Politics & Policy

Maimonides On War

A religious tradition that President Bush might appreciate.

For George W. Bush, a passionate Christian, there must be some frustration in the fact that American Christian churches have overwhelmingly opposed the present war. From the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it’s hard to find a major denomination (Southern Baptists excepted) that didn’t come out against military action.

So Mr. Bush may take comfort in knowing that one other religious tradition would lend unequivocal support to giving him maximum freedom to make war as he sees fit. I refer to Jewish tradition.

If Christians look for guidance on the morality of war to the 13th-century scholar St. Thomas Aquinas, Judaism directs our attention to Moses Maimonides, who lived a century earlier. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides summarizes the teachings of the Talmud and Mishnah, works that clarify the dictates stated or alluded to in the Bible.

In the section of the Mishneh Torah called “The Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” he offers bracing clarity. The nation’s leader — its “king,” though we may substitute the word “president” — has a simple role: “to execute justice and conduct warfare.”

To be sure, this leader’s intention must always be “for the sake of Heaven.” In this model the king heads a country that stands for high moral values — prominently including peace, so cherished in Judaism that it’s said one of God’s names is Shalom, or Peace. But to defend such a nation may call for grim realism.

Maimonides identifies two categories of justifiable warfare. There is the war which is a divine “commandment,” including to save the nation “from the hand of the enemy that has come upon them.” This requires no approval from other branches of government. There is also the category of war called “optional,” driven by a need to ensure the future safety and prosperity of the country. The Talmud depicts the Biblical King David as making war against corrupt neighbors to provide his country, in danger of starvation, with sufficient sustenance (tractate Berachot, page 3b). This is not theft, but a matter of survival.

In an “optional” war, the king needs the approval of his legislative branch, the Sanhedrin of 71 expert sages. But with this approval secured, he may go to war to enlarge the nation’s borders, or to pursue “greatness” and “reputation.” Such a “reputation” is a defensive strategy. When other countries cease to regard your nation with awe, for instance if it tolerates violence against its citizens, this invites disrespect, which invites physical attack.

The leader opens with an offer of peace: “One does not conduct warfare against anyone in the world until [the king] has called out to him for peace.” The king must always grant his foes an avenue of escape from their besieged city. However it will shock modern sensibilities that he is unconstrained by our familiar imperative to distinguish between civilians and soldiers. Women and children are to be saved, but: “If [the enemy] does not accept peace…, one makes war on them [even to the point of] killing all the adult males.” This is a distressing ides; but as recent events demonstrate — with Saddamite guerrilla operatives in civilian dress ambushing U.S. forces — a man out of uniform is no less capable of mayhem than his uniformed counterpart.

Victory consists of total acceptance of the king’s will by the enemy, who must embrace seven basic laws of civilized behavior, and who “may make no conditions…regarding any matter whatsoever.”

All this is very different from the Christian “just war” theory of shielding all civilians and forbidding war except for immediately necessary self-defense. It may sound barbaric. Indeed Maimonides’s exposition is not to be confused with the opinions of modern American Jews. The Pew Research Center reports that Jewish support for the looming war runs lower (52 percent) than among other Americans (62 percent).

But Maimonides’s purpose is not to idealize killing or encourage war. On the contrary: Minimizing wartime casualties and hastening the peace and justice that are war’s ultimate purpose necessitates a leader’s being free to achieve victory as quickly as possible. By contrast, as political scientist Michael Walzer writes, some “just war” advocacy seems “intended to make fighting impossible.” This only perpetuates injustice.

As the invasion proceeds, President Bush may want to pick up a copy of the Mishneh Torah. He’ll find sober counsel, and perhaps some of the support he feels missing from authorities in his own tradition.

David Klinghoffer’s new book is The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, published this month by Doubleday.

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