Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea

[Note: This is the second part in a “holy-war trilogy”. The previous post on Islam is here.]

The first thing to observe is that this book is quite different from the author’s study of Islam. It’s almost twice as long (365 pages instead of 190), which owes to its comprehensive scope. “It begins in the dark corridors of antiquity,” says Firestone, “and ends with the blinding explosion of the Jewish Underground in the mid-1980s” (p 7). The whole of Judaism’s history is under the microscope — from biblical times to the rabbinic period to the modern. Jihad was focused on the more narrow question of historical origins; once established, holy war has always been an essential part of Islam, and consistently interpreted as such. Judaism is another matter, and thus the subtitle, “The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea”.

What emerges is that holy war, while not essential to Judaism, is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. The rabbis didn’t totally spiritualize the concept. They made it strenuously difficult to apply, pursuant to their powerless position, but the idea of taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if they could have, they would have”. This is rather opposite the phenomenon of the Christian crusades, which depended on the intersection of many improbable factors and had no basis in Christian thought at all.

While Zionists in today’s world are the Jewish minority, they aren’t so in Israel, and even the religious Zionists are not so few in number. Many Israelis don’t align with secular Zionism or orthodoxy, and they are galvanized by the passion of religious activists, confident in the divine imperative of holy war to conquer the promised land. Holy war has been part of the Jewish discourse for decades now, not in the Islamic sense of world dominion, slaughter and subjugation of unbelievers, granted, but certainly in the sense of engaging in whatever military means necessary to take back the biblical patrimony. Let’s start where it all began.

The Biblical and Second-Temple Periods

Firestone outlines the Deuteronomic view of holy war, which is the most systematic and comprehensive in the Hebrew Bible. The irony, he notes, is that the conquest of Palestine may not have been historically fought based on this formulation, since the ideas evolved long after the consolidation of Israel as a nation (culminating late in the seventh century BC). We simply can’t know whether the wars against the Canaanites, Philistines, Assyrians, or even the Babylonians were considered holy at the time they were fought. But the vision as preserved is clear. The Jewish descendants believed their Israelite ancestors had been fighting holy wars to keep the land of Israel pure and their religion alive.

The classic holy war texts of Deuteronomy have two major aims, the first being possession of the land (1:6-8, 2:25-37, 3:1-22, 6:10-12, 7:1, 9:1-3, 11:23-25, 20:1-18, 29:6-8, 31:3-6), the second to keep the land free of idolatry and also of those who practice it (7:1-5, 7:16-26, 12:1-3, 12:29-13:1, 13:2-19, 16:21-22, 17:2-7, 18:9-14). Of critical note — this being a huge difference between Judaism and Islam — is that destruction of idolatrous peoples is to be carried out only within the promised land itself. Never does God command holy war to be waged beyond the land’s borders, or to subjugate unbelievers elsewhere (p 23). From the Israelite/Jewish perspective, the purpose of holy war never included bringing “right religion” to other nations, or to “propagate the faith” (p 24). It was not outward looking, and did not seek converts. It was meant to isolate Israel, to unify and strengthen a minority people through a defensive strategy.

When Israel lost its monarchy and political independence (the Second Temple period), holy war became the war of rebellion. The celebratory case is the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids (167-160 BC), the basis for Hanukkah. The heroes of I Maccabees are the military commanders who enforce Jewish religion by force of arms, and remind in some ways of the modern Taliban — at least in their willingness to kill anyone, even their own people, for budging an inch from what the Torah required (I Macc 2:19-28, for example). The heroes of II Maccabees, on the other hand, are the faithful martyrs willing to die for the purity of their faith, preferably without resorting to arms, though the latter may be a necessary evil. II Maccabees shines the approving spotlight on martyrs more than militants, subordinating militarism to a selfless sacrifice that doesn’t necessarily aim to kill opponents at the same time.

