Two Types of Jewish War

Judaism distinguishes between commanded wars and permitted wars.

Print this page Print this page

Although it is true that the capturing of the land of Israel and the eradication of the seven nations is obligatory and wars of aggression and conquest are not, according to Deuteronomy 20, all wars embarked upon by the people of Israel are religiously sanctioned as God's wars. There is little differentiation in the legitimacy or divine sanction of wars of self‑defense, aggression, conquest, expansion, capturing the land of Canaan, or eradication of idolatry from the midst of the Jewish people. The Jewish people's battles are all God's battles, in accordance with the expression of the divine will.

All Jewish Wars are Religious Wars

This perspective on the morality of war is adopted and further elaborated by Rabbi Yehudah in the Mishna tractate of Sotah. Recognizing that we are obligated to take hold of the land of Canaan, but are not required to embark on wars of aggression, Rabbi Yehudah identifies wars of conquest and aggression as commanded (mitzvah) and the war against the seven nations as obligatory (chovah).

Both categories, mitzvah and chovah, are very similar, with almost identical religious weight and authority. Both contain a sense of fulfilling God's will as either metzaveh (one who commands) or as mechayev (one who obligates). Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, ca. 1040-1105] explains that there is no significance in the distinction between these two categories. However, as soon as Rabbi Yehudah designated wars of conquest as a mitzvah, he needed a slightly higher category to denote the war to capture the land of Canaan on which all are obligated to embark.

What Rashi implies is that the category of mitzvah sometimes signifies a religious duty that is subject to contingencies. For example, tzizit [fringes], according to some opinions, is a requirement only if you have or wear a garment with four corners. There is no chovah (requirement) to own such a garment, but if you do, the placing of tzizit on the corners is a mitzvah. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah chose the term mitzvah to categorize wars of conquest, and though there is no obligation to wage them, if the Jewish people choose to do so, they are still fulfilling a mitzvah.

Neutralizing Religious Wars

The biblical position and that of Rabbi Yehudah were rejected, however, by the majority opinion in rabbinic tradition. In an innovative move, the rabbis create a significant legal distinction between the two wars of Deuteronomy 20. They maintain the status of the war against the seven nations as a mitzvah and the fulfillment of a religious duty, but redefine the religious perception and evaluation of the wars of aggression against the "towns that lie very far from you."

These wars are not perceived to be the fulfillment and reflection of God's will but rather discretionary wars (milchemet reshut). As discretionary acts, wars of aggression are still legally permissible. Once divested of their religious value, however, their importance, legitimacy, and practical feasibility are seriously weakened.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Rabbi Donniel Hartman is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a master's in political philosophy from New York University and a master's in religion from Temple University, and is currently completing his doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University (Jerusalem).