Judaism And Violence

This article covers the relationship between Judaism and violence.

Judaism’s doctrines and texts have sometimes been associated with violence. Laws requiring the eradication of “evil”, sometimes using violent means, exist in the Jewish tradition. Judaism also contains peaceful doctrines. This article deals with the juxtaposition of Judaic law and theology to violence and non-violence by groups and individuals. Attitudes and laws towards both peace and violence exist within the Jewish tradition. Throughout history, Judaism’s religious texts or precepts have been used to promote as well as oppose violence.

Normative Judaism

See also: Judaism and peace

Normative Judaism is not pacifist and violence is condoned in the service of self-defense. J. Patout Burns asserts that Jewish tradition clearly posits the principle of minimization of violence. This principle can be stated as “(wherever) Jewish law allows violence to keep an evil from occurring, it mandates that the minimal amount of violence be used to accomplish one’s goal.”


Judaism’s religious texts endorse compassion and peace, and the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. According to the 1947 Columbus Platform of Reform Judaism, “Judaism, from the days of the prophets, has proclaimed to mankind the ideal of universal peace, striving for spiritual and physical disarmament of all nations. Judaism rejects violence and relies upon moral education, love and sympathy.”

The philosophy of nonviolence has roots in Judaism, going back to the Jerusalem Talmud of the middle 3rd century. While absolute nonviolence is not a requirement of Judaism, the religion so sharply restricts the use of violence, that nonviolence often becomes the only way to fulfilling a life of truth, justice and peace, which Judaism considers to be the three tools for the preservation of the world.

Joshua, Violence in the Old Testament

Joshua, Violence in the Old Testament


Main article: Judaism and warfare

The biblical narrative about the conquest of Canaan, and the commands related to it, have had a deep influence on Western culture.Mainstream Jewish traditions throughout history have treated these texts as purely historical or highly conditioned, and in any event not relevant to later times.

Jean Fouquet: The Taking of Jericho, c. 1452–1460

Jean Fouquet: The Taking of Jericho, c. 1452–1460

The Second Temple period experienced a surge in militarism and violence aimed at curbing the encroachment of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish influence in Judea. Groups such as the Maccabees the Zealots, the Sicarii at the Siege of Masada, and later the Bar Kochba revolt, all derived their power from the biblical narrative of Hebrew conquest and hegemony over the Land of Israel, sometimes garnering support of the rabbis, and at other times their ambivalence.

In Modern times, warfare conducted by the State of Israel is governed by Israeli law and regulation, which includes a purity of arms code that is based in part on Jewish tradition; the 1992 IDF Code of Conduct combines international law, Israeli law, Jewish heritage and the IDF’s own traditional ethical code. However, tension between actions of the Israeli government on the one hand, and Jewish traditions and halakha on the conduct of war on the other, have caused controversy within Israel and have provided a basis for criticisms of Israel. Some strains of radical Zionism promote aggressive war and justify them with biblical texts.

Forced conversion

Forced conversions occurred under the Hasmonean kingdom. The Idumaens were forced to convert to Judaism, either by threats of exile, or threats of death, depending on the source.

In Eusebíus, Christianity, and Judaism Harold W. Attridge claims that “there is reason to think that Josephus’ account of their conversion is substantially accurate.” He also writes, “That these were not isolated instances but that forced conversion was a national policy is clear from the fact that Alexander Jannaeus (ca 80 BCE) demolished the city of Pella in Moab, ‘because the inhabitants would not agree to adopt the national custom of the Jews.'” Josephus, Antiquities. 13.15.4.

Maurice Sartre has written of the “policy of forced Judaization adopted by Hyrcanos, Aristobulus I and Jannaeus”, who offered “the conquered peoples a choice between expulsion or conversion”.

William Horbury has written that “The evidence is best explained by postulating that an existing small Jewish population in Lower Galilee was massively expanded by the forced conversion in c.104 BCE of their Gentile neighbours in the north.”

In 2009 the BBC defended a claim that in 524 CE the Yemeni Jewish Himyar tribe, led by King Dhu Nuwashad, offered Christian residents of a village in Saudi Arabia the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and that 20,000 Christians had then been massacred stating that “The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary [former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh].” Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself shows the great pride he expressed after massacring more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran.

Retribution and punishment

Eye for an eye

Main article: Eye for an eye

While the principle of lex talionis (“an eye for an eye“) is clearly echoed in the Bible, in Judaism it is not literally applied, and was interpreted to provide a basis for financial compensation for injuries. Pasachoff and Littman point to the reinterpretation of the lex talionis as an example of the ability of Pharisaic Judaism to “adapt to changing social and intellectual ideas.” Stephen Wylen asserts that the lex talionis is “proof of the unique value of each individual” and that it teaches “equality of all human beings for law.”

