Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

By Michael Walzer | Go to book overview
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Commanded and Permitted Wars


THERE IS NO JEWISH theory of war and peace, and until modern times, there were no theories produced by individual Jews. Discussions of war and peace indeed find a place, though a very limited one, within the Jewish tradition. One might even say that there is an ongoing argument, and I will try to describe its central features in this chapter. But the argument is at best tangential to, and often at cross-purposes with, standard just war theory and international law. Jewish writers argued almost entirely among themselves, in the peculiar circumstances of exile, without reference to any actually existing international society with its practices and codes.

It might be better to say that the only references are to the international society of the biblical period, but even these are highly indirect. For the text from which the arguments begin is Deuteronomy 20, written (so we are told by contemporary scholars) in the seventh century in a literary/religious genre that requires the pretense of Mosaic authorship. Hence the wars immediately referred to were fought, if they ever actually were fought, some five centuries earlier; the wars proposed, as it were, for the future had been fought some two or three centuries earlier; and it is impossible to say what impact King Josiah's wars, fought presumably in the lifetime of the Deuteronomist, had on the writing of his text. Present-mindedness is at no point a feature of Jewish writing about war. The crucial categories are rabbinic, but they are drawn from biblical experience and never adapted to the experience of the rabbis themselves. They are meant to explain the wars of Joshua and David. We have to guess at rabbinic attitudes toward, say, the Hasmonean wars or the wars fought by the Persians or the Romans.

In fact, Persian and Roman warfare does not figure in the tradition at all. That non-Jews fought wars, against the Jews and against one another, was a presupposition of the rabbis, the background but never the focus of their own arguments. Prophetic accounts of Assyrian or Babylonian imperialism are never picked up or developed in rabbinic legal discourse, and the crusading warfare of Muslims and Christians, despite its horrifying consequences for Jewish life in the Diaspora, is


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