Judaism as Nonviolence: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

During my Rosh Hashanah sermon, I asked the following questions:

Is there a place in Judaism for pacifism? Is it in fact possible – or desirable – as a Jew, to walk the path of nonviolence?

Click below to read my answers…

Whenever Jewish tradition’s views on War and Peace are being discussed, you’ll often hear some version of this statement: “Judaism is not a pacifist religion.”  I’ve made this claim myself on more than one occasion.  In fact, before I begin this year’s sermon, I’d like to read you an excerpt from the sermon I gave on Rosh Hashanah, 2003.   If you think back on that time, you’ll remember: 9/11 was still fresh on our souls, the war with Iraq had begun a few months earlier, and I had decided to make a sharp statement against our nation’s increasingly militaristic foreign policy.

I’ll quote from my sermon verbatim:

I suppose the place to start is to point out that Judaism in not a pacifist tradition and it never has been. From its Israelite origins until present day, Jewish tradition has viewed war as something that is occasionally permitted and in some circumstances, even necessary.

Now, I’m not here to retract this statement. But I would like to explore it a bit more deeply.  I’d like to revisit this comment because I’m increasingly struck by how easily Jews stereotype pacifism – how we tend to set it up as a kind of over-idealistic straw horse that we can easily knock aside.  And in the end, I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. Because when we dismiss the work of nonviolence, I fear that we end up becoming jaded and cynical over the very prospect of peace itself.

It’s now six years since I’ve given that sermon, but I believe the issue is germane as ever. As 2009 draws to a close, our country is still engaged in two foreign wars, neither of which show any sign of ending soon. Though our new administration is now making what I consider to be valiant attempts at diplomacy, the challenges are daunting and the prospects for failure are terrifying, particularly in the Middle East.  In so many ways, the threat – and the tragedy – of war is still very much a part of our times.

And yet perhaps it ever was thus. It would be foolish to deny that war has been an indelible aspect of human history from time immemorial.  Though most of us consider peacemaking to be an important value, it’s a value we seldom honor all that well. War is what we know. It’s what we’ve always known. The pursuit of nonviolence is also a part of our history, certainly, and we love to invoke it from time to time – but I’d say we rarely stop to consider it seriously. When push comes to shove, most of us consider pacifism at best to be a lovely, if somewhat naïve little dream. We’re great at paying it lip service, but how often do we seriously consider its meaning? How often do we really, truly attempt to walk the walk?

The way we commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of this phenomenon. Truly, there are few more beloved and celebrated contemporary national heroes than Martin Luther King. Indeed, we’ve devoted a national holiday to his memory and he is taught in our schools nearly as much as our country’s founding fathers. But rarely during our annual MLK celebrations do we explore how his sophisticated and challenging philosophy of nonviolence informed the struggle for civil rights in our country.

On MLK day, we’ll inevitably hear his “I Have a Dream” speech quoted repeatedly. But I doubt our nation would ever invoke – let alone seriously conisder – a quote such as this, which he wrote in an article shortly before he was assassinated:

I’m committed to nonviolence absolutely. I’m just not going to kill anybody, whether it’s in Vietnam or here. I’m not going to burn down any building. If nonviolent protest fails this summer, I will continue to preach it and teach it…I plan to stand by nonviolence because I have found it to be a philosophy of life that regulates not only my dealings in the struggle for racial justice, but also my dealings with people, with my own self. I will still be faithful to nonviolence.

So as a Jew who is also deeply inspired by teachings such as this – as someone who struggles to remain faithful to these kinds of values, I ask: is there a place in Judaism for pacifism? Is it in fact possible – or desirable – as a Jew, to walk the path of nonviolence?

I’d like to start out by clarifying our terms.  Up until now I’ve been using the terms “pacifism” and “nonviolence” somewhat interchangeably, but I should be more precise. Generally speaking, the term “pacifism” refers to a psychological state or a state of mind. Pacifism is a value, an ideal – a moral belief that rejects war and violence as a means for resolving conflict. 

