War and the Morality of War

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Dedicated by Rav Yitzchak and Stefanie Etshalom
in memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l, Rav Etshalom's father,
on the occasion of his 20th yahrzeit - 21 Tamuz
In loving memory of Yaakov Ben Yitzchak Fred Stone z"l,
beloved father and grandfather whose yartzeit is the 25 Tammuz
Stanley & Ellen Stone and their children, Jake & Chaya, Micah & Adline,
Zack & Yael, Allie and Issac, Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Caylay,
Azzi, Eliana & Marc, Adina, Emunah, Shira,and Gabi & Talia

I. The morality of the war against Midyan

God commands Moshe to initiate a war against Midyan before the Midyanites retaliate for the killing of the Midyanite princess who led the seduction campaign with the "prince of the father's house" from the tribe of Shimon ("for they harass you… in the matter of Pe'or"; Bemidbar 25:18). All this takes place following the calamity that struck the tribe of Shimon, which camped "in Shitim" and was almost wiped out in the "plague"[1] caused by the Midyanites through the counsel of Bil'am (Bemidbar 31:16). This preemptive war is called "vengeance," because it is a response to the calamity of Pe'or and commanded by God. It follows from here that an enemy attack that is expected with certainty justifies a preemptive war![2]
As may be recalled, the Midyanites were located north of the Israelite camp in the Yabok stream region.[3] The conflict was quickly decided; the Midyanite soldiers apparently ran away, abandoning the women and children. The Israelite officers therefore reported that there were no casualties among their men (Bemidbar 31:49).
The verse describes:
And they warred against Midyan, as the Lord commanded Moshe. (Bemidbar 31:7)
Chazal learned a law governing war from this verse: Enemy forces should be besieged from only three sides, rather than from all four, and they should be left with a possible escape route. In this way, they will not fight with all their strength, and losses to our forces will be minimized.[4]
This halakha was the subject of public discussion in our days at the time of the siege of Beirut.[5]  But the conclusion is clear and simple: According to the Torah's morality of war, casualties must be minimized to the extent possible by leaving the enemy an escape route.
The equal conscription "of each tribe a thousand" (Bemidbar 31:4-5) was certainly intended to establish the army of Israel as a "national," and not a "tribal" army.[6] This happened precisely at the time that the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe began their tribal conquests for the purpose of settling their territories. Moshe's last mission to establish a "meta-tribal" and "all-Israelite" army occupies an important place in the Torah's war ethics – as that issue does in our time as well.

