What is the difference between a war of necessity and a war of choice? Judaism is not a pacifist tradition; it has always acknowledged that war, however tragic, is at times inevitable and necessary. “There is a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace,” teaches Ecclesiastes. Peace is our greatest blessing, we prize it and we must seek it and pursue it. However, whether you are acting in self defense or responding to the commandment not to stand idly by as your brother’s blood is shed, war is a fact of life. There are times when military intervention is a moral obligation, and the decision not to do anything is actually less defensible, more reprehensible than the horrors of war.
This past week we heard of our nation’s plans to increase our commitment in Afghanistan and, inevitably, increase the number of young lives at risk and lost in war. Many of us have been pondering the thorny question of when war is necessary and when it is a choice. If it is indeed necessary, if there is a threat or an evil of such a degree that we must act, our sacrifice is justified. But, if it is merely a choice, an option among others, we are left wondering if it is worth the lives lost. If it isn’t a necessary war, is it worth even a single human life, a life, which as Jews, we know to be of infinite value?
This question, whether war is necessary or whether it is a choice, is not new to our age. It is this very tension that impels our parasha this week, specifically, the story of Dinah. It is a painful story, a story made more famous in recent years by Anita Diamant’s treatment in The Red Tent. Depending on how you read the text, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is either raped, seduced, or a willing partner of Shechem. Shechem’s heart cleaves to Dinah and he seeks her hand in marriage. By any account, such a thing is not done in Israel. It is an outrage that an outsider should sleep with a daughter of Jacob. Jacob’s family responds in two very different ways. Jacob stays his hand and bides his time, even when Shechem’s father, Hamor, seeks out Jacob to arrange a marriage between their children, a union between the tribes. Dinah’s brothers, however, are not interested in any rapprochement. In guile, they direct the men of Shechem to be circumcised, and, as they are convalescing, Simeon and Levi lead their troops on an ambush – a full-scale punitive war. They kill the men, plunder the camp, retrieve Dinah, and return home. The most intriguing scene, the punchline of the story, is saved for the end. Jacob castigates his sons as they return from battle: “You have brought trouble on me,” Jacob scolds them, “you have made me odious to the inhabitants of the land… I am few in number and they may gather against me and I will be destroyed.” (Gen. 34:30) Yet, it is not Jacob, but his sons who get the last word. The tale concludes with a hanging interrogative that one cannot help but think is not only the thoughts of Simeon and Levi, but of the author of the Torah itself, a piercing question that lingers even today: “Shall he treat our sister as a whore?!” (Gen. 34:31)
The poles of the debate are set. Jacob, both then and throughout his life, sought to compromise, maneuver, accommodate, and negotiate. He may have been agitated and distraught on account of Dinah, but as the head of the household he did not want to take up arms, he wanted to resolve this conflict without bloodshed. For the aggrieved brothers of Dinah, Simeon and Levi, this was a black and white issue. For them, this was a war of necessity. Perhaps because the affront was too great, perhaps because they felt that Dinah was being held captive against her will, perhaps… For whatever reason, there was no option for the brothers in the matter. War of choice or war of necessity? The answer is not clear, but your answer to the question reveals your sympathies. By one account, the brothers’ actions are just and even noble. Read otherwise, they are hotheaded, bloodthirsty, and scandalous.
For a people who lived without land and without a military for thousands of years, Jews have a surprisingly large amount to say about this topic. The biblical sources, as I have noted, acknowledge that sometimes justice requires violence. Peace is our ultimate goal, but we do not live in a messianic age. One should, according to the Torah, always offer terms of peace before attack. During battle itself, one must conduct a siege in a specific manner so as to allow for post-war reconstruction. War, tragic and horrific, must be guided by ethics, both during war and beforehand, in establishing the conditions by which war may be justified.
The twelfth-century sage Maimonides distinguished between obligatory wars (hovah) and discretionary wars (reshut). The former are wars waged by the king in service either to God’s command or in self-defense, “to deliver Israel from the enemy attacking them.” The second kind of war is a discretionary conflict “to extend the borders of Israel and establish a king’s greatness and prestige.” For contemporary purposes, the distinction delineates the difference between wars that receive the sanction of our tradition and those that do not. It is a distinction between understanding the actions of Simeon and Levi as necessary and therefore just, or as optional and thus reprehensible.
The problem is that it all comes down to interpretation – these are very subjective distinctions. The most limiting interpretation, and here I rely on my teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, is offered by the rabbinic sage Judah Ibn Tibbon, who reasoned that only when the enemy is actively taking Jewish lives and the high priest approves, is war sanctioned. At the other end of the spectrum are the sages who reason that when a community merely fears attack, pre-emptive strikes are legitimate. Even more surprisingly, one commentator explains that hostilities are permissible to instill fear in potential military aggressors. (E. Dorff, To Do The Right and The Good, pp.161-183)
To make matters more complicated, from the time of the Maccabees until the establishment of Israel in 1948 no Jew ever had to actively apply this wide spectrum of positions to Jewish life. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledged that for Israel there were indeed wars of choice and wars of no alternative. Interestingly, he designated only the War of Independence, the war of attrition in the late 1960’s and the Yom Kippur War as wars of necessity. The Six Day War, surprisingly, he called a war of choice, explaining “while it is indeed true that the closing of the Straits of Tiran was an act of aggression, a causus belli, there is always room for a great deal of consideration as to whether it is necessary to make a causus into a bellum.” Both within Israel and the pro-Israel community there are deep divisions over these distinctions. As we witness the increasing nuclear capabilities of Iran, as Israel takes action to defend herself against terror, we must keep these distinctions in mind. Dr. Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, writes in his book, War of Necessity, War of Choice, “Wars of necessity do not require assurances that the overall results of striking or resisting will be positive. Only the assessment that the results of not so doing will be unacceptably large and negative.” (Haass, p. 10) It is both intolerable and unsustainable to exist, like Dinah, vulnerable to the whims of your captors. The decision to do nothing must be understood as a choice – perhaps wise, perhaps not – but like all choices, one with consequences.
As American Jews debating the policy of our secular country, we must recognize that while our tradition may inform our values system, it does not provide black and white answers. World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo – some are easy to categorize; some are hard. Should there have been military intervention in Rwanda in 1994? What about Darfur today? Should America go to war for humanitarian reasons? Should we go to war to further our democratic ideals? Do we go to war to secure resources upon which our national security depends?
When it comes to Afghanistan, many of the reasons for involvement have been discussed this week; in fact, Dr. Haass outlined some of them in a recent article. (Washington Post, 10/11/2009) Afghanistan is a haven for terrorists plotting against America. Afghanistan is a “human rights nightmare.” To leave Afghanistan is to leave a region destabilized, bearing the potential to escalate to a nuclear confrontation. I am sure there are many reasons, but at the end of the day I am not a political scientist nor a military strategist and nobody has the gift of prophecy. There is no foolproof way to determine whether these considerations make Afghanistan presently a war of choice or a war of necessity. We gather data and opinion and hope that our leaders make informed decisions, always prizing the infinite value of human life. Even then, as with the story of Dinah, years later we will still argue over who was right and who was wrong.
This coming Friday night marks the beginning of Hanukkah. It is as close as we come as Jews to celebrating a military victory – the courage, self-sacrifice, and, ultimately, the victory of the Maccabees. This year, we will light our Hanukkah menorah with a tinge of sadness, knowing that yet again, as Jews, as Zionists, and as Americans we live in an era when the reality of war, the story of Hanukkah, is a bit too contemporary, a bit too close to home. I would like one day to look at the flickering flames of the menorah in the company of children and grandchildren with the military associations of the festival outdated and distant, theoretical and abstract. That day has yet to come. We continue to parse when wars are and are not necessary. May it be God’s will that one day, in the not-too-distant future, our children will live in a world where such questions are irrelevant, such sermons immaterial, a day when as the prophet promised, “Swords shall be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)