“Holy War in Judaism” by Reuven Firestone

Western civilization today defines a holy war as being similar to a Islamic Jihad, but is that correct? It’s an excellent question to ask, as Firestone explores what he considers to be Holy Wars in Judaism. By definition, the public concept of a holy war is not well-defined. According to Firestone, a holy war carries these definitions:

“[D]ivinely sanctioned war among several options or tactics available to protect the religious community, preserve the integrity of its tradition, or further its institutional goals.”


“[O]rganized mass violence directed against rival communities based on what is considered to be [G-d’s] approval or authority.”

Firestone asserts, based off these definitions, that there is no major religion that he has heard of that does not condone violence by ways of religious obligation. When looking at his definition, though, my western mind reads Crusades, Jihad, massacre. So how does that compare? Firestone does admit that Judaism has the least developed notion of holy war, as historically it has been for limited time frame or geographic location.

So what, then does he explore? His book covers: holy wars in the Bible: their successes, failures, and responses to failures; typology of war and defining who the enemy is; the commandments as interpreted by the Maimonides; the Nahmanides’ objections and critiques; Jewish modernity and the pause on holy war; transforming from practicality to Messianism and the new Jew; and recent wars which include the War of Independence and the Holocaust, as well as the modern resurrection of the Holy War.

Firestone’s success with this book is his detailed and thoughtful analysis on the overbearing amount of research and information to review. Scholarly in writing but explained for non-theologians, he turns over every stone in pursuit of his subject: Jewish holy war. Perfect for historians that are theologians, or theologians that are historians, this book will lose traction among the non-specialized crowd. Not for the general public in this regard, Firestone’s work is best read by religious leaders and critiqued by experts in the field.

Disclosure: I have received a reviewer copy and/or payment in exchange for an honest review of the product mentioned in this post.