War is sinful even when justified

The story of King David exemplifies our tradition’s view of bloodshed


Israeli army soldiers walk near a self-propelled howitzer stationed near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on October 12, 2023. Thousands of people, both Israeli and Palestinians have died since October 7, 2023, after Palestinian Hamas militants entered Israel in a surprise attack leading Israel to declare war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip on October 8. (Photo by Jack Guez / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The citizens of Israel, and the Jewish people at large, are living through a horrific tragedy, and in a state of terrible mourning. We are all suffering a mixture of pain, anxiety, deep sadness, anger, and frustration, in the wake of the barbaric terrorist operation that was carried out by religious fanatics against thousands of innocent Israeli civilians.

We fear for the fate of the hostages who have been taken, and for the wellbeing of our soldiers who must embark on the perilous task of freeing them and destroying the enemy.

As many have said, the time for recrimination and assignment of blame will come later. Now is the time for unity and resolve, for the people of Israel, and the Jewish people at large. A war of destruction has been forced upon us, and our survival depends on our coming out of it victorious. This is not about venting our anger, though anger is palpable and fully justified.

Rather, we are engaged in a carefully calculated campaign to rectify an intolerable political and military situation, and to free our loved ones at the same time.

One of the most difficult aspects of the war we have embarked upon involves the terrible devastation and suffering that many innocents in Gaza will have to endure.

Of course,responsibility for the death and destruction that has and will come to the people of Gaza lies squarely on Hamas, which cares much more about waging holy war against Israel than about the welfare and prosperity of the citizens it governs.

Still, not all citizens of Gaza support the reign of terror of Hamas. How are we to deal with this issue on the psychological, moral and religious levels? Can we even separate our moral and religious evaluations of this matter from the psychological trauma that we are presently undergoing, or from the anxiety that we are feeling for our soldiers and hostages?

Are we emotionally capable of thinking sensitively about these issues without losing our mental equilibrium, even our sanity? Despite the difficulties, we cannot avoid the responsibility of contemplating these matters, at least on the most rudimentary level.

Perhaps we may find some guidance from the famous biblical story of King David and the building of the Temple.

According to the account in the book of First Chronicles (22:8), God rejected King David’s request to build the Temple in Jerusalem with the words, “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.”

In contrast with the era of David, the era of Solomon would be an era of peace. Solomon will not be a man of war and he will be spiritually fit to build the Temple. This divine statement is rather astonishing.

Nowhere does the book of Chronicles, or any other biblical book, criticise David for embarking on his wars for Israel.

On the contrary, the biblical books present David’s wars as vital and necessary for Israel’s defence, and he is basically commended for his victories on behalf of Israel! How, then, can we understand this rejection of David?

I would suggest that our tradition presents us here with a complex and paradoxical concept of great importance: there are times when it is unavoidably necessary to commit terrible sins.

The fact that a terrible sin must be committed does not mitigate the fact that it is indeed sinful, and the fact that it is sinful does not mitigate the fact that it indeed must be done. This is the essence and reality of war.

There is no war without the terrible suffering and death of masses of innocent human beings created in the image of God.

And yet, there are times when the alternative to waging war, that is, the pacifist decision to refrain from it in order to preserve the lives of the innocent, is even worse.

For to refrain from engaging in the sins of battle emboldens the perpetrators of evil and aggression to further their campaign to wreak havoc on humanity. King David fought just wars on behalf of Israel, and he is commended for that. But his hands are still stained with the blood of the innocent.

His role is to pave the way for Solomon. He will build the Temple that symbolises universal, spiritual harmony.

What can we take away from this story for today? Minimally, it means that we must reject the voices of those at the extremes.

Those who say that we must flatten Gaza without any concern for innocent civilians seek to refashion us in the image of our enemies. This would provide them with the ultimate spiritual victory and lead to our own moral decay.

On the other hand, those who say that we must refrain from meaningful and effective military action because it would inadvertently involve the loss of civilian lives would hand military victory to the enemies of humanity and lead to our own physical demise.

Today we are living in the era of David, and, unfortunately, this means that we must sully our hands with the blood of war. But we must never lose sight of the ultimate goal.

Let us pray that the resolve of our actions today will ultimately lead to the peaceful era of Solomon, and the spiritual building of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Frankel is associate professor of Bible studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

This article is one of 36 short essays in a collection published this week in response to the Simchat Torah pogrom.

Contributors to Voices of Hope comprise rabbis and educators from the UK, North America and Israel and from different Jewish denominations. They include British Israelis such as David Newman, Miriam Feldman-Kaye and Rabbi Samuel Lebens along with international scholars such as Rabbi Art Green and Menachem Kellner.

Editors Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet, director of the Louis Jacobs Foundation in London, and Simon Eder, the foundation’s education director, approached 200 people to write.

“It feels a moment in Jewish history like 1967 or Israel’s founding,” Eder said.

While some felt it was too early to reflect on events, he said, others agreed that a religious response was needed.

The pieces cover a range of views. Israel’s campaign in Gaza is necessary, even if war creates moral dilemmas, writes Rabbi Shimon Felix, former educational director of Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat.

Art Green says now is a moment to think ahead of how to achieve Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, while American scholar Reuven Firestone warns against the “hopeless messianism” of the West Bank settlers.

Voices of Hope is available now from, £4.99 Kindle, £8.99 print. Proceeds from sales will be donated to a charity raising for Israel

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