Three Thoughts about Peace

1. This past week’s Torah portion included the so-called “Priestly Blessing.” This short text, only four verses long, is one of the oldest parts of the Torah. It has gained liturgical significance through its synagogue use as the priestly blessing, and through its home use as the way parents bless their children. The blessing ends with the following verse: “May God raise God’s countenance to you and give you peace.” The last phrase might be literally translated as “place upon you peace.” Its a very odd locution. It points to the extraordinariness of peace.

Priestly blessing from the time of the First Temple.

The rabbis expound this extraordinary type of peace by saying things like: “Great is peace for God’s name is peace.” This is a peace which is almost not of this world. It is a Divine peace. The problem with elevating peace to this transcendent level is that it is beyond reach. A peace that can only be granted by God is not a peace that can be achieved by human effort. A peace which is the name of God, is a peace which orders the heavens, and the heavenly beings; it lets the lion and the lamb lie down next to each other and not be afraid. This is not a peace which people can hope to accomplish. There is no road map which leads from here to there, when there is hunter and prey in the animal world striking up a friendship. If peace is so far beyond us, we then have nothing to do. We might as well go on about our business, and in the fullness of time, God will flip a switch and peace will reign.

2. The great French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that peace and war are essentially different. In his words, there is an ontology of war and an ontology of peace and one cannot lead to the other. The ontology of war is a relationship with everything that exists in which things and people are usable. Other people, like other objects can be used by me. The ontology of peace describes a relationship in which another person is essentially beyond my grasp—both in the sense that I cannot fully understand them, nor can I take hold of them to use them as I would an axe. In this sense the basic relationship I can have with another person is responding to their needs, their vulnerability.

It is only when I see other people as usable that war is possible. In order to embark on a martial mission, I have to amass an army of soldiers who are more or less indistinguishable from each other. I can calculate that ten percent of these people will die in the conflict. I can only do that because my relation to other people is such that I can grasp them. In an ontology of peace there are only individuals. Each individual is beyond my grasp and therefore not able to be melded into a whole.

The bottom line is that peace can never be the end result of war. Peace is not the state when one power has killed enough of its enemies that there is no one left to resist. That peace, whether the pax Romana, or the pax Americana, or the pax Israelitica is not peace. It is a pause before war. It is what the military calls stage zero: the prelude to the next war.

3. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tameres articulated as a basic principal that all violence that is put out into the world will generate more violence. Even violence which is deployed in a situation of self-defense, Tameres writes, will ultimately return as the violence of oppression. This explains, for Tameres, why God locked the Israelites up in their houses on the night of the destruction of the first born in Egypt, and why God did the killing alone. Violence is only a Divine prerogative. God wanted Israel to escape from this cycle of violence.

God’s introduction to Israel at Mt. Sinai, according to Tameres’ interpretation, was: “I am the Lord your God who despises cruel oppression.” One might speculate that if it were not for the sin of the Golden Calf, where Israel misunderstood the relationship of God and Israel, that Israel would have continued on into the Land of Canaan peacefully. This was not to be Israel’s fate.

The bottom line, though, is that all violence, even seemingly justified violence, results in more violence, oppressive violence.

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank, it behooves us to remember that peace is not a gift from God; that war does not lead to peace, nor has it ever led to peace, for war and peace describe incommensurable relationships to all that exists; that all violence—even justified violence—leads to more violence.

It might just be the time to stop practicing war and start practicing peace.

Sacred Resistance (on this moment)

There are three moments in the first three weekly portions of Exodus which help to define our moment of sacred resistance to the Trumpian onslaught. On the Shabbat which was the day after the inauguration we began reading the book of Exodus. Exodus begins with the declaration that “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) As most commentators through the ages have mentioned, this cannot be taken literally. Even though Joseph was dead by this time, it is not believable that a Pharaoh could take the throne in Egypt without knowing of Joseph, the viceroy, the second most important person in the Egyptian monarchy. The “not knowing” must be metaphorical. Either the new Pharaoh spurned Joseph’s family, cutting them off from the privileges of being connected to the royal house; or the new Pharaoh intentionally cut Joseph out of the history of Egypt. Either way, of a morning, the house of Jacob was adrift with no protection.

