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Books: Does Judaism Sanction "Holy War"?
a conversation with Reuven Firestone

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and author of numerous books, most recently Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford University Press, 2012), which explores how the concept of ‘’holy war’’ disappeared from Jewish thought for almost 2000 years, only to reemerge with renewed vigor in modern times.

Does the concept of “holy war” exist in the Bible?

There is no biblical term or even a traditional Hebrew word for holy war, but there are numerous instances in the Bible of violence against enemies believed to be sanctioned or commanded by God; there are even wars divinely preordained to be victorious. In Numbers chapter 33, for example, God commands the Israelites to seize the Land of Canaan and “dispossess all the inhabitants of the land.” And in Deuteronomy 7:1–3, God commands the Israelites to wipe out all the Canaanites living in the Land of Israel: “You must doom them to complete destruction; grant them no terms and give them no quarter.” Often God ensures military success for the Israelites, as in the war against the giant-king Og: “‘Do not fear him, for I am delivering him and all his men and his country into your power’…So the Lord our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left” (Deut. 3:2–3). Dozens of other cases can be found throughout the remainder of the Bible, from the Book of Joshua to Second Chronicles.

Was the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Syrian conquerors also considered a holy war?

That certainly seems to be the message in First and Second Maccabees, the books that furnish the most detail about the Jews’ wars against the Greeks. In First Maccabees, the hero Judah says, “It is easy for many to be delivered into the hands of few. Heaven sees no difference in gaining victory through many or through a few, because victory in war does not lie in the weight of numbers, but rather strength comes from Heaven” (I Macc. 3:18–19). Second Maccabees contains stories of great acts of religious martyrdom that help move heaven to bring victory. In one tale (chapter 7), an anonymous woman and her seven sons suffer agonizing deaths during the war against the Greeks for Kiddush Hashem (meaning “sanctification of the Divine Name,” the traditional Jewish term for martyrdom); in another, the Jewish official Razis kills himself by plunging a sword into his stomach, jumping off a balcony, and finally tearing out his own entrails rather than submit to the rule of a Seleucid general (14:37–46). Such acts have exemplified holy war throughout the ages.

Some four or five centuries later,the rabbis of the Talmud, writing about Chanukah, offered only one statement acknowledging the Maccabean victory, which we find in traditional siddurim to this day: God “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the unclean into the hands of the pure, and the arrogant into the hands of those who were devoted to Your Torah.” Notably, the rabbis paid far greater attention to a different sort of divine intervention, repeatedly valorizing the miracle that enabled one small container of sanctified, “kosher” oil in the Temple menorah to last until a new batch of sanctified oil could be produced to keep the Eternal Light aflame. This remarkable fixation on a little clay jar of oil, with the concurrent near-exclusion of the extraordinary military victory, serves as an indication of the rabbis’ decision to abandon the message of holy war.

What caused the rabbis to rethink the practice of holy war?

The short answer is that they abandoned holy war when it stopped working. The Maccabean Revolt was the last successful holy war. The next two great wars—the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman rule (66 C.E.–70 C.E.) and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132–136)—were overwhelming catastrophes. The first resulted in the final destruction of the Temple and the end of Jewish political independence in the Land of Israel; the second added overwhelming exile and destruction. Together, millions were killed and enslaved, and perhaps as many died from disease and starvation in the midst of the conflagration. It took generations for the consensus to swing to a position of withdrawal from political activism with the larger world but eventually, a few generations after the disastrous Bar Kokhba Rebellion, the rabbis of the Talmud established safeguards that would prevent future zealots from declaring holy war. They never abandoned holy war as a divinely sanctioned institution, but they established two powerful safeguards that made it virtually impossible for holy war to be operative in Judaism.

What were the rabbis’ safeguards against holy war?

