Issue 45, July 2005
Violence and Non-violence in Jewish Thought and Practice
Since Jewish thought has always proceeded in a spiral where the future and the past are intertwined, it is hardly possible to think about a future of assertive non-violent Jewish action without unfolding the meaning of our memories.
For Jewish wisdom is neither the endless circle of tradition nor the abrupt progression of a straight line forward. Always it does midrash -- takes an ancient tradition, gives it a twirl, and comes out somewhere new. Spiralling.
Faced with the earthquake of the Roman-Hellenistic conquest of the Mediterranean basin, the Jewish people created a macro-midrash: Rabbinic Judaism, with an outlook on violence and non-violence very different from that of Biblical Israel.
Today we are in the midst of a similar transformation, sparked by the Jewish encounter with Modernity, with external violence in the form of the Holocaust, with the complexities of power involved in controlling a modern nation-state, and with the complexities involved in having a share of power in governing great Modern super-states.
We will look at these questions in terms of three great eras of Jewish history: Biblical Israel, Rabbinic Judaism, and the future that is beginning to emerge in our own era, since 1945.
I. Biblical Israel: Ultra-violence and Civil Disobedience
In Biblical Israel, there is a strand of willingness to use violence -- sometimes hyper-violence -- to advance the Jewish vision of a decent society; and there is a strand of constant willingness to challenge and disobey arrogant power, whether it's located in a foreign Pharaoh or in a Jewish king.
One example of the first, from Deuteronomy 20: 10-18
When you draw-near to a town, to wage-war against it, you are to call out to it terms-of-peace.
And it shall be:
if peace is what it answers you, and it opens (its gates) to you, then it shall be that all the people that are found in it shall belong to you as forced-labourers, and they shall serve you.
But if they do not make-peace with you, and make war against you, you may besiege it. And when YHWH your God gives it into your hand, you are to strike-down all its males with the edge of the sword. Only: the women and the infants and the animals, everything that is within the town, all its booty, you may take-as-plunder for yourself; you may consume the booty of your enemies that YHWH your God gives you. Thus you are to do to all the towns, those exceedingly far from you, that are not of the towns of those nations. Only: in the towns of those peoples that YHWH your God is giving you as an inheritance, you are not to leave-alive any breath; but: you are to devote-them-to-destruction, yes, destruction, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivvite and the Yevusite, as YHWH your God has commanded you. -- In order that they not teach you to do according to all their abominations that they do with their gods, and you sin against YHWH your God.
Even within this approach, however, the Biblical model of Jewish life preserved some limits on war. Even in wartime, the Israelite army was forbidden to cut down fruit trees, unless they were actually needed for bulwarks to carry out a siege. And the Torah provided for individual exemptions from the army for young people in the earliest journey of making a family, building a house, creating a vineyard -- indeed, even for people who feared being killed in battle, or feared that they might become killers. The Maccabeean revolt against the Seleucid Empire actually applied these rules, even in the midst of a war to resist an occupying power that had desecrated the Temple and was forcing people to worship idols.
The Israelite tradition not only put limits on the exercise of military force; it also described the use of non-violent resistance against unaccountable power.
The story of Shifra and Puah -- the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh's order to murder Hebrew boy-babies -- is perhaps the first tale of non-violent civil disobedience in world literature.
The Hebrew Bible also describes non-violent resistance to Babylonian and Persian power. For example, Jeremiah warns against using violence and military alliances to oppose the Babylonian Conquest, and argues instead that God will protect the people if Judah acts in accord with the ethical demands of Torah -- freeing slaves, letting the land rest. Daniel and his friends famously are cast into the lions' den for non-violently refusing to obey the king's command to worship foreign gods.
We might say it is not surprising that Israelite culture would celebrate resistance to foreign potentates. What about? There are also tales of non-violent resistance to Israel's own kings. King Saul had to deal with an underground guerrilla whom he thought of as a terrorist, named David. David, with a very small band of underground guerrillas, went off, hungry and desperate, and found food and protection at the sacred shrine of Nov, where they asked the priests to let them eat the sacred show-bread. And the priests fed them from the sacred bread.
When Saul heard about this, he said (more or less), "Anybody who harbours a terrorist is a terrorist!" He ordered his own bodyguards to kill the priests of Nov. But the bodyguards refused.
Torah also bears descriptions of how it would look to have power made accountable to the public and to the guardians of Torah. In Deuteronomy there is the description of a constitutional monarch who must write, day by day, those passages of Torah that restrict his own power. He must not multiply horses -- cavalry, the tanks and Apache helicopters of that day. He must not pile up money for his treasury. He must not send the people back into Mitzrayim, which didn't mean sending them back to geographical Egypt; it meant sending them back to slavery. And he had to read the Torah's limits on his power, in public.
II. Rabbinic Judaism: Internal Tikkun and Passive Non-violence
But the Jewish people faced both an outside practical challenge to that set of assumptions about military power, and an internal ethical challenge to it.
The external challenge came from the Hellenists and the Romans who swept over the Mediterranean basin, conquering the Jewish state. Jews revolted, most famously under the Maccabees and under Bar Kochba, until the Romans finally proved military revolt against their empire impossible by decimating Israel's Jewish population. After this disaster, the Rabbis refused to make heroes of Bar Kochba or even of the Maccabees. Rabbinic Judaism essentially said, "No longer can military power create a decent society in this sliver of land. Can't be done. Shouldn't be tried."
Internally, the Rabbis also decreed that military power should no longer be used. They did this by evading, nullifying, and otherwise interpreting away the Torah's genocidal commands against the Canaanites and other idolatrous people. Instead of extrapolating from these commands that it would be all right -- even obligatory -- to wipe out any people that rejected the Jewish God, the rabbis went in the opposite direction, ruling that the Canaanite example no longer applied -- because the Assyrians had scattered and shattered the Canaanites as well as the "ten lost tribes" of Israelites themselves.
The Rabbis who were so creative in applying ancient Torah in a new situation could certainly, had they wished, have understood the Jebusites, Hivites, Amalekites, and so on as symbols for ongoing threats and dangers to be dealt with militarily. They chose instead to nullify the genocidal meaning of the text. And they even dismissed the Torah's commands to execute a rebellious Israelite child or wipe out a rebellious Israelite city, saying, "This never happened and it never will." Perhaps "this never happened" was a historical claim, but "it never will" expressed an ethical decision never to carry out the seeming command of Torah.
These rulings on matters internal to the Jewish people certainly point to a real ethical revulsion against the use of violence.
Indeed, the rabbis, who continued to shape a court system within Jewish society, mostly rejected the violent punishments prescribed in Torah. "A court that sentences even one person to death in seventy years," they said, "is a court of murderers."
But the most basic transformation of all was that the Rabbis constructed a non-violent way for the Jewish people to live in the world. Living in the nooks and crannies of Roman, of Christian, of Muslim civilization, Jewish communities in the rabbinic period created decent societies of their own and gave up on the vision of toppling the Great Powers and transforming the world as a whole.
People sometimes call Gandhian non-violence "passive resistance" even though Gandhi's form of non-violence is in fact highly assertive. But in the case of Rabbinic Judaism, the phrase "passive resistance," or "non-assertive non-violence," is fairly accurate. For almost two thousand years, rabbinic Jews accepted that they would suffer expulsions; they would suffer pogroms, but believed that the Jewish people could live beyond expulsions and pogroms.
III. Reviving a Military Model
Rabbinic Judaism's model of non-assertive non-violence worked well until the last century or so of Modernity, when sadism became industrialized, when Jews experienced not only pogroms and expulsions, but the Shoah, the Holocaust. It then became clear to almost all of us that we could no longer live within the Rabbinic model.
What to do?
The first response to industrial sadism and industrial arrogance was to revert to the military model of the biblical period (though without its acceptance of imposing genocide). Jews thought: “We need to protect ourselves from the Modernized hatreds of other peoples with military force. And we can do this once more on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean."
When military force was first applied by the Zionist community, some elements of the Jewish military forces tried to apply the concept of "self-restraint" and "purity of arms": Jewish settlements established by purchase should be defended whenever necessary, but Palestinian Arab towns and civilians should never be attacked; partition of the Land should be accepted as the price of peace.
Even at the beginning, this “purity” had many flaws and blemishes. Some branches of the Zionist movement never did honour such strictures.
And more and more, this decision to use military force sparingly in defence of a decent society has changed into using military force and violence aggressively as well as defensively. Defence slips into the massive repression of a rebellious people - in which every cruelty of the uprising is cited to justify more cruel repression, and each act of cruel repression is cited to justify cruel resistance. Self-defence comes to require competition with the Great Powers of the world: tanks, planes, even H-bombs.
It is becoming clear that a small people cannot maintain "purity of arms," compete with the Great Powers -- and carry on a decent society, all at the same time.
IV. A New Tikkun Olam
What is a decent alternative to military action? The advantage of the Biblical vision was that it was assertive, rather than passive. The advantage of the Rabbinic vision was that it avoided violence. Is there a way to synthesize these virtues in the new era of Jewish peoplehood into which we have entered? Is there a way to create a Jewish path of assertive non-violence?
Let's look at what may have been the most successful single use of non-violent civil disobedience by the Jewish people since the midwives Shifra and Puah, even though we have almost never put the tag "non-violent movement" on it.
That was the Soviet Jewry movement. With only one or two exceptions, it avoided the use of violence and used assertive non-violence to win freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union.
Dancing in the streets of Moscow on festival nights. Marches, demonstrations, boycotts. Sit-ins in the Supreme Soviet.
These tactics won allies. Not only Jews around the world, but members of other communities as well. Jews did not need to stand alone. Through years of struggle, this movement made some cracks in what to many had seemed a monolithic Soviet totalitarian state. Even before those cracks and many others brought the whole system down, millions of Soviet Jews either became free to leave or free to begin recreating a Jewish community and culture.
Why did we not think of this movement as Gandhian or Kingian? I think it was because we were deeply puzzled as to how to cope with such a way of understanding ourselves alongside the State of Israel during that same period. But the movement to free Soviet Jews was an assertive non-violent movement. We should with joyful pride name this non-violent victory as what it was, lift it up to our own awareness, celebrate it.
This effort was the strongest, but not the only, use of assertive non-violence by Jewishly conscious Jews during the past generation.
There were the Freedom Seders of the early 1970s, aimed against racism and the Vietnam War, all of them rooted in affirming the liberation struggle of the Jewish people alongside the liberation struggles of Black Americans, Vietnamese, women, Nicaraguans. One of those Freedom Seders actually poured blood, frogs, cockroaches -- the symbolic plagues -- on the fence around the White House. Another brought together 4,000 people in the Cornell University field house, where Daniel Berrigan actually came out from the underground to which he had fled from the government's prosecution of his anti-war activities. Assertive non-violence, with allies. Both a new approach in Jewish life.
And there was the Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as its Honorary Chairman, which challenged the actions of the U.S. government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas. The Trees for Vietnam campaign drew on both the Torah's prohibition of destroying trees in time of war, and the Jewish practice of planting trees in Israel. In the US of the 1970s, raising money for these purposes was an act of civil disobedience.
Today, as the state of Israel pursues the older, biblical path, using military action to push its policies, Jewish non-violence sadly must be used against Jewish military action. So we see Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, along with international supporters from many countries, sitting down against the Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes. With their own bare hands, pushing aside the concrete blocks that cut off Palestinian villages in blockades, in sieges. Coming on Tu B'Shvat to replant olive trees destroyed (despite the prohibitions of Torah) by Israeli soldiers and settlers in Palestine, as well as replanting palm trees and pine trees destroyed by Palestinian arsonists in Israel. Being arrested, even beaten, for their non-violent resistance.
And we have seen Israelis, soldiers and reservists, who have refused to serve in the Army of Occupation, citing God, ethics, Torah, and the true security of Israel as their reasons. And going to jail for refusing. In these brave non-violent protesters we see the hope and the promise of an assertive, yet non-violent means to secure Jewish life and culture.
Most of these campaigns and struggles have drawn explicitly on Jewish ceremony and Jewish practices. So they were simultaneously and organically both Jewish and universal. Putting energy into them did not draw Jews away from their Jewish heritage in order to heal the wounded world; it actually deepened their Jewish knowledge and experience.
Nor did these actions pull people into Jewish tribalism at the expense of lost concern for the others endangered on this planet; like a hologram, like the presence of DNA in every cell of the body, they taught that the whole is fully present in each part. The highest good of each community and the highest good of the planet as a whole are enwrapped within each other. That is why we call this new Jewish form of assertive non-violent civil disobedience "tikkun olam," the healing of the world.
V: Creating the Future in the Present
Surely the development of Jewish assertive non-violence has owed much to the experience of the movements we connect with Gandhi and with King. Yet there are differences. Not only does Jewish non-violence draw on Torah to embody as action-forms some ancient practices and rituals; it also draws on the Jewish tradition for counsel on when violence itself may be necessary, even for the committed non-violent activist.
Just after World War I, in his essay "Recollection of a Death" (published in Pointing the Way), Martin Buber thought deeply about whether the means might justify the ends. He wrote about the Leninist "Red Terror" of the period -- "I cannot conceive of anything real corresponding to the saying that 'the end "sanctifies" the means"; but I mean something which is real in the highest sense of the term when I say that the means profane, actually make meaningless, the end, that is, its realization!"
He continued, "The more out of accord with the goal is the method by which it is realized, the farther will be the goal that is actually realized from the one that was set."
At first glance, this may seem not different from Gandhi's teaching that "You must be the end that you seek," or A.J. Muste's teaching that "There is no way to peace; peace is the way."
It is surely closely connected with those teachings; but a close reading of the way Buber puts his point suggests a different possibility: that Buber is not so absolutist about the avoidance of all violence. All his thought and writing leans away from enshrining rules of behaviour and toward experiencing the unique need in the unique moment.
In one such specific situation, during a dialogue/debate with Gandhi over how the Jews of Europe should respond to Nazism, Buber actually did distinguish his own views from an absolutist pacifism. In the passage above, Buber is not necessarily saying you must choose a means that matches your end. He sternly warns you should realize that if you want, for example, peace in the end, it will be far harder to achieve if the means you use is war.
The point is that Buber is, in a sense, describing a "sliding scale" of social change. The more violence in the means, the more violence will remain in the goal achieved. In the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, the "means" of the Red Terror became the (perhaps unintended) "end" of a totalitarian dictatorship. Buber makes clear in the essay that he was strongly opposed to that means and prophetically understood what end would be achieved. In 1949, when he published Paths in Utopia, he unfolded in great clarity his critique of what had happened in Soviet reality.
But implicit in Buber's dread of the unfolding of violence into more and more violence, there is also the possibility that an activist may use certain limited forms of violence in extreme necessity, while being fully aware that this is likely to corrupt the society that s/he is trying to bring to birth. This awareness might make it possible to take steps to reduce the corruption that results.
This willingness to consider violence makes Jewish civil disobedience different from the Gandhian or Buddhist model. After the passiveness of the Rabbinic model, with its acceptance of pogroms and massacres, Jewish non-violence must be robust, and perhaps even willing to consider the possibility of violence in the last resort.
The main thrust of Buber's point, however, is that the best way to bring about the future you desire is to actually build a miniature or microcosm of that future in the present. No longer a passive non-violent protest against the world we disdain, Jewish non-violence today stresses that we must actively and positively create the world we want.
There is an ancient Jewish teaching that encodes this wisdom: According to the ancient Rabbis, if the entire Jewish people were to observe Shabbat twice in a row, the Messiah would come. Since Shabbat was understood as a foretaste of the Messianic Age, this teaching meant: "Bring it by doing it."
Several recent actions by some Israelis have also begun to enact the future in the present: peace demonstrations jointly planned and held by Palestinian and Israeli women; joint Israeli-Palestinian actions to open roadblocks on Palestinian roads, replant trees in Palestinian villages, rebuild demolished Palestinian homes; Israeli reservists' refusing to serve in the Occupation army.
VI. Finding Allies
To act in this way, the Jewish community must see ourselves as no longer utterly engulfed by enemies. For the assertive non-violence of a small and lonely people challenging Great Powers will simply bring catastrophe the sooner, if there are no allies for the challenge.
The mindset that felt we stood alone imbued both biblical and rabbinic Judaism. It grew up in the effort to conquer Canaan against what we thought was an ocean of idolaters and the effort to survive the Roman Empire. That mindset was reinforced by Inquisitions and pogroms and even by the gentler Muslim habit of treating the Jews like tolerated pets.
Whether we were making a decent society with military means in the ancient land of Israel, or making a decent society in the nooks and crannies of other civilizations all over the world, both Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism said, "We are on our own. Nobody else cares. Nobody shares our vision. They're all enemies and only we carry the vision."
For centuries, this may well have reflected considerable truth.
But one thing that Modernity has brought with it has been the discovery that there are other communities in the world with which we can in fact share a vision of a decent society. It is possible to find allies.
From this restorationist energy have stemmed the terror attacks of 9/11, the Christian anti-abortion bombings, Baruch/Aror Goldstein's murder of 29 Muslims at prayer in the Tomb of Abraham, the Hindu burning of the Golden Temple, the Buddhist-Hindu violence of Sri Lanka.
But these restorationist forces are not the only response to Modernity's shattering of traditional religious life. There are also energies that say, "Let's make distinctions between what is holy and what is destructive. Surely the Modernity that made possible the Holocaust, the H-bomb, and the burning of the Amazon Basin is not wholly good. But some of Modernity is sacred, and that part we can absorb into our traditional religious teachings and go forward. Let's renew our communities rather than restoring them as they were three or four centuries ago.
"Let's renew the sacred teaching of the sacred earth, for which indeed we have ancient warrant. And the sacred teaching of the sacredness of the full equality of women, for which neither we nor any of the old traditions has warrant. And the sacred tradition of the sacredness of other strivings for truth from which we can learn and with which we can make allies.
"We can no longer hide alone in nooks and crannies, we can no longer conquer or even defend alone our own decency, we must try to mend the whole world after all.
"So let's reach out for allies -- and let's bring assertive non-violence, not passive but assertive, to bear on transforming or even toppling the Great Powers of the earth, so as to heal what now needs to be a planetary community."
VII. Seeing Ourselves Mirrored in the Other
To heal the world, we cannot see ourselves as utterly pure and the world as utterly polluted. Just as we must be able to see the good in others if we are to find allies, so we must be able to see the violence we hide within ourselves.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us of this wisdom in an essay on "The Meaning of This War [World War II]," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heschel.
The date of this remarkable essay is crucial to understanding its depth. It was written in 1943 and first published in February 1944.
Heschel asks the question: "Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?" And he - the Polish Hassid just transplanted to America -- answers as a Hassid might, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him."
When the Baal Shem Tov said this, he almost certainly was focusing on the spiritual situation of an individual who in order to grow must take the world not as an external object but as a moral mirror -- who must treat the discovery of evil as a spur to look inward, to examine what evil lurks in his/ her own heart.
But Heschel takes this insight in a new direction. He applies it to a whole society, a whole people, when it sees political evil at a national level. Heschel writes:
"We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?
"Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man."
By 1943, Heschel knew that members of his own family and already more than a million other Jews had already been savagely murdered. Yet he could draw on the depths of Hassidism to call Jews themselves, along with all of Western civilization and culture, to face their own share of responsibility for letting the disaster happen. And he could fuse questions that were conventionally seen as distinct -- issues of economics and issues of religious and spiritual experience. For, he said, "the vision of the sacred" had been killed by "greed, envy, and the reckless will to power," by not addressing such economic problems as unemployment.
Heschel, we should be clear, did not back away from a radical condemnation of Nazism. He did not oppose the war on which the Allies were then engaged. Yet he could in the very midst of that war write, "Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. ... The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever." He could look deep into that war, beyond it and within it and beneath it, to ask not merely what were its causes, but what was its meaning? And he found spiritual meaning in taking responsibility upon himself, ourselves, for having helped create the world in which "the mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God."
What is the significance of this teaching, as we search toward a theory and practice of tikkun olam that can help support an assertive non-violent transformation of the Great Powers of the earth?
Perhaps it would be instructive to imagine this teaching placed in the context of American life after the terror attacks of 9/11/01. If Heschel could write in this way in 1943, what would it have meant for an American to write this way in 2002?
It would have challenged both the single Greatest Power in the world, the United States, to have reflected on its own responsibility for creating the world in which terrorists chose to wear the mark of Cain.
And it would have challenged us all at the level of our everyday lives -- emotional, economic, political. As Heschel says later in the essay, "God will return to us when we are willing to let Him in -- into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theatres."
It would have called on us to make the sacrifices of peace lest we need forever to make the sacrifices of war, the war against terrorism that has already been proclaimed endless and that indeed is likely to be endless because every act of war is likely to create new terrorists.
What are these sacrifices of peace? In Jewish language these are korbanot, "near-bringings," bringing near to the Unity of All what is nearest to our own selves.
The first such "near-bringing" would be to do as the Baal Shem Tov and Heschel teach, bringing near the evil behaviour we see in others as a mirror to look within our selves. Looking at Al Qaeda, to see the CIA that trained them. Hearing Bin Laden's call for jihad, hearing our own President's call for "crusade."
The second would be taking time to reflect, to bring our own life-experience and our own consciousness - often so divorced from each other -- near to each other. Time out -- time not used to multiply the military, imprison immigrants, name more countries for devastation or embargo, but time simply to reflect. To pray, to learn, to listen, to explore new possibilities.
Such a time out - setting aside, for example, the first eleven days of September 2002 as a time to reflect on our experience of the previous year, on the meaning of the terror attacks and on America's place in the world -- would carry into public space the Jewish wisdom of the Ten Days of Awe and Transformation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Indeed, it would tune in to Heschel’s teaching just a few years after the essay I have just quoted, encoded in the well-known book The Sabbath he wrote soon after World War II, while the blood of the Holocaust and Hiroshima was barely dry -- his teaching that the Sabbath, taking time to restfully reflect, is the deepest challenge to a civilization of techno-idolatry.
And the third "near-bringing" would be creating in the present the institutions and practices that we dream of for the future. Making near in reality what seems far from possibility.
And finally, let us bring near our wholeness as a community: that we do this not only in addressing specific wounds in the body politic with specific acts of tikkun, but also at the level of the meaning of Jewish peoplehood:
That we see the Jewish people in our era as a transgenerational "movement" to heal the wounded world. Not through violence, and not through passive non-violence. Not walking alone to conquer, not walking alone to cower.
Rather, as a carrier of assertive non-violence to open up and transform the Great Powers of the world, working with allies who share many aspects of our vision.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Centre www.shalomctr.org and author of Godwrestling - Round 2. He presented this paper at a Bossey Institute / World Council of Churches multifaith meeting in June 2004 on "Religion, Power, and Violence: A Consultation for Inter-religious Peace-Building."