Judaism recognizes both "a time of war and a time of peace" (Ecclesiastes 3:8). What requires clarification, is how the conflicting values of war and peace interact with each other. With a long conflict expected in Afghanistan, it is the proper time to reflect on the Jewish attitude towards war.
Any Jewish discussion of war must begin with peace. Peace is Judaism’s highest aspiration. The Midrash says the entire Torah is based on the value of peace ( Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7). The obligation to seek peace is of a higher order than ritual observances. It notes that peace is the only commandment that the Torah demands us to actively seek, that a person must “search for peace and pursue it”(Psalms 34:15; Vayikra Rabbah 9:9).
For the sake of peace, we are allowed to compromise on other moral and religious values. One may lie in order to prevent strife (Yebamot 65b), and in one instance, a section of the Torah may be erased in order to preserve marital peace (see Rambam Chanukah 4:14).
One must bend over backwards to make peace. It is a mark of piety if a person accepts insults quietly, and does not respond (Shabbat 88b). In general, grace and mercy are divine attributes, meant to be emulated by man (Shabbat 133b).
Clearly peace is Judaism’s paramount value. How do we apply this value in the face of aggression? Some argue that pacifism is the only appropriate response. Pacifism has the advantage of being uncompromising, categorical, and absolute. Pacifists love peace without sullying their hands with violent actions.
Two types of arguments are made for pacifism. One is consequentialist, and assumes that in long run, the world will be more peaceful if people choose to remain passive in the face of aggression. A second argument is moral, which claims that violence is forbidden no matter what the circumstances are. (Brian Orend, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “War”). Consequentialists posit that if you defend yourself with violence, you perpetuate an endless cycle of violence. Non-violent protest is the only way to break the cycle of violence. According to this view, attacking Afghanistan will create future violent reactions; the United States would be better off taking the high ground, and by remaining nonviolent, teach the aggressors the value of peace.
This view is not new; indeed, some pacifists trace this idea to a passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War (Book II chapter 16). In a speech by Agrippa, (the Jewish King during the revolt of 66 c.e.), he exhorts the crowd not to revolt against the Roman Governor Florus. He tells them: “Now nothing so much damps the force of strokes as bearing them with patience; and the quietness of those who are injured diverts the injurious persons from afflicting.”.
Agrippa assumes the Jews will receive goodwill if they remain meek, passive and useful. Indeed, the Talmud (Gittin 57a) considers the Jewish revolt a tragic mistake. The tactic of “shvieg shtill”(stay quiet) was often used by Jews in antisemitic societies, where they found it best to offer complete cooperation to those in authority.
While the “shvieg shtill” form of pacifism is a reasonable approach for a powerless group, it would seem absurd for a powerful nation like the United States to be nonviolent, allowing all who attack it to do so with impunity. Yet pacifists argue that even world powers should embrace nonviolence. They argue that nonviolence, by virtue of its moral authority, can be successful, and note that Gandhi succeeded in getting the British to leave India through nonviolent protest. However, as Michael Walzer points out (in Just and Unjust Wars), Gandhi succeeded because he was opposing an empire tired and weakened after World War II, and one that had a tradition of respect for human rights. It would have been ineffective in other instances. For the 6,000,000 Jews getting murdered in Europe, Gandhi had no practical advice. He advised Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry during the Holocaust, that he should get all German Jews to commit mass suicide; this he said would focus the world’s attention on Hitler’s inhumanity. (To this Baeck replied “we Jews know, that it is God’s singular commandment, to live”). Nonviolent protest would have done nothing to change Hitler’s evil heart.
The second type of pacifism, moral pacifism, assumes that it is morally forbidden to use violence, even in self-defense. Many people are inspired by the Buddhist teachings of the Dalai Lama, who received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Exiled from his homeland of Tibet, he still preaches a principled form of nonviolence to his followers. Others have based their moral pacifism on the New Testament. In Matthew 26:52 Jesus tells a disciple not to defend him against an enemy. “Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”. This can be construed as a prohibition against any violence, even in self defense. Furthermore, on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:29), Jesus says: “but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. While many Christian authorities interpret these verses in other ways, there are Christian sects, such as the Mennonites and Anabaptists, who preach an uncompromising moral pacifism.
In the Jewish tradition, self defense is a moral obligation. The Torah allows people to defend their property from a thief even if this will cause the conflict to escalate into a physical battle. If there is reason to assume that the thief will use lethal force to seize the property, the owner may use physical force, and even kill the thief if necessary to protect himself (Exodus 22:1, Sanhedrin 72a). There are two rationales for allowing self defense. The first is practical; without the ability to use lethal force to stop the actions of aggressors, anarchy would reign (Chinnuch 600). The second rationale challenges the moral assumptions of nonviolence. It asserts that the life of the aggressor and the victim are not of equal value; if only one will survive, it is our obligation to make certain that it is the innocent person, the victim, who will survive (Cf. Rashi to Exodus 22:1).
For this reason, the Jewish tradition considers pacifism in the face of aggression to be immoral. Refusing to fight evil is to be party to evil. As Michael Kelly (Washington Post September 26, 2001) has pointed out:
“No honest person can pretend that the groups that attacked America will, if let alone, not attack again..... To not fight in this instance is to let the attackers live to attack and murder again; to be a pacifist in this instance is to accept and, in practice, support this outcome”.
This is essentially the Jewish point of view; if you don’t help the victim, you are an ally of the aggressor. If a person refuses to defend himself, he allows evil to triumph.
There are times then, when we must make war. Yet even during times of war, Judaism obligates us to continue to love peace. We must never lose sight of the humanity of our enemies, and we must recognize that every death on the battlefield is tragic. The Talmud teaches us that on the night that the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, the first true moment of freedom for the Jews fleeing Egypt, God refused to hear the angels sing their prayers, and said “my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?”(Megillah 10b). Every human is created in God’s image, and every death is a tragedy. The former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was often quoted as saying she could forgive the Arab countries for killing Jewish children, but she could not forgive the Arab countries for making it necessary for Jews to kill Arab children. The warrior must mourn the deaths of his enemies, and never forget the value of life.
A soldier’s love for peace will affect his wartime behavior. War must be conducted in a just fashion. During wartime soldiers must make every effort to avoid killing noncombatants. This concern with collateral damage is first found in Abraham’s pleading with God to avoid killing any righteous citizens of Sodom. Abraham argued that even though God was destroying Sodom because it was a profoundly wicked city, justice demanded that God avoid killing any righteous individual while destroying the city. The Torah even prohibits the destruction of trees in the vicinity of military attack (Deuteronomy 20:19). Even in wartime, we must be careful never to destroy, and despite the violence inherent in battle, we must endeavor to preserve every living being, from humans to animals to trees (Chinnuch 630). Even during the chaos of wartime, a soldier must act with decency and morality.
A recent report in the New York Times (August 31, 2001) illustrates this point. In August, Israeli troops entered Beit Jala to stop snipers from shooting into Gilo. Clyde Haberman visited Beit Jala after the Israeli troops withdrew. He found that in one apartment:
“soldiers apologized in a note that they left in the paws of a teddy bear. In slightly misspelled English, it said, "We are truely sorry for the mess we made."”
These soldiers understood that peace is Judaism’s paramount value. They understood that we are always sorry about the mess and tragedy of war, and that all Jews wait desperately for the days when “They will beat their swords into plowshares... and no nation will lift up its sword against another nation..”(Isaiah 2:4)