While the Maccabean victory against the Seleucids highlight the glory of holy war (given its success), all extant accounts of the later revolts against Rome — the Great Revolt of 67 AD and the Bar Kockhba Revolt of 135 AD — emphasize that holy war is futile and that Judaism’s survival depends on a loss of political independence. Life, even under oppression and humiliation and exile, was now preferable to rebellion and martyrdom. Pious sages supplanted holy warriors, and any Jewish activists engaged in holy war or guerrilla activities were now considered criminals rather than freedom fighters (pp 62-63). The rabbis taught that Israel would be protected from its enemies not by warfare, but by prayer and righteousness behavior… with a big “but”.

The Rabbinical Period

The rabbis were creative in dealing with holy war. First, they defined it in a way that it made it virtually impossible to apply (pp 73-74). Holy war was limited to the wars of conquest by Joshua in ages past. A new conquest of the promised land was never again to be initiated by the Jews, but by God who alone would determine when the time was right.

Second, they established the Three Vows (pp 74-75) to reinforce the idea that any human attempts to usher in the messianic age is to “force God’s hand”, which will bring God’s wrath and destruction on the Jewish people. They derived the Three Vows from the Song of Songs:

“I make you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, do not wake or rouse love until it is wished “(Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, 8:4).

The “daughters of Jerusalem” are understood as a metaphor for Israel, and “making and rousing love” as an attempt to bring about the messiah. Orthodox Jews would later oppose Zionism primarily on the basis of these Three Vows.

But even if practically impossible, holy war was still theoretically possible and discussed in theory by rabbis down the centuries. The two most influential were Maimonides (1138-1204) and Nahmanides (1194-1270).

Maimonides’s views were influenced by Islamic supremacism, much as the Christian crusades were at the same time a response to Islamic jihad. He fled Spain after the Almohads took over in 1148, went to Morocco, but had to flee Islamic oppression again, and then again after settling in Acre. He believed, for example, that Moses was commanded to compel human beings to accept the Noahide laws — not the Mosaic laws, and so not as extreme as an Islam-equivalent (Islam required idolaters to fully convert to Islam), but a remarkable development nonetheless in Jewish theology. In Maimonides’ view of holy war, God commanded only the destruction of the seven Canaanite nations and the tribe of Amalek, but this command is eternal, in the sense that Canaan and Amalek symbolize idolatry. Even the idolatrous Canaanites and Amalekites were offered terms of peace by Joshua (according to Maimonides), but they refused, thus justifying the holy wars that destroyed them. Maimonides thus portrays holy war more as a reflection of God’s will to bring the right beliefs to idolaters, instead of taking possession of the land.

Nahmanides also ended up in Acre, staying there until his death. He followed many of Maimonides’ theories, but had a serious disagreement which would become a classic Torah debate. He denied that God’s command to destroy Canaan and Amalek was a mere declaration against idolatry. It was indeed a specific directive to take possession of the land of Israel, and from any idolater, whether Canaanite or otherwise. The eternal command is to take possession of the land (though Nahmanides does accept that idolaters in the land need not be destroyed if they surrender and accept minimal conditions), which of course the Jewish people were in no position to do. Nahmanides fudged by offering an alternative to military conquest, that of settlement. “Settling in the land of Israel,” he says, “is equal to all the commandments of the Torah.”

For all their spiritualizing efforts and goalpost shifting, Maimonides and Nahmanides were also concerned with providing a legal foundation for a (theoretical) military conquest of the land of Israel. Maimonides obsessed the proper definition of “national conquest” (p 119), and the views of Nahmanides especially would be chewed over and fine-tuned by later Zionists. This is the “but” that is often glided over in discussing the otherwise peaceful and spiritual approaches of the rabbis.


The seeds of Zionism go back to the 1860s, as secular Jews looked for ways to assimilate on their own terms. The Jewish state finally emerged in 1948 in terms of secular nationalism, then with increased religious fervor alongside secular voices. By the mid-’80s the belief in holy conquest had taken on the ancient tone of divinely ordained (and virtually unlimited) military possession of the promised land.

