A Talmidi Jewish Perspective on War and Defense
This page came about as a result of a question by one of our members in our discussion group, dated December 2001:
I also have a question. If violence begats only violence, what are we to do about terrorists? How should Israel respond to terrorism? I personally don’t see how violence against al-Quedah [sic] could have been avoided. It is difficult to talk out differences if the other side isn’t interested in listening. If a groups’ purpose is to do violence unto others, it must be stopped. I also don’t see how nonviolence could have defeated the Nazis.
This is such a difficult question for a faith that values every human life. Before I begin to explore this problem, I’ll say this: The Way encourages Followers to have confidence and courage in their own opinions. A religious teacher can give guidance, and remind us of precepts from Torah, and the teachings of the Way that we should bear in mind in any given situation. Ultimately though, Followers of the Way must study, think, and make up their own minds.
Let’s start with what Torah says. Now, when interpeting Torah, you have to ask yourself, “Was a certain mitzvah given to particular individuals, or does it apply to everyone?” “Was it given for a specific circumstance, or was it given for all time?”
There is one passage in Torah which refers to the conduct of war, Dt 20:1-20. It very much describes warfare as it was 2,700 years ago. Israelites were instructed to kill every man, and take women and children as slaves, and all animals and other property as spoils of war. I personally would not encourage anyone in our community to behave like that! I think that this part very much belongs to a given situation in the past.
However, Dt 20:10 says that before a war, there should be an offer of peace. Lev 19:7 says that we should try to reason with our neighbour, and Lev 19:18 says that we should not seek revenge.
By these things, I would say that all peaceful options should be tried first, and any action should be motivated by justice, and not vengeance. Dt 20:5-9 does allow conscientious objectors to be excused from war
Lev 19:16 says, “Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbour” (that is, don’t stand by when your neighbour’s life is in danger). We have a duty to help in whatever way we can when a defenceless person or group of people is attacked.
Finally, everyone has the right to defend themselves. However, we are not given a free hand to do just anything we like. The innocent are not to suffer, and any action has to be tempered, and sufficient to effect justice – and no more. We are not allowed to ill-treat our enemies, or take delight in their suffering.
War or conflict should never be lowered to the level of tit-for-tat (“you hit me, so I’ll hit you”). In this case yes, violence only begets violence. There should always be a clear goal in mind, a clear view of what we want to achieve in a conflict.
In whatever we do, we should never allow ourselves to lower our souls to the level of our enemies. If in war, we have to take a life, it should hurt us and cause us sorrow – we should not whoop in victory, or leap for joy. Our hearts should hang in sorrow for the actions which evil has made unavoidable in order to restore order, peace and a just way of life. At the end of the war, we pray not only for our own dead, but also for the dead of our enemies. War is neither glorious nor honourable. We should not long for war or enjoy it.
So yes, Israel has a right to defend herself, but should always remember that Palestinians are human beings – they are children of God as much as we are – and that the innocent should not suffer. Ordinary Palestinians should be treated with respect, and not oppressed (Ex 22:18 says that we should not wrong or oppress foreigners resident in our land).
And in the case of WW2, Nazism had to be defeated – the good were forced by evil to do what was necessary to restore peace, and save lives. Unfortunately the Allies did hesitate, and did “stand by the blood of their neighbours”, and I’m sure that millions could have been saved from the gas chambers had they acted sooner. It should also be remembered that various countries turned away ships of refugees, sending them back to their homes, from where many were then sent to their deaths in concentration camps.
Now I shall turn to the teachings of the Way. One of our teachings that has been misinterpreted by Christians, is contained in Matthew 5:39 – “Do not resist evil”. This has allowed malevolent governments an excuse to continue unhindered.
In fact, Yeshua` was expanding on Psalm 37:8 and Proverbs 24:19 “Be not vexed by evildoers, nor envy the wicked”.
