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Is war ever justified?

by Rabbi M. Kripke


A good commander-in-chief must weight the chances of success against the possibility of failure before undertaking a campaign.

Recent historical studies have castigated Bar Kokhba (or whatever his real name was), who undertook a fateful rebellion of the Jewish people against Rome in the 2nd century. The disaster effectively shut the Jews out of Palestine, in terms of normal living and normal spiritual growth, and left the Jews of Palestine decimated, impoverished, and spiritually on the decline.

No one has really yet tried to do this with the Maccabees, whose rebellion in the 2nd century BCE led to the rededication (Hanukkah) of the Temple and thus to the festival of Hanukkah.

On the contrary, we still rather proudly point out that this was the first time in human history that a people put their life on the line in defense of their right to their own religion, its ways, its rights, and its beliefs.

The good commander-in-chief with whom we began would probably have scrapped plans both for the Maccabean rebellion and for the Bar Kokhba action. He would have been right about Bar Kokhba and wrong –oh so wrong! —about the Maccabees. The chances of winning were very small in both cases.

Judas Maccabeus and his brothers fought a harrying guerilla war against trained and disciplined forces that far outnumbered the Jewish ragtag army. Bar Kokhba challenged the power of Rome, before which all the world had crumbled and fallen. Neither had a prayer.

But a prayer, literally, they did have. And though Bar Kokhba failed, leading to massacre, exile, famine, and general destruction, in their day, the Maccabees won.

They won the right to practice Judaism. They cleansed the Temple and purified it of Greek paraphernalia. They reinstituted the priestly worship. They saved Judaism from disappearance.

What might have been the shape, religiously speaking, of the centuries that followed, had the infantile Greek religions and their philandering gods become standard in Palestine?

After the fact we can easily conclude that this war was justified. Had we been there before the fighting began, would we have said it was right to risk the lives of the population in a war that seemed to have no chance of succeeding? It is much easier to read history than to plan history.

And how quickly the good accomplished by the Maccabees faded away! Almost exactly a century later, two Maccabean brothers, vying with each other for the throne called the Romans to decide between them. Romans are Romans. Pompey decided in favor of…Pompey. And the rule of Rome begins.

In the meantime, before we have to consider what Roman power meant, enjoy Hanukah! Light its lights and eat its latkes and exult in the Hallel psalms. We don’t get many chances like this.