II. The division of the spoils of war and the prohibition to plunder

Chazal learned another halakha from the great importance that the Torah attaches to the distribution of the spoils of war. One who takes spoils of war for himself is regarded as a thief, because the spoils of war belong to the nation as a whole. Therefore, the actual fighters, who act in the name of the people, must bring the spoils back to the camp, and only there, in accordance with the directives of the leadership and in keeping with the law, is the plunder divided. According to the Torah, half of the spoils go to the actual fighters, with a levy to God (one out of 500) given to the priests, and the other half goes to the rest of the people, with a percentage (one out of 50) given to the Levites.[7]
This applies to the animals and women that were taken captive in the course of the war. What was done with the gold jewelry? According to what is related in the Torah, the officers brought all of the gold jewelry as a gift to God, in gratitude for the fact that none of their soldiers were lost in battle (Bemidbar 31:49-52). However, they left the soldiers what they found of gold and silver: "For the men of war had taken booty, every man for himself" (Bemidbar 31:53). In other words, the law that was established by the officers granted the soldiers permission to take these spoils for themselves, without collecting all the booty and dividing it up. It was only by virtue of this authorization that keeping the spoils was not considered theft.
The extreme severity with which the Torah's morality of war views looting stands out most prominently in the account of Akhan, who trespassed with the spoils of Yericho (Yehoshua 7:1-21). That story, however, is very puzzling. On the face of it, Yehoshua should have said to God (as his master Moshe said regarding the sin of Korach and his company; Bemidbar 16:22): "Shall one man sin and You will be wroth with the entire congregation?!" Instead, we find that the entire nation stands accused:
Israel has sinned; they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it among their own belongings. (Yehoshua 7:11)
Only one person did these things, hiding the spoils in his own personal tent!
The answer is that Akhan's trespass with the spoils of Yericho did indeed express the general atmosphere among the people following the fall of the walls of the city. The fear of the walls of the Canaanite cities ("up to heaven"; Devarim 1:28) suddenly turned into exaggerated confidence in "our strength," to the point of contempt for the enemy. This contempt is what caused the first defeat at Ai.
I came to this answer during the Yom Kippur War, which broke out to everyone's great astonishment after a period of euphoria amongst the public and the national leadership. This euphoria expressed itself in particular in the exaggerated self-confidence that prevailed among the IDF leadership, and especially the head of army intelligence.
After re-reading the story of the battles fought at Ai in the book of Yehoshua (chapters -8), I noted that Yehoshua himself was guilty of underestimating the enemy, as part of the arrogant atmosphere that prevailed. This atmosphere influenced Akhan to take of the spoils that were to be devoted to God, and in equal measure impacted upon Yehoshua's "intelligence branch" and upon Yehoshua himself:
And Yehoshua sent men from Yericho to Ai, which is beside Bet-Aven, on the east side of Bet-El, and spoke to them, saying: “Go up and spy out the land.” And the men went up and spied out Ai. And they returned to Yehoshua, and said to him: “Let not all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai; make not all the people to toil there; for they are but few.” (Yehoshua 7:1-3)
In striking contrast to the spies who returned from Yericho (Yehoshua 2:24), those who returned from Ai did not mention the name of God. Their contempt for the walls of the enemy and the capabilities of its fighters is very pronounced in their words. And see what happened! Yehoshua accepted what they had to say and acted accordingly. The result was disastrous:
So there went up there of the people about three thousand men; and they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men; and they chased them from before the gate even unto Shevarim, and smote them at the descent; and the hearts of the people melted and became as water. And Yehoshua rent his clothes and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust upon their heads. And Yehoshua said: “Alas, O Lord God, wherefore have You at all brought this people over the Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to cause us to perish?” (Yehoshua 7:4-9)
Yehoshua then added the following shocking words:
“Would that we had been content and dwelt beyond the Jordan!” (v. 9)
Clearly, this is not the sin of one man, but rather a general atmosphere created in the wake of the fall of the walls of Yericho. Akhan's misappropriation of the spoils of Yericho was a sharp expression of the atmosphere that impacted upon the intelligence branch and upon decision-making, leading to a serious and dangerous rout, as described by Yehoshua:
“Oh, Lord, what shall I say, after that Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For when the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land hear of it, they will compass us round, and cut off our name from the earth; and what will You do for Your great name?” (Yehoshua 7:10-11) 
            I discovered all of this (in the Tanakh that I had with me) during the Yom Kippur War, after the difficult days of fighting, when we crossed the Suez Canal and sat for about four months in the city of Suez, besieging the third Egyptian army and threatening the heart of Egypt (101 kilometers from Cairo). At the same time, together with the rest of the Israeli public, we still felt the pain of the intelligence "failure" and the other serious failures at the beginning of the war, the fall of the Israeli defense line along the Suez Canal, and the collapse of the entire defense system in the Golan Heights.
I then found decisive proof for this understanding in the book of Yehoshua.[8]
Even after the repair of the sin of Akhan and after his execution, the army of Israel did not attack Ai with 3,000 men, as one might have expected if the entire problem was the sin of Akhan. Instead, God commanded Yehoshua to repair his entire method of warfare and to relate to the campaign against Ai with full seriousness:
