Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea


Holy war, sanctioned or even commanded by God, is a common and recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic Judaism, however, largely avoided discussion of holy war in the Talmud and related literatures for the simple reason that it became dangerous and self-destructive. Reuven Firestone's Holy War in Judaismis the first book to consider how the concept of ''holy war'' disappeared from Jewish thought for almost 2000 years, only to reemerge with renewed vigor in modern times.

The revival of the holy war idea occurred with the rise of Zionism. As the necessity of organized Jewish engagement in military actions developed, Orthodox Jews faced a dilemma. There was great need for all to engage in combat for the survival of the infant state of Israel, but the Talmudic rabbis had virtually eliminated divine authorization for Jews to fight in Jewish armies. Once the notion of divinely sanctioned warring was revived, it became available to Jews who considered that the historical context justified more aggressive forms of warring.

Among some Jews, divinely authorized war became associated not only with defense but also with a renewed kibbush or conquest, a term that became central to the discourse regarding war and peace and the lands conquered by the state of Israel in 1967. By the early 1980's, the rhetoric of holy war had entered the general political discourse of modern Israel. In Holy War in Judaism, Firestone identifies, analyzes, and explains the historical, conceptual, and intellectual processes that revived holy war ideas in modern Judaism.


When I showed a Muslim academic colleague of mine a copy of my book on holy war in Islam shortly after it had just been released, he chastised me for assuming that Islam had a concept of holy war. “How could you write this?” he said. “You know that there is no holy war in Islam!” His underlying concern, it seemed to me, was that my book would encourage a negative view of Islam in the public eye. Similarly, as I completed the manuscript for this book and showed parts of it to Jewish colleagues, I sometimes received a parallel response. Some were surprised, and some displeased. “You know that there is no holy war in Judaism,” I heard. After continued discussion it appeared to me that they were particularly concerned about this book eliciting resentment against Jews, Judaism, and the state of Israel.

Yet both my Muslim and Jewish colleagues are technically correct in their denial of the phenomenon of holy war in Islam and Judaism. in fact there exists no traditional term for holy war in the vocabulary of either religion. “Holy war” is a slippery term, and some have cautioned against using it in scholarship because of its current politicization and because the traditional context for its discussion is within Christian thought and practice. Moreover, holy war in the Western imagination is war for conversion, while neither Judaism nor Islam condones engagement in war for that purpose. But fear of criticism or political backlash should not hinder scholar-

Jihad: the Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford U. Press, 1999).

a famous hadith reports that Muhammad said, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify that there is no god but Allah; when they say that, they keep their life and their property safe from me … ” (Abu Dawud Sunan [Cairo: Dar al-Misriyya al-Lubnaniyya, 1988/1408] Kitab al-Jihad, “Basis for Fighting Polytheists” [#2640]). This is a requirement for monotheism

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