Nonviolence, on the other hand, is a way of life. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about nonviolence is that is essentially passive. Perhaps this is because the term defines itself by what it isn’t. In fact, nonviolence is inherently activist.  In truth, it is actually as active as violence itself inasmuch as they are both forms of persuasion.  They both seek to change or transform the status quo. Nonviolence is essentially rooted in essentially a pragmatic approach – but it is committed to resolving conflicts peacefully. It is based on the core belief that is eminently practical in nature: that nonviolence is simply more effective than violence. That war does not work.

This idea is, in fact, deeply embedded in Judaism.  Through the maze of Jewish tradition’s myriad of confusing and often seemingly contradictory commandments, we are repeatedly reminded that Torah’s essential purpose is peace. Every time we return the Torah scroll to the ark we do so with these Biblical words, “Torah is a Tree of Life… all its ways are ways of peace.” The Talmud (Chapter Gittin) drives this idea home in a very straightforward manner: “The whole of Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

 But peace, we are taught, must be continually sought – it will not come naturally to us.  In Psalm 34, another important part of our liturgy, we read “Seek peace and pursue it.” In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Hillel teaches, “Be students of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace.” Now these are lovely words, but they are more than just moral platitudes. Over and over in our tradition we are taught that  peace is not simply a value to be cherished – it is a goal to be actively sought out. Peace will not, it cannot come to us all by itself. Peace will only come to us if we ourselves see fit to work for it. Otherwise, war and bloodshed will continue to be our default status quo.

Those who deny pacifist values in Jewish tradition often point to its complex laws of warfare. And it’s true: Jewish law spends a great deal of time discussing when we are and aren’t justified in going to war. In halacha, this is embodied by the concept of Milchemet Mitzvah (or a “commanded war.”) Under this category are two instances in which we are literally obliged to go to war. One is the commandment to fight the so-called seven pagan nations that occupied the ancient Land of Israel as well as the enemy tribe known as the Amalekites.  What do we make of this commandment today? Many Jewish commentators suggest that this category belongs to an ancient Near Eastern setting that is simply no more. That is to say, since these nations no longer exist, this particular commandment is now null and void.

However, the rabbis also applied the concept of Milchemet Mitzvah to any war of self-defense. A famous law from the Talmud rules that a one is commanded to kill a pursuer (“rodef”) who is threatening your life.  So too are nations given the responsibility to defend themselves against who attack them.  However – and this is a big however – before we go to war, we are commanded to seek peace at all costs – to exhaust every possibility for peaceful resolutions to conflict.

That is because war and violence have an irrevocable impact on our lives and on our world. Another classic Jewish teaching, the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, teaches: “When an arrow leaves the hand of a warrior he cannot take it back.”  From this we learn that once we resort to war, we unleash a myriad of consequences that we can neither control nor reverse.

Jewish tradition also teaches us that violence is a form of moral pollution that stains our world indelibly.  The most famous example of this occurs in Genesis. After Cain kills Abel, God says to him “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” I understand this to mean that when the violence does not only cause personal suffering and loss – it transforms our collective world forever. 

Indeed, war has a way of unleashing hatred into the world in a profound and indelible manner. It invariably creates cycle of violence that compound pain and division – and by so doing these cycles render the prospect of peace infinitely more difficult, if not impossible.  This is the tragic irony of war: it is virtually always justified in terms of self defense. But inevitably, war creates an endless reality of its own in which each side ends up defining the other in terms of its latest attack.

An orthodox rabbinic colleague once put it this way to me: “According to Jewish law, a Milchemet Mitzvah – a commanded war – is a war of self defense. That essentially means that war is always justified or war is never justified.”  With all due respect to “just war” theory, I tend to agree with my colleague. It often seems so very ironic that war, the most extreme and horrific manifestation of human violence, also tends to be the easiest for us to excuse, rationalize and explain away. But those who have fought in wars will attest that there is nothing moral or good about them. According to international law, there are “legal” and “illegal” ways of waging them, but most who actually see the field of battle report that in the fog of war, the fine points of battlefield morality invariably become blurred, often to the point of meaninglessness.

Though I respect the opinions of those who feel otherwise, I have personally come to believe that the shades of gray are merely a delusion. At the end of the day we will have to choose: do we believe that war is an acceptable way to settle conflicts, or do we believe that it is simply unacceptable? And if our answer is the latter, then what are we prepared to do about it?

I know that this is an enormously difficult issue for Jews in particular. I think there is a good reason why you rarely hear the words “Judaism” and “pacifism” mentioned together – and I’m not sure it has ultimately has anything to do with religious ideology. We Jews have been a historically vulnerable people. We’ve been the literal object of violence for centuries. And of course there is no getting around it: to be a Jew today means to live in traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust – to know all too painfully the costs of not being able to physically defend ourselves. I know this is why Israel represents what it does for so many Jews. In a very deep way, it represents our Jewish empowerment after having been so vulnerable for so long – and especially following the most tragically powerless chapters in our history. For the first time in centuries, we now have their own nation with their own army, prepared and ready to defend the security of the Jewish people.

But now, sixty years after the founding of Israel, it is well worth asking: has Israel solved what Theodor Herzl called “the Jewish problem?”  When Herzl developed political Zionism, he truly believed that the founding of a Jewish state would end anti-Semitism once and for all. And yet, for all its formidable, state-of-the-art military might, Israel has found neither safety nor security. This is the great tragic irony of our time: the place in the world where the Jewish people is ostensibly the most powerful is the place where endless war has become its lot.  Of course, we could analyze the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and debate its causes as long as we like, but again, the larger question remains: has Israel’s military power brought the Jewish people the peace and stability for which we have prayed for so long?

Many of you know that I speak out very publicly when I believe Israel uses its power in a manner that I consider oppressive – and I know it is difficult for many in the Jewish community to hear me criticize Israel in such a public way.  There will be time to debate into the specifics of the Mideast conflict – and as a congregation we should.  We should share openly and honestly our beliefs, our concerns and our fear over this painful and challenging and tragic situation. But for now I will only say that when I speak out, please know I do it as a matter of personal conscience. I do so out of a deep and abiding love for the Jewish people. And I do so out my belief that the use of overwhelming military power to solve political problems is not making Israel more secure, but precisely the opposite.

Frankly, I believe the same thing about the US and our own militarized foreign policy as well. Believe me, I have no illusions about the so-called military-industrial complex (or as it’s often referred to today: the “corporate-industrial complex.”)  This is how the world works. War today is big business. It has been observed that war will be with us as long as there are those who can make good money off of it. I’m not so naïve as to say we are going to fundamentally turn around the scourge of war from our midst. But I do also know that history is replete with examples in which nonviolence has stared down the advocates of war and violence and have succeeded. It is not just a naïve dream. People such as Ghandi and King and Mandela are the most prominent examples of this, but there are many, many more heroes who have changed the world in large and small ways through the path of nonviolence.

And for those who scoff that ivory tower morals can never change the scheme of things, I submit the words of Vaclav Havel, the Czech essayist and playwright who helped to bring down an oppressive regime and eventually became President:

Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.

Does Judaism believe in nonviolence?  For me, at least, it comes down to this: I believe that our spiritual tradition teaches that the pursuit of peace is an absolutely sacrosanct value; that this is an ideal that we are commanded to put into action, and that it does indeed have the power to change the world. I also know that it is enormously challenging to belong to people with a legacy of victimization – and remain committed to a path of nonviolence.  But today, in this age of unprecedented Jewish power, I also believe in my heart that physical power will not ultimately bring us the security that we seek. And in my darkest moments, I fear that, God forbid, it could even prove our downfall.

As I mentioned last night, Rosh Hashanah is a time in which we publicly ackowledge the limits of human power – the one time of year in which we literally bow to the ground to a Power that ultimately transcends us all. I’ve often believe that in its way, this is an ironically empowering moment. For its only when we affirm the limits of our own power that we understand what we are truly capable of in this world. I hope this Rosh Hashanah, we can begin to discover the true source of our power: not by wielding it against others, but by choosing another means of affecting change in the world:  the path of nonviolence, which is just as effective, but infinitely more sacred.

I hope it is a path we can search for and struggle toward together. May it make a difference in our lives and world – and may we all live to see that day.

8 thoughts on “Judaism as Nonviolence: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

  1. It is true that non violence has been successful but only where the oppressor has been a democracy (or proto-democracy) failing to live up to its own standard of human rights. After watching southern sheriffs continually beat non violent protesters on the news night after night, White Americans including President Kennedy were shamed into extending full rights to blacks through legislation and executive order. It is noteworthy that an armed force – the National Guard was required to guarantee the success that non-violence achieved politically and spiritually. Gandhi had similar success in both South Africa and India. In these situations, the non-violent leadership in each struggle understood that success was predicated upon deep rooted concepts of fairness, human rights and due process ingrained in the British and American political psyche. Gandhi and King felt certain that their sacrifice would compel these democracies to achieve their full potential with regard to civil liberties and they were right.

    Such feelings were much harder to elicit in Nazi Germany. Europe and a small remnant of the Jewish people were saved only because of the almost inexplicable willingness of the British, Canadian and American peoples to unselfishly sacrifice in order to fight evil. Yes, EVIL. There is a type of malevolence which can not be reasoned with, changed or influenced by anyone or anything. We saw this evil in Bosnia where 100,000 women were raped, we saw it in Rwanda and we saw it in Auschwitz. Rabbi Rosen is correct, while you are fighting, “the fine points of battlefield morality invariably become blurred,” but there are thousands of veterans who can attest that meaning is not lost and if it is, it returns as wounds heal. The All Black unit which liberated my father from Auschwitz remained extremely proud of its WWII service in general and especially of its role in liberating Jewish concentration camps. I should add that the young men and women who do the fighting pay a terrible price and I do not wish to minimize their sacrifice in anyway.

    Nonetheless, I do see a perfect arena for non-violent resistance. There is no better strategy than non violence for the Palestinians. Imagine if the Palestinians in Gaza declared a 1 year truce where they would pledge to end all attacks on Israelis, forego any preparations for war and start talking like they are ready to permanently end the conflict – HUDNAS DON’T COUNT. All of their energies would be devoted to building Gaza. While the hard core settler community would not be moved, I feel certain that a super majority of Jewish Israelis (75-80%) would be willing if not eager to make the difficult compromises required to settle the conflict. If non violence is truly a path embraced by the American Jewish left, demands for further Israeli concessions should be accompanied by a call to the Palestinians to follow the examples of Gandhi, Havel and Martin Luther King.

    1. Aaron,

      Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful post. I’m taken especially by your comment: “meaning is not lost and if it is, it returns as wounds heal.” I don’t disagree with you: I think that as human beings, we must give meaning to the inexplicable tragedies in our lives and our world. That is, after all, what Victor Frankl pointed out when he wrote that the key to his survivial in Auschwitz was his readiness to ascribe meaning to his suffering. This what we do in all kinds of ways, big and small, in order to make it through tragedy and loss.

      WW II is for many, the prime of example of war as a terrible last resort – but even if we can point to the redemptive moments during the war in order to find meaning in it, I don’t think this ultimately minimizes the fact that in the end, this war was an overwhelming horror for all concerned. Given the unfathomable human destruction it entailed, I’m personally unable to call it “The Good War” as I simply cannot believe there is anything “good” about war.

      As to Palestinian nonviolent resistance: there is in fact an extensive campaign of nonviolent direct action being carried out in Palestine, though it is receives scant attention in the west – and it doesn’t seem to be moving a “super majority” of Israelis in any way I can see. There are many examples I could point to, including a weekly nonviolent protest in theWest Bank town of Bil’in, which was organized in response to Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land to expand its settlement of Modi’in Illit.

      This campaign has been met with a crushing response from the IDF. Tragically, the Israeli government has not yet been “shamed” into reforming its unjust policies in the West Bank – and it certainly isn’t moblizing its equivalent of the National Guard to protect nonviolent Palestinian protesters who are regularly being wounded and killed. (I blogged about Palestinian nonviolence last May: https://rabbibrant.com/2009/05/27/in-search-of-perspective-in-bilin/ )

  2. Hi Rabbi Rosen,

    Thanks for your great website, and this post on non-violence.

    I’m a filmmaker/journalist – I made aliyah 3 yrs ago, and now live in Jerusalem.

    I am working on an inspiring documentary project, “Heart of the Other”, about the non-violence work of Khaled Mahameed, a Palestinian-Israeli citizen who opened the first Holocaust museum in the world especially designed for Arab viewers (in Nazareth).

