Religious Beliefs

What does Jewish tradition teach about religiously legitimate violence?

Earlier books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah and “historical books,” are filled with texts about violence, both prescriptive and descriptive. God does not suffer enemies lightly, and many texts, such as Deuteronomy 32:40-42, pull no punches in their descriptions of the divine mind in this regard: “When I have whetted my flashing sword, when I have set my hand to judgment, then I shall punish my adversaries and wreak vengeance on my foes. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, my sword will devour flesh, blood of slain and captives, the heads of enemy princes.” An important distinction here is that the Bible condemns violence when individuals engage in it for their own selfish purposes, but when violence is part of the larger picture of the divine purpose for Israel, it is presumed to be essential and positive.

Later texts, especially the Prophets and Wisdom literature, typically condemn human recourse to violence, insisting that vengeance is up to God alone. Rabbinic literature emphasizes, further, that peace is the original purpose of all creation, and that shalom (also meaning wholeness and health) is the ultimate blessing. According to the rabbis, forgiveness is always preferable to revenge; one must always choose the less destructive of two difficult options. They insist that only defensive war is acceptable, and indeed it is mandatory. They accept biblical wars of expansion as justifiable under the original circumstances, but no longer. And the rabbis discuss at length the complexities of such things as “preemptive” military action, acknowledging considerable moral ambiguity in deciding whether an enemy is likely to attack.


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