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What Judaism Says About Drones

Jewish tradition is weighted definitively against pacifism. But does that mean drone warfare is kosher?

Aryeh Klapper
March 05, 2013
Israeli soldiers get ready to launch the Skylark drone during a drill on Jan. 16, 2012, near Bat Shlomo, Israel.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers get ready to launch the Skylark drone during a drill on Jan. 16, 2012, near Bat Shlomo, Israel.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Are drones an ethical tool of war? In the past 10 years, as Israel and the United States have increasingly relied on unmanned aerial vehicles to kill enemy combatants, that question has become extremely pressing for policymakers, politicians, and just war theorists.

Advocates of drones contend that the remote-controlled vehicles are merely a delivery mechanism for conventional weapons: They do not kill, maim, or injure in ways or numbers that can be invidiously distinguished from cruise missiles, bombers, or artillery. On the contrary, they often add a level of verification and precision unmatched by other types of tools. And they enable proactive defense in ways that were previously impossible. Critics contend that drones make war prohibitively easy.

What, if anything, does Judaism have to add to this debate? Anyone who tells you that Jewish law has a definitive stance on the use of aerial drones—or any other public issue—is selling you something. This isn’t simply because Jewish tradition is complex and multi-vocal. It’s because Jewish law is often technically irrelevant to non-Jews, who are not bound by the majority of its dictates. Thus, even if Jewish sources told us something about the obligations of Jewish drone pilots, or even about how the state of Israel should or should not deploy drones, they would not necessarily make the same demands on policymakers in the United States or the European Union. A useful Jewish perspective on drones, then, is a philosophical argument that incorporates the concepts, tensions, and arguments of halakha (Jewish law) in an effort to inform the general debate.


Before we get to the details, we need to establish a fundamental premise: While Judaism never celebrates war, the overwhelming weight of Jewish tradition is against pacifism, for both Jews and non-Jews. For example, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik argues in his commentary to Maimonides’ Laws of Murder that there is a universal human obligation to use deadly force when necessary to protect potential murder victims. Likewise, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the famed Yeshiva of Volzohin, writes in his commentary to Genesis 9:5 that the Torah demands punishment for the shedding of the blood of a human being only “from the hand of his brother-man”—but not for killing in wartime, when men are legitimately not brothers.

Some oppose drone warfare because it allows someone from side A to kill someone from side B without any risk that side B will kill him first. To the best of my knowledge, however, Judaism has never recognized unsportsmanlike conduct as a violation of military ethics. In westerns, it is often considered unethical to shoot an unarmed man, even if you and everyone else in the room knows that the man is not unarmed by choice, and that he will do his best to kill you the moment he lays hands on a viable weapon. Judaism by contrast contends that “One who comes to kill you, anticipate and kill him first” (Talmud Sanhedrin 72a). Maimonides writes (Laws of Theft 9:7) that one may kill someone whom one has a reasonable expectation will try to kill you “using any deadly means that will be effective.” There is no intrinsic Jewish reason to avoid using guns against knives, or tanks against cavalry, so long as the knives or cavalry pose a genuine threat to one’s life.

What of the argument that drone warfare violates international law? Prominent Jewish legal thinkers, such as the great 20th-century religious Zionist jurist Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, have argued that Judaism mandates obedience to international law in warfare and other matters. So, it might follow that Jewish law forbids drone warfare as well. However, even if one concedes the principle that international law carries significant Jewish weight—and in a different context I might dispute that principle sharply—that weight would apply only to settled international law. Drones are new enough that no settled international law exists regarding their use.

Thus, so long as a plausible argument exists for the legality of drone warfare, Jewish law would avoid ruling on it so as to avoid an excessive entanglement of religion with politics. Since Jewish law will eventually recognize whichever position the international system adopts, deciding it now will correctly be understood as preemptively imposing a secular predisposition without Jewish basis. This can only diminish respect for halakhic authority, especially as the decision may soon be summarily reversed when the secular authorities reach a consensus on the issue.

I don’t find these objections to drone warfare compelling.


But I do believe that serious Jewish and ethical objections to drone warfare arise out of three other questions:

1) When one side of a war develops a qualitative technological advantage, must it ethically consider what will happen on future battlefields when the technology spreads? Or is it rather entitled to win its own war and leave the future to be negotiated?

