Jewish Contributions to Creating an Ethic of War

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on November 11, 2022

One way to honor those who served in our nation’s armed forces and to thank them is to consider the ethics that should govern war. The United States from its inception has been the most pluralistic country in the world. (A priest friend of mine told me that in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Mass is offered in 80 different languages!) Its form of government and its practices in medicine, science, business, the arts, and all other areas of life assume that wisdom and technological and financial success come from considering as many ways to do things as possible and then combining the best of what everyone has to offer. So this commentary in honor of American veterans will try to bring Jewish sources to bear on the hard and important questions of which wars to wage and how to wage them.     

Jews throughout the ages have fought in wars, sometimes as conscripts and sometimes as volunteers, and in many different capacities. In most times and places, Jews fought in the wars that their nation was fighting as citizens, or at least residents, of that country. In fact, it is only in three historical periods that Jews determined which wars they were going to fight and how – namely, the wars from the time of Abraham (see Genesis 14) and later Moses to the end of the First Temple Period in 586 B.C.E.; during the Hasmonean period of c. 165 B.C.E. until the Romans marched into Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E.; and since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, any Jewish thinking about war by Jews who both had military experience and the authority to determine which wars to fight and how to fight them is either very old or very new.

As a result, when Professor Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University created the State of Israel’s Code of Ethics --- Ru’ah Tzahal, The Spirit of the Israel Defense Forces – he specified that the sources for his code, subsequently approved by the military establishment there, were the following:

         The tradition of the IDF and its military heritage as the Israel Defense Forces

         The tradition of the State of Israel, its democratic principles, laws and institutions

         The tradition of the Jewish People throughout their history

         Universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life

Notice that the code is not based on Jewish law, undoubtedly because the Jewish laws about war are, as noted above, either very old and therefore lacking awareness of current military capabilities and quandaries, or very young and therefore not tried and tested. The only Jewish source of the code, therefore, is "the tradition of the Jewish people throughout their history" as well as current Israeli norms and universal norms.  The full code is available in English translation here:

In 2012, Professor Kasher asked a number of us who engage in philosophy to discuss what it would be like to create a contemporary Jewish code of ethics for the military.  Without any prior consultation, Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and I both began our presentations by acknowledging what is noted above – that Jewish laws of war are either too old or too young to constitute a firm basis for a code of war ethics now. In light of that, he suggested that we do what Jews have done in many other areas of life where there are no Jewish sources on point or where the Jewish sources that exist come from an era markedly different from the present one – namely, we borrowed from other contemporary culture. Jewish business law in the Mishnah and Talmud, for example, heavily borrow from Roman business law at the time. Professor Walzer therefore suggested that Israel and Jews generally look to just war theory, developed primarily by Catholics, as the basis of a contemporary Jewish ethic of war. 

With the same lack of on-point guidance from earlier sources in mind, I instead suggested that we engage in "depth theology" to create a new Jewish ethic of war -- that is, that we identify the foundational perceptions and convictions about God, human beings, and war and then apply them to create a contemporary Jewish ethic of war. 

Professor Kasher, who at the time was also Editor of the journal Philosophia, liked them both so much that he had them published in that journal. Professor Walzer’s paper is available here:

Mine is available here:

For comparison, the American armed forces’ Code of Conduct is available here:

War by its very nature presents very difficult moral issues, and we need every source of guidance we can get in trying to make thoughtful decisions about when to go to war and how to conduct it. We honor those who fought for our country in the past and do so now by thinking deeply about which wars to wage and how to wage them.