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War and Torah

Parshat Shofetim

Deuteronomy 16:18 -21:9


The United States is a nation who has been at war for nearly a decade. In the aftermath of 9/11 we are still fighting in Afghanistan and there are still troops in Iraq.  We have been part of the NATO forces helping put asunder the cruel dictator, Ghaddafi in Libya.  Sometimes there are reasons to go to war. Israel has had to defend itself from aggressive neighbors and knows all to well that sometimes war is necessary.


Sadly, there are many anti-religious people who blame religion for the world’s problems.  They cite religion for causing so many wars between different groups rather than seeing the ego of dictators and kings and using the trappings of religion as a tool.  Journalist Christopher Hitchen’s particularly takes religion on in his book “God is not Great” and blames the world’s ills on people of faith and religion in particular.

But if we examine this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim and really study it Hitchen’s and others like him might see a different window into the notion of war and peace and the role of religion.  But there are times when a war is necessary. No one likes war. It is gruesome and cruel. The toll it takes on everyone is extraordinary; the lives lost, the injured and families torn apart. War is not a preferred method of resolving disputes over land or assets but if there is to be a war there are rules for the conduct of engagement. The Torah teaches us this week-that even when war is conducted there are specific rules that must be adhered to.

This week’s Torah portion Shofetim has some of the most interesting and compassionate passages for the conduct of war.  Yes, compassionate.  The Bible recognizes that there are disputes between human beings and nations.  And the Bible recognizes that there are “times for every purpose under heaven. (Eccl 3:1).”  And so the Torah this week’s gives very specific instructions to the Israelite nation for the conduct of war.


Before a city is attacked, before the first stone is thrown there must be an “offer of peace” (Deut 20:10).  And if a city accepts that offer, one does no harm to the city or its people. They become labor for the conquering nation.  This is an extraordinary restriction.


Also unusual in this week’s portion before the troops are engaged in battle, the official must come before the warriors and give an out.  They must ask a series of questions: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated? Let him go back to his home lest he dies in battle and another dedicatesit. Is there anyone who as planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it.  Is there anyone who has paid the bride price for a bride but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home lest he die in battle and another marry her. The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back home let the courage of his comrades flag like his” (Deut. 20:5-8).  So many cases and possibilities for getting out of the business of soldiering!  So many exceptions are presented here that shows the Torah’s emphasis on life and living.  It allows a soldier the opportunity to build his life before he is called to engage in warfare-dedicate a home, get married, harvest fields!  These are all life giving and life building activities.  And the Israelite must engage in these first before they can even think about becoming a warrior and connected to death.  And the Torah acknowledges that it takes courage to be a soldier. It wasn’t meant for everyone.  And so compassionately provides an “out”.


This is a far –cry from conscription and forced soldiering so often done by king’s and nation-states without regard for the individuals.


War is always ugly and gruesome.  But our tradition recognized long ago that there should be ways to give order and even do battle with others providing some guidelines of civility and order. War does terrible things to the human soul.  To the victims and to the warriors as always it is preferable to make peace when possible and when not to follow high ethical standards and remember that those whom you fight are human beings with families and lives like yours.