There Are No Lights in War: We Need a Different Religious Language

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Ariel Shwartz

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Yashar: A Journal for Torah with Derech Eretz and is published here with permission. English translation by Mordechai Blau. 

What is the role of religious discourse during wartime? If we were to judge by the current situation, religious discourse serves, in many cases, to shine an idealizing light on the war and seeks to see it as a positive phenomenon that advances the world. Instead of peace, about which the sages said, “[There is] no vessel that holds blessing but peace” (Mishnah Uktzin 3:12), and which is one of God’s names, there are those who see divine revelation specifically in times of war and view those moments as the zeniths of Jewish and human history.

An example of this can be found in the recent words of R. Amihai Friedman, the rabbi of the Nahal brigade’s training base: “I sit and imagine that in these days there are no casualties, hostages, or injured,” he told his soldiers. “And the second I remove them from the screen, I’m left with what is maybe the happiest month in my life since I was born.”[1]

R. Friedman’s words give rise to a harsh realization: around us is a religious world that is happy, in many respects, about the current war. Thus, for example, writes R. Yigal Levinstein in the pamphlet He Leaps Up Like a Lion: On the Exaltation of the Spirit and the Special Level of Life During Times of War that saw light in the situation: “The war is not a marginal thing, and we should not view it as a ‘mistake’ or a ‘mishap’ which we would have preferred to avoid. The war is a great thing and, at the end of the day, brings a great message to humanity on its wings.”[2] According to R. Levinstein, the greatness of the war is rooted in the fact that it is one of those extraordinary moments in which “the inner soul shines in all its vitality.” Indeed, for the individual, the war is a difficult event, but at the national level it calls forth great moments in which the people of Israel “reveals from within itself its mighty heights of life.”[3]

R. Zvi Tau writes in a similar vein in the pamphlet A Time for War – Words to Strengthen the National Spirit.[4] According to him, the days of peace and serenity that preceded the war caused the “slumber of the nation’s spiritual life forces.” This state of slumber caused “great confusion in all of the nation’s cultural goals” until people searched for happiness “in low places.” This slumber brought about, among other things, words of weakness regarding insubordination and leaving Israel. This situation brought on “these extraordinary days” whose goal is “to raise up the mind and to shed the slag that has stuck to us.” Thus, according to him, the external persecution by Hamas is nothing but a means for the revelation of “the soul’s light” that “pushes to be revealed in life,” the light that manifests in national heroism. The national heroism awakens thanks to the war and is what “connects the entire nation to its faith and its land.”[5]

It would seem, therefore, that R. Friedman’s words did not come to be in a vacuum. They represent a school that idealizes war and wants to see wartime as “special,” “vital,” and “joyous.”

A Different Religious Horizon
In opposition to this religious discourse, I would want to imagine a different religious discourse―a discourse in which religion functions as our horizon and allows us to think beyond the concrete political circumstances. In this manner, the religious discourse will return to its mission, and rather than offering an aestheticization or a glorification of war, it will grant our politics a horizon and an orientation. This is the secret of the power of religious discourse in wartime: its ability to maintain tension and to speak both in the language of the present and the language of the future, the language of the extant and also the language of the desired, to differentiate between the place in which we currently stand and the place in which we wish to be, and all without blurring the difference between them.

An example of the attempt to blur these poles is the picture that was published recently, in which a soldier reads from a Torah scroll in Gaza while pointing at the scripture with a sharp knife as his ‘yad.’ The picture became widespread and was seen by many as a reflection of the Jewish spirit of “Safra ve-Sayfa,” book and sword. Certain rabbis even joined in with enthusiasm and enlisted to permit this act from a halakhic perspective.[6]

However, analysis of the Jewish tradition teaches that the religious language attempts to mold holy spaces into spaces from which war and its tools are excluded. The Torah sees the brandishing of a sword above the altar as its desecration. Sages explain that this prohibition is derived from the contrast between them: “For iron was created to shorten the days of man, and the altar to increase the days of man” (Mishnah Middot 3:4). In the same fashion, it is prohibited to bring a knife into a synagogue “because prayer lengthens the days of man, and the knife shortens.”[7] Additional halakhic adjudicators also prohibited the writing of a Torah scroll (and even Torah commentaries!) with an iron quill based on a similar reason: “the Torah lengthens days, and the iron shortens.”[8]

