A Brief Note on the Laws of War – Parsha Devarim

Parsha Devarim begins with the short phrase, “… these are the words Moses spoke to all of Israel”. It introduced what can be considered Moses’ political and spiritual testament to the Children of Israel. Sefer Devarim is called Deuteronomy, derived from Greek and meaning “second law”. Sefer Devarim calls itself Mishnah Torah – literally meaning a repetition and explanation of the law. In the Book of Nehemiah, Sefer Devarim is called the book of the Law of Moses.

Sefer Devarim, being a book of words, is also the most literary of the Five Books of Moses. It is comprised of a series of sermons and poetic verse, and one block of a legal code. It uses rhetoric and employs homilies and doublets to stress the central theme; the need to respect the authority of the law. Incidentally, parts of the text provide examples of types of wars fought by the Israelites and which form part of the foundation literature for the “Jewish Laws of War”.

Basically, Jewish law distinguishes between two types of war: a discretionary or authorized war, and an obligatory war. Obligatory wars were undertaken at the command of God; for example, the wars fought to rid the land of the Canaanite tribes and the commandment to exterminate the Amalekites.  In modern parlance, these compulsory campaigns were examples of ethnic cleansing: every man woman and child would be put to the sword. Perhaps troubling to us, but these battles and the goals reflected contemporary ethos.  A more familiar example of an obligatory war would be a defensive war. 

A discretionary war was one undertaken to extend the borders of the state, such as the wars fought by King David. Later commentators extended the ambit to include a preventive war; a pre-emptive strike against an enemy before it was able to realize its intention to attack. The 1967 War fought by Israel against its Arab neighbours was such a war. The current military operation, Protective Edge, has rapidly been recast as a preventive war.

Over time, Jewish law developed rules of engagement. The wars God commanded the Israelites to conduct to conquer Canaan could be fought in a manner mindful of the Russian fronts during World War Two, other wars; defensive and discretionary, were to be fought much differently, with their conduct founded on certain fundamental values to prevent unnecessary loss of life. For example, before such wars were prosecuted, an offer of peace was to be made. If the adversary did not accept the terms proposed, then all of the men were to be killed: above all, women and children were not to be purposely harmed.  

While the nature of the wars fought by Israel since its founding have been subject to much rabbinical discussion, the conduct of the wars is the exclusive domain of politicians and generals. However, the Israel Defence Forces’ Code of Ethics, whose guidelines shape the mode of action applied by all IDF soldiers and units, both in peace and at war, express similar values. For example: “The IDF serviceman will, above all, preserve human life, in the recognition of its supreme value and will place themselves or others at risk solely to the extent required to carry out his mission”.  One of its most distinguishing features is the concept of Purity of Arms. “The IDF serviceman will use force of arms only for the purpose of subduing the enemy to the necessary extent and will limit his use of force so as to prevent unnecessary harm to human life and limb, dignity and property. The IDF servicemen’s purity of arms is their self-control in use of armed force. They will use their arms only for the purpose of achieving their mission, without inflicting unnecessary injury to human life or limb; dignity or property, of both soldiers and civilians, with special consideration for the defenceless, whether in wartime, or during routine security operations, or in the absence of combat, or times of peace”.

While today’s battles are obscured by the fog of war and misrepresented by the weight of hypocrisy, double standards and basic, and oft times blatant, anti-Semitism, any purely objective observer could well see the implementation of these guidelines. The IDF should still walk proudly; while they are certainly able to flatten Gaza, the fact that they haven’t, demonstrates clearly that they still have a standard much higher than other military regimes when faced with similar situations.

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Force, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.

This entry was posted in 2014, D'varim, Deuteronomy/Devarim. Bookmark the permalink.

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