Home Culture Arts & Entertainment What is the Jewish code of conduct in battle?

What is the Jewish code of conduct in battle?


Of all the changes in Jewish life resulting from the creation of the State of Israel, perhaps the biggest was that, for the first time in almost 2,000 years, a sovereign Jewish government commanded an armed force of Jewish soldiers. All legitimate armies, including the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), are guided by legal and ethical codes of conduct, but no written Jewish code of conduct for armies existed before this.

Jews, of course, had armies in the distant past and certainly Jews have a vast tradition of halakhic texts that deal with issues of law and morality. But during the 1,800 years when most halakhic texts were being produced, rabbis and Jewish thinkers rarely discussed battle ethics. If they did, they were discussing what might have happened when a Jewish king of old had determined to go to war. If they dreamed out loud about a return to Jewish sovereignty, they assumed it would take place only in messianic times. But in 1948, a Jewish state and a Jewish army arose without a king or a messiah.

Robert Eisen’s latest book, Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War: How Five Rabbis Confronted One of Modern Judaism’s Greatest Challenges explains in detail how rabbis tried to fill this textual vacuum. An internationally respected scholar, Eisen, who grew up in Toronto, is professor of religion and Jewish studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. This book is a natural outgrowth of his last fascinating book, The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism.

Eisen methodically examines the writings of five religious Zionist rabbis who addressed the thorny halakhic and ethical questions related to modern warfare: Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), Isaac Halevi Herzog (1888-1959), Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg (1915-2006), Sha’ul Yisraeli (1910-1995), and Shlomo Goren (1918-1994). The last four dealt directly with issues involving the IDF. While Rabbi Kook, the famous first chief rabbi of the modern Jewish community in the land of Israel, died 13 years before the state and the IDF were created, the other four rabbis are so dependent on Rabbi Kook’s teachings that the study would be incomplete without analyzing his path-breaking thinking on Jewish power and sovereignty.

Eisen shows how these rabbis mined ancient texts to extract new Jewish answers. He helpfully compares their discussions to the rich contemporary academic literature on “just war theory” which deals with jus ad bellum, i.e. when is it legitimate to go to war, and jus in bello, i.e. what is acceptable behaviour for soldiers once they are in a legitimate war.


Soldiers in battle are permitted to do things that would be unethical and illegal in any other setting. They may kill people (enemy soldiers, even soldiers who are not currently attacking them). Modern ethicists even allow some actions that lead to the death of some (ideally small) number of civilians from the enemy nation. (Consider the debate about the Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War.)

The unique status of wartime ethics caused serious difficulties for these rabbis. Previous rabbinic discussions of ethical issues had related only to what Eisen calls “everyday halakhah.” For example, Jews are obligated to try to save the life of their fellows (deriving perhaps from the biblical verse “Do not stand by when your neighbour’s blood is shed” [Lev 19:16]). But they are not obligated to endanger their own lives in the process. Yet in an army, soldiers routinely endanger their own lives in order to protect others. In fact, Israel, through conscription, coerces people to risk their own lives for the common good. Jewishly speaking, where does the state get that authority? Eisen carefully contrasts the approaches of his chosen rabbis to such questions.

He demonstrates that Rabbi Kook was hopeful that the Jewish state would never need to fight. This was “part of a larger theology in which he saw the return of the Jewish People to its homeland as the beginning of the final stage of the messianic redemption,” in which “Jews would model a non-violent ethic to the nations, an ethic that the gentile nations would adopt as their own.”

Sadly, this has not been the case. The IDF has had to fight many wars; the four other rabbis lived to see that a peaceful restoration of Jewish sovereignty was not to be. Many of them cited a comment of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin ( the Netsiv; 1816-1893), one of the few rabbis before the 20th century to address directly the question of why it was permitted to kill in battle.

In his commentary to Genesis 9:5, the Netsiv writes “God explained that people are punished [for murder] at a time when brotherly behaviour is called for, but not at a time of warfare when it is appropriate to hate and to kill, and there is no punishment for such behaviour, for this is how the world was established . . . That is why a Jewish king can even initiate a discretionary war even though such action leads to the death of a number of Israelites.” (emphasis added) In other words, according to the Netsiv, conventions about battle ethics precede Judaism.

Eisen’s rabbis, creative though they may have been in their use of ancient texts, ultimately have less to contribute to the discussion about modern Israeli battle ethics than contemporary international law and custom do. The need for battle ethics remains, as Eisen calls it, one of the greatest challenges for the modern world, including the Jews.