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Where does the IDF’s (Israel Defense Forces) concern for the “morality of war” come from? The answer is the Torah, of course. This week’s portion, Shoftim, outlines the general rules of engagement. Devarim 20:10 states, “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it peace.” This mitzvah, a Torah-mandated command and requirement of war, applies to all wars whether the war is an “optional war” (for economic reasons) or for the defense of the nation, referred to in Jewish law as “a war of mitzvah” (a war to save lives and prevent destruction).

In his code of Jewish Law, the Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings 6:7, Maimonides elaborates on the laws of battle. “We cannot surround the city on all four sides, only three. We must leave a place for those who wish to flee and for anyone who wants to save his/her life.” In this regard, the IDF goes לפנין משורת הדין — above and beyond the strict requirement of the law. One could say the IDF is “ultra-religious,” taking the most extreme position trying to satisfy the Torah’s command. Every possible concern to conduct a “moral fight” is taken into consideration.

Imagine if everyone did the same for every mitzvah in the Torah. Consider the mitzvah of tzedaka (charity) for example. Imagine if every person went above and beyond the minimal amount of giving to make sure every legal condition was met; and if we err, we err on the strict side to give more just to make sure we are in compliance. On the contrary, we take the most lenient opinion and look for every loophole to get out of giving more tzedaka.

Before the IDF strikes a target, its commanders must first prepare a “target card.” Before an attack can go forward, IDF legal advisors, the DABLA unit, must sign off on the “target card.” Even after the DABLA unit approves and assault, the final decision rest with the commander. “How can any military win a war when it decides to fight this way? That is how Israel chooses to fight. In an effort to comply with the law of armed conflict, the IDF prepared and used more than 4000 target cards for planned strikes during the 50 day Gaza conflict.”

In an article titled “Attorneys at War,” by Willy Stern that appeared in the Weekly Standard earlier this year, IDF Captain Guy, a DABLA legal advisor commented: “We go beyond our legal obligations because we care deeply about civilians. We see a bigger world of moral, humanitarian, and public relations considerations.” Colonel Neuman, also a DABLA attorney noted, “We tell commanders what they need to do to comply with international law. We are clear to them that they don’t need to do more but in a lot of cases they do anyway.”*

We should all be very proud of the way IDF soldiers conduct themselves under extreme circumstances. The way the country of Israel fights to defend its existence is a קידוש ה’, a “sanctification of God’s name.” We are grateful and indebted to all the brave men and women of the IDF who made the supreme sacrifice to insure the continued existence of the nation of Israel.

May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-loving people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

*Stern, Willy. “Attorneys at War: Inside an Elite Israeli Military Law Unit,” Weekly Standard Magazine 20: 38 (15 June 2015). http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/attorneys-war_964911.html