And the Lord said to Yehoshua: “Fear not, neither be you dismayed; take all the people of war with you, and arise, go up to Ai; see, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land. And you shall do to Ai and her king as you did to Yericho and her king; only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall you take for a prey to yourselves; set you an ambush for the city behind it.” So Yehoshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up to Ai; and Yehoshua chose out thirty thousand men, the mighty men of valor, and sent them forth by night. (Yehoshua 8:1-3) 
            The rapid and thorough change in the entire military establishment, in the building and operation of the force, brought about the first victory that did not depend on a miracle, but rather was achieved entirely by way of an ambush in the battle against Ai. The fall of Ai led eventually to the surrender of the Giv'onim (Yehoshua 9) and to the decisive campaign over the central highlands against the Canaanite coalition that was created by the king of Jerusalem (Yehoshua 10).
However, the spoils of Ai were not devoted to God, as were the spoils of Yericho; rather, they were given to the people who had fought in the battle. Why was this so? Was it that God did not want to stand the people of Israel once again to such a high moral test? Perhaps the miracle of the fall of the walls of Yericho necessitated the ban, while an army that fights and emerges victorious by way of stratagems and serious and responsible leadership is also entitled to the spoils.
It seems that the Torah's war ethics recognize two clear levels with respect to the spoils of war. The higher moral level is that of the Patriarch Avraham, who went out to war to which he recruited "his trained men, born in his house" (Bereishit 14:14) in order to rescue his nephew Lot and who won the battle by way of a surprise nighttime attack. Avraham refused to take for himself any of the spoils of war "from a thread to a shoe-latchet" (Bereishit 14:23), but at the same time he stood up for the rights of "the men who went with me, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre" (Bereishit 14:24) to take their portions in accordance with the rules that we found in the war against Midyan, and apparently also at Ai.
It is interesting to note that at the time of the war of defense against those who came to kill the Jews in the days of Purim acted in the manner of Avraham: "On the spoil they lay not their hand" (Ester 9:10, 15), in contrast to Haman, who had decreed "to take the spoil of them for a prey" (Ester 3:24). Even the king permitted the Jews who would stand up for their lives and successfully overcome their enemies "to take the spoil of them for a prey" (Ester 8:11). The Jews, however, preferred to follow Avraham in matters of war ethics; they did not act in accordance with the accepted norm, even though it was legally approved.
In this tension between the two levels of the morality of spoils, there is also another vital component – encouraging a fighting spirit that is free of any desire for spoil and booty, at least as long as the fighting continues. It is forbidden to relax the persistent determination that is needed to achieve victory, even for the division of the spoils, as long as vigilance and fighting discipline are necessary. The moment that the soldiers begin to occupy themselves with the booty, the fighting spirit dissipates, together with alertness and discipline, and the passions and desire for personal wealth grow stronger. A military force that turns to looting is no longer a combat force!
Judah the Maccabee revealed this secret to us during the great battle in Emmaus, when he warned his warriors:
“Do not covet the spoils, inasmuch as there is battle before us… But stand you now against our enemies and fight them, and afterwards you may safely take their spoils.”[9]
I personally witnessed the impact of looting on combat units in the wars fought by Israel in our time, both the Six Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. When our commanders (in Paratroopers Brigade 55) discovered even trivial cases of looting, they collected all of the plunder and spoke about the fact that we, the Israel Defense Forces, did not go out to battle to collect spoils like gangs of looters – and then they burned everything in front of the soldiers. In this way, they maintained a pure fighting spirit, with vigilance and discipline. When, however, we met rear units that came to stay in the area, we were amazed by the amount of plunder that we saw in their hands. 
Based on this understanding, we can reexamine Yehoshua's battle at Yericho. Had Yehoshua's soldiers seen it as a miraculous opening to a natural and protracted war, they would have remained on high alert and in combat spirit. Therefore, it was extremely important to consecrate all of the spoils of Yericho (Yehoshua 5:18-19).[10] Akhan's trespass reflected an atmosphere of a diminished fighting spirit, an absence of vigilance and discipline, as if "the battle had already been decided, and who would dare to stand before us." From here developed underestimation of the enemy, mistakes in intelligence and leadership, and defeat in the first battle of Ai, together with the terrible crisis of faith that even affected Yehoshua. 
The overall change in the military leadership and in the deployment of forces, together with a proper fighting spirit, brought the people of Israel back on track. Therefore, after the victory over Ai, they were able to divide up the spoils, as they did in the camp in the plains of Moav after the war against Midyan. 
This is precisely the way we should understand the sin involving the spoils in Shaul's war against the city of Amalek (I Shemuel 15), as opposed to the orderly division of the plunder at the end of David's war against the Amalekite raiders (I Shemuel 30), which took place at the very same time that Shaul fell on the Gilboa (I Shemuel 31).[11] David was forced to finish the war that Shaul had started, but he presented it to the prophet Shemuel as a "campaign that ended successfully."
The IDF has internalized the Torah's morality of war on the level of Avraham and of the Jews in the book of Ester. Looting for personal gain, even when the plunder is divided in an organized manner, is absolutely forbidden. This moral idea has been absorbed deeply, especially in combat units.[12]

