Editors’ Thoughts: “We Make War That We May Live in Peace”


Throughout the holiday of Hannukah, we celebrate the Maccabees’ victory over their enemies and praise God for enabling our ancestors’ meek and small army to triumph over the vast and mighty Syrian Greek legions. In the al ha-nissim prayer, we exalt God for delivering “the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”[ii] However, contemporary warfare rarely has the luxury of the clear moral fault lines that are expressed in this prayer.

The bleak and brutal nature of warfare creates an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. By definition, wartime is not an ideal state; how, then, do the rules of morality and Halakhah create a le-ka-tehillah infrastructure to govern a be-di-avad reality? When discussing both jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello (just conduct in war), countless questions arise.

Except in the clearest cases of self-defense, entering into a war is fraught with moral and halakhic issues. Does the Halakhah allow for a war of preemptive self-defense? May the King of Israel wage war to acquire land, with no limit? Is the existence of war itself only due to the flawed nature of our current world, or will it persevere in the Messianic Age?

Beyond the dilemmas raised by entering into war, moral ambiguity increases upon engaging in war itself. What code of behavior is sanctioned for soldiers? The Halakhah seems to permit soldiers to engage in behaviors normally forbidden to them; what is the rationale and justification for this permission? Is the Halakhah expressing an ideal in those cases, or is it offering a concession to brute reality? If the Torah grants certain concessions, we must grapple with the philosophical ramifications of an ideal system occasionally capitulating to the demands of a non-ideal world. In addition, what tactics may an army use to defeat its opponents? May it utilize nuclear weapons, which may cause widespread devastation; if so, under what circumstances?

The moral and halakhic issues surrounding war that we face as American Jews living in the twenty-first century are not abstract; rather, they shape our views on current events in regard to the military activities of both the United States and Israel. As the last of the American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, we reflect on the past decade of war and seek to analyze the military role that the U.S. plays in conflicts throughout the globe. Furthermore, each of us keenly feels the danger posed by Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear capabilities and the devastation this could bring to the Holy Land. With hostile enemies surrounding her, Israel constantly grapples with the moral dilemmas that war brings. We hope that this issue of Kol Hamevaser contributes to your understanding of these modern day realities through a moral and halakhic lens.

In addition to the articles focusing on war and peace, this issue includes several responses to previously published articles. Kol Hamevaser attempts to generate meaningful and thoughtful conversations on matters of relevance to the Jewish community. By continuing these conversations, we hope to provoke further thought and promote an enhanced understanding of the issues at hand.

[i] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1177b (Book X, Chapter 7).

[ii] Translation from the Koren siddur.