Jewish Ethics of Warfare

Is the God of the Bible a God of War? Or a God of Peace? Or both? And, are there ethics of warfare that should be followed by a Jewish army, according to the Bible and according to the post-Biblical Jewish Tradition?

These questions are not merely theological or historical ones. Rather, they contain within them issues which affect us today, in our personal and collective lives, as Jewish citizens of a state that was created to be a Jewish state, one based on the humanistic values of the prophets of Israel.

We are confronted with these questions starkly in the "Song of the Sea", which according to the Biblical text, the Israelites sang after escaping Egypt through the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reeds, in the dramatic story of the Exodus in the portion of the week known as "B'shalach", which we read in our synagogues this week.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said, ' I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously: Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.'. (Exodus 15:1)

Every year when I read these verses in synagogue, I am filled with questions and moral dilemmas. How can God do this? What kind of God is this who delights when some people are killed? Can God really be pleased with these actions? Is God one-sided? Does he want some human beings or some peoples to triumph in war and others to be defeated? Is our God a particularist one? Or a universal one? Or both?

The Jewish Tradition known as the midrash-- the creative commentaries on the Torah which inform our consciousness as religious Jews and help us deal with problematic Biblical texts like this one-- comes to our aid here, as it often does, with a remarkably humanistic and universalistic response to our dilemma. According to a famous midrash, when God heard the Israelites singing this triumphalist song, He rebuked them, saying: "The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!" (Sefer HaAggadah, The Book of Legends, edited by Bialik and Ravnitsky #86).

I would argue that it is impossible to read this problematic Biblical text, without this midrash as our corrective guide. Otherwise, we will fall into the triumphalist trap of a literal reading of the Torah text which was always dangerous in Jewish history, and is more problematic today than ever before.
According to this interpretation, our rejoicing is never complete if someone else is required to suffer. We know from earlier texts that all human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore we should not rejoice when any human being is killed! Indeed, this midrash is so central in our tradition that it has been incorporated into many modern Passover haggadot, when we recall the exodus of our people from Egypt in ancient days and try to make the story relevant to our own times.

Our Torah text becomes even more perplexing as we read further:

The Lord, the Warrior is His Name. or God is a Man of War


Really? Our God is a man of war!? This is not a simple text to digest.

Once again the midrash comes to help us here. The Jewish Tradition, as developed by the rabbis during the Talmudic period, tried to soften this message and to add some nuance, which I find very useful and relevant. According to Rashi, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah, "Even in War, God is YHVH, i.e. He appears in His merciful quality." Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of The Torah A Modern Commentary, explained that in the midrashic tradition, "Elohim" represents God's justice and "YHVH" represents His mercy. This is therefore a reminder to the Jewish people--and to human beings everywhere--that even if war becomes "just", i.e. a necessity sometimes, one must be careful and humane in waging war. In fact, there are rules for warfare, which are spelled out clearly in Deuteronomy 20:10 "When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer terms of peace". By the way, the Koran has similar verses which apply to Muslims in warfare.

These ideas could not be more relevant today in Israeli society, especially in the Israel Defense Forces, where the ethics of warfare remain a regular concern, as we have seen in the recent judgment of the court in the trial of a soldier who shot and killed a Palestinian in Hebron after he was already severely wounded.

The Torah commentaries also praise peace much more than they praise war. In the rabbinic tradition, war was not an ideal. Peace was always the ideal. For example, one famous Midrash states:

If there is no peace, there is nothing at all, for Scripture goes on to say, 'And I will give Peace in the Land' (Psalms 23:6), which indicates that peace equals all else. Indeed, we say (in the morning prayers, 'When He made peace, He created everything.'(Sefer HaAggadah, The Book of Legends, edited by Bialik and Ravnitsky).

With all that is going on around us, especially the glorification of war and violence, including in some sectors of our own society, we need to keep the ideal of peace alive, and not fall trap to the simplistic and literal triumphalist texts, which cannot properly be understood without the creative humanistic interpretations of our tradition.