Jewish Ethics in War

    January 2009            
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War and Ethics

By N. Shuldig

In ancient time a war was fought and the ethics were basically ‘the spoils to the victors’. This could and often meant that a victorious army could enslave the losers, kill them, rape the women and take possession of their property. And this was often the case.

In our time such action is frowned upon by the international community and one aggressor is expected to carry out a war in accordance with the ‘Geneva Conventions’ in particular article three. It requires certain minimal protections during an armed conflict not of an international character that noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are out of the fight due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely. There is a prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.

Although we consider terrorist attacks as sporadic attacks; they also fall into the category of actions which do not meet the above mentioned article three of the Geneva Convention. Terrorists justify their actions by saying that all Jews support the illegal state of Israel and therefore they themselves are terrorists and not considered as noncombatants.

But what does the Torah say about fighting a war? The Jewish source book, the Ramban’s classic writing, the Mishnah Torah, has a section which deals with this and he explains quite clearly the Jewish view of how a war is to be fought. In the next few paragraphs is a synopsis and an extract adapted from his writings which can be found in Mishnah Torah, book of Judges (not the book from the bible with the same name), the laws of kings, chapters 6 and 7. This reference is given in hope that more people will look up the original source and delve into the Rambam’s writings in greater depth than the brief condensed fashion of this article.

* * *

Before a war is to be fought it is incumbent upon the leader to call upon the other side to surrender in peace. If they surrender and, in addition, accept upon themselves the seven mitzvot of the children of Noah, we are not allowed to kill any of them and they are to become vassals to us. But if they decide to surrender (to become a vassal) but not to accept the seven Noahite commandments or if they will accept the seven Noahide laws but not become vassals, we do not accept this. They must accept both of these two conditions. The servitude that they accept upon themselves (in return for not being attacked) is to work as servants, to be lowly (in society) and not to try to raise themselves up against us, but rather live an existence of that of a slave. They are not allowed to be appointed to any high position, but their position is to be a chattel of the king to work in building public buildings and fortifying the Jewish state.

The king may decide to do as he sees fit with them. He may take part of their lands or of their wealth and leave them what he decides in accordance with the needs and circumstances of the time. However it is forbidden to lie to them in the agreement that he makes with them. What ever agreement that the king makes he must honor once they have accepted the seven mitzvot of the children of Noah.

If they do not agree to these two conditions, then he may enter with them into warfare and he may kill all of the adult males, take all of their property. But he may not kill the women or children, these he takes as captives to become servants. What is mentioned here applies to wars against most nations; but the wars that were fought against the seven nations that inhabited the land of Canaan and to the war against the nation of Amelek, even the women and children were to be killed also and no captive taken.

In addition to the method of fighting the war, the Rambam list several exemptions for Jewish soldiers who are exempt from fighting in a war. These are those men who either built a new house and have not yet lived in it, or planted a vineyard or orchard and have not yet begun to harvest the first crops, or have married a new wife (remember that ancient Jews were allowed more than one wife!) and has not lived with her for a year; they may go back from the war. In addition one who has sinned and is frightened because of his sin may go back in order that he not cause others to become frightened.

It is a son of Aaron the high priest who announces the exemption prior to going into war. Before he does that, he tells them that they should not fear because when they go into war, they do not go alone. G-d will accompany them into the battle to give them victory.

However once they go into battle leaders are chosen to lead them into the war. They march at the front of the army. In addition strong men are selected to stand at the back of the armies with iron truncheons in their hands. They had authority to split the skull of anyone that they saw trying to run away from the war.

* * *

War is not a pleasant circumstance; men engage in it to accomplish political goals that cannot be achieved by negotiation. It is not the purpose of this article to propose that we today begin to adopt the ethics of warfare as presented by the Rambam; rather it is brought in hopes that it open eyes to what warfare was like. May we instead of fighting battles learn to live in peace.


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine