The Co-existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Judaism
Deborah Weissman

It is an honor and a privilege for me to have been invited to present a Jewish perspective on religion and violence. The other faith traditions represented here all have hundreds of millions of adherents, while the Jewish people worldwide numbers only about thirteen million! Another difference between Judaism and some of the others is that Judaism is the religious civilization of the Jewish people—Jewish identity being an ethnic, cultural and even national identity, in addition to a religious one.

Although our conference was held in February, these words are being written in April, during a time of extreme violence here in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I feel that in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both sides are victims and victimizers. I hope and pray that the violence will end soon and that we can resume dialogue and negotiations, which will lead to the peaceful coexistence of two states for our two peoples. That seems more and more like an unattainable dream, but, as my friend, Dr. Mounib Younan, the Palestinian Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, has said, “As long as we believe in a living God, we must have hope.”

About 1,000 years ago, the great Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher Yehudah Ha Levi wrote what became a central text of medieval Jewish thought—The Kuzari. The book, apparently based on a historical incident, describes how the king of a tribe called the Khazars invited scholars from the three Abrahamic faiths to come before him. He posed questions to each of them, and the book recounts the discussions which ensued. Ultimately, he was most satisfied with the answers offered by the Jewish scholar and subsequently converted himself and his entire tribe to Judaism.

But twice in the book, the king poses questions which the Jewish scholar can not answer satisfactorily. In one case, he asks about the deep connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. If the land is so crucial to Jewish faith and practice, then how can we explain the fact that most of the Jews live outside of Israel? To which the Jew replies: “You have found my Achilles heel.” In the second case, the king asks about Jewish morality, which developed in a situation of powerlessness. If you were to have military power, asks the king, wouldn’t you then become just as violent as any other people? To this also the Jewish scholar has no adequate answer, responding, ”I am embarrassed, as you have found my weak point.” Unfortunately, in our time, there seems to be a connection between these two issues. We have returned to the land, and it is in connection with the land that we must confront the challenge of military power.

I have prepared some readings reflecting Jewish perspectives on violence and the pursuit of peace. Among them is a letter sent by Martin Buber to Mahatma Gandhi. Normative Judaism (to the extent that one can use that phrase) is not pacifist. Violence is condoned in the service of self-defense. The peace movement in Israel is generally not pacifist and includes many former army officers.

Our work for peace, I believe, will be all the more effective the more it is grounded in our traditions and texts. But our texts sometimes offer mixed messages. The extremist fringe movement within contemporary Jewry, around the figure of the late (I would like to add: “unlamented”) Meir Cahana, often uses Biblical quotations out of context in order to justify a violent approach. But they are the only Jews who glorify violence and have put the fist as a symbol on their banners. As we have seen in our discussions at this conference, all of our traditions must develop or employ a more peaceful hermeneutic for interpreting our classical texts.

I personally believe that the peaceful, more humanistic texts must be given greater weight than the violent, exclusivist or anti-humanistic ones. My reasoning is that in order to be aggressive or racist, one doesn’t need divine revelation. Violence and racism unfortunately seem to have been woven into the fabric of human life for millennia. As a student of anthropology, I learned that in some tribal languages, the word for “human being” is the same as the name of the tribe. The Lord didn’t have to reveal these things to humankind. The innovation, for which we needed revelation, was the more positive vision of humanity and peace; the concept, for example, that all human beings are created in the image of God.

The Jewish legal tradition is embodied in a corpus of law and mechanisms for making legal decisions, known as Halacha, literally “going” or “the way to go.” Halacha is often an attempt to bridge the gap between ideals and reality. For example, the original Biblical ideal is vegetarianism (and there are many Jews who are vegetarians.) But the reality is that for most of us, meat is an important part of our diet. So the dietary laws of Kashrut limit and regulate our consumption of meat; there are certain animals we are forbidden to eat, the permitted animals must be slaughtered a certain way, the meat must be prepared a certain way, etc. Similarly, the ideal would be total peace and harmony (in the Messianic Era, we will have world peace, and some authorities say, we will all be vegetarians.) But in the as yet unredeemed world in which we live, war is a tragic fact of our existence. So the Halacha mandates rules and limitations for the conduct of war.

Certainly, there are new situations and institutions not yet accounted for within the Halacha. For example, modern democratic forms of government pose new challenges to the Jewish legal system. But we may be able to extrapolate from the spirit of the existing laws, if not always from the letter. One example from which we might learn would be the attitude of the classical sages to capital punishment, proscribed frequently in Biblical scripture. The sages taught that a rabbinical court which put a person to death once in seven years was a “bloody court.” This text was then amended to read, “once in seventy years.” In effect, then capital punishment can be said to have been abolished, or at least qualified out of existence.

I have attempted to suggest a number of features of the Jewish tradition which could prove useful to us in our search for peaceful, non-violent foundations for our faith. What, then, works in the other direction? What seems to be promoting a more violent approach?

I personally think that serious hermeneutic and educational work must be devoted to developing new understandings of the concept of the Chosen People. The raw materials exist—modern thinkers from Luzzatto in 19th century Italy and Hirsch in 19th century Germany to Kaplan in 20th century America, all gave us alternate understandings, less exclusivist, with more universalist approaches to the role of other nations in the world. A practical example of how observant Jews can actually promote cooperation is the example of Dartmouth College, where a new kitchen and dining room caters to the needs both of Kashrut-observing Jews and Hallal-observing Muslims.

