Hezyon Milhamah: War, Morality, and Redemption

My heartfelt thanks go out to R. Pesach Wolicki, rosh yeshivah at Yeshivat Yesodei Hatorah, whose sihah ruhanit (spiritually-focused talk) during Operation Cast Lead inspired this article.


In Emmanuel Levinas’ preface to Totality and Infinity, his work on subjectivity and ethics, Levinas considers the experience of war. “The state of war,” he writes, “suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives… War is not only one of the ordeals – the greatest – of which morality lives; it renders morality derisory.”[i] Levinas argues that if humanity’s essential nature is either a heartless Machiavellian politics or definitively moral, then the reality of war debases the argument for morality. The “harsh reality” of war envelops society in “an order from which no one can keep his distance.”[ii] The individual is subsumed by the masses, and the singular goal of victory obliterates all other considerations and motivations. The suite of moral standards practiced during peace-time is discarded. War reveals morality to be a nicety observed by society during times of calm that does not extend beneath the surface toward man’s essential self. Levinas argues that “the trial by force is the test of the real.”[iii] The actions of man on the battlefield, where his existence is threatened, are the measures of his true nature, or “pure being.”[iv] If this is the case, then humanity’s abandonment of morality during wartime is not merely a temporary measure; it is the revelation of its true face. This face exposes humanity as fundamentally immoral.

In the next section of his preface, Levinas claims that there is a defense for morality against the “ordeal” of war. “Morality,” he posits, “will oppose politics in history and will have gone beyond the functions of prudence and the canons of the beautiful to proclaim itself unconditional and universal when the eschatology of messianic peace will have come to superpose itself upon the ontology of war.”[v] In Levinas’ view, eschatology is morality’s antidote to war. An eschatological view, whether religiously or philosophically based, is one that claims that the universe is currently imperfect, though it is tending towards perfection. We therefore cannot, from our vantage point, discern “pure being” based on humanity’s actions. Man reacts to an imperfect world imperfectly and uncharacteristically. He is forced to mask his true nature in order to survive. Therefore, essential man can only be viewed at the time of the universe’s actualization, when the historic revolutions of war and peace have been settled. At such a time, argues Levinas, peace will reign definitively over war. The ultimate permanence of peace will indicate that the peace-war cycle that we currently experience is not primarily savage war, humanity’s true form, punctuated by periods of rest, but rather the opposite is true. Peace, and the morality which it allows for, will be recognized as humanity’s default mode of being.

Finally, Levinas warns that the value of the eschatology approach is not in being assimilated as “philosophical evidence.” One cannot stand on the battlefield and claim that the beings before him, desperately trying to kill one another, are definitively moral based on the eschatological belief that their morality will be proven in the future. In attempting to make such an evidentiary claim, “eschatology would then already accept the ontology of totality issued from war.”[vi] In other words, the immediate experience of war denies man’s morality to such an extent that it obliterates any theoretical arguments to the contrary, even the eschatological claim. Nor, continues Levinas, can one use a belief in eschatology to “introduce a teleological system into the totality [of war]; [eschatology] does not consist in teaching the orientation of history.”[vii] In Levinas’ view, war does not explain the moment-to-moment occurrences within a war, nor does it explain a particular war in the context of world history. Eschatology exists as a fly on the wall, quietly and persistently insisting that humanity is moral and will be proven as such without providing the details whatsoever of the process of this vindication.

Levinas’ analysis provides the background for explaining a cryptic question in the Gemara. The Gemara in Megillah 17b attempts to derive the basis for the order of the berakhot in the Amidah. The Gemara determines that the order of the sixth, seventh, and eighth berakhot, those of selihah (forgiveness), ge’ulah (redemption), and refu’ah (healing), respectively, should be based on the verse in Psalms: “who forgives (selihah) all thy iniquities; who heals (refu’ah) all thy diseases; who redeems (ge’ulah) thy life from the pit.”[viii] According to this verse, the berakhah for ge’ulah should have been eighth, following refu’ah. However, we find that ge’ulah is the seventh berakhah, after selihah, and before refu’ah. The Gemara wonders why the authors of the Amidah deviated from the sequence found in Psalms.[ix] The answer provided is based on an aggadic statement in Sanhedrin 97a. The Gemara there explains that the last seven years before the coming of Mashiah will involve a specific sequence of world events. The seventh year will be marked by war, and at the end of that year “the son of David will arrive.” The Gemara in Megillah makes reference to this teaching and explains that the berakhah of ge’ulah was specifically placed as the seventh berakhah to refer to the fact that the Jews will ultimately be redeemed at the end of the seventh year.

