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Journal of Religion and Violence

Volume 3, Issue 3, 2015

Symposium on Religion, War, and Ethics: A Sourcebook of Textual Traditions

Reuven Firestone
Pages 343-355

War Policies in Judaism as Responses to Power and Powerlessness

The premise underlying this article is that religions, like all institutions, do what is necessary to endure. Like other religions, Judaism has adjusted survival strategies ranging from quietism to militarism. The Jews of antiquity engaged actively and successfully in bloody wars that were considered to be divinely and ethically sanctioned, but after crushing defeats against the Roman Empire, militant responses to communal threat came to be regarded as self-destructive. “Holy war” was then removed from the repertoire of Jewish endurance strategies through the development of safeguards intended to prevent zealots from declaring war and thus endangering a weak and dispersed community. This move was sustainable within a particular historical context, which lasted until the modern period. Following traumatic modern pogroms and the Holocaust, however, military passivity came to be regarded as endangering Jewish survival. Consequently, the traditional safeguards were effectively removed for a significant sector of Jews, thereby allowing for a return to biblical-influenced militancy.

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