“Is All Fair in Love & War?” Just & Unjust Wars through the prism of Jewish and Secular Thought Part 7

Checks and Balances in Waging War: A Jewish Perspective

In previous posts we shared that Walzer is critical to the lack of checks and balances in the Jewish tradition regarding the king’s ability to wage war.

He cites King David and his ability to assert the right of Israelite kings to wage expansionist wars without checks and balances. This is inconsistent with the literature found in the Jewish jurisprudence. David’s expansionist wars are viewed by Jewish legalists with the same disdain that Walzer’s describes those who wish to prolong war: “a form of overreaching, military hubris, and political intolerance” (122). David is punished for fighting wars he was not sanctioned to wage, by being forbidden to build the Temple [i]. Additionally, all of his illegal conquests were never annexed as part of the Jewish nation state because they were unsanctioned [ii].

In the last post Walzer challenges the legal edict mandating all to engage in warfare, without exception, when the Jews are fighting a defensive war. His challenge is from a verse in the Book of Maccabees. He points out that the Book of Maccabees seems to contradict the legal requirement mentioned in the Bible and Talmud not to exclude anyone from the war. The lack of rabbinic comment to explain the contradiction between the text and the law seems to challenge the integrity of the law. However, what Walzer fails to realize is the lack of rabbinic response is demonstrative of how the Book of Maccabees was treated. When the Bible was canonized the rabbis refused to include the Book of Maccabees into the canonized scripture.

Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets… The order of the Hagiographa is Ruth, the Book of Psalms, Job, Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles.  (Baba Batra 14b)

While the Book of Maccabees is included in the canonized works of the Church fathers[iii] its exclusion from the Jewish Old Testament makes any challenges to Jewish law, emanating from its text inconsequential without the need for any clarification. Furthermore, as Jonathan Goldstein writes in his introduction to the Book of Maccabees:

 Scholars have rightly been impressed with accuracy of First Maccabees, though there are several demonstrative errors in the narrative (26).

Once again, this highlights the justified absence of any rabbinic response to the Book of Maccabees.

Interestingly, what Walzer does not comment on in his analysis of the Maccabees is the rabbinic criticism of the family after the war is won. The Maccabees assumed the role of king of Israel, displacing the rightful heirs to the throne, the descendants from the house of David. As descendants from the priestly sect, their service to the Jewish people was in the Temple as well as their potential to be members of the Jewish High Court on the Temple Mount. Their seizing of the kingship compromised the checks and balances necessary to guarantee morality and integrity in all aspects of government, especially in the arena of warfare.

This was also the reason for the punishment of the Hasmoneans, who reigned during the Second Temple. They were saints of the Most High, without whom the learning of Torah [Jewish tradition] and the observance of Commandments would have been forgotten in Israel, and despite this, they suffered such great punishment. The four sons of the old Hasmonean Matithyahu, saintly men who ruled one after another, in spite of all their prowess and success, fell by the sword of their enemies. And ultimately the punishment reached the stage where our Rabbis, of blessed memory, said: “He who says, ‘I come from the home of the Hasmoneans,’  is a slave” (Talmud, Baba Batra 3b) as they were all destroyed on account of this sin [usurping the throne from the seed of David]. (Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis chap. 49:10)

This severe criticism, points again to a focus in Judaism that celebrates the need to guarantee Jus Ad Bellum (just cause and right intention).


[i] See I Chronicles (chapter 22:8)

[ii] See Sifrei (Deuteronomy:51) and the medieval commentary  of  Tosafot on the Talmud in the Tractate of  Gittin  8a (s.v. Kibush Yachid) as well as on Tractate Avodah Zarah21a (s.v. Kibush)

[iii] See “Maccabees, First Book of” in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 p 316-317












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