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Excerpted from an interview conducted by The Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) with Rabbi Nachum Amsel. For the full interview on this complex subject, please go to HTPS://YOUTU.BE/DB3ZJ4ZWBP0?SI=NTZ005HP7BBQ3NOA

Is war ever ethical? This question has been asked countless times throughout history. The Torah injunction against murder is one of the 10 commandments, paramount to our belief system. So how can we turn around and say that it’s okay to wage war, which costs lives? Isn’t that murder? Not exactly.

Consider the Swiss Army knife for a moment. This knife is one of the best-selling knives in the world. Yet the Swiss haven’t fought any wars in 175 years (by choice!). One might ask why such a peaceful nation would even need an “Army knife,” or an army at all, for that matter. Of course, the Swiss will argue that they absolutely do need both the knife and a strong military. The truth is, if you don’t fight any wars, hostile forces will quickly invade your land and take over, knowing that the native population will sit by and do nothing. Therefore, Judaism supports wars that allow the inhabitants to continue living in peace. The only reason to go to war is when lives are threatened.

This raises more questions. For example, what are the parameters for this kind of war? Must it only be defensive— can it ever be proactive?

The Torah describes three categories of valid wars: Mandatory/Defensive War: Threat of attack, cases of life and death, when the freedom of a country is at stake.

Non-Defensive War: For the purpose of reconquering original land/territory, as in the case of the seven nations of Israel.

War Against Amalek: The ancient tribe of Amalek had a goal simply to destroy Jews, despite the fact that they were not under any direct threat. They simply hated Jews, for no reason whatsoever, as do the Nazis and Hamas.

Millenia before the Geneva Convention, the Jewish people had rules for war. The specifics of how the war was to be waged was based on the type of war. For example, even in the case of a mandatory war, one must first offer an enemy the option of peace. An army may not surround the enemy from all sides, but must give them a way to escape. One may not destroy fruit trees during a time of war. (This actually became relevant in modern times when a group of Israeli soldiers planted a tree in Gaza after accidentally destroying one during a conflict.) There are many other laws and rules, both general and specific.

The Cost of War

Despite the precautions, war brings unavoidable tragedy in its wake. Collateral damage is an unfortunate consequence, as both human lives and property will come at a cost. This can be intentional or unintentional. Historically, traditional armies would engage in battle far from populations, and the victor would take over the land. Jews have always been concerned with collateral damage, starting with our forefather, Abraham, who defeated the four kings to save his nephew Lot. Abraham then refused to take anything from the enemy. Not only that, he became concerned about killing people who were innocent. G-d reassured Abraham that he didn’t kill any innocents. His grandson, Jacob, was likewise disturbed at the thought of needing to take lives needlessly as he encountered a threatening Esau’s band of warriors. Later, during the time of the prophet Samuel, Samuel was commanded to kill the Amalekites. However, another nation, the Canaanites, was living among the Amalekites. Most commanders wouldn’t warn the other country to leave, but Samuel did. Most armies would never do this. For example, the D-Day invasion of Normandy was a closely guarded secret. No one knew when the Allies were coming, or where they would land. In modern times, the IDF does this regularly, as it warns civilians to evacuate targeted areas.
Whenever possible, civilian casualties should be avoided. However, if it’s not possible to avoid all casualties, then the Torah says it’s permissible to eliminate civilians. Especially if they are civilians who are sympathetic to the war effort, and if they decline to evacuate. In that case, they may no longer be considered civilians. Additionally, if collateral damage enables an army to defeat the enemy, it is permitted.

Many of the Torah’s rules of battle come from the concept of pursuit with intent to kill: If a person is pursuing another with intent to kill, it’s permissible to kill them first. But if it’s possible to stop the pursuer—even a terrorist—without killing them, then one must do that instead.

Negotiating with Terrorists

What does the Torah say about captives? How far can one go to save a hostage? This is actually a very complex halachic issue. First, one is permitted to divert charitable funds to save captives. A person with the ability to retrieve a hostage and does not do so is deemed a murderer in the Torah. This concept is so strong that even a person who delays redeeming a hostage is also deemed a murderer! Regarding the concept of ransom, the Torah says you are permitted to pay a small amount but you are not permitted to pay a large ransom, because this encourages our enemies to take more hostages. It boils down to responsibility. Of course, individuals and families must do everything they can to get their loved ones back. As for the community, however, long-term considerations come first. But sometimes, the communal needs take a back seat to those of the individual. For soldiers, the knowledge that their military and government will go out of its
way to rescue them will give them more power and strength to be better soldiers. That long-term benefit is sometimes deemed worthwhile.

Another point to consider is that the Torah doesn’t permit us to decide whose life is more or less valuable. One may not choose to save certain captives over others, even if the enemy orders them to do so, and even if the enemy threatens to kill all the captives if you don’t choose. There is a famous theoretical case in the Talmud in which a group of terrorists come in and demand that the community give them one person for them to execute, or else they’ll kill the entire group. Even in this case, one is not permitted to choose someone to give up. Everyone contains infinite G-dliness
within them, and a “hundred infinities” is not greater than a “single infinity.”

“Fair” Retaliation

So how exactly does “proportionality” come into play? Is there such a thing as fair retaliation? When it comes to war, proportionality makes sense when both sides adhere to the rules. But it’s hard to justify proportionality in war, because these kinds of cold calculations don’t make sense. The Torah says “an eye for an eye.” Theoretically, this is discussing proportionality. But nowhere does the Torah say you should actually take someone’s eye! The Talmud says that this concept cannot be interpreted literally, because you can’t return the damage in the exact same way with the same level of force and intentions. Therefore, the Talmud concludes, the phrase “an eye for an eye” refers to paying monetary value for the damage.

Going back to the idea of proportionality: If Hamas fires rockets at Israel without provocation, does it mean that it’s okay for Israel to fire rockets back without provocation? In this case, proportionality doesn’t exist. It’s impossible. The bottom line is that we need to prevent civilian deaths as much as possible and kill all those who are trying to kill us. If we don’t eliminate them, they will continue trying to kill us. Self-protection is therefore the key to the entire conversation about war.

The hope is that someday we will look back and see the benefits of the pain and sacrifice of war, with a world that is safer and more secure.