For about twenty years after the state of Israel was formed, Zionism remained a largely social-utopian vision. It wasn’t firmly anchored in religiosity or scriptural affirmation at this time. Whenever Zionists cited scripture and invoked traditional symbols to support their vision, it was part of an effort “to Judaize culturally, through symbols and language, what was at core a modern European-style nationalist movement” (p 251). It was the Six-Day war of 1967 which sparked a revival of religious fervor that gave Zionism a cutting, bellicose religiosity. The context, as Firestone explains, was that of a perceived miracle: In the weeks leading up to the outbreak on June 5, Israel found itself surrounded by millions of Muslims who were being told to destroy the Jewish nation. Egypt had received a Soviet military armament during the previous decade, and the Egyptian president had concentrated troops in the Sinai peninsula, closed the straits of Tiran to Israelit shipping, and persuaded Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia (in varying degrees) to reinforce efforts against Israel. The Israelis saw the UN and European powers as indifferent to all of this, and feared that another Holocaust was in the making.

In this context, says Firestone, the quick overnight victory signaled not only a miracle, but to many Jews a sign that redemption was finally at hand. Even secular Jews turned to their religious roots, and joined hands with Israelis who acknowledged the messianic nature of Zionism. A dam had burst and huge numbers in the Zionist camp were calling for redemption. The idea of conquest was now about more than just agriculture, settlement, and activism to restore the land. It was about keeping the land religiously pure, and preparing for a new age.

The debates were furious. Since the creation of the Jewish state, questions remained unresolved: Did the Gentile persecution of Jews and the threat of Islam throughout the 19th and 20th centuries justify a breaking of the Three Vows, so as to engage actively in bringing out the messianic redemption? Or were these persecutions and threats stern warnings from God, in which case Zionism could only be another misguided attempt to force God’s hand? The victory of 1967, as Firestone tells it, seemed to resolve all doubt about the matter. It was a clear sign that God intended Israel to conquer and settle all the biblical land of Israel. It would be a failure of the Jewish people if they were to defy the command carried in this miracle of victory.

There is an important point here, though Firestone does not explicitly make it. The rise of holy war in Zionist thought involved more than socio-political realities. Beliefs matter, and by that I mean all the strongly attested beliefs of one’s tradition. The biblical view of holy war was important to religious Zionists — but so were the Three Vows, which had formed the basis for centuries of apolitical Judaism, and couldn’t be spuriously dismissed or superseded. Even the most zealous Zionists took care in disarming those vows. Their reasoning was elaborate and considered, for example, that according to a 17th century Jewish thinker, the vows were only in force for 1000 years, and after that time period, when Jewish people are under attack or serious threat, able-bodied Jewish men are required to fight per the stipulations of holy war (p 260). Orthodox and anti-Zionist Jews, meanwhile, uphold the Three Vows to this day.

The Zionist envelope was pushed hard by the 1980s, the period which Firestone marks as the final stage of development of Jewish holy war ideology (p 311). Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook veered close to the view of Islamic jihad, when he called for God to kill Arabs to avenge the victims of Muslim gunmen (p 289). He reserved wrath and vengeance for God, but his rhetoric was inflammatory enough that it could be misconstrued. More generally, he extended the views of Nahmanides in such a way that cancelled any limitations on holy war imposed by the Talmud. Other rabbis (like Yitzhak Kaufman in the ’90s) would follow suit. Then there were rogue Zionists, who engaged in acts of terrorism against the Palestinians, and tried to destroy the Dome of the Rock. They were fringe, of course, and publicly condemned by all respected rabbis. Certainly the standard halakhic journals provided no articles to justify terror. But there were rogue rabbis who privately backed these acts of terror, lending Jewish terrorists a fringe legitimacy (see p 309).


That’s where the road ends. “By the mid-1980s,” says Firestone, “the revival of holy war in modern Judaism had been complete, and therefore also is this study.” His book is the best conceptual journey of its kind, and filled with exegetical details. While a comparative strategy does not seem intended on his part, the book goes well with his study on Islam. Jewish holy war is not as pernicious as Islam’s. It certainly doesn’t constitute a global threat against human rights and civilized values. Nor does it enjoy the weighted attestation and consistently applied theory of the jihad. It is nonetheless a troubling Jewish ingredient that won’t go away, and we can understand why, thanks to Firestone’s study.

Stay tuned for the third post, Holy War in Christianity: The Birth and Death of a Paradox.

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