III. A moral explanation of the command to kill the women and children of Midyan

Now that we have found in the Torah a series of moral principles governing war, it is exceedingly difficult for us to make room for Moshe's direct command to kill every male child and every woman who is not a virgin (Bemidbar 31:17). We find this command shocking. It does not satisfy us to say that this was the norm in the ancient world, for as we have seen, the Torah's morality of war is based on the highest moral principles.
In my humble opinion, the Torah's morality of war is directed at preventing future wars of revenge. Most of the Midyanite children would have grown up filled with rage and desire for vengeance. Wars would have continued for many generations, with countless casualties on all sides. The fact is that after the war against Midyan, there was only one more instance of fighting the Midyanites (in the days of Gid'on; Shofetim 6-7), and after the wars against the Canaanites, there was only one more war against the Canaanite kings (in the days of Devora and Barak; Shofetim 4-5).
I see this logic in the Torah even among the people of Israel in the passage dealing with "a rebellious son" (Devarim 21:18-21, and Rashi ad loc.). "The Torah has fathomed his disposition" and "he is judged on account of the final course of his life" (Sanhedrin 71b). When the rebellious son grows up, he will lead a criminal gang, and many people will die because of him. Therefore, it is precisely on moral grounds that it is right to execute him when he is still young – before he kills other people, and it will be impossible to stop him.
In later generations, however, this cruel method of ending wars no longer worked. Just as Chazal worked to drastically reduce judicial executions (Makkot 7a), and similarly declared that "there never was a rebellious son, and there will never be one" (Sanhedrin 71a), there is similarly no room for killing women, children, or prisoners of war in general. Such a course of action will only intensify our cruelty and will not really put an end to war. This is the moral logic of international laws that remove civilian populations in general – and women, children and prisoners of war in particular – from the realm of the permissible, even in a justified war.
Regarding this matter, R. Shlomo Goren (Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces) ruled that it is absolutely forbidden to harm civilians, women and children, in violation of international laws of war, because of the desecration of God's name that this would involve.[13] This ruling is anchored in the words of the Rambam regarding the oath given to the Givonites (Yehoshua 9), despite the deception committed by the Givonites. The essence of the prohibition of desecrating God's name is the very commitment to conduct ourselves in accordance with international treaties, to which we have bound ourselves as the Jewish people in our independent country.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] 22,000 survived out of 59,000; See Bemidbar 26:14 in comparison with 1:23.
[2] As may be recalled, this was the great dilemma of the Israeli government on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when it became clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Egyptian and Syrian armies were planning to attack the following day. The army chief of staff demanded a preemptive attack, but the government was afraid that Israel would be accused of starting a war.
[3] See our shiurim on Parashat Chukat and Parashat Balak.
[4] According to R. Natan in Sifrei, Matot 157; so ruled the Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:7.
[5] See R. Shelomo Goren, Meishiv Milchama (Jerusalem, 1986/1994), vol. 3, pp. 239-265.
[6] This idea was suggested to me by my son Odaya, who was born during the Yom Kippur War, while I was serving in Suez.
[7] "And they took all the spoil… And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil to Moshe, and to Elazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, to the camp" (Bemidbar 31:11-12). Rashi writes (based on Sifrei 157): "This teaches us that they were pious and righteous men and were not suspected of robbery by stretching out their hand against the spoil without permission… and about them it is expressed (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 6:7): 'Your teeth are like a flock of ewes… [whereof all are perfect]' (Shir Ha-Shirim 6:6) – even your soldiers [who have teeth – that is, biting weapons] are all righteous."
[8] At that time in Suez, I wrote my article, "Shalal Milchama Be-Yisrael," which was published in 1974, in Alon Shevut 5:10.
[9] I Maccabees 4:17-18.
[10] All of the gold and silver and the metal vessels from Yericho were consecrated to God, similar to what the officers did in the war against Midyan.
[11] See my article, "Masa Agag – Chet Yisrael be-Amalek," Megadim 7 (1989). There, I offer an explanation of Shaul in relation to David regarding the spoils of Amalek.
[12] Of course, this is the norm, but there are always exceptions. Unfortunately, there are those who join together reports about these exceptions in order to portray the IDF in a negative light, and thus they trample the truth. 
[13] Meishiv Milchama, vol. 1, pp. 3-6, 14-16, based on the Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:5.