War in Judaism: The Rabbis and Modern Interpretations (Part 3)

Part One Covers Pacifism and Herem in the Jewish tradition.

Part Two Covers Wars of Necessity and the Rules outlining said wars.

Part Three Covers Modern Rabbinical Interpretations.

For the most part, these stories have become the basis for a “theory of war” for modern day Judaism. Deuteronomy 20 (as outlined above) and sections of the Talmud should shed light on how these ancient narratives are understood today. As far as the milhemet herem wars are concerned, these wars are simply of historic interest only, not for the formulation of an ethics of war. Norman Solomon, in his article “Judaism and the Ethics of War,” states that

This kind of war is of historical interest only, and does not serve as a model within Judaism; a formal declaration that the “seven nations” are no longer identifiable was made by Joshua ben Hananiah, around 100 CE.1

What Saul did towards Agag and what was done in the Torah are two very different ethics; rabbis of the past were much more sympathetic to Saul’s actions:

The rabbis dared not criticize Deuteronomy, for they regarded it as the direct word of God; rather, they expressed their unease by means of interpretation. Nor could they exonerate Saul for being remiss in destroying the Amalekites, since the Bible states that he deserved his punishment; but they retold the story in a way that was sympathetic to Saul and expressed their own unease at the command to destroy Amalek…2

Thus, one can easily say that “holy wars”, as such, are dead in the Jewish tradition in terms of ethical concerns.What, then, was the prevailing word considering warfare? Joshua’s wars in Canaan are considered milhemet hovah, as outlined earlier; the wars of the kingship, starting with Saul, were considered milhemet reshut, or “wars of expansion.” These wars are simply aggressive wars, not ordained by God but commanded by the king to expand Israel’s territory and power. However, these “wars of expansion” contradict the Talmudic tradition, which states

…that the king would need to seek authorization from the Great Court of 71 justices, as well as divine approval through the oracle of the High Priest, before engaging in such a war.3

Justification for such expansionist wars, however, never had time to gestate in Judaism for purely historical reasons – Israel has only recently become a modern nation-state with its own government.

Milhemet hovah, however, has seen great support from Scripture and the rabbis. Before continuing, it is important to note that multivalent interpretation is prevalent throughout the rabbinical tradition. To support any particular moral imperative, a rabbi does not have to examine verses that specifically deal with war. A war can be explained as a murder, a form of neighbor-love, a rape, a matter of personal self-defense, and a near infinite number of other analogies and metaphors.

When Deuteronomy 22:25-27, for example, presents the punishment for a man who rapes a woman, this has been used metaphorically and analogously to refer to war:

But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.

In some cases, murder and rape have been compared within the Torah; thus, this verse could be interpreted in a way that suggests that, to save the woman, one must kill here attacker. In the same way, to save Israel, one might have to participate in warfare to protect an innocent life. There are innumerable ways that this methodology has been applied. What is important, however, is that justification for defensive wars has more support that one could imagine.

In this way, milhemet herem has been diminished over time through the use of the method of multivalent interpretation. Any Jews who accepts these texts literally will, in some fashion, attempt to diminish their impact through interpretation. Thus, there are two ways this has been done: first, through defining holy wars out of existence, and second, by the creation of the “three vows”

The first method is through definitions. Reuven Firestone explains how wars in the Torah were understood for this to work:

Israel’s wars are thus divided into two types. Discretionary war allows for deferments from warring. Commanded or ‘mitzvah’ war does not. The latter requires the participation of all Israel with no exceptions. But the mishnah never describes what kinds of wars were intended by the terms “discretionary” or ‘commanded.’4

The ambiguity of the text does not necessarily imply which wars were considered under what criteria; thus, it was unclear whether one kind of war or the other had been enacted in the ancient narrative. The general definitions, arising out of the Talmud, consider commanded wars as fought by Joshua, while discretionary wars were those from David and the other kings. However, specifically in the text, the definition has been limited to Joshua only! Firestone makes this point clearer: 

