THE IDEAL OF PEACE IN JUDAISM
Peace is a concept that is central to Judaism. Along with truth and justice, it is one of the three key Jewish values.
Peace, according to the Jewish sages, is the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah: “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace.” Tanhuma Shoftim 18
Peace is what will save the Jewish people: “God announceth to Jerusalem that they [Israel] will be redeemed only through peace.” Deuteronomy Rabah 5:15
The Jewish people’s desire for peace has been expressed for thousands of years in our prayers and in biblical and rabbinic sources.
In the words of the prophets (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3)
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
In the Ethics of the Fathers
Hillel says: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace…” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12)
In the Midrash
Great is peace since all other blessings are included in it. (Vayikrah Rabbah 9) The only reason that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world was so that there would be peace among humankind. (Bamidbar Rabbah 12A)
In the Amidah (Daily Standing Prayer of 19 blessings)
Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness, and mercy unto us and unto all Israel, your people.
In Israel’s Declaration of Independence
We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their people in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation … with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
In the prayer for the State of Israel
Please bless the State of Israel…spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Grant peace unto the land, lasting joy to its inhabitants. Remove from us all hatred and hostility, jealousy and cruelty. And plant in our hearts love and friendship, peace and companionship. Speedily fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The Hebrew word for peace, ‘SHALOM,’ comes from a root meaning ‘completeness’ and ‘perfection’. So when there is peace in Jewish terms, that means things are perfect: there is calm, security, prosperity and a general feeling of physical and spiritual well-being. It doesn’t just mean there is no war.
In Hebrew, to ask someone how they are (“How are you?”) we say “Ma shlomcha?” ‘Shlomcha’ literally means ‘your peace’, so we are actually asking them “How’s your state of peace?” This shows how important living in a state of peace is in Jewish thinking.
The Jewish obligation to pursue peace
Peace is so important a concept in Judaism that Jews have a religious obligation to pursue it. “Seek peace, and pursue it’ ‑ seek it in your own place, and pursue it even to another place as well.”
Leviticus Rabah 9:9
We are told that “He who establishes peace between man and his fellow, between husband and wife, between two cities, two nations, two families or two governments…no harm should come to him.” Mekhilta Bahodesh 12
And even that “one may deviate from the truth for the sake of peace…it is permissible to utter a falsehood for the purpose of making peace between a man and his fellow.” BT Yevamot 65b and Derekh Erez Zuta.
Lynda Ben-Menashe 2007
There are those who would argue that if you defend yourself with violence, you perpetuate an endless cycle of violence. It sees non-violent protest as a way of ending this cycle.
This view is not new; indeed, some pacifists trace this idea to a passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War (Book II chapter 16). In a speech by Agrippa, (the Jewish king during the Jewish revolt of 66 CE), he exhorts the crowd, which wants to revolt against the Roman Governor Florus, to be patient. He tells them: “Now nothing so much damps the force of strokes as bearing them with patience; and the quietness of those who are injured diverts the injurious persons from afflicting.”
This view can also be called the ‘shveig shtill’ (‘stay quiet’ in Yiddish) view of pacifism; it assumes that people will receive goodwill if they remain meek, passive and useful. Indeed, the Talmud (Gittin 57a) considers the Jewish revolt a tragic mistake, resulting in an immense loss of life in the face of overwhelming power. The tactic of ‘shveig shtill’ was often the refuge of Jews in antisemitic societies, where they found it best to avoid making waves, and to offer complete cooperation to those in authority. Basically it is the pacifism of the powerless.
There is a well known Jewish joke that illustrates this point. Two Jews are about to be executed by a firing squad. As they are handed their blindfolds, one of the Jews refuses to put his on. The second Jew, mortified by this act of rebellion, turns to his friend and says, “Please, don’t make trouble!”
It is often argued that non-violence, by virtue of its moral authority, can be a successful form of resistance to oppression. The classic example is the success of Gandhi in getting the British to leave India through non-violent protest. However, as Michael Walzer points out in his book Just and Unjust Wars, Gandhi succeeded because a country with a massive population was opposing an empire tired and weakened after World War II, and an empire with a tradition of respect for human rights. For the 6,000,000 Jews getting murdered in Europe, Gandhi had no practical advice. He advised Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry during the Holocaust, that he should get all German Jews to commit mass suicide; this he said would focus the world’s attention on Hitler’s inhumanity. To this Baeck replied that “we Jews know, that it is God’s singular commandment, to live.” Non-violent protest would, of course, have achieved nothing.
There is no tradition of individual pacifism as a value in Judaism. Rather there is an obligation for the individual to protect his / her life – even by force.
“If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” Exodus 22:2.
