What the rabbis think about war and peace

Why the rabbis downplayed celebration of the Maccabees’ military exploits at Chanucah

By Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, December 6, 2012
Modern Maccabee: Stanley Medicks (kneeling front), one of the British volunteers who fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 (AP)

Modern Maccabee: Stanley Medicks (kneeling front), one of the British volunteers who fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 (AP)

By the time the Talmud codified the festival of Chanucah as we know it, the significant military dimension of the Maccabean triumph had become an embarrassment. The revised and suitably sanitised version of the events focuses almost entirely on the miracle of the oil, which symbolises, in far more benign fashion, Israel’s miraculous survival against the odds — and with it the enduring reliability of God’s covenant.

In the second-century rebel Jewish army of Bar Kochba, new recruits were expected to prove their fidelity and courage by severing one of their fingertips. The rabbis of the time strongly disapproved of this Roman martial practice, considering it fundamentally anti-Jewish in character.

Notwithstanding this apparent rabbinic repugnance, it is fair to say that, while the Torah does not glamorise violence, it is allowed as a pragmatic means to a necessary end. Biblical Judaism plainly recognises both “a time of war and a time of peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). What requires clarification is how the sages themselves resolved the conflicting values of war and peace.

Any such discussion ought to begin with the premium placed on avoiding conflict. According to numerous rabbinic sources, peace is Judaism’s highest aspiration. Indeed, the Talmud asserts that the entire Torah is based on the value of shalom. The Midrash explains that the obligation to seek peace is of a much higher order than ritual observances because most of the Torah’s commandments are conditional upon specific contexts, while the imperative of peace is universal and overarching, as the verse declares, “Search for peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15).

For this reason, according to the halachah, in order to maintain peace one is permitted to compromise certain other moral and religious values.  

So, clearly peace is a paramount value in rabbinic Judaism; but how do we apply this in the face of aggression? Some argue that pacifism is an appropriate response, as can be seen in the talmudic narratives of Jewish martyrdom.

This position can be further traced to a passage in Josephus where Jewish King Agrippa exhorts those seeking to revolt against Roman Governor Florus, to be patient: “Nothing dampens the force of violence as bearing it with patience; and the quietness of those injured diverts the aggressor from afflicting.” The Talmud concurs, considering the Jewish revolt against Rome to be a tragic mistake, going so far as to blame it for the destruction of the Second Temple. The view echoed here seems to be that non-violence, by virtue of its moral superiority, can succeed.

But for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust — as well as in Israel today —such pacifism offers cold comfort.
Some argue, that this position is not an authentic Jewish one — but essentially Christian. In the New Testament Jesus says: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” In the Sermon on the Mount it says: “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

In mainstream Jewish rabbinic tradition, in fact, self-defence is clearly a moral and legal obligation. The Torah allows defence of property even if this will cause bloodshed. The rabbis explain that without the ability to use lethal force to stop aggression, anarchy and oppression would reign. For this reason, the consensus Jewish tradition considers pacifism in the face of violence to be immoral. Refusing to resist evil is effectively to be party to it.

Thus, while peace may be Judaism’s paramount value, at times we must make war. Perhaps the pivotal point is that this does not permit ignoring the humanity of our enemies. The Talmud teaches that when the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, God said to the celestial angels: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you sing songs?”

Deep concern with “collateral damage” in relation to innocents is first found in Abraham’s plea to God to avoid killing any righteous inhabitants of Sodom. Golda Meir famously said that while she could forgive the Arab countries for killing Jewish children, she could not forgive them for making it necessary for Jews to kill Arab children.

But none of this quite explains the editing of the Chanucah story. Perhaps, given the terrible ravages of war and rebellion on the Jews of Roman Judea, the Palestinian rabbis sought to emphasise a very different vision. Equally, the Babylonian talmudic sages who were spared the turmoil of the Holy Land and enjoyed the protection of the Sassanid Persians, will themselves have been extremely reticent to lionise the Hasmonean revolt.

Thus, rabbinic concerns that the amplification of the original Chanucah narrative might threaten Jewish equilibrium — and tilt Judaism in the wrong direction — cannot be discounted. But, once reconstructed around the spiritual theme of the miraculous survival of Godly light, the festival could preserve its essence, while being neutered of other connotations.

All this allows us, through the prism of hindsight, to take a new-found pride in the Maccabees and their central role in Jewish history. It should also lead us to appreciate the gallant, yet often unsung, contribution of the Jewish warrior from antiquity to our age.

Rabbi Livingstone is principal chaplain of HM Armed Forces

Last updated: 5:25pm, December 6 2012