The War Against Evil and Ethical Constraints

December 1, 2001
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Saul J. Berman

Jewish law knows only two categories of war - those mandated by Torah and those that are discretionary, able to be initiated under the joint authority of King and Sanhedrin. There is no category such as “Holy War” in Jewish thought because the taking of human life, while under limited circumstances permissible and sometimes even mandated, can never be kadosh, holy. In fact, the taking of human life always results in tumah, impurity, the presence of which is an absolute barrier to the presence of kedushah, holiness.

But the existence of both mandatory and discretionary wars in the Torah compels us to recognize that there can exist in human nations and cultures, a level of corruption and evil that we are required to combat. We are not allowed to close our eyes in denial of such evil.

In recent weeks I have been hearing theological rationalizations that deny evil: God is good, therefore all events in the world must be good; we just don’t understand the ultimate good purpose of apparently evil events. Maimonides considers and rejects this understanding of God’s providence in the world on the grounds of its being contradicted by both reason and revelation. Yes, God is good, but there is evil in God’s imperfect world; God demands that we identify it in nature and in the exercise of human free will in order that we combat and overcome it. Indeed, the consequence of denying evil is acceptance of and passivity toward, instead of active resistance to, evil in the world.

The ethical relativism of those who argue that we must understand the Islamic fundamentalists’ anger and fury, their willingness to visit death and destruction upon thousands of innocent people in order to do battle with the American “infidel,” is another form of denial of evil. We are Jewishly duty-bound to repudiate such amelioration of individual responsibility for evil and murderous behavior. Jewish law does not allow taking the lives of innocent persons even in direct defense of one’s own life. Rav Yehuda Amital, speaking during Sukkot at the Edah Conference in Israel, referred to the Islamic fundamentalists’ position as a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name - our common God could not possibly reward an act of suicide done for the purpose of slaughtering innocent civilians!

If evil needs to be recognized and opposed, are there no limits to the methods we use?

The Torah mandates two wars of extermination. The first was the war against the seven Canaanite nations that occupied the Land of Israel at the time of the Exodus. The second was the war against Amalek. These two instances, in contrast even to mandatory wars of self-defense and to all forms of discretionary war, sanctioned taking the lives of civilian non-combatants.

In the early 1900s, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik of Brisk argued that, according to Maimonides, there was a possibility of contemporary war against Amalek - such as a national attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. His grandson, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, used this position in the early 1940s to contend that the Allied war against Nazi Germany could be understood in Jewish law as a war against Amalek. Rabbi Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, insisted, however, that the war against this new “figurative Amalek” was not subject to the same liberties vis-a-vis individual civilian vulnerability as was the war against original Amalek. Rather, the usual moral constraints applicable even to a war of self-defense, would apply in this war as well.

Maimonides recorded the accepted rabbinic position that those wars could be fought only against the specific peoples God identified as deserving of such extreme violence. When those nation-states disappeared, there was no longer permissibility to intentionally engage in war against non-combatants.

In contrast to individual self-defense, national self-defense allows for pre-emptive strikes. Israel’s pre-emptive strike against other nations in 1967 was unquestionably permissible according to Jewish law. While Jewish law would not generally condone political assassination, it would certainly allow the targeting for execution of persons who had already committed acts of homicide and who were believed to be engaged in planning further acts. Such executions, undertaken by legitimate government rather than individuals, constitute part of the responsible exercise of national self-defense.

Nevertheless, even a nation, according to Jewish law, may not engage in the indiscriminate injuring or killing of non-combatants. Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, who recently passed away, expressed deep opposition to American policy during the war in Vietnam that allowed broad air attacks on civilian population centers in order to displace Vietcong units. Rav Ahron viewed such actions as a breach of the prohibition against homicide, not justified even in the conduct of an otherwise permissible war.

For individuals as for nations, the Torah demands balance between the responsibility to combat evil and the duty to preserve respect for all human life. An individual may take life in self-defense, but only the life of the actual aggressor. The government may utilize capital punishment, but must minimize its utilization to only the most certain of cases. A nation must sometimes go to war, but it must act in a manner that reduces the likelihood of indiscriminate death to non-combatants.

We need to admit that the presence of evil in the world resides in particular persons. We must be committed to combat such evil, even by war, in order to protect innocent persons and to promote just values in the world. But we must exercise care that we not abandon the very values that we seek to protect, in the attempt to make the world safe for those values. The balance is not easy to maintain, but consciousness of the duty to do so is critical to its achievement.

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Rabbi Saul J. Berman is Director of Edah, a voice of modern Orthodoxy. He also teaches at Stern College and Columbia University School of Law.

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