The first safeguard restricted the many examples of divinely sanctioned warring to a simple and limited definition called Commanded War (milchemet mitzvah). In a discussion about Deuteronomy 20 concerning the exclusion of certain categories of people from fighting in an Israelite war, the Mishnah ends the discussion with: “To what (types of wars) do these deferments apply? To a Discretionary War (milchemet ha-reshut), but in a Commanded War (milchemet mitzvah) everyone must go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her bridal pavilion” (Mishnah Sotah 8:7). In this brief passage, the rabbis divided all biblical wars into two types—for one, certain deferments applied, but for the other there could be no deferments because the war was commanded by God. The passage was problematic, however, because it never defined which wars were discretionary and which commanded. Clarification first appears in the Gemara, the extension of the Mishnah codified a few centuries later: Commanded War is identified as “Joshua’s war” in the Palestinian Talmud (Sotah 8:1) and “Joshua’s wars of conquest” in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 44b). These authoritative statements were understood to mean that war commanded by God in which every individual is required to engage in battle was restricted to the period of the great conquest of the Land of Israel under Joshua. After that period, an Israelite king could declare war and muster an army, but did not have the same authority, and when the Israelites no longer had kings, the possibility of that type of war also ceased. The Palestinian Talmud, but not the Babylonian Talmud, the more authoritative version of the Talmud, had also added defense to the category of Commanded War for which deferments did not apply. From then on, self defense was the only possible legal category of organized Jewish fighting. In the meantime, the rabbis taught that because of Israel’s sins, God had resolved that Jews must suffer exile and the loss of political and military independence. This sentiment is found throughout rabbinic literature. Life goes on, they explained, but it does so in a state of exile everywhere, even within the borders of the Land of Israel itself.

Such a state of exile is then presumed to be the normative situation for the Jewish people. This is clear from the language and logic of the second safeguard, based on an obscure phrase repeated several times in the Song of Songs, “I make you swear [often translated as‘I adjure you’], O daughters of Jerusalem, by gazelles or by hinds of the field: do not wake or rouse love until it please!” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). The rabbis concluded that the repeated phrase provided a divine message about life until the messianic redemption: the Jews (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) must not try to force the advent of the messiah (“do not wake or rouse love”) before God wills (“until it please”). God’s will was articulated in the form of vows (“I make you swear”), and since the phrase appeared three times, the rabbis called this “The Three Vows” and determined that each occurrence defined a particular vow: 1) Jews must swear not to defy their exilic status by rebelling against Gentile powers; 2) Jews must swear not to immigrate as a group to the Land of Israel. In return, 3) God makes the Gentiles of the world swear that they will not persecute the Jewish people beyond their ability to endure. These vows would remain in force “…until it please,” until God decided that the time was right for the exile to end through a great messianic redemption.

Why would the rabbis of that time prohibit Jewish migration to Zion?

There were always Jews living in the Land of Israel, and the rabbis never prohibited migration there. Their concern was stirring up powerful mass emotions associated with the sanctity of the Land—something like the powerful feelings we sometimes experience when visiting Israel today. They didn’t want the emotional excess of a mass movement to convince hot-headed activists that the messiah was imminent, potentially unleashing a military rebellion against far more formidable powers and then causing another catastrophe, or perhaps even, heaven forbid, the destruction of the Jewish people.

How did the establishment of the State of Israel influence the traditional Jewish attitude toward holy war?

The Zionist Movement was an overwhelmingly secular national movement. Most Orthodox Jews either ignored or campaigned against it, at least until the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Of the few Orthodox Jews who did join the movement, many were primarily stirred by messianic feeling, but they publicly denied this messianic impulse, because admitting it would be considered heretical rebellion against the Three Vows and therefore against God.

