Kol Hamevaser War and Peace Interview- R. Aharon Lichtenstein

Kol Hamevaser asked R. Aharon Lichtenstein to present a Jewish perspective on the morality of war. The following is his discourse on the subject, transcribed by R. Dov Karoll of Alon Shevut.  

If one is to deal with the issue of war, there are two primary axes which need to be taken into account. The first: Under which circumstances, and out of which motivation, which justification, does one enter the arena of war altogether? The second issue arises when one finds oneself in battle: What kind of conduct is desirable, and, at the other extreme, what kind is abhorrent, and, between those poles, how much latitude is given to the government and to the commanders in charge of the war?

If you ask about a unique Jewish approach to the morality of war, I have to ask, in response, if we are talking about the justification of entering war in the first place, i.e. what constitutes jus ad bellum. And assuming we have entered into a war which is justified, however that is defined, I have to ask: To what extent are we empowered to define the bounds and the limits of war, and to what extent is restraint – as in other areas of Halakhah – imposed upon us? There is some link, possibly, between these questions, as can be seen in variables that we may encounter: If one is dealing with a war which is more amply, obviously justified, that may reflect itself, not only in the decision to enter the war, but in the morality of what kind of conduct is defensible, advisable, or unacceptable.

Do we have a unique approach to warfare? I find myself asking how war would compare with other areas of halakhic life. I have talked on various occasions about how Halakhah breaks down into two distinct areas: issues that are the invention or initiative of halakhic life, and those that are simply the mode of halakhic behavior in broaching phenomena that are part and parcel of the socio-historical scene, which the world of Halakhah has not necessarily invented, but which it needs to confront.  In this latter case, we presumably have to relate to that which we find in the Gemara in Sotah and elsewhere,[i] as a category, or series of categories, which relate to the phenomenon of war.

In the Gemara, you have three categories: milhemet hovah (obligatory war), milhemet reshut (permissible war), and, in between, milhemet mitsvah (sanctioned war) – each of these requires some definition.  One could define milhemet reshut as a totally optional war; the other, milhemet hovah, as one which has been thrust upon us, and the third, milhemet mitsvah, as one which has been left up to our judgment – meaning, whatever councils or authorities in the halakhic order that would determine this. The above questions concerning the morality of war arise regarding reshut and mitsvah.

While hovah and mitsvah are almost synonymous as terms, they are distinguished in many areas of Halakhah, including in their degree or source of authority, and the degree of flexibility provided – more rigorous or more accommodating. In this particular case of war, this distinction is more familiarly known as different levels of normative authority – license or prohibition. We need to bear in mind, however, the position of milhemet reshut.

To me, it would certainly seem that the concept of milhemet reshut is almost an oxymoron. It suggests that if beit din, or whoever determines these matters, wants to, there can be such a thing as an optional war; it is the powers that be that decide whether entering into war over a certain issue is legitimate or not.  Posited in these terms, the allowance of milhemet reshut does not even exclude the possibility or prospect of having a war which is without moral justification, without ethical import. The Jewish state can enter a war simply in order to attain certain political or economic ends, and without necessarily going beyond that.

This is partly a misconception of the nature of the term reshut as it appears in various contexts in Halakhah. Apart from the implications and ramifications of how the term itself is to be interpreted, with regard to war it becomes very problematic. The term, as I have said, appears many times in the Gemara, and it can be viewed in two ways: either as a wholly, genuinely neutral, amoral phenomenon, or, on the other end, as a devar reshut, as regarding other phenomena which the Gemara talks about as reshut, that are not axiologically neutral.  These require some degree of justification for performing or not performing the actions. Just as we have tefillat arvit reshut (the position that the tefillah of ma’ariv is optional[ii]), and this tefillah may, in the course of historical developments, become charged with an overlay of justification (namely, that it may now have more of an obligatory nature), the permissibility of a war of reshut may shift, as well. The prospect of having a war in which the leadership is concerned both with judging whether to risk the lives of its own people in a state of possible warfare and dealing with the moral problem of entering into a war that may entail the death of innocent people just in order to attain some kind of political or economic end, forces us to define how far the realm of this reshut extends. I repeat, the prospect of “optional war” is one that needs to be compared to other areas in which the government, by certain moral principles, is clearly subject to the circumstances. Obviously it’s easier to define reshut, mitsvah, hovah, with regard to clothing, food, residence, even one’s sexual life – it’s much easier to cope with that than with the prospect of people being killed – so it is hard to imagine that somehow milhemet reshut could be neutral.