However, the subsequent statement in the Gemara is, at first glance, unclear. The Gemara observes that though Mashiah will arrive at the end of the seventh year, the seventh year itself will be characterized by war. How then, asks the Gemara, can we associate the seventh year with ge’ulah at all?[x] At first glance, this question is perplexing. The seventh year is associated with ge’ulah because it ends with ge’ulah! Why has the Gemara allowed itself to become distracted by the fact that most of this seventh year will involve war? Perhaps the Gemara is troubled precisely by Levinas’ concern, namely that the experience of war does not allow itself to be interpreted in eschatological terms. One cannot, claims the Gemara, see even the glimmerings of ge’ulah from within the all-encompassing perspective of war. With this understanding in mind, it is altogether inappropriate to associate the seventh year of war with ge’ulah. Thus the Gemara finds itself facing a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, the ultimate redemption of the Jews is to come at the conclusion of the seventh year. On the other hand, this year will be characterized predominantly by war from within which one cannot possibly have any sense of ge’ulah.

If the preceding interpretation holds and the Gemara is indeed asking Levinas’ question, then it follows that Gemara’s answer is a response to Levinas’ claims. The Gemara answers that even though the seventh year is predominantly associated with war, it is still fitting to establish ge’ulah as the seventh berakhah, because war is also “the beginning of redemption.” Presumably, Levinas cannot tolerate this sentiment. As outlined above, for Levinas, war’s totalitarian nature repels any notion of the eschatological. And yet, the Gemara is arguing that the experience of ge’ulah is so bound up with war that the flowerings of the final redemption are noticeable even from within reality of war.[xi] The Gemara is pointing toward a conception of war which is markedly different from Levinas’. This perspective requires further description.

A cursory perusal of the halakhot of warfare might lead one to believe that Halakhah denies Levinas’ claims about the effects of war altogether. It is certainly the case that many of a Jew’s legal and moral constraints are loosened when he wages war. He is permitted not only to kill, but also to loot,[xii] eat forbidden foods,[xiii] and, according to some opinions, commit heinous sexual acts[xiv] while out at war. However, in any analysis of the halakhot, these allowances are mitigated immediately by the resounding voice of Hazal claiming, “lo dibberah Torah ela ke-neged yetser ha-ra” (The Torah did not speak [in allowance] except to counter the Evil Inclination).[xv] Furthermore, the Torah itself demands that the Israelite war camp be holy, a requirement which entails a high degree of cleanliness and purity.[xvi] One might conclude based on the above that Halakhah views the experience of war as a she’at ha-dehak (an extenuating circumstance).[xvii] War amplifies one’s desires and tests one’s moral fortitude to extreme levels. The Torah compensates by providing avenues for relief so that soldiers will not lose themselves entirely. Ultimately, though, man is not revealed to be a qualitatively different being in wartime, as Levinas claims. The overpowering drive for victory that hopelessly robs man of his morality, which Levinas associates with the experience of war, seems to be missing entirely from the Torah perspective. The discussion might even end at this point, if not for a striking formulation in the words of Rambam.

When describing the wars between the Jews and their enemies, the Torah writes, “let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not break down before them.”[xviii] Rambam cites this verse as the source of a negative commandment in his Sefer ha-Mitsvot.[xix] Rambam’s codification of this halakhah in Mishneh Torah elucidates his views about the experience of war.

And once he does enter the entanglements of war he should rely on the One who purifies Israel and saves him in moments of distress; and he should know that he makes war for the sake of the unity of God’s name; and he should place his soul in his hands and not be afraid and think neither about his wife or his children. Rather he should erase their memory from his heart and turn his attention away from everything [focusing only on] the war…And not only this, rather [he must imagine that] the blood of all of Israel is hanging from his neck and if he is not victorious and he does not wage war with all his heart and with all his might it is as though he has spilled the blood of [them] all…and anyone who fights with all his heart without fear and his intent will be only to sanctify the name [of God], he is assured that he will not come to harm nor will any evils befall him, and he will build a correct house in Israel which will be a merit for him and his children forever, and he will merit life in the World to Come…[xx]

In this description, Rambam reveals a new dimension of Halakhah’s perspective on war. According to Rambam, not only does the Torah embrace Levinas’ view of war as an institution rooted in a totality; it demands it. Every time the Jewish soldier steps onto the battlefield he is commanded to leave his personal life behind. The call to battle transforms him from an individual into a new being, subsumed by the communal war machine. His intellectual and emotional faculties, normally used in pursuit of the love of God, are redirected towards fighting “with all his heart and with all his might.” His entire being is refocused upon victory. This sounds very much like Levinas’ description. If so, we must still explain how the soldier is saved from descending into total immorality. How does he maintain his moral standards, however loosened, during wartime? Most pressingly, how does he see divine redemption from within the seemingly monolithic experience of war?

Rambam responds to these questions as well. Many armies call out a war cry as they charge into battle, but the Jewish army has an inner ideological cry. The soldier is forbidden to fear the enemy because he must have total commitment to what the Torah writes in the verse following this prohibition of fearfulness. “For Hashem, your God, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.”[xxi] A war against Israel is, by definition, a war against God. The soldier fights the war with his hands, but God is always with him. God is in the camp and on the battlefield, ensuring that critical moments turn out in the Israel’s favor.[xxii] Therefore, Rambam writes, while a Jew must fight with all of his heart and soul, his intention must be the “unification of God’s name.”