Judaism generally sees ethics as a device by which the strong constrain themselves. As Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is powerful? The one who conquers his evil inclination.” As such, I think there is room for a Jewish argument that imposes ethical responsibility for the consequences of drone warfare beyond the immediate military horizon.

Drones have the potential to allow totalitarian governments an unprecedented capacity to observe the actions of their subjects, and they likely will also give them the capacity to kill their political opponents with less risk of politically dangerous collateral damage. These are the same capacities that make drones attractive to the United States. Should the destructive potential of widespread drone use militate against our development and use of them? A Jewish approach to drones would take responsibility for not only our own deployments, but also for the ways in which our precedent will reverberate.

2) To what extent should one object to particular weapons because they provide the potential and temptation to abuse, even if they have highly legitimate uses?

Rabbinic law is largely composed of seyagim, legal “fences” erected to prevent individuals or communities from setting foot on slippery slopes. Thus, chicken may not be cooked with milk lest one come to cook beef with milk; one may not read by candlelight on Shabbat, in case one might come to adjust the flame; and one should avoid romantic precursors with forbidden sexual partners. Along these lines, a strong Jewish argument can be made for proactively regulating weapons to prevent potential abuses.

Such an argument unfolds as follows: Drone warfare has enabled the United States and Israel to carry out preemptive attacks outside their borders against persons allegedly threatening their security, at very low risk to their own personnel. The Obama Administration has used them to kill an American citizen abroad who recruited suicide bombers, even though that citizen had not engaged in violence himself and had never been tried by a U.S. court. It is likely that, were drones unavailable, a simple cost-benefit analysis would have prevented many of those attacks. But drones dramatically change that equation, and one might conclude that no leader could withstand the pressure to use them in deeply problematic circumstances. As such, the only way to prevent such alluring abuse would be to impose strict regulations on drone use, carefully circumscribing how they can be deployed.

3) Do drones make the prospect of perpetual, if undeclared, war more likely, and is this objectionable?

Over the past 50 years, the concept of “declaring war” has generally declined, but this decline has been particularly marked in the United States, for political reasons. Since the U.S. Constitution reserves to Congress the right to declare war, the weakening of that concept has led to an increase in executive authority, such that executives can fight decade-long police actions without a declaration. Drones offer the capacity to accomplish military objectives without committing troops to foreign soil, and therefore likely without need for explicit congressional approval. If one opposes this trend, drones are a troubling development.

This is indeed a vexing issue. However, it is not one that can be resolved by resorting to Jewish texts. In fact, there is little or no direct Jewish precedent for the idea that the status of war is created verbally, by the declaration of one or more sides, rather than simply by circumstances. From the Jewish vantage point, what matters is not a formal announcement, but whether or not there is an ongoing violent conflict between significant political entities. In other words, Jewish law has little stake in whether war is officially declared.

Nor is there extensive Jewish discussion of whether it is best to distinguish sharply between war and peace—as the United States previously has—rather than see the two as existing on a continuum. Each of these models has its pros and cons. A binary war/peace system has the advantage of barring violence in the absence of any formal declaration of war. But it runs the risk of encouraging significant escalation beyond immediate political or security goals once war is declared and all bets are off. By contrast, a more flexible model of war and peace decreases the risk of such escalation at the cost of constant lower levels of violence. Drones make the latter model more likely, at least until the drones are explicitly and formally regulated by international law. But from a Jewish perspective, whether this is advisable is a purely political question outside the scope of traditional sources.


To sum up, I see no Jewish reason to object intrinsically to warfare by remotely piloted vehicle any more than one would object to warfare by tank or naval destroyer. However, I see reasonable arguments for believing that the availability of drones makes certain forms of problematic policy choices more likely and that, in the absence of proactive regulation, drone warfare will have more pernicious consequences as the technology becomes more widely available.

I don’t think there are particularly Jewish ways to discuss the likelihood of those consequences; those are practical questions to be addressed by experts, not rabbis. But it seems to me that Judaism can contribute to the conversation by insisting that the conversation include long-term and indirect as well as short-term and direct effects. As Rabbi Shimon says in Pirkei Avot 2:9: “Which is the straight path to which human beings should cleave? The one that considers consequences.”


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Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is the dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinics and bioethics at Gann Academy. He previously served as Orthodox adviser and associate director for education at Harvard Hillel.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is the dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinics and bioethics at Gann Academy. He previously served as Orthodox adviser and associate director for education at Harvard Hillel.