My understanding is, and we encounter this in certain midrashim, that milhemet reshut cannot be “as you wish” – that understanding cannot be entertained.  Milhemet reshut is reshut in the sense that it does not require a definitively conceived trigger for entry into warfare. You don’t have a clear statement like you do in milhemet mitsvah, i.e. that if one is attacked, one must, in defense, respond.  One responds, in the case of milhemet reshut, in anticipation of what will occur if there is no first strike – cases of that nature, including in opposition to and in anticipation of the existence of a rival power, who may very well take the first-strike capability and would not hesitate in the slightest to make the first strike.  I take it that this is how one should understand the sugyot – it’s not purely arbitrary, as if deciding whether or not to wear a tie, or, if one wears a tie, what color it should be.

So, for instance, what could be considered a milhemet reshut? I would imagine that this would need to involve trying to weigh what is down the pike, and if a government or country senses that a danger of first-strike capability exists, that defines the prospective entry into war as being a devar reshut. This is not perfectly calculable, because it is a matter of speculation. The problem of first-strike capability theories is precisely that, no matter what you do, you are taking great risk with human life. A celebrated Midrash in Lekh Lekha[iii] explains what the Ribbono shel Olam told Avraham, “do not worry, do not be concerned;” that kind of soothing formulation provided justification for the risk, and Avraham was concerned – he entered into a war that killed some people on both his side and the other side. The Midrash says that he was concerned that maybe innocent people had been killed. The Midrash there is very strong in stating that Avraham could not see the justification for casualties from his side and the other side, and therefore he was concerned that he may have taken innocent life, and for that, presumably, there was no justification. There you have a fairly sharp statement – not in normative but in narrative terms: The Midrash says that Avraham was concerned and did not regard himself as fully justified just because there was some reason, possibly, for a first strike. That could be viewed as the proper understanding of a devar reshut.

Now, even if confronted by a first-strike situation, the question of where you draw the line, how you balance between the risk of killing others and that of being killed yourself – that is the critical issue in the Midrash to which I alluded. If, however, you knew for certain that you will kill these people, then you have what we read about every so often: Someone fires off a missile, attacking a yishuv, and we must take a retaliatory step, or possibly, a preventive step. If you are certain that it is indeed preventive, then that would qualify as a reason – “Ha-ba le-horgekha hashkem le-horgo” – “One who comes to kill you; kill him first.”[iv]  Of course, however, the problem is obvious: How do you know, can you know, must you know – who is going to fire the first shot, and in whose interests is there a necessity for going to war? If a country goes to war in order to save the lives of its people, its citizens, the possibility that it is doing something which is immoral may still exist. Although the question you obviously have to ask yourself - Is it possible that you have a reason to defend yourself? - is primary, is that, in and of itself, a justification? That is the problem that we have with Iran now.  If the Iranians had fired off a missile or an atomic bomb, and you knew with certainty that they did that, and that there is no way to stop them short of launching an arsenal onto Iran, then that would make life, morally speaking, much easier for us.

Now, as I said before, there are three categories in the Gemara: hovah, mitsvah and reshut. It could be that we have a fourth category, namely that of entering into war grounded upon nothing but of, for instance, national avarice – that type might very well get rejected as something that has no justification. Yet, in the Gemara in Sotah, the impression that one gets is that there is indeed an array of national interests, as opposed to just national threats or dangers, and, in certain circumstances, that too could be justified.[v] In the modern world, these issues, of course, are quite common, as political ambient interests – to maintain trade, to preserve the global economy, to improve quality of life – all those exist, and, as such, provide a rationale for those who recommend going to war.  The theory of entering into war based on avoiding having to absorb a first-strike is clear – if you are dealing with a threat, a herev haddah (literally, “sharp sword”), you can pre-empt that.  But that leaves the question of defining what the herev haddah is.

