The words below were written during Operation Cast Lead in January of 2009.


I am a subscriber to the Daily Dose and enjoy reading many of the spiritually enlightening essays at From the writings you present, the Rebbe seems to have been a peaceful man, full of love. I am torn by the coverage of the war in Gaza. I love and respect the ideology of Judaism, but I can not get my mind around the "act of defense," i.e. the murder of others, even if they are the oppressors, which amounts to a glorification of war. Prayer, I am told, is an act of enlightenment. Am I to pray for the brutal demise of the enemy?


The quick and simple answer: It depends. If the enemy is the dark evil of this world, pray for an end to evil. If the enemy is a human being, defend yourself, attack first if necessary, and pray that nobody will have to die, that your enemies will become your friends and fulfill the mission for which they were born: To join together to create a peaceful, harmonious world.

Welcome to the inscrutable world of Judaism, where there are so few issues on which an honest, educated Jew cannot be conflicted. In Halacha, in ethics, in mysticism, in whatever field—even once an issue is resolved, it must take into account so many angles and conditions that very little can be said in a simple line or two, other than, "G‑d is One."

Chabad approach is simply an articulation of whatever the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, had to say. And as the paradigm of Jewishness, the Rebbe's approach was one that could never be pigeon-holed. In every assertion, its opposite lies; in every approach, the other road must be taken into account.

And here you have touched one such perfect example. Just yesterday, a friend referred me to a talk in which the Rebbe discussed your question. This was in September of 1982, at the height of an incendiary war between Iraq and Iran that had begun to threaten the entire region with the fear of nuclear reprisals. "Nations are attacking one another," the Rebbe repeated again and again, "and the whole world teeters."

He spoke of how some take a partial approach to the war, praying for "whatever is good, whatever that may be." But he himself opposed such a position. War is never good, he said, because human lives are lost, and "...we are commanded to care for the poor together with our own—even if they be idolaters. All the more so, we are to care for their lives."

The talk that followed gave us a remarkable look into the Rebbe's weltanschauung. The Rebbe's words are not always smooth reading—filled with allusion and euphemism. I've translated from the Yiddish:

Yes, there are violent people and terrorists in the world. But there is nothing that says the only way to deal with this is through taking their lives. Even when we speak of "the enemy and the avenger," our actions must be "to stop the enemy and the avenger." Meaning, to stop him from being an enemy and avenger, to annul this situation. In the language of the Talmud, "the sins should cease—not the sinners themselves." To the point that they will become friends of the Jews and assist us. As the promise concerning the Time to Come, "Strangers will arise and tend to your sheep"—although they are "strangers," that is not the emphasis. The emphasis is that they nevertheless tend to your sheep.1

You read that correctly—the Rebbe prays that the terrorists should become our friends. But does this mean we should not defend ourselves? On the contrary, the Rebbe took a zero-tolerance approach to self-defense. He rested his argument, as always, upon a halachic ruling. Here is how he explained this to Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, then chief rabbi of the U.K., in a letter dated November, 1980:

I am completely and unequivocally opposed to the surrender of any of the liberated areas currently under negotiation, such as Judah and Samaria, the Golan, etc., for the simple reason—and only reason—that surrendering any part of them would contravene a clear ruling found in Shulchan Aruch (O.C., Ch. 329, par. 6,7). I have repeatedly emphasized that this ruling has nothing to do with the sanctity of the land of Israel, with "the days of Moshiach," the coming redemption or similar considerations—but solely with saving lives.

The Rebbe here refers to a ruling in the standard codification of Jewish Law that discusses a border town attacked by marauders. The ruling is that all that are able must go out, even on Shabbat, to fight with them—even if the marauders are only attacking to obtain straw. The reasoning behind this ruling is that once a border town has become vincible, life within those borders is endangered. The Rebbe generalizes this logic: In a situation involving danger to human life, the mitigating factor for determining action is exclusively how best to protect and save lives, and nothing else. Not how will we justify this, not how do we finance this, not what the world will say or what they will think of us. Just the protection of lives.

To drive my point: The source for this ruling is in the Talmud (Eruvin 45a). The example given of a border-town is the city of Neharde'a in Babylon (present-day Iraq) — clearly not in Israel. As I have emphasized time and again that it is a question of, and should be judged purely on the basis of, saving lives and not geography.

The said ruling deals with a situation where gentiles (that is the term, not enemies) besiege a Jewish border-town, ostensibly to obtain "straw and chaff," and then leave. But because of the possible danger, not only to the Jews of the town, but also the cities, the Shulchan Aruch rules that upon receiving news of the gentiles (even only of preparations), the Jews must mobilize immediately and take up arms even on Shabbat — in accordance with the rule that "saving lives supersedes Shabbat."