When faced with evil, we should not allow it to goad us to vengeance or hatefulness, or make us fret over evil. When we allow an evil person to worry us and spend our every waking moment hating them, then they have won.
The Aramaic word in Yeshua’s saying could possibly have been `uq, which means “to be vexed”, and might possibly have been mistranslated as ‘resist’. A better translation of the saying would be, “Don’t fret over evil, nor seek to get even when you are wronged” (see SY 71:1).
Another teaching of the Way which has been misinterpreted by Christians is “turn the other cheek”. If you know nothing of the situation of those days 2,000 years ago, you have no option but to take this at face value. You have to know the world of the first Jewish followers of Yeshua` to interpret this correctly.
The phrase actually forms part of a set of 3 things, which together help you to interpret the saying. They are suggestions as to what you can do to avoid fretting over evil; in contrast, they take what your opponent has done to a silly extreme (see SY 71:2-3).
For example, if a Roman soldier conscripts your services, and forces you to carry his luggage one mile to barracks, then eagerly go with him 2 miles – which results in you taking his luggage a mile past where he actually wanted to go!!
If someone sues you, and takes from you your cloak, then eagerly give them your tunic as well – which, since Galileans had only 2 items of clothing, would have left you naked!!
And in those days, it was considered a manly insult to slap someone on their left cheek with the BACK of the right hand. Now, presenting your opponent with your right cheek – the other cheek – would force your opponent to do what was considered a “cissy” slap, a slap with the PALM of their right hand, implying the one doing the slapping was a wimp!!
Turning the other cheek has nothing to do with ignoring evil; it’s about not letting evil vex you – like forcing your enemy to take their offence against you to a silly extreme, and embarassing them into realising what they’ve done.
The greatest triumph an evil enemy can have over you, especially one who holds diametrically opposite values to one’s own, is to cause the defeat of your values by making you become them – by making you take on the values of your enemy. If you become what your enemy is, then your enemy has won without having fired a single shot.
Fear of the enemy makes us do the most irrational things. In any conflict, we have to be clever, not brutal. The prophet Yeshua` spoke of the broad and narrow gates – the broad gate chosen by the reckless many, and the narrow gate chosen by the wise and righteous few. In this instance, the narrow way is treating the innocent with respect, while being wary of the wicked.
To conclude, we are a peaceful sect. We value all human life, even the lives of our enemies. We do not seek vengeance, only justice. We aspire to be good, compassionate people, and human suffering should always cause us pain. We should never give up our ideals, or let evil vex us to the extent where we become no better than the evil perpetrated by our enemies. We have the right of self defence, but defence should be righteous, with concern not to do more than is necessary, and should not be malicious or vengeful in nature. Sometimes you just cannot “stand by the blood of your neighbour” and do nothing. Sometimes the only option for saving life is to go to war.
Many societies recover economically after war, but their moral and ethical values remain forever scarred. Nations spend billions rebuilding their infrastructure, but few people pay any regard to the recovery of their ethical ideals and principles after war. That is what God’s enduring Torah and God’s unwavering prophets stand for – to remind us, after detrimental times of war, of what our core values and principles should be, and what we have to return to for the sake of the kingdom of God. There are many bad things going on in our world, and it looks like the 21st century is going to be defined by a long, drawn-out conflict with religious extremism. That is why I firmly believe that those who walk the narrow path of Yahveh’s ideals are so important in this world – more important now than it has been for a very long while.
There is so much that is broken today in our world. In any war, there are many injured, and many fatalities. There are also medics who tend to the injured. Our faith has to be like the medics, to address the injury to society, to be there for healing and to make sure that injury to the spirit of our society is not fatal. And when this is all over, I know that those who follow the path of Yahveh will be there to help the healing and restoration to wholeness. Our voices will echo God’s voice, and call our damaged world gently back to the Path.
I’m sorry the answer was so long Deborah, but I felt that it was such an important issue that I was willing to spend the time to answer it. In the end, every Follower must make up their own mind, according to their own conscience.