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Israel’s Wars from the Torah to Today: Reflections on Vayishlach

In considering Jacob’s actions in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in light of Israel’s ongoing war against the Hamas terrorists, it is worth reviewing emergent themes in the history of Jews and military conflict prior to 1948.
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November 30, 2023
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Reluctant to engage with his militaristic opponent Esau, Jacob hopes negotiations will avert the need for an armed struggle. When forced to wrestle with an angel, however, Jacob, steeled with determination, emerges victorious from battle with a foe who had initially gained the upper hand.

In considering Jacob’s actions in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in light of Israel’s ongoing war against the Hamas terrorists — the individual Israel’s first battle to the State of Israel’s current war — it is worth reviewing emergent themes in the history of Jews and military conflict prior to 1948.

As Derek Penslar, professor of Jewish history at Harvard, notes in his encyclopedic book “Jews and the Military,” the Talmud — composed after the Jewish people had long since lost political autonomy — retroactively framed biblical battles into scholarly jousting. The idea of a Jewish army waging war was so removed from exilic lived reality at the time that it was allegorized away. The fights of King David and his warriors were reread as “wars of Torah.” The children of Jacob were characterized by their “dwelling in tents,” studiously avoiding conflict. 

Thus Rabbi Abahu’s assertion in tractate Bava Kama that:

“A person should always be among those who are pursued and not among the pursuers. One can prove that this is so, as none among birds are pursued more than doves and pigeons, as all predators hunt them, and from all birds the verse deemed them fit to be sacrificed on the altar [in the Temple].”

For centuries, as Babylonians, Persians and Hellenists saw their empires wrestle control of Judea, if Jews were to be found fighting, it would be on behalf of other nations’ armies. Jews were counted among the troops of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. Following the Temple’s destruction, the Christianization of Rome and subsequent rise of Islam, as Penslar documents, “Jews in Christendom continued to serve as soldiers and commanders … and in the Islamic world throughout the Middle Ages,” despite laws being passed restricting their participation.

Traditional sources undoubtedly wrestled with squaring these efforts with Jewish values. Multiple medieval illustrated Haggadot from France contain images of the young David taking on the giant Goliath, a pictorial proof-text for taking up arms against the enemy. In other manuscripts, ranging from 14th century Barcelona to Prague (1526) to Amsterdam (1695), the “Wicked Son” in the passage about the Four Sons is depicted as a soldier, demonstrating discomfort with the dynamics of militarism. Jews of this time, observers and victims of conquests and Crusades, were hardly in position to do anything more than pray for political liberation. 

The historian Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson has written, summarizing the views of the medieval sages Maimonides and Abraham Ibn Ezra, that these great thinkers saw “in the [Jews’] social degradation and suffering a blow and woe that must be borne so long as it is not possible to rise up against [oppressors] in force; but if it possible to cast off the yoke and overturn the rule of those who humiliate the Jews, war is a good, as is the sword in hand, for this is the honor of the believers and the will of their God.”

Later Jewish sages continued to encourage their constituency to navigate the challenges participating in non-Jewish battles would present. Thus, Yisrael Meir haKohen Kagan, known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933, Belarus), encouraged those who enlisted to serve in the infantry, which, it was hoped, would involve less Shabbat desecration than the clerical or medical corps. Soldiers were reminded to avoid committing the cardinal sins of sexual impropriety, idol worship, and “spilling the blood of one of his brethren” in the heat of battle. A few decades earlier, Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda HaLevi Landau of Prague, known as the Noda B’Yehuda (1713 – 1793), addressed a group of 25 Jewish conscripts beginning their term of service. According to accounts, the rabbi handed each soldier a prayer book, tefillin and tzitzit, and, speaking in High German, told them:

“Go forth to your fate, follow it without protest, obey your superiors, be loyal out of duty and patient out of obedience. Yet forget ye not your religion, do not be ashamed to be yehudim among so many Christians. Pray to God daily as soon as you wake. For prayer to God comes before all. The Emperor himself and all his servants … pray daily to their creator. Do not be ashamed of this sign of the Jewish faith … Earn for yourselves and our entire nation gratitude and honor so that one may see that our nation as well loves its ruler and state authority, and in case of need is prepared to offer up its life … And what glory and what love will you not then thereby gain amongst all virtuous men, as well as by your brethren.”

Concerns over fealty to the faith of their fathers amidst the fog of war was very real. 

Concerns over fealty to the faith of their fathers amidst the fog of war was very real. In the middle decades of the 19th century, over 15,000 Russian Jewish soldiers converted to Christianity.

