Part 10 in Jewish Wisdom for the Everyday Man: a “guide for the perplexed” through the modern maze of morality from ancient Jewish Sages.
As the nations of the world continue to debate over how Israel should be divided up between Arab and Jew, we should all take a moment to be reminded of what the Jewish sages of old thought about Eretz Yisrael, the entire Land of Israel.
Foundational to their understanding is the concept of chooseness. The Jewish people are unique among the nations of the world and therefore any decision or debate concerning the Land should not be based solely on international law, danger or fear.
The rabbis identified four areas to be considered before the Jewish people released or occupied Eretz Yisrael: Bible, morals, military strength, and risk.
The Rambam, one of Judaism’s most prolific and influential Torah scholars, summarizes the mitzvoth (commandments) concerning Eretz Yisrael.
- Every Jewish person must live in Eretz Yisrael. This is called Yeshivat Haaretz, “and we settled the land.”
- The land must be cultivated. “We must not leave it a wasteland.” This is called “the settlement of the land” in which we are to build houses and plant vineyards.
- Israel must have sovereignty over the entire country. “We must not leave the land in the hands of other nations.” Eretz Yisrael is the eternal inheritance of the Jewish people and we must never think that at we have no place in our lands. The Rambam concluded that if there is no other way, we must take the land by occupation.
The Rambam goes on to explain that a king or sovereign must be established over Israel, which is necessary for any people’s self-determination. Queen Esther may have been offered “half the kingdom” by the Persian King Ahasuerus in a moment of appreciation, but clearly the king must rule over his entire kingdom. A kingdom divided cannot stand.
Jewish sages believed that the establishment of a foreign country within Israel clearly goes against Scripture.
When is war justified?
The sages considered going to war for Israel as a mitzvah, or commandment, which is required in three instances:
- Against Amalek and the sworn enemies of Israel;
- Against the “seven-nations,” meaning the idolatrous Canaanites; and
- Anywhere in all the land of Israel.
The Rambam defined the war-commandment as authority to expand Israel’s border and conquer all parts of Eretz Yisrael.
War is, of course, difficult, risky and dangerous. Jews are killed, others as well. This raises the question today as to how much suffering Israelis should be willing to endure in order to take back Judea and Samaria. Two answers may be drawn from the rabbis’ understanding of the war-commandment. It must be remembered the Jewish people in diaspora were oppressed and annihilated during thousands of years of exile among the Gentiles long before the State of Israel. Arabs did not begin murdering Jews only in 1967, when Israel captured Judea and Samaria in the Six-Day-War, or even in the decades prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The killing began long ago with Mohammad and the Islamic wars. But now, by the grace of God, Israel once again has her own nation and a strong Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to protect the Jewish people and their sovereign state.
Furthermore, if a Palestinian state could be established in which Jew and Arab could live together in peace and brotherhood, then war would not be required, or preferred. But that is not realistic right now, and may never be before the end of days when the Messiah alone will reign.
Jewish sages believed that Israel should be willing to pay a very high price to achieve peace. The Torah tells us that all God’s ways lead to peace (Prov. 3:17) and that the reward for keeping His commandments is peace (Lev. 26:3-6). Even when preparing to go to war against a sworn enemy, we are to try and make peace before attacking (Deut. 20:10-12). King David was a great man, a prophet, singer, poet and defender of Israel, but he was also a man of war, and as such was not allowed to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. God’s House had to be a symbol of peace (I Chron. 22:7-8). Scripture even forbade using metal in hewing the altar stones in the Temple because metal was a reminder of the weapons used in lethal warfare.
So when is war a commandment?
The commandment to keep and protect the Land of Israel is part of the mitzvah of devotion. According to the sages, no person should put himself in danger needlessly, but should flee whenever possible. The commandment to go to war does put a person in very great danger, so much so that the Bible teaches that a man who just married a woman, planted a vineyard or built a house cannot go to a national war lest he die (Dt. 24:5). In David’s army, soldiers gave a certificate of divorce to their wives who never knew whether they might be dead or taken captive.
For the sake of Israel, however, and devotion to the Jewish people, a man or woman must be willing to risk his or her life. A foreign king once asked a rabbi: “Why do you go to Israel? It is dangerous.” He replied, “First of all it is not dangerous (Exactly what I tell my friends that want to visit!). But even if it is dangerous, it is like the war-mitzvah.” Jews are commanded to be devoted to Eretz Yisrael.
Today none of these rabbinical rulings are mere theory. Generations of Jews are giving their lives to make Aliyah (immigration to Israel). Jews are settling Eretz Israel in the spirit of devotion to their land and the people, and are serving in the military as necessary to fulfill these commitments. This includes religious, secular, Messianic and Orthodox Jews, though some orthodox choose not to serve.
All articles in this series can be found here: Jewish Wisdom for the Everyday Man