The law explains that if someone breaks into a home at night, the victim may assume his life is in danger and is allowed to kill the criminal; if the aggressor confronts the victim by daylight, there are other options of self-defence.
The commentator Rashi comments: The life of the aggressor and victim are not equal. If only one will survive, it is our obligation to make certain it is the victim.
The “law of the pursuer” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a) requires a person to save the life of any potential victim (3rd party), even by killing the aggressor, if necessary (if the aggressor can be stopped by less, only as much force as necessary is allowed). This is the basis of pre-emptive defence, individual and national.
There are two rationales for allowing self-defence. The first is practical; without the ability to use lethal force to stop the actions of aggressors, anarchy would reign (Chinuch 600). The second rationale challenges the moral assumptions of non-violence. It asserts that it is impossible to equate the lives of the aggressor and the victim; we have as a rule “that God’s quest is the interests of the hunted” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). The life of the aggressor and the victim are not of equal value; if only one will survive, it is our obligation to make certain that it is the innocent person, the victim, who will survive (Cf. Rashi to Exodus 22:1).
Deuteronomy provides an exemption for those likely to be a liability in combat:
“Then the officers shall add ‘Is any man afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too.’” Deuteronomy 20:8
However, there is no basis for a conscientious objector to claim he has the right to not fight based on a personal principle of pacifism in face of his national responsibility.
© Sandy Hollis 2006
Peace and Repairing the World
‘Shalom – Peace’, was one of the first words I learnt as a child, because my late father always greeted family and friends with the words “Shalom Aleichem” – “Peace unto You” and the recipient of the greeting would reply “Aleichem Shalom” – “Unto you Peace”.
This traditional greeting, “Shalom Aleichem”, used when two Jews meet, is also the name of the song that begins the Shabbat meal every Friday night. By singing this song of ‘shalom’, derived from the Hebrew word ‘shalem’, which means ‘complete’, we are asking G-d to bless our home with peace; that there should be no conflict between friends or family, especially on Shabbat.
It is also the essential conclusion of the blessing from the Hebrew Bible which Jewish parents pronounce over their children every Shabbat evening (weekly) and congregations pronounce on significant occasions – the blessing of Aaron the High Priest and brother of our teacher Moses, which originates in about 1,400 BCE.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His face upon you and give you Shalom – Peace” (Numbers 6:24-26)
It is a theme which reflects the immortal words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah (as above and here again below), inscribed above the entrance to the United Nations building in New York:
“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not take up sword against nation. And they shall not know war any more.”
(Isaiah 2; 3)
When Isaiah wrote these words at the beginning of the seventh century BCE, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel had been lost, deported by the Assyrian conqueror, and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was under threat. Isaiah spoke for a people longing for a universal peace, very similar to the United Nations ideal of peace under international law, in which nations would live in harmony under a divine system of justice.
“And the many peoples shall go and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
to the House of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways
And that we may walk in his paths’
For the Law shall come from Zion
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus he will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples.”
(Isaiah 2: 3-4)
Isaiah 11.4 is another image of peace which has captured the world’s imagination:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion …together.”
The Jewish concept also recognises that true peace is part of a totality which includes justice and compassion, reflected in the idea of ‘Tikkun Olam’ – the imperative to ‘repair the world’. This concept, originally formulated by Rabbi Isaac Luria in sixteenth century Safed, northern Israel, reflects the Jewish values of Justice (tzedakah), Compassion (chesed) and Peace (shalom), and it has now come to symbolize a quest for social justice, freedom, equality, peace and the restoration of the environment. It is a call to action – to repair the world through social action. It recognizes that each act of kindness, no matter how small, helps to build a new world.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
The speech delivered by Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on the occasion of the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles at Washington, DC, on 13 September 1993 gives some indication of Jewish feelings:
“President Clinton, Your Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
We have come from Jerusalem, the ancient and eternal capital of the Jewish people. We have come from an anguished and grieving land. We have come from a people, a home, a family, that has not known a single year – not a single month – in which mothers have not wept for their sons. We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities, so that our children and our children’s children will no longer have to experience the painful cost of war, violence, and terror. We have come to secure their lives, and to ease the sorrow and the painful memories of the past – to hope and pray for peace…
We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you – in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you: Let us pray that a day will come when we will say, enough, farewell to arms…
We say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough…
It is customary to conclude our prayers with the word ‘Amen’. With your permission, men of peace, I shall conclude with words taken from the prayer recited by Jews daily, and I ask the entire audience to join me in saying ‘Amen’:
‘May He who makes peace in His high heavens grant peace to us and to all Israel. Amen.’”
© Josie Lacey 2006.