It is forbidden to bring into the religious sphere―the sphere of synagogue, Torah, and prayer―objects whose purpose is the taking of life. The Torah did not prohibit the use of weapons for the purposes of war and defense; if weapons were not permitted, there would be no need to prohibit taking them into holy spaces. Despite this, the Torah ruled that holy spaces are intended to mark a horizon which is radically loyal to the preservation of life. The very fact of the existence of such a religious sphere prevents any attempt at exalting war or its tools. Thus also in the case of King David―who, despite the righteousness of his wars had to abstain from building the Temple in which the divine presence would reside, because his hands were full of blood (“You shall not build a house for My name, for you have spilled much blood to the earth before Me,” I Chronicles 22:8)―only his son Solomon, in whose days there would be peace, would be able to bring about the presence of the divine spirit (“Behold a son is born unto you; he shall be a man of rest, and I shall give him rest from all his enemies around him, for Solomon shall be his name, and peace and quiet I will give unto Israel all his days,” I Chronicles 22:9). The Jewish horizon is, if so, a horizon free from war.

As a student in Yeshivat Otniel, I saw how R. Re’em Ha-Cohen, at a party prior to the enlistment of students, dealt with the question of whether to recite the blessing of “she-hehiyanu” on the uniform while being enlisted to the IDF, as is the practice in many yeshivot. R. Re’em would reply that we should recite the “she-hehiyanu” blessing not when donning army uniforms but when, as a society, we will be able to remove them. Enlistment is not the complete religious horizon about which to rejoice. True happiness on which to recite the blessing will come only in the future situation in which “nation shall not bear sword against nation and they shall study war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

In the picture that was published and the accompanying halakhic ruling, there is an attempt to annul the divide which Halakhah attempts to establish between the extant and the ideal worlds, between our reality and the horizon which religious discourse opens for us. Religious discourse is undergoing a serious reduction and is becoming a tool designed to justify the extant situation, attempting to make it “pleasant” and aesthetic. But we must note: this attempt is possible only after we have concealed essential aspects that are entailed by war. This is precisely why R. Friedman suggests “putting aside” the dead and the captives, or why R. Levinstein suggests we view the war not through personal eyes that are interested in the individual and his destruction but through “national” eyes. As opposed to this approach, our sages teach that weapons are never pleasant but rather disgraceful to the bearer (Mishnah Shabbat 6:4). This is not because of a pacifistic position but because of an obligation to the religious horizon that teaches that beauty and the aesthetic are not present in warfare but rather in peace, when “nation shall not bear sword against nation and they shall study war no more.”

If so, the role of religious discourse in this context is “to remove the enchantment” from war and to oppose any attempt to glorify it, beautify it, or turn it into a societal or human ideal. The religious discourse must highlight the ugliness of war and the disgrace that is inherent in it, its post-facto nature, how it is a phenomenon that testifies to a nadir in human relations―that it is founded on blood, pain, and destruction. Indeed, there are wars that serve righteousness and protect human life, and therefore it is proper to fight them. Additionally, no one denies that times of war may bring out expressions of heroism on the battlefield and stupendous expressions of human solidarity. Despite this, these inspiring acts should not blur the fact that war as a whole is an eclipse in human light, and it would be better if we could prevent it.

Thou Shalt Not Kill: War as an Affliction of Tzara’at
A prime example of this sort of religious discourse can be found in the words of R. David Cohen, known as “Ha-Rav Ha-Nazir,” in the book A Scroll of War and Peace, which was published after the Yom Kippur War: “War is the tzara’at affliction of humanity in our generations and in all the generations that have ever been,” he writes. “Mass murder, general murder, killing tens of thousands, the best of humanity and the finest. Leaving sick and injured, maimed for all their days, destroying works of culture, demolishing the splendid buildings and exalted institutions of literature and art, and whosoever exceeds in killing, destroying, and annihilating is the winner, successful and praised.”[9]

According to Ha-Rav Ha-Nazir, the prohibition of “Thou shalt not murder” is to be “an absolute decision, an absolute edict.” Indeed, the Torah permitted war: “And there are wars of mitzvah, and permissible wars, and wars of defense which are obligatory as well.” However, all these commands have a post-facto nature and are in terms of: “The Torah has not spoken but in regard to the evil inclination.”[10] In these words, Ha-Rav Ha-Nazir expands on the words of the sages who read the section of Deuteronomy dealing with the taking of the eishet yefat to’ar as being of a post-facto nature which addresses humanity’s evil inclination, and he reads all the sections in the Torah that deal with war in the wake of that section. War is possible, according to him, only after the fall of humanity and its enslavement to the “evil inclination” within man.

