Although Jewish tradition in no way praises or promotes war or a war-driven culture, Jewish law deals with all facets of the reality of life, including the details of the Jewish rules of war.
Jewish tradition weighs in both on the legal justifications for war, as well as the ethical policies which determine how a war is to be fought. While Jewish law does not necessarily determine our personal politics or understandings about war, being informed about what Jewish tradition has to say may add some interesting perspective to your opinions.
So what does Jewish tradition say about the rules of war? Here are some examples:
- Jewish Law differentiates between two types of war; milkhemet mitzvah, an obligatory war, and milkhemet ha-reshut, an voluntary war. Obligatory wars are primarily wars of self-defense, while voluntary wars are those made for national glory. Unlike obligatory wars, the king could only declare a voluntary war with the consent of the Sanhedrin, ancient Israel’s 71 person judicial body.
- Deuteronomy 20:10 states: "When you approach a city to do battle with it you shall offer it terms of peace. And if they respond in peace and they open the city to you, then all the people in the city shall pay taxes to you and be subservient. But if they do not make peace with you, but choose to make war, you may besiege them. The Torah requires seeking peace before making war."
- Even in a war considered legally obligatory, Jewish law still considers killing another person an offense before God, and soldiers were required to bring an offering to the Temple after battle as a part of their spiritual repentance.
- From Deuteronomy 20:19 we derive the law that not only are we required to protect against reckless harm to human life in war, but we are even obligated not to willfully destroy the land and agriculture of our enemies, or anything necessary for the redevelopment of post-war civilian life.
There are countless examples in Jewish history and literature about Jewish peace lovers; men and women who demonstrated the Jewish values of pursuing non-violent resistance and peace-making.
When thinking about Jewish values, we can reflect on what it means that not only is there the well-known tradition of just ways of peace, but the lesser known tradition of the just ways of war.