Capital and corporal punishment

Main article: Religion and Capital Punishment

While the Bible and the Talmud specify many violent punishments, including death by stoning, decapitation, burning, and strangulation for some crimes, these punishments were substantially modified during the rabbinic era, primarily by adding additional requirements for conviction. The Mishnah states that a sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years — or seventy years, according to Eleazar ben Azariah — is considered bloodthirsty. During the Late Antiquity, the tendency of not applying the death penalty at all became predominant in Jewish courts. According to Talmudic law, the competence to apply capital punishment ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple. In practice, where medieval Jewish courts had the power to pass and execute death sentences, they continued to do so for particularly grave offenses, although not necessarily the ones defined by the law. Although it was recognized that the use of capital punishment in the post-Second Temple era went beyond the biblical warrant, the Rabbis who supported it believed that it could be justified by other considerations of Jewish law. Whether Jewish communities ever practiced capital punishment according to rabbinical law and whether the Rabbis of the Talmudic era ever supported its use even in theory has been a subject of historical and ideological debate. The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” The position of Jewish Law on capital punishment often formed the basis of deliberations by Israel’s Supreme Court. It has been carried out by Israel’s judicial system only once, in the case of Adolf Eichmann.

Purim and the Book of Esther

The Book of Esther, one of the books of the Jewish Bible, is a story of palace intrigue centered on a plot to kill all Jews which was thwarted by Esther, a Jewish queen of Persia. Instead of being victims, the Jews killed “all the people who wanted to kill them.” The king gave the Jews the ability to defend themselves against their enemies who tried to kill them, numbering 75,000 (Esther 9:16) including Haman, an Amalekite that led the plot to kill the Jews. The annual Purim festival celebrates this event, and includes the recitation of the biblical instruction to “blot out the remembrance [or name] of Amalek”. Scholars – including Ian Lustick, Marc Gopin, and Steven Bayme – state that the violence described in the Book of Esther has inspired and incited violent acts and violent attitudes in the post-biblical era, continuing into modern times, often centered on the festival of Purim.

Other scholars, including Jerome Auerbach, state that evidence for Jewish violence on Purim through the centuries is “exceedingly meager”, including occasional episodes of stone throwing, the spilling of rancid oil on a Jewish convert, and a total of three recorded Purim deaths inflicted by Jews in a span of more than 1,000 years. In a review of historian Elliot Horowitz’s book Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence, Hillel Halkin pointed out that the incidences of Jewish violence against non-Jews through the centuries are extraordinarily few in number and that the connection between them and Purim is tenuous.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and historian Elliot Horowitz state that Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, may have been motivated by the Book of Esther, because the massacre was carried out on the day of Purim but other scholars point out that the association with Purim is circumstantial because Goldstein never explicitly made such a connection.

Modern violence

Radical Zionists and settlers

See also: Zionism, Israeli settler violence and Price tag policy

Swedish volunteer Tove Johannson

Swedish volunteer Tove Johannson (pictured) suffered a broken cheekbone from a hit in the face with a bottle by an Israeli settler in Hebron on November 18, 2006. She and other European members of the International Solidarity Movement sought to escort Palestinian children home from school.

The motives for violence by extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank directed at Palestinians are complex and varied. While religious motivations have been documented, the use of non-defensive violence is outside of mainstream Judaism and mainstream Zionism.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, urged that Jewish settlement of the land should proceed by peaceful means only  Contemporary settler movements follow Kook’s son Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982), who also did not advocate aggressive conquest. Critics claim that Gush Emunim and followers of Tzvi Yehuda Kook advocate violence based on Judaism’s religious precepts. Ian Lustick, Benny Morris, and Nur Masalha assert that radical Zionist leaders relied on religious doctrines for justification for the violent treatment of Arabs in Palestine, citing examples where pre-state Jewish militia used verses from the Bible to justify their violent acts, which included expulsions and massacres such as the one at Deir Yassin.

After Baruch Goldstein carried out the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994, his actions were widely interpreted to be based on the radical Zionist ideology of the Kach movement, and were condemned as such by mainstream religious and secular Jews and praised as such by radical Zionists. Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the southern West Bank and head of the “Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria” has made speeches legitimizing the killing of non-Jews and praising Goldstein as a saint and martyr. Lior also said “a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew’s fingernail”. Lior publicly gave permission to spill blood of Arab persons and has publicly supported extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists.

