How to make war ethically


Rabbi James R. Michaels |
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9.

The book of Deuteronomy depicts the Israelites arrayed on the east side of the Jordan River, preparing to cross over to the land of Israel. Moses devotes his farewell address to the task of establishing a vibrant and dynamic society. This week’s Torah portion is devoted almost exclusively to the task of setting up a government. Among the many tasks described, one of them is the need to set up a means of defense in case of attack by foreign armies.

Since the land has been described as good and fruitful, it would stand to reason that other nations would want to invade. To prepare for this possibility, the Torah gives guidance for how to set up and maintain an army for national defense.
This passage, found in chapter 20, contains some interesting features:

• The Torah describes a militia, assembled when needed, but not to be maintained as a permanent standing army. There would be mandatory conscription of soldiers, but some men would be excused. Specifically, anyone who was recently married or had built a new house or is in the midst of growing a vineyard would be excused. Also, those who were fearful or disheartened at the prospect of going into battle could stay behind.

• Although war was to be defensive, the Torah recognizes the need to attack enemy cities. During the siege, the army was enjoined from cutting down fruit trees. The Torah asks, “Are the trees humans who
can withdraw before you?” The Torah seems to be looking forward to a time after the war ends, when the besieged city will need sources of sustenance. Allowing the fruit trees to stand assures the enemy that they would not be devastated by the attack, and they would be able to survive after defeat.

• Before attacking a city, the army’s commander was to offer terms of peace. The military’s leaders shouldn’t be guided by a lust for blood; if the opponents see surrender as preferable to bloodshed, they should be allowed to do so and avoid devastation. Presumably, the sight of an army guided by ethics and morality might persuade the enemy that surrender was preferable to a pointless standoff.
It’s safe to say that these rules, inspiring as they may be, don’t offer much guidance for modern warfare. There is one principle, however, practiced by the Israeli army, which might stem from them. Called “purity of arms” (tohar haneshech in Hebrew), it tells Israeli soldiers that they must bring ethical behavior when they are in battle. As tempting it may be to steal or pillage, they are required to avoid theft or personal abuse against enemy troops or civilians.

As much as we pray for universal peace, it’s more realistic to expect that nations will at times wage war when diplomacy fails to resolve conflicts. Our Torah portion teaches the importance of moral and ethical principles even in
armed conflict.

Rabbi James R. Michaels is rabbi emeritus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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