The Aug. 18 obituary for Jean Bethke Elshtain [“ Writings on doctrine of ‘just war’ influenced the U.S. response to terrorism ” ] noted that her “just war” doctrine “had its origin in the writings of Saint Augustine.” In fact, the idea is much older.
Jewish law recognizes “obligatory wars” as religious and moral imperatives. This includes the wars of the Israelites against the seven Canaanite nations then in the land of Israel, the war against Amalek and wars of existential self-defense. There are also “optional wars,” or wars of permission. The king, for political purposes, may declare war, subject to checks and balances (e.g., the U.S. president and Congress). The king’s proposed war required confirmation by the Great Sanhedrin, the supreme court (religious and civil court, one and the same in Judaism). A third category is improper (not approved) wars. Participation in such wars should be resisted.
Islam is (as was Christianity’s origin) a Semitic religion. It shares the war-doctrine distinctions. A major issue today is that some radical Islamists consider war against non-Muslims an obligatory war. One cannot debate away a fervently held religious obligation. Nor is the threat of death persuasive when dying in an obligatory war guarantees tremendous benefit in the next world (considered the real existence).
Ronald S. Sheinson,