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A Jewish Perspective on Violence

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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Does religion cause wars?


In the last year I think I must have heard about a dozen times the phrase (or something similar) 'religion is the cause of all the wars in the world, nothing good comes from religion'. I think religion has frequently been used as an excuse for wars, but I suspect humans would find other pretexts if there was no religion. I also suspect that if you went to the texts and teachings of almost any of the world's religions and wanted to justify a war, you could do it. But I also believe that if you came to those same texts and teachings wanting to prove that they preached peace and love you could do it just as easily. It all depends on what lenses we have on when we arrive at the texts. Few religions have been left untainted by violence justified by their faith. Jews have suffered because of this at the hands of crusaders and fundamentalist Muslim terrorists. Yet Jews have also been the perpetrators of violence justified by religious claims. However Jews have also had very good and peaceful relations with Muslim, Christian and Hindu neighbours through other periods of history.


Many Jews feel, in view of our experiences over the last millennia and beyond, that violence is acceptable to protect ourselves. Indeed many other governments seem to feel the same way. Ancient Israelite society also permitted war and even claimed some wars to be commanded by God. In the Torah God is shown to help the Israelites win battles, and to lose power when they have not been behaving themselves.


Ethical warfare


The Torah lays down clear guidelines on how war should be conducted ethically, with peace always being the preferred option: 'When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace.' (Deut. 20:10) Furthermore care must be taken of captives, fruit-bearing trees must be protected, and men in their first year of marriage are exempt from military service.


This policy still applies in modern Israel. Another interesting part of military ethics in modern Israel is that no soldier is allowed to use the defence 'I was just following orders' if he or she is accused of acting unethically or unacceptably. The Israeli military permits soldiers to voice dissent if they feel their orders are unacceptable, in response to the problems caused by so many soldiers 'just following orders' in the Second World War.


Of course the modern state of Israel is not Judaism and vice versa. Many Jews disagree on how Israel should behave to defend herself, protect her citizens and maintain borders, and indeed whether she should at all.




For other Jews, violence is never an acceptable option. There are many groups who preach peace and argue for non-violent responses. This is of course more complicated when religion and statehood become combined, and these are issues that I personally struggle with, and I hope and pray for a time when Israel will exist at peace with her neighbours, including an independent Palestinian state.


The battle against evil


Traditionally Judaism argues that human life should be valued above all else, and warmongering, as seen with King David, is punished by God. But Judaism also seems to teach that wickedness should not go unchallenged in the world, and that one does have a duty to declare war on evil. But this should only be done if absolutely necessary, and I think it is crucial to remember that God in Judaism acknowledges the damage that this does to soldiers and nations, and in the 1970s Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, said when asked about whether she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers:


'It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.'


Cited by Rabbi Shraga Simmons at


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