Kings, Wars, & Justice

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

The Torah portion that early asserts, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (which means "Just ends by just means," said the rabbis) is deeply concerned with putting limits on political and military power. (Deut.16: 20)

The "perek hamelekh" (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: the king may pile up no horse-chariots for an aggressive war; no wealth out of payoffs for favors; no series of sexual conquests. He must not "send the people back into Mitzrayyim" – the Narrow Place of slavery -- to pay the costs of his army. He must drink in precisely the teachings that limit his powers and empower the poor, by both reading them and writing his own copy of them.

And the Torah portion knows that with kings come wars –and that when military service becomes onerous or wars become unpopular, some disaffected soldiers might breed more disaffection in the army. Yet exempting them might encourage opposition and make the war or the army still more unpopular. What to do in this dilemma?

The Torah teaches (Deut. 20: 5-8):

Then the officials shall address the troops:

"Is there anyone who has built a new home but not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it.

"Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another eat from it.

"Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him return to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone afraid or rakh halevav "[gentle-hearted," or "disheartened," or "faint-hearted," or "soft-hearted"]? Let him go back to his home, lest he melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart!'

I Maccabees 3:56 reports that even when the land was under occupation by the Hellenistic empire ruled by Antiochus, and the Temple had been desecrated -- the most extreme imaginable moment, when imaginably no one would have been exempted from military service -- -- Judah Maccabee applied this passage of Torah. He ordered back to their homes the newly married, the new homebuilders, the new vine-planters, and those who were frightened or gentle-hearted.

About three centuries later, Rabbi Akiva (Tosefta, Sotah 7:22) commented, "Why does the verse [after specifying ‘the fearful’] then say ‘and the disheartened’? To teach that even the mightiest and strongest of men, if he is compassionate (Rachaman), should turn back." So both those who are afraid to be killed and those who are afraid lest they become killers must be exempted.

Perhaps this provision operated as a rough public check-and-balance, to measure whether the people really believed a specific war was worth dying for and worth killing for. If a king, or a council of middle-aged men, sent the young to kill and die in a worthless war, the young still had a way out.

The provisions limiting royal power and those limiting military power may have been intertwined in the Torah's mind with the possibility of "seeking to achieve justice by just means."

What would happen to modern nation-states, military forces, and wars if these passages of Torah were our model, or even just our teaching?

Would we deny our national leaders the offensive weapons that are the "horse chariots" of today? Would our armies send home exactly the young who now make up the bulk of them --- first-time home-owners, the newly married, those just entering a first career? Would fear of being killed, rather than being scorned as cowardice, become a reason for exemption? Would simply claiming "conscientious" objection be sufficient reason for exemption -- rather than being surrounded by suspicion and demands for proof?

These issues appear anew in every generation; seldom do we consider the wisdom of millennia and generations past in shaping the political structures of our world.


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