Defensive War

When lives are at stake, Judaism permits--and probably requires--fighting.

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And finally, under the laws of self-defense and pursuit, the intended victim, and even more so a third party, may stop an attacker only if innocent bystanders will not simultaneously be killed, for as the Talmud says, "How do you know that your blood is redder than the blood of your fellow?" Because war, including defensive war, inevitably involves casualties among noncombatants, however, engaging in defensive war requires justification beyond that extended to an individual's self‑defense, or to a third party to defend an intended victim.

All of the sources that Bleich cites in restricting the rights of self‑defense and of intervention against a pursuer, however, are medieval. The Talmud itself does not limit these rights in that way.

Indeed, despite the cogent grounds that Bleich raises to discriminate the cases, the Talmud in the passage cited above clearly establishes the right and the duty to engage in defensive war. It does not connect the right and duty of communal self‑defense with individual self‑defense or intervention against a pursuer, but neither does it consider Bleich's arguments as an impediment against establishing both the right and the duty of communal self‑defense.

Expanding the Parameters of Self-Defense

The standard codes not only follow suit, they expand upon this. Thus Maimonides broadens the conditions under which it is permissible to construe the enemy's action as hostile so as to permit desecrating the Sabbath in communal self‑defense, and he adds the command to aid fellow Israelites caught in a war‑-adding the right to desecrate the Sabbath in returning home after action against the enemy.

"If foreigners besieged Israelite towns, if they came for monetary reasons, it is not permitted to desecrate the Sabbath on their account and we do not make war against them [on the Sabbath]. In a city near the border, however, even if they came only for straw or hay, we sally forth against them with weapons and desecrate the Sabbath because of them. In any location, if they came with the intention of taking lives, or if they established the lines for war, or if they simply besieged us, we sally forth against them with weapons and desecrate the Sabbath because of them. It is a commandment incumbent on all Israelites who can go out and come to the aid of their fellow Jews caught in a siege and to save them from the hand of foreigners on the Sabbath, and it is forbidden to wait until the Sabbath is over. And when they save their brothers, they may return with their weapons to their residences on the Sabbath. [This permission is given] so that they will not be deterred [from aiding fellow Jews] in the future." (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbath 2:23)

Joseph Karo, in the Shulkhan Arukh, goes yet further. He proclaims that we sally forth against the enemy on the Sabbath when they come with the intention of taking lives "or even when they simply sally forth against the Israelites with weapons." That is, we assume that if they have weapons, they intend to take lives.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.