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There are two types of wars in Jewish law: 1. Milchmes Mitzva – an obligatory war like against the seven Canaanite nations and Amalek, and 2. Milchemes Reshus – an optional war which we find, for example, King David engaged in when capturing the Syrian area in his time. There is a spiritual aspect to these wars besides the physical conquering or annihilation, as Rabbeinu Bachye describes that an optional war is a war against the mazel or astrological essence of the nation; this is why women and children had to be spared. But an obligatory war is meant to destroy the whole essence of the nation, even its ministering angel that was in charge of the nation, and therefore men, women and children were required to be annihilated. Also, the obligatory mitzvah of offering peace before going to war, which is in this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim, as it says, “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it for peace” (Devarim 20:10). This only applies to an optional war, however as we see by Yehoshua, one is allowed on some level, in certain ways, to offer peace during obligatory wars.
What is the halachic definition of peace with a non-Jewish nation? Rabbeinu Bachye says they must accept two things upon themselves, and if they don’t accept both, then the Jews can engage them in battle. First, they must accept the seven Noahide laws to observe them. Second, the tax of the king, which is that they must be ready to serve the king of Israel physically and monetarily, for example building bridges, weapons, palaces, and the like. In fact, we find by the Cannanite nations that the Givonim made peace with the Jews and became water carriers and woodcutters, as the Medrish Rabba (Shoftim 5:14) says. The medrish also relates that the Girgashi ran away from the Land of Canaan, and for doing so Hashem rewarded them with the continent of Africa. Thirty-one other kings went out to war against the Jews and were eventually annihilated, men, women, and children.
Rabbeinu Bachye asks an obvious question, which is very important to be addressed. “If your heart is hesitating and saying we are doing hamas, corrupt violence, against children that never sinned against us, behold this is a judgement from Heaven and a written decree. Furthermore, since Hashem uprooted their power from heaven (their ministering angel mentioned earlier was taken out) then what we do down on earth is as if we didn’t do anything, just as our Rabbis taught in Sandhedrin 96b, ‘as you killed a nation that was already dead, you burned a Sanctuary that was already burned, and you ground flour that was already ground.’ This is not considered hamas, corrupt violence, and it is not considered murder because they are already killed.
Furthermore, even if you don’t consider them already killed murdering the children is not corrupt violence because they are a branch of the root of disobedience, this hasty embittered nation, for they would undoubtedly follow in the ways of their forefathers, to do what is abominable to Hashem, which He hates, and the Jews will learn from them. It is even mentioned in this parsha, ‘In order so that they will not teach you to act like all of their horrid ways.’
Perhaps you might say when they grow up, they will want to join our covenant and repent. Go out and learn from The One who permitted their blood [to be spilled,] Hashem who knows that they will not repent. So to Yeshayahu (14:21) explicitly says, ‘Prepare a slaughter for His sons because of the iniquity of their forefathers, lest they rise and inherit the land, and fill the surface of the earth with enemies.’ If that is so then isn’t anyone left alive a cause of very great damage more than if they would be killed? It is a very logical step to think that it is better for a person to do minimal damage in order to avoid great damage for we find cordial and intelligent people jumping off roofs to save themselves from danger, or one severing his hand, leg, or any other limb to save his own life, or drinking very bitter liquid in order to get rid of a sickness, in all these case one is not being violent to himself, rather he is performing a kindness with himself in order to live. If a person does these acts to himself and it’s not considered hamas, unwarranted violence, certainly then it would not be considered hamas, unwarranted violence if he did similar to others. For this reason, the Torah permitted killing the children, and doing minimal damage in order to avoid great damage that would come to the world if they would be left alive. This is not hamas, rather it is something logical that one should contemplate intently.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
What, in fact, is the difference between Hashem declaring an all-out war on the Canaanites and Amalek, men, women and children, verses let say Muslims, who would declare in the name of G-D “convert or die” to anyone, or the Crusaders, or even Hitler and Nazi Germany for that matter?
However, besides the fact that we don’t engage in forced conversions, in order to authentically become a Jew, one must choose whole-heartedly to be a part of the vanguard elite of Hashem’s children, who willingly walk in His ways and do His bidding. Expecting the nations to fulfill the seven Noahide laws are very simple expectations that non-Jews are anyways expected to fulfill since the time of Noach, and halacha expects Jews to treat their workers with respect and dignity.
But furthermore, this belief that Hashem wants men, women, and children of only these specific nations to be annihilated from the face of the earth isn’t just some shallow, baseless, and forced belief system which has no value to it. On the contrary, Rabbeinu Bachye says that part of believing this is the right thing to do is to challenge the very premise and to deeply contemplate what Hashem wants from us in this situation. Indeed, we must understand why Hashem felt the need to destroy whole nations from the face of the earth.
We see from here how important and vital deep intellectual thinking and truthful understanding are in order to truthfully trust and believe in Hashem and His ways. It’s the difference between Torah Judaism and the rest of the world.