As opposed to this, according to him, “the peace movement” is the one that “needs to grow mightier and stronger, and which will grow mightier and stronger, in distinction to war, in the disbanding of armies and the beating of weapons” [into farming tools]. The strengthening of the peace movement must be the goal of the people of culture and those who fear heaven: “And this must be the aim of culture, this must be the function of schools, the houses of learning, the great batei midrash, the teachers and the students―to stop the evil, the murder, and the impurity, and to raise the banner of the good, purity, and holiness.”[11] Holiness and purity are identified with the striving for peace, while the spirit of war is identified with impurity and evil.

Another thinker who wrote about the Jewish attitude toward war is R. Avraham Hen (Ukraine 1887 – Jerusalem 1957), in his book In the Kingdom of Judaism.[12] R. Hen writes that the Jewish aspiration mentioned above―to achieve a state of “nation shall not bear sword against nation and they shall study war no more”―means “not the honor of Jewish weaponry. Not national victory. Not the Israeli flag raised in all the ports” but rather “the abolition of the very phenomenon of victory. The abolition of the art of war and its study, the abolition of the very tools of weaponry―here is the yearning of Judaism.”[13] R. Hen bemoans “the genius which humankind wastes on inventing tools of death, ruin, and destruction” and asks: “Who will count the physical and spiritual fortune of the time which each land sacrifices to the Molekh?”[14] In his words, war becomes actual idolatry (this may be compared to the words of Gesher Ha-Hayyim regarding World War II).[15]

R. Hen also writes that “no war is ideal” and no war is preferable to peace, including those described in Tanakh. Despite this, he stresses that there are degrees of evil―a war that protects justice that has been breached is the most preferable, in the sense of the lesser of two evils.[16]

R. Aharon Shmuel Tamares, a rabbi and writer who was active in Eastern Europe during World War I, also dealt with the Jewish tradition’s opposition to aestheticization and glorification of war.[17] He writes that, after World War I, “False prophets will deceive us to view the result of the world war as world progress.” Despite this: “In truth, the world is now, after the wars, far more broken, shattered, and contemptible than it was previously. So there is no reason to be envious of the ‘gain’ that has befallen nations from the revolutions or the revivals that grew out of the courtyard of death and were built on the ruins of both the material and ethical worlds.”[18]

Such claims regarding apparent world progress in the wake of war bring R. Tamares to ask: “Have all the killed, the butchered, and the strangled come back to life? Has the mound of the dying whom I heard spasm in the agonies of death and spurt blood from their necks, been healed and returned to their strength?… Calamity of calamities, thousands of thousands of widows, orphans, maimed, and sick, people whose light of life has been dimmed forever.”[19] As opposed to Rav Kook’s well-known words in the wake of the outbreak of World War I―
“When there is a great war in the world a messianic power arises. The time of the singing bird has come…the evil are eliminated from the world and the world becomes fragrant”[20]―R. Tamares sees the very same war as the climax of human deterioration to the pits of killing and disgrace.

Ethics of War
Alongside the idealization of war in contemporary religious discourse, religion is being used also to justify revenge, cruelty, and lack of differentiation between blood and blood. Since the beginning of the war, analysts on television panels have been calling for us to “begin speaking Arabic,” when what they mean is to adopt semi-Hamas-esque behaviors which do not differentiate between blood and blood, and which condone unbound killing and destruction. In opposition to these voices, which are often justified in religious discourse, we must remember that the current struggle is not merely for the physical existence of the Jewish people but also for our existence as Jews, whose language is not the language of Hamas but of holiness.

