Pacifism in Jewish Law

Jewish tradition never embraced complete pacifism, though minimizing violence has always been a priority.

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In response to a belligerent action, in situations where war is authorized rather than obligatory, society has the right to adopt a pacifistic stance and decline to wage war (or to wage some kind of limited war). In that sense, a society could adopt a generally pacifistic response to aggression and decline to exercise its right to respond to every aggression. That form of societal pacifism is permitted according to Jewish law. Even in that situation, these considerations are limited to cases of authorized war.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, in his excellent seminal essay on pacifism and selective conscientious objection in the Jewish tradition (Maurice Lamm, "After the War--Another look at Pacifism and Selective Conscientious Objection," in M. Kellner, ed. Contemporary Jewish Ethics, pp. 221-238), concludes by stating, "It must be affirmed that Judaism rejected total pacifism, but that it believed strongly in pragmatic pacifism as a higher morally more noteworthy religious position. Nonetheless, this selective pacifism is only a public, national decision, and not a personal one."

Rabbi Lamm's essay demonstrates what is obvious to all students of Jewish law and ethics: theological pacifism has no place in the Jewish tradition.

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Rabbi Michael Broyde

Rabbi Michael Broyde is an associate professor of law at Emory University and the rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta.