War is an ugly but tragically necessary aspect of human interaction. Within the first few chapters of Genesis, we encounter war between Abraham and the 5 kings. The Torah works to militate against the dehumanizing aspects of warfare by prescribing constraints on the behavior of combatants, and creating a ritual of transition for demobilizing troops as they return to the civilian community.
Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. The Talmud tells us in Berachot 62b that if someone is pursuing us with intent to kill, we should “rise up earlier and kill them first.” We retain the right, and some might argue, the obligation of self-defense. Rabbi Hillel was not teaching military strategy when he wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”- but he well might have been! (Pirke Avot 1:14)
Yet, Hillel immediately follows with the words- “If I am only for myself, what am I?” He reminds us that if we lose our humanity in the way we conduct war, we will, perhaps, have paid too high a price for military victory. Therefore, the Israeli military has adopted principle of “tohar haneshek,” purity of arms. Fundamentally, tohar haneshek mandates that military operations be conducted in accordance with ethical standards.
Principles of tohar haneshek include:
1. Preventing misuse of weapons
2. Using minimum force against combatants
3. Preventing casualties to civilians
4. Appropriate care of prisoners
5. Resisting dehumanization and demonization of enemy citizenry
6. Dealing with Criminal Orders
7. Equalizing the burden of military service on the whole of the population
Our impulse may be to bring the full force of military might to bear against our enemies. Our tradition counsels that Jewish values apply even in the conduct of war. We can all be incredibly proud of the commitment of the IDF to the Jewish value of life and recognizing the image of God even in the faces of our enemies.