It is here that Rambam parts ways with Levinas. Halakhah admits and even requires that the Jewish soldier give himself over completely to war. But it also claims that one’s kavvanah (intention) in fighting is stratified into two levels, that of the act of fighting itself and that of the motivation to fight.[xxiii] In non-Jewish societies, the initial cause for war becomes inconsequential during battle. Ultimately, the uncertainty of the war’s outcome causes an existential panic. This panic manifests as an urgent need to defeat the enemy and blots out the original purpose of fighting. The Jew, however, is forbidden to feel this fear from the start. He must fight knowing that God will bring victory. This equanimity allows the Jew to keep his motivation for fighting in clear view, and this fundamentally alters the experience of war. He is able to “fight with all his heart without fear,” and, at the same time, “his intent will be only to sanctify the name [of God].” As a result, the experience of war is changed. The Jew is able to descend into the abyss of war and become the kind of person that war requires. But he is never totally consumed by this reality. His eye is always toward his purpose in fighting, which is to reveal to the world its Master and Creator. The totality from which the Jew derives his identity in war is just as much oriented towards avodat Hashem as it is towards destruction of the enemy.

From this vantage point, not only is the Jew able to maintain an essentially moral character, but his perspective on the events of war differs from those of the non-Jewish fighter. He knows with a firm certainty that he is not merely a fighter, rifle in hand, attempting to defeat the enemy. He is a member of Kenesset Yisra’el, an active participant in God’s interaction with His creation. The soldier looks out over the battlefield and sees God appearing in a forlorn and violent world to save His children. What greater beginnings of ge’ulah can we hope for?


Adam Friedmann is a junior at YC majoring in Computer Science, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i]    Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis (The Hague, Boston, and London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979), 21.

[ii]   Ibid.

[iii]   Ibid.

[iv]  Ibid.

[v]   Ibid. 22.

[vi]  Ibid. 24.

[vii]  Ibid.

[viii] Psalms 103: 3-4, Koren translation.

[ix]   See Rashi ad loc., s.v. u-mah ra’u.

[x]    Admittedly, there is another way to read the Gemara’s question. One might explain that the Gemara was concerned with the fact that the Mashiah is supposed to arrive at the conclusion of the seventh year, which is really the beginning of the eighth year. It is therefore inappropriate to associate the seventh year with ge’ulah since it is characterized only by war. The difficulty with this approach is that it assumes that the Gemara had previously made a simple mistake by incorrectly reading the statement in Sanhedrin as saying that the Jews will be redeemed in the seventh year. One might argue that this is too simple of a mistake for the Gemara to have made.

[xi]   This interpretation follows the opinion of the Sefat Emet to Megillah 17b, s.v. mahu, who argues that the ge’ulah in question is the ultimate one and not that of Rashi ad loc., s.v. athalta de-ge’ulah  who argues that the Gemara refers to other, less significant, forms of ge’ulah.

[xii]  Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:4.

[xiii] Ibid. 8:1.

[xiv] Ibid., 8:2. See also Ramban’s commentary on the Torah to Deuteronomy 21:13.

[xv]  Kiddushin 21b, translation mine. See also Maharits Hayyot to Hullin 17, in regards to forbidden foods.

[xvi] Deuteronomy 23:15.

[xvii] Lit. pressing time.

[xviii] Deuteronomy 20:3, ArtScroll translation.

[xix]  Negative Commandment 68. Others, such as Ramban and Ra’avad, hold that this verse is a promise that the Jews will not be afraid, rather than a commandment. See the commentary of Ramban to Sefer Ha-Mitsvot, and Megillat Ester ad loc.

[xx]  Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 7:15, translation mine.

[xxi]  Deuteronomy 20:4, ArtScroll translation.

[xxii] Rambam unequivocally states that no harm will come to a soldier who fights with faith. However, this is not a simple task, and the level of refinement required by the soldier is significant. See further Judges 7, and specifically Ralbag to verse 5, ad loc. Further complicating matters is that Israel’s success depends on God’s relationship with the people as a whole, and this is contingent upon the behavior of each individual. See further Joshua 6-7. What is clear from these sources is that if the Jews place their faith in God, He will help them. This notion is a general theme in Chronicles. See Chronicles II 20 for an example. Rambam in our context is writing about ideal circumstances.

[xxiii] Rambam’s use of the word kavvanah in this context may be especially relevant. R. Hayyim Soloveitchik, in his novellae on Mishneh Torah (Tefillah 4:1) claims that Rambam has two notions of kavvanah in tefillah. One is the knowledge that one is standing before God and performing a mitsvah. The other is the meaning of the words themselves. Similarly, in the case of war there may be a kavvanah relating to the actual fighting itself and an overarching kavvanah regarding the motivation to fight.