Beyond the Letter of the Law: Rav Shlomo Goren and Moral Warfare

Mention the name of Rav Shlomo Goren to your average Orthodox Jew and they will either associate him with Har Habyit and the Shofar in ’67, or the infamous Langer case. That’s it. This man, who created military halacha practically from scratch and left behind a large corpus of discussions of different aspects of halacha is all but entirely forgotten. This is an injustice I intend to rectify.

Today we will look at his magnum opus Meishiv Milchama, a four-volume response series on halacha and warfare. Like other such works, it begins with a number of programmatic articles outlining Rav Goren’s halachic outlook on various issues such as Shabbat and war (see here for a dissenting view of his position). It is the necessary starting point of anyone who wishes to learn contemporary halachic jurisprudence on Jewish warfare.

Interestingly enough, the first essay, and the one we will be looking at today, is one which directly addresses the question of moral warfare according to Jewish sources. This is a long, thorough article where Rav Goren lays out his position on how Jews should conduct themselves in contemporary war. While the article was downgraded by Prof. Gerald Blidstein for being too “programmatic” and not technical enough, I have a different, more positive take.

Before we get into that, though, I thought I might mention another side of Rav Goren’s innovative nature, and that is his open and unapologetic use of manuscript evidence in his arguments. Both when discussing Talmud and Midrash, he openly references different manuscripts and versions to make his case. This is something I have not often seen a major Rabbinic authority do, and it is noteworthy in its own right.

OK, back to the essay. Rav Goren structures his argument for moral conduct in war on four main arguments:

–          The detailed disavowal of previous wars [Canaan, Amalek &c] or acts of retribution [Schem] as guides for current conduct, as well as rejecting statements like “Hatov Shebagoyim Harog” [The best of non-Jews should be killed].

–          Assertion of the Tanach’s aversion to violence, as is evidenced by the case of David, who was not allowed to build the Beit Mikdash because of all the blood on his hands.

–          Arguing forcefully that we have a duty to act beyond the letter of the law, according to “mishnat hassidim”.

–          An argument from an analogy to public responsibilities of the tzibbur – just as the tzibbur will be held responsible in the eyes of God if it is negligent in repairing the roads, על אחת כמה וכמה in time of war, if it does not do everything in its power to avoid needless loss of life.

Every one of these arguments is worth its own analysis, but I wish to concentrate primarily on the “mishnat hassidim” argument:

Now, to understand why Rav Goren makes this argument, we need to understand the background. There are numerous (halachic and non-halachic) sources on the question of taking the life of a non-Jew – when it’s permitted, when it isn’t, how severe is the punishment &c. Indeed, the capture of the Jewish underground and later the first Intifada sparked off a fierce debate between the supporters of revenge and their detractors. Both sides marshaled their respective sources, often ending in near-deadlock. (Those interested in references can email me, and I’ll send you to the key works)

Thus, to engage in detailed point-by-point rebuttal would be a fool’s errand. While some have successfully done so later on (such as Rav Yehuda Zoldan), it still wouldn’t be the kind of decisive “knock-out” that would not only deter murder, but rather encourage moral conduct. It certainly would not promote the IDF Rav Goren envisioned, one whose holy mission demands of it the highest standard of conduct.

Hence the “mishnat hassidim” argument, which Rav Goren marshalls quite a few sources to buttress. What this argument does is bypass the whole sordid debate and leave it in the dust. By arguing that the unique condition of war – with its extant issues of life and death, as well as hillul hashem – requires going beyond the letter of the law, Rav Goren neutralizes the effect of “Torat Hamelech” style arguments.

Would that more Rabbis would try to follow Rav Goren’s example, and understand that we cannot live solely by the letter of the law in matters of morality.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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