Judaism and 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 12, 2020

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

         A time for being born and a time for dying, …

         A time for slaying and a time for healing, …

         A time for loving and a time for hating,

         A time for war and a time for peace.

                                             (Ecclesiastes 3:1‑8)

Although the Rabbis who shaped the Jewish tradition had trouble with some parts of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, these famous words from that book aptly articulate the fact that Judaism is not pacifistic.  While Judaism abhors war and yearns for a Messianic world in which it will cease, it recognizes that our world is unfortunately not Messianic.  It provides guidelines for determining when it is indeed “a time for war” and when not, and it establishes rules for the just conduct of wars ‑‑ all the time seeking to avoid war and to work for peace.   It recognizes that sometimes justice requires even violence, not only in personal self-defense but in the military action of a nation.

The morality of war is a topic Jews faced seldom in their history.  Only in three relatively short periods of Jewish history did Jews have political and military autonomy -- namely, from the time of Moses to the destruction of the First Temple (c. 1300 B.C.E. - 586 B.C.E.), during the Maccabean period (168-40 B.C.E.), and since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.  It is only in these periods that Jews directly confronted the realities of power and the agonizing decisions of determining when and how to use it. 

Jews, of course, have been part of other people's armies, and in democratic countries they have even fought for the right to serve.  Asser Levy, for example, insisted on the privilege of personally doing his military duty in the colony of New Amsterdam and refused to pay a tax in lieu thereof.  But then the decisions of when and how to fight were in other people's hands. 

The modern State of Israel, of course, has unfortunately had a surfeit of experience with war, and it has developed a Code of Ethics to govern the conduct of its wars.  That code, Ru’ah Tza’hal (The Spirit of the Israeli Defense Forces) specifies at its beginning that it draws on four sources:

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 document, while drawing on “the tradition of the Jewish People throughout history,” does not use Jewish law as a source.  That, I would suggest, is because of the precious little experience Jews have historically had in deciding which wars to fight and how for over two thousand years, and so what Jewish law says about such things is both outdated and inadequate. 

In 2012 Professor Asa Kasher, author of the first version of Israel’s Code of Ethics for the IDF and a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, organized a conference on this issue.  Professor Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, suggested that here, as in many other places and times in our history, Jews should borrow from other cultures, in this case from Just War Theory developed largely in Catholic thought but more recently in secular philosophical thought as well.  I instead suggested that we can articulate a Jewish Code of Ethics for war by doing what I call “depth theology,” that is, probing the foundational perspectives and values of the Jewish tradition and applying them to the contemporary means and conundrums of war.  Both papers were published in 2012 in the journal Philosophia and can be found here. (accessed 11/2/20)

Both of us, like the Jewish tradition, would have us do everything possible to avoid war, but we both would also acknowledge that sometimes war is both just and necessary.  It is that understanding that should lead us American Jews to take time to honor the veterans who have fought for our country when that was necessary, sometimes at considerable cost to their physical or mental health and sometimes even at the cost of their lives.  Israel does the same to honor its veterans, and we Americans should do no less for ours.