    Mahameed also often goes to the West Bank to lead Holocaust workshops in villages and refugee camps there. And he also often confronts Israelis (and Israeli soldiers), critiquing what he considers the Israeli misuse of the Holocaust. There a trailer here: http://www.heartoftheother.com/trailer

    I really think Khaled’s work is some of the most courageous and creative coexistence work I’ve seen since moving here, and even before the film is finished, we’re trying to generate grass-roots buzz and support for it.

    Would you consider doing a post about it on your blog? Alternately, I’d be glad to write one myself. I believe that Americans – Jews and others – would benefit from reading about and seeing Khaled’s work “on the ground” in Palestine/Israel.

    By the way, if you’re ever in Israel, I’d be glad to introduce you to Khaled.

    Shalom-salaam from Jerusalem, and L’shanah tovah,
    Harvey Stein

  3. Peg Romm

    Brant,
    This discussion of pacifism touches a nerve as Carl would like to be a marine when he graduates. While I know it is for good reasons that he wants this, to be heroic, to live a life with meaning and of course, to be buff, I am, of course, very worried. My dearest relative is a Quaker. Not born to it, she came to it, by way of telling her very heroic but somewhat dysfunctional WW2 Dad, that his way was not hers. I‘ve wondered how it would have been if we had just raised Carl this way. How much safer he would be. But still, even now, I can’t find my way to pacifism and don’t understand your reasoning.

    Let’s accept as a given that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians have created much of the insecurity Israel faces. This would lead to the conclusion that Israel, for its own sake, should make peace. Without defending these conclusions, though they are mine, this in no way makes me a pacifist. Being a pacifist is not necessary to disagree with these failed policies and a conclusion as drastic as Pacifism should flow from the facts.

    I do readily admit that in my lifetime there have been many more wars that could have been avoided than should have been fought. My problem with pacifism is that it takes its exponents off the hook. In a completely ahistoric fashion, they know the answer while the rest of us are left in the muck trying to make sense of a chaotic world.

    Respectful, to argue against calling World War 2 ‘the good war’ is to argue against a very foolish person. To say that nations have a right to defend themselves is to say that citizens have the right to commit that which is dearest to them to something larger than themselves to preserve their essential principles. That this burden is not evenly bourn amongst the population is why these young men and women are heroes perhaps paying for these grave decisions with their lives or for the rest of their lives.

    Martin Luther King moved civil rights forward in the modern age but he had a predecessor in Lincoln, a man who did understand the terrible price of war and what it meant to lose a son. It would be pompous to quote Lincoln but while you wrestle with this perhaps you will give us your thoughts on him as I have read him quite a bit while pondering war.

    The moral high ground is a not where you belong. You are a person meant to slog it out in the mud with the rest of us, coming to conclusions one at a time, as the mean spirited facts of the day present themselves. We don’t have enough gifted altruists to let the few we have off the hook. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me over the years to hear you present a controversial point of view in a clear and coherent fashion. You give the rest of us cover. However tempting those bold, clear lines of ideology may be resist for our sake. (Though my knowledge of Judaism is limited, I have gotten the cooking and guilt part down.)
    Cordially,
    Peg Romm

  4. Wonderful work! I received the link through the Jewish Peace Fellowship. It’s very encouraging to see you, an American rabbi, publicly saying these things. Keep it up!

    People don’t win wars, corporations and nations win wars.

    Rape is a part of every war…I wouldn’t justify a rape, why would I justify a war?

    We have a huge homeless population here in Colorado. So many are veterans. When, exactly, do wars “end”?

    I think Jewish pacifists should continue on the same path we’ve been on for centuries. The zionist experiment and those that hold to it like an idol will fade away. I hope and wish they don’t bring any more humans down with them. It’s been too bloody of an experiment already.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    Evan

  5. For those interested in reading more about Jewish Nonviolence, a bibliography of Jewish Nonviolence is available here:

    http://shomershalom.org/blog/a-bibliography-of-jewish-nonviolence/

    It now has internet links for essays available online. I particularly recommend the two writings of Aaron Samuel Tamaret translated by Rabbi Everett Gender, both of which are available online.

    Plus you can now read Stefan Zweig’s entire out-of-print anti-war play Jeremiah, available free from Google.

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