Religious Studies

Judaism: attitudes towards fighting and warfare

Most religions offer teaching on war and conflict. And over time religion has been at the heart of conflict between nations.

Jewish scripture and ‘Just Wars’

Jewish attitudes to war and peace are based on the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures.

In the Jewish Scriptures there are examples of wars. Some of these were Holy Wars where the Jews were trying to maintain their religion when other people wanted to make them worship false gods. Others were perhaps ‘Just Wars’ but it could be argued that some of them were wrong and unjustified.

Wars which must be fought

Judaism teaches that there are three kinds of wars which must be fought:

  • Milchemet mitzvah is a war commanded by G-d and is similar to a Holy War. There are two examples of this in the Jewish Scriptures: once when Jewish people fought to protect themselves from the Amalek tribe; and the time when Joshua and the Israelites fought to return to the Promised Land. (The conditions for this type of war are that the enemy must have attacked first or there is a need to prevent an attack.)
  • Milchemet reshut is an optional war and could be called a ‘Just War’. The war must be a last resort: non-violent solutions should have been tried first; civilians should not be targeted and damage should be limited. This type of war has not happened since the fall of the Temple in 70CE.
  • The Six Day War 1967

    Israeli army during the Six Day War

    A pre-emptive war can only be fought when an attack upon Israel is imminent. This happened in 1967, when Israel attacked the airfields of Egypt and Syria in the Six-day War to prevent a siege.

Self protection in Judaism

Jewish people are required to protect themselves and others, and also to help other countries in order to prevent the spread of war.

Self-defence is also allowed:

If a person intends to kill you, be first to kill him.

Talmud

Judaism says that wars must be fought properly and humanely:

If your foe is hungry, feed him bread; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Proverbs 25:21

Justice, truth and peace

The struggle for peace and justice is a very important Jewish teaching:

The world endures on three things – justice, truth and peace

Ethics of the Fathers 1:18

In G-d’s eyes the man stands high who makes peace between men… But he stands highest who establishes peace among the nations.

Talmud

‘Shalom’ (peace) also means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

Judaism believes that most wars are wrong and that they must try for peace before fighting.

Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:15

So, although Judaism is not a purely pacifist [Pacifism: Opposition to war or violence as a means to settling disputes. ] religion, it does believe that peace is the highest good.

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