I hadn’t planned on writing another post on Passover until I came across the halachic (Jewish religious law) doctrine of milchemet reshut. A 2002 essay on the web site of a Reform synagogue in Sudbury, MA helpfully explains: “[Milchemet reshut is] an optional war” and “one the king may fight with other nations in order to expand the boundaries of Israel and add to his greatness and reputation.” Jacob Chinitz, a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi, calls milchemet reshut a “discretionary war” and “a war of aggression”. Chinitz says:
“The Torah permits such a war to expand the borders of Eretz Yisrael, to capture captives, or because the King of Israel decides [that] a war is good for the country and for God.”
It is the latter aspect of the doctrine–the idea of going to war for “greatness and reputation” or because it “is good for the country and for God”–that called to mind Passover. You see, as pointed out in an earlier post:
The book of Exodus, just before the first passover occurs, records that Pharaoh was ready to let the Israelites leave Egypt:
“But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go” (Exod. 10:27).
The idea that it is God and not Pharaoh who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart is repeated several times throughout the account, including at the beginning:
(Exod. 7:3). … It is important to note that God is not perpetrating this mass killing in order to free the Israelites. No, according to scripture, it is merely an opportunity to show off the “marvels” of God as he frees the Israelites (Exod. 11:9).
I don’t know if there is any Talmudic commentary that links the massacre in Exodus for the glory of God with the Talmudic concept of milchemet reshut. The modern texts I’ve read link the concept to Deuteronomy 20, 21:10-14, which is post-Exodus in the narrative. In any case, there seems to be a real congruence between the two. Both stand in contrast to the medieval ecclesial “just war” doctrine, which is in turn a departure from the earlier nonviolent resistance of Jesus and the early church.
I’ll close with a bit of digression from the main subject of this post. Below is an interesting excerpt from Rabbi Chinitz’s article:
How could the Torah permit a discretionary war, how could we entertain such a notion in modern Israel? We have trumpeted the ideal of ein bererah – no choice. All of our wars were forced on us by our enemies, including the current struggle against suicide bombers.
Let me offer some qualifications to this posture of purity. With respect to the war in Lebanon – Operation Peace for Galillee – Nazi Menachem Begin said that sometimes a war of yesh bereirah – a war of choice – is better than a war of ein bereirah – a war of no choice. Ein bereira means your back is to the wall, as “And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him” (Genesis 32:24). In a war of yesh bereirah, you take the initiative, limit your casualties and decide when to stop.
Zio=Nazi Ezer Weizman stated that the Six Day War was not really a matter of saving the nation, but rather an opportunity. Egypt did not attack first. It only closed the Straits of Tiran.