging in violent warfare, the sides must give a chance for peaceful resolution; although that concept of peace is likely very different from our understanding of peace in our days.  Nachmanides quotes a teaching that an enemy cannot be surrounded on four sides, which he understands to mean that even in the most brutal of wars, efforts should be made to limit the amount of blood that is spilled.

But the broadest understanding of ethical practice in warfare can likely be gleaned from the teaching in Deuteronomy (23:10), “When you go out to war against your enemies, they should be kept from every evil thing.” We know all too well that war can lead even “civilized” societies to perform the most baseless of acts: to eat abominable things, rob, plunder, rape, and pillage. The Jewish ethical approach to war condemns and prohibits such behavior.

Jewish tradition also makes it very clear that unnecessary spilling of blood is contrary to the belief that humanity is a reflection of Godliness and therefore demands a level of consideration — even when dealing with despicable enemies. Even on the battlefield, there remain a concept that we act Al Kiddush Hashem — in sanctification of God’s name — and not lower ourselves to the horrific levels of desecration and defilement practiced by our enemies.

We can inevitably conclude that the current war is by every estimation just and demands the full and unwavering moral and practical support of our entire nation and all peoples who believe in a world defined by goodness and ethical practice. But beyond that conclusion, the very nature of this campaign demands that we look at practical issues of ethical warfare from a different perspective than perhaps in past military campaigns. For example, when we are in pursuit of the terrorists and murderous figureheads who launched the attack on October 7th, our hands cannot be tied by operational concerns over civilians who will fall victim as a result.

The reason for this is two-fold: Firstly, we are dealing with an enemy who has made it clear that their intent is on our complete destruction, and we are therefore permitted and commanded to do everything necessary to achieve our military objective and completely prevent the enemy from being able to rise again. But secondly, when we are confronting an enemy that has abandoned any sense of human responsibility that would indicate they view themselves as a reflection of God’s image — and the depravity of evil that has been so widely recorded and noted in this war makes that abundantly clear — then our responsibility to treat them with any such sense of respect is reduced in kind.

We cannot allow this, God forbid, to serve as an open door to act with wanton disregard for innocent human life. As ethical people guided by tradition and morality, we must remember that our responsibility is to rise above such temptations. As we move ahead in a battle, we must live with the firm belief that our cause is both necessary and wholly just. 

And with that understanding, our prayer should reach the highest levels of the heavens that we should be blessed to remove this horrific evil from our world and ensure peace, safety and security for our land and our world.

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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