Is Israel Engaged in a Holy War Commanded by God?

“When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, thou shalt not be afraid of them; for the LORD thy God is with thee, who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”Deuteronomy 20:1 (The Israel Bible™)

Is Israel engaged in a holy war commanded by God? Is the political process Israel struggles with today a part of that war, or apart from it?

Breaking Israel News set out to answer these questions in a series of interviews with today’s prominent rabbis, asking how politics and war should be dealt with Biblically.

Military conflict and the political interplay leading up to it have prominent roles in the Bible, but divine inspiration seems to be lacking in Israeli politics today. An example of how Israel’s security appears in the political forum played out last month when, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan compared Israel to Nazi Germany. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon rejected criticism of Golan, and a dispute with the prime minister ensued which led to Ya’alon’s resignation from government.

Rabbi Hillel Weiss (Photo: Facebook)
Rabbi Hillel Weiss (Photo: Facebook)

Rabbi Hillel Weiss of the nascent Sanhedrin saw this broken political process as a result of neglecting basic Torah concepts of the requirement to protect Israel.

“It is disturbing when Jews become confused by foreign concepts that disrupt these basic principles, and they end up questioning Israel’s acts of self-preservation, labelling them as acts of aggression,” Rabbi Weiss told Breaking Israel News. “This is what has happened in the government today. If they would follow the Torah, and even basic human instincts, there wouldn’t be any discussions.”

War is a regrettable reality, but there are conditions under which a war is not only permitted, but when Israel is commanded by the Torah to go out to battle. There are several types of compulsory wars (milchemet mitzvah) described in the Bible. The classic case of a mandatory war was fought by Joshua against the seven nations when the Jews came into Israel.

Defending Israel from an existential threat is also compulsory and may include preemptive strikes, according to the Torah. Though a king is required to lead Israel into battle, a compulsory war does not require the approval of a Sanhedrin or any governmental process.

In a country that has already fought several wars for its survival, security should be straightforward, but the political process surrounding security has become a disturbingly convoluted process. Rabbi Weiss explained to Breaking Israel News why this is problematic on more than just the political level: It also shows a spiritual breakdown.

Milchemet mitzvah is a separate commandment but it also comes under ‘pikuach nefesh’, saving a life, a commandment that supersedes almost every other, and is incumbent even without a king or a state,” Rabbi Weiss explained. “This is commanded but it should also be instinctive, and is only reinforced by the Biblical commandments. Defending your homeland should also be instinctive. There is something wrong when it is not.”

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Most contemporary rabbinic authorities agree that the modern state of Israel is indeed engaged in a holy war commanded by God. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, a former Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel and preeminent Torah law authority, ruled that any war which is fought for the land of Israel is considered a milchemet mitzvah.

Rabbi Weiss explained that Israel’s wars, being divinely mandated, have different rules governing them than wars of other nations. There are also markedly different outcomes.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Photo: Michael Jacobson)
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Photo: Michael Jacobson)

“Many times, Israel was forced to go to war when it seemed impractical from a military perspective,” Rabbi Weiss explained. “People speak about the miracles that happened in Israel’s wars as signs of God’s intervention, but we also see that often the outcome was not what the leaders expected, usually going beyond their expectations.”

“Since the wars were mitzvot (commandments), on some level they were not entirely under our control or a product of our decisions. Many times, a person wants to see their own power via politics and war, in order to say ‘this was because of my strength’ (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). That cannot be the case in Israel.”

Rabbi Dov Begon, Head of Yeshiva Machon Meir, while he agreed that Israel is engaged in milchemet mitzvah, had a different opinion, believing the political process is a necessary element in the Biblical commandment of war.

Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (Photo: Wiki Commons)

He adheres to the opinion of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, who wrote that every government of Israel has the status of king, and the obligation to ensure the safety of the people rests upon them.

“If the government must make the decision, then that is the mitzvah, the commandment. Even if you don’t agree, you must support the process,” Rabbi Begon explained to Breaking Israel News.

Rabbi Begon referred to the halachic precept of dina d’malchuta dina, which requires Jews to follow the law of the land, even if it is not specified in the Bible.

“This certainly applies here, in the case of the Israeli government,” Rabbi Begon said.