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Jews Should Put “Our Own House In Order” On “Holy War,” Says Seminary Professor

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2002

While there has been much discussion about the idea of “Holy War” in Islam, a philosophy which has motivated al Qaeda terrorists, there has been too little attention paid to similar ideas within Judaism, writes Reuven Firestone in Sh’ma (Dec. 2001).  

Dr. Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and author of, among other works, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims, declares:  

“Before dismissing the appalling behaviors of our Muslim cousins engaged in holy war, let us put our own house in order. Holy war has been revived among Israel the people and within Israel the state . . . After the Mishnah, Jewish holy war ideas lay virtually dormant . . . though they were discussed briefly by certain medieval thinkers and appear in some of our apocalyptic and messianic writings. But holy war has been revived in contemporary Israel, especially among ultra-nationalist Orthodox settlers in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and their many supporters. The war - and it may now be accurately called a war between Israel and the Palestinians - is defined by many religiously observant settlers and their supporters as a divine obligation to reclaim the whole of the Land of Israel as either a prelude to or actually part of the messianic awakening.”  

Dr. Firestone notes that, “Many in this camp cite ad nauseum the now famous statement of Nahmanides in his gloss on Maimonides’ Book of Commandments (positive commandment 4), who teaches that the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel lies in the category of obligatory war (milhemet mitzvah). ‘It is a positive commandment for all generations obligating every individual, even during the period of exile.’ As Jewish holy war has entered religious and political discourse in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, so has the increase of Jewish atrocities in the name of a higher cause. It reached its peak in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s with the maiming and murdering of Muslim non-combatants by the Jewish Underground, the massacre of Muslims in prayer by Baruch Goldstein, and Yigal Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Holy war ideas continue to inform the behavior of many religious settlers to this day . . .”  

Reuven Firestone concludes by stating that, “Holy war is a dangerous reality. We have now felt its sting. Let us, therefore, before we try vainly and patronizingly to intervene in the internal debates of another religious community, put our own house in order. We must neutralize if not eradicate the ugly and gravely dangerous revival of holy war within Judaism. The first step is to acknowledge its existence. The next is to engage in public discussion within our own community, especially among the spectrum of religious leaders, to mitigate the inherently self-destructive and ultimately immoral efforts to define our fighting with the Palestinians as a holy war.”

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