Whether or not they abided by religious law, Jews of different lands often distinguished themselves on the battlefield. To cite representative modern examples, Adolph Moses (1840-1902) grew up as a yeshiva student in Prussian Poland and left his studies to fight for Italian unification alongside Garibaldi in 1859. He later served as a Polish officer, fighting against Russia in 1863. Returning to Germany to complete his rabbinical studies, he ended his career as a Reform rabbi in Kentucky. Among the hundreds of Jews who fought on both sides of the American Civil War, Commodore Uriah Levy not only commanded several naval missions for the North, he successfully campaigned to end corporal punishment in the navy. Colonel Albert Goldsmid, a British officer, who was raised a Christian but became aware of his Jewish lineage as an adult, was a hero of the Anglo-Boer War and an ardent Zionist, inspiring Theodore Herzl. He founded the Jewish Lads’ Brigade in 1895 and the Maccabaeans (sic), a still operational Anglo-Jewish society. 

Naturally, admiration of the Maccabee successful war against the Seleucid-Greeks that birthed the holiday of Hanukkah was cited in support of Jewish valor. In his first published work in 1846, an essay titled “The Structure of Jewish History,” the renowned Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz argued that these ancient fighters had “transformed victims who feared the use of weapons into military heroes.” The early 20th-century Zionist Max Nordau associated his movement with the Israelites of old, referencing the “old and new Maccabees.” During Hanukkah in Germany in 1848, the activist Emil Lehmann composed a poem exhorting his coreligionists to follow the “colors” of the Maccabees.

“They fought with burning courage / For their cherished fatherland / O fight as well for yours / For Germany, the beautiful and dear!”

During the 1853-1856 Crimean War in which Russia faced off against the Ottoman Empire, France and the United Kingdom, Polish Jewish volunteers gave themselves the name “Maccabean Hussars.”

Perceived loyalty to Jewish interests over the nation often led to the cloud of antisemitism hovering over the most well-intentioned fighters. In the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant expelled the Jews from a large territory under his command, an order almost immediately revoked by President Lincoln. Accusations against the French Lieutenant Alfred Dreyfus catalyzed, as Penslar puts it, “an explosion of political antisemitism such as France had never seen before,” not unlike the reaction in many countries to Hamas’s recent attack, with its supporters taking to the streets of countries throughout Europe, America and the Middle East.

In the early 1940s, with word of the Holocaust spreading, Jews living in Mandatory Palestine and Jews living in America embraced the war effort against the Nazis. Decades before social media debates would serve as an extension of the physical battlefield, the Jewish community sought to enlist media personalities to bolster its cause. Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood and Broadway stars took to the stage in a theatrical production, “We Will Never Die,” that recounted the Jewish contribution to civilization and called for a Jewish army to be formed. The show was seen by over 100,000 people in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C. and L.A. Another production, “A Flag is Born,” written by Ben Hecht, the most renowned screenwriter of his time, starred Marlon Brando. He played David, a Holocaust survivor on the verge of suicide who is psychologically revived by the sounds of “Hatikvah” and the arrival of three Jewish soldiers on stage, representing the Haganah, Irgun and Lechi, the pre-state Jewish fighting forces. After the war, fundraising basketball games were held in the Catskills, featuring athletically inclined staff working in the local hotels’ kitchens. One young star to emerge was named Wilt Chamberlain. 

As this was the pre-TikTok era (that is, when children read books), literature aimed at the young also served to bolster morale. “Jews Fight Too!” was published in 1945. Featuring a preface by the Roman Catholic congressman James M. Curley (D-Mass.), it consisted of tales of Jewish heroism. It begins, “Yes, Jews fight too! Perhaps they do not fight any better, nor more heroically than other people — but certainly no less bravely do they fight.”

Then as now, there was a fringe element of liberal Jews reluctant to engage militarily with those sworn to our people’s destruction. Today’s Jewish Voice for Peace was the 1940s Jewish Peace Fellowship, founded in 1941. Its founder, Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, remarked in 1937 that the worst thing Hitler had done was destroy the Jews’ love of peace. Thankfully, the vast majority of Jews landed on the right side of history. There was only one conscientious objector to the Allies’ fight for every 2,200 Jewish soldiers, while for Christians, Penslar notes, the figure was one out of 653.

Israel as a modern state now possesses the military resources that these earlier fighters, for whom the restoration of Jewish political autonomy was but a wistful hope, could never have imagined.

Israel as a modern state now possesses the military resources that these earlier fighters, for whom the restoration of Jewish political autonomy was but a wistful hope, could never have imagined. Similar challenges, however, remain, be they navigating competing international interests or criticisms of Jewish loyalty to the land. Religious authorities are offering ethical and ritual guidelines for observance of Jewish tradition — this time, for an army run not by Hellenic Greeks or German Christians, but by Jews. What undoubtedly serves as a unique source of strength for those in the field is the knowledge that they now defend a country, 75 years old, that for millennia was just a prayer.


Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is the Senior Advisor to the Provost and Senior Program Officer of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, and the editor of “Esther in America” (Maggid Books).

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