The role of the imperative religious discourse in this context is to highlight that ethical conduct during war is not an invention of “Western culture” but is, at the heart of hearts, of Jewish tradition. Abraham was chosen because he kept the way of God “to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). Abraham’s way of justice is revealed a few verses later, when he suspects that God intends to commit undifferentiated slaughter of the evil Sodom: “Will You indeed make perish the righteous with the evil?!” asks/demands Abraham. “Shall the Judge of all the land not do justice?” (Genesis 18:23). In opposition to claims that differentiation between groups in the same population and that strong opposition to collective punishment are a product of “Western ethics,” we must remember that separating between the inhabitants of a city based on their deeds is the heart of Abrahamic ethics; it is the heart of God’s choosing of Abraham.

Sweeping disapproval of punishment not for a person’s actions but for their assumed actions when he grows, or because of his belonging to a particular collective―reasons whose proponents’ voices have been growing much stronger recently―is the heart of the Torah’s ethics. “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children; neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16). The sages taught that even the sections of the Torah which seem at first glance not to match this fundamental idea―like the punishment of the wayward and rebellious son who is judged based on his future, or the collective punishment of “the city led astray”―are theoretical sections, and each of the cases described in them “never were and never shall be” (Sanhedrin 71a).

In opposition to the feeling of joy that R. Friedman described in light of the war, R. Hen teaches that the inner stance with respect to war should be learned from our forefather Jacob, about whom it was said prior to his meeting with Esau that he feared not just his brother’s violence but his own violence as well: “And he was afraid―lest he be killed. And he was distressed―if he should kill.”[21] R. Hen remarks that this does not concern the killing of an ordinary person but the killing of the evil Esau who planned to destroy the house of Israel, which seemingly would make the war on him a war of defense against “the great disaster that would be liable to occur if Esau were to win.”[22] And even in such a case, Jacob’s thoughts of killing Esau trouble him deeply. Jacob is distressed. As opposed to the “happiness” which R. Friedman described, R. Hen calls for us not to relinquish the distress that accompanies the thought of killing, even in places where it is justified and necessary, and even more so in relation to innocents and bystanders. This feeling is essential to a society that sanctifies life and the image of God in humanity.

Widening segments of the contemporary religious community are seeking to wrap the war in a halo of enchantment and holiness and turn it pleasant, ideal, and even joyous from an emotional perspective. In furtherance of this aestheticization and idealization, there are those who seek to remove any ethical brakes from the war. They call for us not to differentiate between blood and blood and condone any action done in its framework. These conceptions treat the spirit of battle as the climax of the revelation of the human spirit, but within this, implicitly, it is as though they require war to happen again and again, so that this “spirit of battle” may be revealed. In light of this attempt, we must seek a different religious language―one that remembers that the Jewish horizon is not war but peace, that the goal of the Jewish nation’s existence on this land is not “to shorten the life of man but to lengthen,” and that ethical conduct even in times of war is the soul of our religious tradition.

[1] See the video at

[2] See the pamphlet atחוברתחדשהלזמןמלחמהכארייתנשא, at 6.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] See the pamphlet at

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Seeהרבאבינרעלהתמונהשהסעירהאתהרשתאי#google_vignette.

[7] Taz, Orah Hayyim 151:6.

[8] Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 271:38.

[9] R. David Cohen, Megillat Milhamah Ve-Shalom (Jerusalem: Nezer David, 1973), 11.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Avraham Hen, Be-Malkhut Ha-Yahadut (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1958).

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Ibid., 9.

[15] See R. Yehiel Mikhel Tikochinsky, Gesher Ha-Hayyim (Jerusalem: Salomon Printing Press, 1947), 3-4, available at

[16] Be-Malkhut Ha-Yahadut, 46.

[17] His articles were recently republished in the collection Tohu Va-Vohu: Hamesh Masot, ed. Tzahi Slater (Jerusalem: Blima Books, 2022).

[18] Ibid., 123.

[19] Ibid., 25.

[20] Orot, Orot Mei-Ofel, Ha-Milhamah 1.

[21] Rashi to Genesis 32:8, s.v. “va-yira va-yetzer.”

[22] Be-Malkhut Ha-Yahadut, 24.

Ariel Shwartz is an Israeli lawyer, social worker, and social activist.