However one reads the two Talmuds’ expanded discussion of the Mishnah, holy war— meaning war commanded by God (“war of mitzvah”)—could no longer be initiated by Israel because initiated holy war became, by definition, limited to the wars or conquests of Joshua in response to the divine command. The terminology in the two Talmuds is quite specific: milchamot yehoshua likhbosh (the wars of Joshua to conquer) in the Babylonian Talmud and milchemet yehoshua (Joshua’s war) in the Palestinian Talmud. Henceforth, the only conceivable kind of Jewish holy war could be defensive, but even that rendering is found only in the Jerusalem Talmud and absent from the Babylonian Talmud, the latter being the authoritative work upon which most Jewish law is constructed.5

This particular methods seems disingenuous to the text – if one takes the Torah to be the Word of God, in some sense or another, would it not be sensible to suggest that these narratives have a meaning that is plain and simple? To remove such ideas does not solve the problem – it only leads, from an outside observer’s perspective, to a reduced validity for a supposed “holy book.” Basically, the arguments suggest that “these wars do not happen anymore,” but the “because…” that should follow does not exist; instead, this method uses tricky definitions to lead milhemet herem out of the tradition entirely. Again, there are certainly historical reasons why one could discount the holy war narratives, but why deny them entry if you believe God exists at all?

The other method is the “Three Vows.” Taken from one passage that repeats three times in the Song of Songs (“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you do not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases.”), the Three Vows are meant to discourage Israel from taking actions – such as a milhemet reshut, for example – that would bring possible death and destruction unto the Israelites.6 The Jews should, instead of attempting to conform the world to make a place for themselves in the world, to let God do the work.7 Forcing God’s hand only forces God’s wrath, so to speak.8

These passages are understood to refer to any display of force – nonviolent means would be completely fine. The Three Vows are deeply ingrained within rabbinical discussion of war. However, this is a tenuous multivalent interpretation at best. Perhaps it is an interesting aside, but such a prescription, taken on its own merits, does not limit the implementation of milhemet herem. Unless, in some case, a person were to present evidence within the Hebrew Bible for the precedence of the Three Vows over the actual, definite command of wars by God in the Torah, then this would be sufficient; however, such an explanation has yet to be given.

Thus, one can see that the discussion of war in Judaism remains complicated and divisive. The reasons for accepting and prohibiting war and defining certain types of wars are an essential part of the tradition that cannot be ignored. However, I cannot help but think that some thought towards these issues seem to be convenient excuses to take a contrary opinion to the “acts of God” in the Torah. If you do not believe the Torah to be the literal “Word of God,” then this is not a problem. If they are simply human documents that, in some way, might displays instances of a divine hand, then there is no need to rationalize stories that did not actually happen. However, the excuses made for God’s barbaric actions were made because it was assumed that these texts depicted actual historic events, or at least events of importance to the Jewish people (and, perhaps, all of humanity). In this case, to simply cast the stories aside through suspect reasoning is dishonest.

Still, there is much discussion to be had, and much more about the Jewish tradition of war that can be explicated here. Judaism is, primarily, an intellectual religion, and thus contradictory views are not confusing, but are simply assimilated into the interwoven tradition. Thus, these apparent conflicts to an outsider are simply a part of the debate that continues even today. Is there an official position on war? Of course not! Does this matter? Not really. The existence of a debate at all ensures that every persons has had sufficient study of the tanakh to make a sound judgment either way. This discussion here only hopes to add to that tradition.


1 Norman Solomon, “Judaism and the ethics of war,” International Review of the Red Cross 858, vol. 87 (June 2005): 296.

2 Ibid, 297.

3 Ibid, 298.

4 Reuven Firestone, “Holy War in Modern Judaism? ‘Mitzvah War’ and the Problem of the ‘Three Vows,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, vol. 4 (December 2006): 959.

5 Ibid, 959.

6 Ibid, 960.

7 Ibid, 960.

8 Ibid, 960.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.