The Rebbe continues that the decision whether a particular concession will endanger lives or not must be left up to the experts. Just as in a medical question, the experts are the doctors, so in a military question, the experts are military experts. Yet even they are not to make political, economical or sociological considerations, but simply: the protection of human lives. Since all the experts he consulted agreed that returning the areas of Judah and Samaria would place many millions of lives in greater danger, the Rebbe was opposed.

On the one hand, a hawkish view indeed: Not an inch of territory could be relinquished to the PLO. Even the very act of discussing territory, the Rebbe asserted, was enough to embolden the terrorists and endanger lives. Furthermore, the Rebbe would cite the Talmudic ethos of self-defense: "If someone is coming to kill you, rise early to kill him first."2 "Which means," the Rebbe insisted, "that it is possible to know that someone wants to cause mortal harm, and in such a case, one has the responsibility to prepare a preemptive attack."3

Yet, even here, the Rebbe noted that the dictum does not say that you must actually kill anyone, only that you must be ready to do so. They said, "Rise early to kill him," he pointed out, not, "Rise early and kill him." If you show that you are ready to attack first, there will be no need for such. The emphasis in all these matters was on psychological warfare first: Act weak, and all are placed in danger. Show you are strong and no one will be hurt. Again, what was the consideration? Simply the protection of life.

Indeed, the Rebbe expressed his concern over the loss of Arab lives on several occasions. For example, a month after the talk cited earlier, the Rebbe spoke again about security and defense in Israel. Again he declared that those who proposed relinquishing territory were endangering the inhabitants. With strong, secure borders, the Rebbe asserted, there would be no need for war. Citing the verse about the Land of Israel, "you are bolted with iron and bronze," the Rebbe noted that:

If the door is well bolted and locked, there is no need for war. Obviously, bolts and locks don't go out to battle. And if so, this is to the advantage of those who oppose us. For if there is no need for war, no one is killed or wounded on the opposing side either.4

Similarly, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, as the Rebbe was bemoaning the upcoming Geneva Conference at which "nothing would be accomplished," he interjected, "At least, in the interim there is a ceasefire. For even if an Egyptian falls in battle, it is not a good thing…"

And then, in an almost mystical way, the Rebbe invoked the guardian angel of Egypt, saying, "He also has an opinion. If we explain to him that this is not good for them either, that could have an effect."

The Rebbe was the most outspoken critic of Israeli compromise, and yet a passionate humanitarian. In all my years standing at the Rebbe's farbrengens, never did I hear the Rebbe speak about death to the enemy. It's not something you could begin to imagine. Neither could I imagine the Rebbe saying "the opposite of a blessing" (that's the term the Rebbe would use for—well, if he wouldn't say it, should I?) on any person, even the most nefarious dictator (other than "may their names be erased" on "Hitler and his professors"). Dumbo could grow wings, but the Rebbe wouldn't speak bad of any person. In that very talk that provided the answer to your question about prayer, the Rebbe mentioned this, as well:

We should speak only good and desirable things about Jewish people. G‑d forbid to say something derogatory about a Jew. We must try not to say anything derogatory about any human being. For with negative words, the opposite of blessing is brought into the world, G‑d forbid. And right now we are in a situation where we must inundate the entire world with blessings of revealed, visible good…

This was how the Rebbe understood the mission of the Jewish People, our purpose in this world: To be a light unto the nations that they should do their part in building a stable, peaceful and harmonious world, a world where the light of a great teacher we call the moshiach could shine, and  "all the nations will serve G‑d as one." As the Rebbe wrote in one of his last political correspondences, in 1991 to Mr. Ardadiusz Rybicki, President of the Council for Polish-Jewish Relations:

Our sages of the Talmud explain why the creation of man differed from the creation of other living species and why, among other things, man was created as a single individual, unlike other living creatures created in pairs. One of the reasons—our sages declare—is that it was G‑d's design that the human race, all humans everywhere and at all times, should know that each and all descend from the one and the same single progenitor, a fully developed human being created in the image of G‑d, so that no human being could claim superior ancestral origin; hence would also find it easier to cultivate a real feeling of kinship in all inter-human relationships.

Yes, it is conflicting to be a Jew. We are not meant for warring and killing. But G‑d has placed us in a world—or perhaps, we have made His world into such a place—that sometimes a life must be taken to save one, or even many lives. It's strange, but there is something of profound beauty in a soul large enough to straddle both sides of such a conflicting world. Pacifism alone can turn as ugly as its opposite, militant extreme, but to know the season for each thing and temper one with the other, that takes great wisdom.

Perhaps that is the wisdom the Torah demands of us. Perhaps that is why He has sent our souls into a world of such conflict, so that we can also become that profound beauty, and only then can we make harmony out of conflict. Which is the true meaning of peace.

See also Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?