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War is Assur

Commonly, the laws of war in Judaism are understood through the categories of milchemet mitzvah (commanded or holy war) and milchemet r’shut (optional war). These two categories-supplemented at times by the category of milchemet hovah (obligatory war), are helpful in … Read More

By / August 28, 2008

Commonly, the laws of war in Judaism are understood through the categories of milchemet mitzvah (commanded or holy war) and milchemet r’shut (optional war). These two categories-supplemented at times by the category of milchemet hovah (obligatory war), are helpful in outlining the acceptable and/or unacceptable practices of deploying violence on a massive scale. This is usually the first place that people turn to when trying to think about Jewish notions of just and unjust war.

I want to argue that this specific body of halachah or Jewish law is irrelevant to the contemporary discussion. To find moral insight about the justice of war in the Jewish tradition, one must turn to a less well trod part of the halachic field. A more technical and, in certain ways, legally more sophisticated halachic discussions reveals that these parts of halachah are embedded in a (by definition) particularistic and, at times, chauvinistic tradition. Yet, it is possible to extract a halachic claim from its particularist context by embracing rather than ignoring the specifics of that context.[2]

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