There are two questions here. One question is to what extent herev haddah qualifies as a category for a just war, and the other is to what extent a nation, community, or individual must find the rationale for tending to such a war – how certain do you need to be? Can you generate such a conflict when you think that there’s a 10% chance that a danger would have developed? Or do we say no, but if there’s a 70% chance, then you’re talking a different language?  These issues come up all the time, and a particular nation, like an individual in the situation of rodef (pursuer with an intent to kill), could assume that if we don’t hit them first, then we’ll be nirdafim (pursued), and that is a risk that we neither can, nor want to, take.

What I have heretofore delineated is basically the defensive posture – for example, if we’ve already been attacked, as in the case of the US on December 8, 1941. The US had every rationale and every right to declare war on the Germans and Japanese because the US absorbed the initial blows. The Gemara does, however, recognize – although there is a mahaloket tannaim there regarding the details[vi] – that, to some degree, there can be some instances of having a rationale for going to war that is not necessarily purely grounded upon the defensive character of that war. The defensive point, defined as Ezrat Yisrael mi-yad tsar (defending Israel against their enemies),[vii] is likewise applicable to milhemet shiv’at amemin (the war against the seven Canaanite nations), to capture Erets Yisrael, and these terms [Ezrat Yisrael mi-yad tsar and milhemet shiv’at amemin] need to be explained, as well.

Then you have situations in which an element of the defensive is not there in the first place. Milhemet shiv’at amemin or milhemet hovah, if one builds on certain premises, may be regarded as preventive or defensive, a response to aggression.  Now, this already generates some opinion about whether the citizenry, in a case where the rival country has taken over its land, is justified in responding aggressively. I suppose that most people would agree that if that would have occurred, then the theory which underlies rodef or ba ba-mahteret (a thief who tunnels into a house), while there are certain different schools of thought, and some think that under those circumstances it is not permissible to take someone’s life – property and life are qualitatively different categories – the principle of ba ba-mahteret justifies attacking the intruder even to the point of mortal danger because he threatens to take your property.

In order to survey that, we need to work through the sugyot in Sotah and ask about ba ba-mahteret: Is it a question of property versus life? Or, since the Halakhah is that if there is no danger to the landowner,[viii] if the landowner will attack the intruder in order to foil aggression (no matter how much money he takes, no matter how extensive the theft), the landowner is guilty of murder - might we conclude that you have no right to take one’s life to defend your property?  These issues have developed as legal areas in various countries.  For instance, there was a case in France several years back that dealt with this question: Is it permissible for one to take the life of another in order to prevent forced entry into one’s home?  In the case in France, someone had a mine that he put at the point where the suspected thief would enter the house, and the thief came, stepped on it, was maimed, and lost a limb. There was a lengthy article in Tradition about a half a year ago that dealt with similar cases and which went so far as to assume that protection of property is a sufficient rationale for endangering the life of one’s attacker. Then, of course, you have to decide who the aggressor is. The Midrash that Rashi quotes at the beginning of Bereishit[ix] sheds some light – an individual is justified in acting in the same manner that a state is justified in doing so. Many would subscribe to the belief that if another nation covets that which is ours, namely Erets Yisrael, then that is the equivalent of a thief breaking into my home and taking all of my property – that’s the correlation between the personal and the public.


The discourse which precedes is a presentation of a subject which was sprung upon in an almost casual context, by a devoted talmid, Dov Karoll. Given the context and the consequences, I trust that the reader will, on the one hand, understand the spirit and the substance of the remarks that were made, while, on the other hand, recognizing and appreciating that this is far from what I would want or have to say on the topic had I sat down for a full presentation on a critical and important subject. Nevertheless, I pretty much left it as it was presented at the time, in light of the fact that I think that, on the whole, the remarks which were made, extemporaneous as they were, were, essentially, a reasonably accurate presentation of what I take to be the substance of our hashkafah on the issue. I feel, however, that a crucial element, namely the balance which the subject demands, may not have been sufficiently delineated at the time, and I just want to add several points as they bear complement:

At the time of this writing, we are on the Thursday preceding Parashat Beshallah. The successive parshiyot, Beshallah and Yitro, and their respective codas, are critical for an understanding of our perspective on war, comprehensive and substantial, and, above all, balanced. Critics who have sought to attack torat Yisrael and kelal Yisrael have, at times, presented an historical and philosophic critique of our position, particularly insofar as their failure to perceive the full range of our hashkafah. A glance at the conclusion of Beshallah on the one hand, and of Yitro on the other, is essential for a clear perception of our position. Beshallah, apart from including the shirat ha-yam, concludes with a narrative of our response to the attack upon our community and our nation by Amalek, one which issued in the defeat of Amalek an awareness of the need to respond militarily, when necessary, to threats upon our very existence. Yitro, on the other hand, in which the highlight is the aseret ha-dibberot, concludes with an issur lo ta’aseh, commanding us to refrain from the use of military tools, the sword being singled out, and Hazal expanded the issur to include not only a sword, but metallic tools which are the source and the raw material for military hardware - this is a pesak halakhah in the Rambam.[x] As a reason for this prohibition, Hazal explain that the sword and the mizbeah, symbolically and substantively, represent two diverse, and, beyond a certain point, conflicting entities. The mizbeah is meant to prolong human life, and the sword to terminate it. And while Halakhah recognizes that, at times, tragically, a full national and personal life needs to include both components, the question of balance and timing is critical. It should be clear to us, and no less clear to our adversaries, that the two are both part of our agenda, and in a practical sense, in terms of values, attitudes, and perspective, we are commanded to strive for peace and harmony within and beyond the bounds of our national community. “Hashem ish milhamah, Hashem shemo.” — “God is a man of war; God is His name.” [xi]  The shem which is employed in that pasuk is the Shem Havayah, which Hazal identify with middat ha-rahamim ve-ha-hesed. Properly read, the pasuk states that, indeed, under certain circumstances, Hashem is ish milhamah, but, nevertheless, in terms of His quintessential being, both transcendental and immanent, Hashem shemoShem Havayah – this is His name, this is the nature of His revelation, and this is the direction which we are commanded and desire to pursue. So even as one of the last pesukim in the Torah relates to the equivalent of Beshallah –  “Ashrekha Yisrael mi khamokha, am nosha ba-Hashem, Magen Ezrekha, va-asher Herev Ga’avatekha, ve-yikahashu oyevekha lakh, ve-atta al bamoteimo tidrokh — Happy are you, Israel, who is like you, a people delivered by God, your Protecting Shield, the Sword of your pride; your enemies shall cringe before you, and you shall tread on their backs.”[xii] – here, again, even in the midst of strife, tragic warfare, am nosha ba-Hashem – the Shem Havayah, and not, as one might have expected, the Shem Elokim.

I felt I have not addressed myself in my prior remarks, having presented a rough outline of some of the details of our policy and attitudes, as commanded, normatively, to ourselves and, likewise, as directive for the world as a whole. This complementary postscript should contribute a proper spiritual perspective.


R. Aharon Lichtenstein is a Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rosh Kollel and Director of RIETS’ Gruss Center in Jerusalem.


R. Dov Karoll is an editor and teacher based in Alon Shevut, Israel, and is an alumnus of Yeshiva College and the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education.



[i] See, primarily, Perek Mashuah Milhamah (eighth chapter of Sotah), Sotah 42a-44a.

[ii] Berakhot 27b.

[iii] Bereishit Rabbah 44:4.

[iv] Sanhedrin 72a.

[v] See Sotah 44b.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melahim 5:1.

[viii] Such as in a case where the intruder is the landowner’s father. See Sanhedrin 72a-b.

[ix] Rashi to Bereishit 1:1, s.v. Bereishit.

[x] Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 1:15

[xi] Shemot 15:3. Editor’s translation.

[xii] Devarim 33:29. Editor’s translation, with some guidance from the JPS version.