The Conservative Jewish scholar and rabbi, Jacob Agus, wrote in a book published over forty years ago: “As a component of faith, the feeling of being ‘covenanted’ should be generalized; every person should find a vocation and dedicate himself to it. So, too, the pride of belonging to a historic people should be universalized. All men (sic! -DW) should take pride in the noble achievements of their respective peoples, scrutinize their national feelings, and guard against their collective weaknesses, even as we Jews are bidden to do.” As Agus summarized:” …we ought to be a chosen people, as example, not as exception.”

A second issue for contemporary Jews to grapple with is our own history of persecution and powerlessness. Zionism, which came into being as a rejection of Exilic existence and the weak, downtrodden condition it engendered. Jews are tremendously insecure and, I might add, with good reason. We see in Leviticus 26:17 that paranoia is a Biblical curse, but as Henry Kissinger once said, “ Paranoiacs can also have real enemies.” I must admit that today, together with legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies and settler actions, I find a great deal of old-fashioned anti-Semitism in the world.

One of the problems of having been victims for so long—and I direct these remarks at both Palestinians and Jews—is that it becomes difficult for us to recognize that we are also victimizers, and to assume moral responsibility for our actions. Paradoxically perhaps, it is much more comfortable to think of ourselves as victims. Victimhood gives one a sense of self-righteousness and surely promotes national unity. But it also obscures our culpability for unjust behavior.

Nevertheless, we can find within our traditions some very useful models for keeping violent behavior in check. I would like to give one example from the festival of Purim, celebrated about two weeks after the St. Petersburg conference. There is a Biblical commandment which appears in Deuteronomy 25:19 to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the mythical tribe that terrorized the children of Israel in the desert, after their Exodus from Egypt. The connection with Purim is that Haman, the villain in the Book of Esther read on this festival, was himself a descendant of Amalek. So how have Jews for centuries carried out this commandment? Not through acts of revenge, but by using noisemakers to “blot out” Haman’s name whenever it appears in the Scriptural reading. I think that these noisemakers are a wonderful example of sublimation. Would that all cultures contained such mechanisms for dealing with aggressive feelings! Indeed, I think that Purim, with its costuming, is an instance of identification with the Other. How do we identify with the Other? Literally, by putting ourselves in his/her shoes. By recognizing the Other within us.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that another serious problem in the world is violence within our families, so that feeling a sense of the family of humanity isn’t always the answer that can prevent violence. The Hebrew word for violence—alimut—shares a common root with elem, “muteness.” In other words, one of the causes of violence may be that people do not have other outlets to give voice to their pain or frustration. Changing gender roles in a more equitable direction, developing resources for human self-limitation, as well as helping people develop more constructive outlets for their legitimate frustrations, may be helpful with this difficult issue.

I would like to mention the parable of the chassida, or stork. Twice in the Torah we are given lists of birds, which according to the dietary laws, are not to be eaten—the chassida is mentioned as an unkosher bird in Leviticus 11:19 and Deuteronomy 14:18. Our great medieval Biblical commentator Rashi, following an earlier Rabbinic source, asks, “Why was this bird called chassida? Because it does acts of chessed (lovingkindness), in sharing its food with other storks.” A 19th century rabbi asked, ”Well, then, why isn’t it Kosher? Because it does acts of lovingkindness with other storks, only with other storks and not with any other birds.” I would like to suggest that the stork here may be a symbol for religious communities—their great strength, but also their problematic nature. The strength of closely-knit religious (or, for that matter, ethnic or other) communities is the mutual help and support they give to members of the in-group. Unfortunately, they do not always behave in such humane ways towards outsiders or members of other communities. The challenge for our religious communities is to behave towards each other like human beings, not like storks.

I will conclude with some remarks about Israel. Clearly the violence in our part of the world is not only a product of religious attitudes (although some of it is that, too) but also reflects a legitimate national struggle between two peoples who both have national claims to their homeland. Unfortunately, what for the Palestinians is Palestine overlaps tremendously with what for Jews is the Land of Israel. The solution, in my opinion, lies in mutual recognition, territorial compromise and the peaceful co-existence of two states alongside each other. I have maintained for many years that the greatest fulfillment of Zionism will come when there is a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel.

It seems simple, but I don’t know how to get “there” from “here.” Israel is far from blameless in this struggle, but I believe at this moment that the greatest danger we are facing comes from the suicide bombers. I believe that the entire civilized world must unite in a concerted effort to eradicate this horrific phenomenon, cut off its financial resources, its organizational structure and the support it gets from some Muslim clerics. The Palestinians, I believe, must affirm on some level, that the Jewish people do have historical ties to the Land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. The Israelis must pull back from major chunks of the West Bank, parts of Jerusalem and all of Gaza, allowing the Palestinians to develop a viable infrastructure for their own independent state. We must, with massive assistance from the rest of the world, especially the European Community, provide repatriation for some and compensation for all, of the Palestinian refugees. But, before any of that can happen, there must be an end to the suicide bombings.

Then perhaps we can begin to fulfill some of the beautiful Biblical prophecies of peace and justice.

Dr. Deborah Weissman is Director of the Kerem Institute in Jerusalem for Teacher Training for Humanistic-Jewish Education.

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