Once the United Nations approved the establishment of a Jewish State and Israel faced the inevitable approaching wars of independence, Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, an Orthodox rabbi who served as Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, wrote religious rulings that allowed the development of a Jewish army in the face of the rabbis’ earlier safeguards against militancy. Of course the secular Zionists did not need Rabbi Herzog’s imprimatur to develop the Haganah or a national army, but the many Orthodox Jewish immigrants from a devastated Europe and the Arab world, as well as the relatively few Orthodox Religious Zionists who viewed the State as their spiritual center, required a religious authority to allow them to fight. With independence achieved, the harsh privations facing the fledgling Jewish state rose to the forefront and the early messianic surge after liberation quickly subsided. It would take time for messianism to become truly ignited in modern Israel.

Did Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 influence Jewish attitudes on the question of holy war?

It wasn’t the occupation; it was the war. Israel as well as the rest of the Jewish world was terrified by the build-up to the war in 1967. The municipality of Tel Aviv dug mass graves in the city’s soccer stadium in anticipation of terrible destruction. But in a matter of hours the air forces of the surrounding Arab countries were destroyed, and in a matter of days the war was over. It was miraculous. Some considered it truly a divine miracle. In the interim between 1948 and 1967 Israel had grown in population and strength, and especially after the horror of the Holocaust the Jewish people were ready for—and found—a redemptive victory in the “Six Day War.”

Some in the Religious Zionist community saw the “miracle” as a divine sign of a messianic redemption just around the corner. After all, in 1967 almost all of the holiest sites from Israelite history had come under Israel’s control in biblical Judea and Samaria! In hindsight they interpreted the Balfour Declaration, the end of Ottoman rule over Palestine, the British Mandate, and even the Holocaust as signs of an imminent messiah. In short, they concluded that the “until it please” of the Song of Songs verse had arrived and the “Three Vows” were no longer in force. In this new age, the old biblical wars of conquest—“holy war”—could be reinstated, and God would again work step by step with his beloved Jewish people to settle all of the Land of Israel and thus bring messianic redemption.

Deeply influenced by the mystical thinking of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah, a small cadre of Jews successfully convinced most Religious Zionists as well as many other Israelis and Jews living outside of Israel that God had enabled the establishment of the State as a sign of impending redemption. They founded a few settlements in the captured (or, as some would say, liberated) territories—not many, because the government wanted to keep the land as a bargaining chip for a long-term peace treaty. For six years the activists and the government clashed, and then suddenly a surprise attack, launched on Yom Kippur, nearly overwhelmed the Israel Defense Forces. It was a major existential crisis for all of Israel. The religious activists saw it as a divine warning that Israel was not following the will of God because the State had failed to settle the Land given by God to the people of Israel. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Gush Emunim and the Settler Movement were founded; and increasingly more Jews became activists in the movement, warning of the devastation awaiting the Jewish people should they fail to seize upon the divine imperative by not clinging fully and faithfully to the unprecedented opportunity for redemption offered by God. To the zealots, failure to engage in militant, activist settlement would upset God and bring disaster. Therefore, if the Israeli government refused to retain all conquered biblical lands, then it was their responsibility to carry on the fight through forced settlement of occupied territories and the expulsion of its non-Jewish inhabitants.

By the 1980s, some rabbis in the Settler Movement wrote that all of Israel’s wars are holy wars by definition, including invasions of neighboring countries. The most radical advocated provoking an Armageddon that would require God’s intervention to save the Jewish people by destroying its enemies. The plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in the ’80s—which was nearly carried out—emerged from this mentality.

Might this confluence of Jewish nationalism and messianism spark a holy war?

We must take lessons from history. The Great Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion were efforts of a subjugated nation to rid itself of oppressive imperialist domination. The most fanatical Jewish factions, acting against the will of less extreme parties, instigated an armed showdown of the few against the many, perhaps in an attempt to force God’s hand in coming to their defense. But unlike the romantic victories of the gallant Maccabees portrayed in our sacred books, God did not intervene. These revolts ended in disaster for the Jewish people.

Today’s Jewish leaders need to make careful, rational decisions and avoid making incendiary statements. When people believe the messiah is around the corner, they are likely to fall under the spell of irrational, foolish thinking. The result could be catastrophic for Israel and the world.


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