The “On Faith” website recently asked the following question:
Q: Is there such a thing as a ‘just war’? In his Nobel speech, was President Obama right to speak in these theological terms about war? He also stated that ‘no holy war can ever be a just war.’ Do you agree or disagree?
Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:
“A holy war can be a just war — as any war can be, or it may be dirty and unjust. Whether or not a war is just has nothing to do with its holiness, or otherwise.
Defining a just war is surely a more complicated and far more debatable problem.
In practical and political terms, no state has ever practiced giving the other cheek or Ahimsa (in the way that Gandhi defined it).
But even in moral terms, as a Jew I do not believe that non-resistance to evil, or lack of self defense, is morally superior.
Evil is not defeated by being nice to it.
War may be just and moral when it is fought against evil (as in World War II) or as a means of self defense.
These are general statements; in real life, as states are basically amoral entities, there is always a question about their motivations.
Rule and power, and in many cases money, may be the hidden reasons for a “just war.”
In many cases, as is true altogether about the world, completely straightforward answers are hard to give.
Very often there is a mixture of real high morality and some very utilitarian elements.
While it is never easy to uncover a nation’s main reasons for going to war – and what the national fringe benefits may be – still, there are just wars in which soldiers can participate proudly.”