In July 2010, Yitzhak Shapira who heads Dorshei Yihudcha yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, was arrested by Israeli police for writing a book that encourages the killing of non-Jews. In his book “The King’s Torah” (Torat HaMelech) he wrote that under Torah and Jewish Law it is legal to kill Gentiles and even in some cases to kill the babies of enemies. Later in August 2010 police arrested rabbi Yosef Elitzur-Hershkowitz—co-author of Shapira’s book—on the grounds of incitement to racial violence, possession of a racist text, and possession of material that incites to violence. While the book has been endorsed by radical Zionist leaders including Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef it has been widely condemned by mainstream secular and religious Jews.

Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir was motivated by Amir’s personal political views and his understanding of Judaism’s religious law of moiser (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn another Jew in to non-Jewish authorities, thus putting a Jew’s life in danger) androdef (a bystander can kill a one who is pursuing another to murder him or her if he cannot otherwise be stopped). Amir’s interpretation has been described as “a gross distortion of Jewish law and tradition” and the mainstream Jewish view is that Rabin’s assassin had no Halakhic basis to shoot Prime Minister Rabin.

Extremist organizations

See also: Jewish religious terrorism

In the course of history there have been some organizations and individuals that endorsed or advocated violence based on their interpretation to Jewish religious principles. Such instances of violence are considered by mainstream Judaism to be extremist aberrations, and not representative of the tenets of Judaism.

  • Kach (defunct) and Kahane Chai
  • Gush Emunim Underground (defunct): formed by members of Gush Emunim.
  • Brit HaKanaim (defunct): an organisation operating in Israel from 1950 to 1953 with the objective of imposing Jewish religious law in the country and establishing a Halakhic state.
  • The Jewish Defense League (JDL): founded in 1969 by Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City, with the declared purpose of protecting Jews from harassment and antisemitism. FBI statistics show that, from 1980 to 1985, 15 terrorist attacks were attempted in the U.S. by members of the JDL. The FBI’s Mary Doran described the JDL in 2004 Congressional testimony as “a proscribed terrorist group”. The National Consortium for the Study of Terror and Responses to Terrorism states that, during the JDL’s first two decades of activity, it was an “active terrorist organization”. Kahanist groups are banned in Israel.

Views on violence against Islam

While Judaism contains commandments to exterminate idol worship, according to all rabbinic authorities, Islam contains no trace of idolatry. Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi stated that in modern times no one matches the biblical definition of an idolater, and therefore ruled that Jews in Israel have a moral responsibility to treat all citizens with the highest standards of humanity.

Following an arson incident in 2010, in which a mosque in Yasuf village was desecrated, apparently by settlers from the nearby Gush Etzion settlement bloc, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger condemned the attack and equated the arson to Kristallnacht, he said: “This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe.” Rabbi Menachem Froman, a well-known peace activist, visited the mosque and replaced the burnt Koran with new copies. The rabbi stated: “This visit is to say that although there are people who oppose peace, he who opposes peace is opposed to God” and “Jewish law also prohibits damaging a holy place.” He also remarked that arson in a mosque is an attempt to sow hatred between Jews and Arabs.

General claims

Some critics of religion such as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer argue that all monotheistic religions are inherently violent. For example, Nelson-Pallmeyer writes that “Judaism, Christianity and Islam will continue to contribute to the destruction of the world until and unless each challenges violence in ‘sacred texts’ and until each affirms nonviolent, including the nonviolent power of God.”

Bruce Feiler writes of ancient history that “Jews and Christians who smugly console themselves that Islam is the only violent religion are willfully ignoring their past. Nowhere is the struggle between faith and violence described more vividly, and with more stomach-turning details of ruthlessness, than in the Hebrew Bible”. Similarly, Burggraeve and Vervenne describe the Old Testament as full of violence and evidence of both a violent society and a violent god. They write that, “[i]n numerous Old Testament texts the power and glory of Israel’s God is described in the language of violence.” They assert that more than one thousand passages refer to YHWH as acting violently or supporting the violence of humans and that more than one hundred passages involve divine commands to kill humans.

Supersessionist Christian churches and theologians argue that Judaism is a violent religion and the god of Israel is a violent god, while Christianity is a religion of peace and that the god of Christianity is one that expresses only love. While this view has been common throughout the history of Christianity and remains a common assumption among Christians, it has been rejected by mainstream Christian theologians and denominations since the Holocaust.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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