Judaism on War and Violence

The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin
The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin. WikiCommons

Sometimes war is necessary. Judaism teaches the supreme value of life, yet we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is also part of justice. As Rashi explains in Deuteronomy 20:12, dangerous disputes must be resolved. Because if you choose to leave evil alone – it will eventually attack you. 

People today don't relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Today, most Westerners grow up in nice neighborhoods, they never experience war, real suffering, or in the case of Jews, anti-Semitism. Therefore it's very easy to pontificate brotherhood, peace and other liberal notions at the expense of defense. There's a well-known funny expression defining a liberal as “a conservative who has never been mugged.” Questioning the ancient Hebrews' sense of justice and morality is not really fair if you haven't dealt with harsh reality of their experience. 

It is ironic that the Jewish people created the basis of Western morality – such as an absolute morality and the concept of the sanctity of life, and today civilizations that rest on our foundation turn around and throw into our faces the accusation that Torah espouses cruelty to Canaanites! People today can only criticize ancient Hebrews because those very Hebrews taught them that murder, conquest, and abuse are wrong and immoral. The values such as respect of life, freedom, and brotherhood, all stem from Judaism. Today we have the mindset that wiping out a city down to the children and animals is immoral because Jews have taught that to the world! 

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People mistakenly think that the Torah's directive was to wipe out the Canaanites indiscriminately, in a cruel fashion. In truth, the Jews would have preferred that the nations never deserved punishment. That’s why the Canaanites were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they’d change and accept the Seven Universal laws of humanity. These “Noahide Laws” are basic to any functioning society:

  1. Do not murder. 
  2. Do not steal. 
  3. Do not worship false gods. 
  4. Do not be sexually immoral. 
  5. Do not eat the limb of an animal before it is killed. 
  6. Do not curse God. 
  7. Set up courts and bring offenders to justice. 

At the root of these laws lies the vital concept that there is a God Who created each and every person in His image, and that each person is dear to the Almighty and must be respected accordingly. These seven laws are the pillars of human civilization. They are the factors which distinguish a city of humans from a jungle of wild animals. 

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Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy. Before attacking, the Jews offered terms of peace, as the Torah says,

"When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace" (Deut. 20:10). 

For example, before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." The second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." The final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations (the Girgashites) heeded the call; they emigrated to Africa. 

In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jews were still commanded to fight mercifully! For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape (see Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Chapter 6). 

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It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews’ peace-loving nature. King Saul lost his kingdom when he showed misplaced mercy by allowing the Amalekite king to live. And in modern times, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied,

“It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.” 

The reality is that war makes one callous and cruel. Therefore, since God commanded the Jews to rid the Land of Israel of evil, God likewise promises the soldiers that they will retain their compassionate nature.

“God will have compassion on you, and reverse any display of anger that might have existed" (Deut. 13:18).