Judaism and Pacifism
Rabbi Reuven Mann
One of the subjects taken up in this week’s parsha, Shoftim, is that of warfare. Judaism is not a religion of pacifism. Nor is it one of violence. It regards peaceful relations among individuals and nations as the most ideal state. It urges us to avoid contention, be slow to anger and quick to forgive. We should do our utmost to dispel hostilities and avoid dangerous conflict. However, the Torah is also very realistic and recognizes that there are times when we are obligated to take up arms and fight. Thus there is the category of obligatory wars. The most prominent example of this is a war of self defense. We are commanded to confront and oppose wanton aggression. The principle applies not just on the national level but in interpersonal relations as well.
The Rabbis say “If someone is out to kill you, get up early and slay him first.” This would seem to mean that one does not have to wait until the enemy has his weapon in your face. If it is clear that he is engaged in a plot to kill you, permission is granted to engage in “preemptive” action. We can see the significance of this vital principle. In the days leading up to the Six Day War, Israel was surrounded on all sides by hostile armies intent on her destruction. She engaged in a diplomatic campaign aimed at prodding the Western nations to intervene and find a diplomatic solution. When that effort failed she launched a preemptive attack, which caught her enemies off guard and led to a phenomenal victory.
However, Israel did not sufficiently appreciate the importance of getting in the “first blow.” In 1973, on the eve of Yom Kippur, she faced a similar situation. She had incontrovertible intelligence information that Egypt and Syria were planning an all out assault within hours. Nevertheless she allowed herself to be dissuaded from seizing the initiative, believing that her power was so great she could easily absorb the enemies’ first blow and come roaring back to victory. Things did not work out as expected. She suffered great casualties and was in dire straits until she was able to recover and, with G-d’s help turn things around in her favor.
Experience demonstrates that we ignore, at great peril, the exhortation of the Rabbis to “arise and slay him first.” This teaching applies to many areas of life. We should anticipate dangers and if possible “nip them in the bud.” Jews have paid dearly throughout history for their inability to defend themselves against the many enemies who have assailed them. That terrible situation has changed dramatically. In my opinion all law abiding citizens should be trained in the basics of self defense. For Jews, however, this matter is more compelling. We have always been the target of choice for every bully. While America is a great country, there is still reason to be concerned about anti-Semitism, which in the guise of “anti Zionism” is very much alive and well. I believe that Yeshivot should train our children, male and female, in the basics of self defense. They should be imbued with a love of peace and a desire to avoid conflict but nevertheless prepared, if it should become necessary, to protect themselves at all times. “May Hashem grant strength to His nation, may Hashem bless His nation with peace.”