The analogy to the current moment is all too obvious and painful. We, the liberal community in general, and the liberal Jewish community in particular, grew comfortable with access to power, with invitations to the White House, with steady though halting progress on certain social issues (despite uncomfortable lack of progress on other issues). We were not prepared for that morning when we would wake up and find that a new king had arisen who did not know Joseph. A new president who was intentionally trying to undo everything the previous president had accomplished. A new president to whom we had no access, and over whom we held no sway—even fanciful sway. No more Hanukkah parties at the White House for us. We were adrift with no protection. Worse, and more dangerous, front-line and affected communities (Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI, Native Americans) were without a foothold or leverage in government. Continue reading

Contra Jeff Sessions (On Justice and Righteousness)

In the summer of 1963 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of thousands who had come to Washington DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He articulated the frustrations and anger of the crowds in front of him when he said that they were carrying an overdue promissory note, a note that had been signed by the founding fathers, guaranteeing that all would be granted the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King was speaking on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. Lincoln had radically altered the nation’s own myth of origins, saying that “four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’” Four score and seven years, that is eighty seven years prior to the date of the Gettysburg address in 1863, brings us to 1776, when the United States was declared with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Lincoln bypassed the Constitution with its odious compromise about slavery, and declared that the origins of this country were rooted in equality. Continue reading

Achieving our Country (California Nation)

The days since the election have brought with them a torrent of self-criticism from the left, from the not so left, and from the never-was-left wings of the Democratic Party. Everybody accusing everybody else of the loss. The white working class was not given its due. There was too much attention paid to identity politics. Not enough attention was given to foreign policy concerns, or any concerns other than Trump’s vulgarity and panoply of hatreds. And on and on. In my humble opinion all of that is perhaps necessary venting but, ultimately, just so much noise.

The election posed a choice between two visions of what America is and/or could be. On the one hand was the claim that the more perfect union, which is presented as the very reason for the Constitution, is achieved by increasing and expanding the community of those who would receive the Blessings of Liberty, and be of those that the promotion of the general Welfare would impact. On this claim Justice is open to be claimed by all who reside in this country; domestic tranquility is a right of all; and the people who are being commonly defended are of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and ability. On this side of the argument, in broad terms, achieving our country means welcoming the stranger, caring for the resident, understanding that “citizens” are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility (as Jeffrey Stout has argued), and not only those who bear the relevant documents. Continue reading

Abraham sits by the tent (on political action in the age of Trump)

In terms of the Jewish year, which is in tune to the weekly readings of the Torah, we are now between lech lechah and vayera. The former portion, lech lechah—which literally means “go forth”—is named for God’s famous command to Abraham to do just that: “go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your ancestral home, to the place I will show you.” Abraham was not told where he was going. God did not say: Go to Canaan. He was going to an as yet unnamed place. All the important things that happen in the book of Genesis, happen at places that are only named once the important things happen there. Only after seeing God in a dream and receiving a covenantal promise, for example, is Jacob able to name that place Bet El, the house of God. Continue reading

Wake up! (On T’shuvah/Repentance & Criminal Justice Reform)

What does it mean to wake up? Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance (Chapter 3) writes that the function of the shofar is to wake a person up. “Those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the passing time…” should heed the blast of the ram’s horn and stir from their slumber. Nowadays, it is common in activist quarters to speak of people who have recognized certain systemic injustices as being “woke.” Maimonides and the activists are speaking to the same point. There is a crying need to step out of the familiar and often lazy thinking about our own and society’s actions. We are called to take an unvarnished look at our society, and ourselves. Continue reading

Statement from the Jerusalem Community Relations Council

“While we agree with many of Isaiah’s sentiments, and we too think that the poor, and the orphaned should be protected, we cannot abide the extreme and unfair language that Isaiah employs to describe our beloved city. Calling the city a ‘harlot’ and ‘filled with murderers’!? Why is he singling out Jerusalem? Has Isaiah looked around at other cities? Jerusalem is doing pretty well. We live in a rough neighborhood. Moreover, the calumnies that he heaps on the Temple are just unacceptable. He has no right to claim that God would say: ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, …And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. … Trample My courts no more; … Incense is offensive to Me. … Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; …And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you.’

“And this is not all. After defaming our city and our Temple, he puts forward outlandish ideas of how to run our country. Is this a sustainable defense policy? ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.’ We have tried to cooperate with Isaiah on moderate and reasonable reforms. We too feel the pain of the marginalized, and the deficiencies of the sacrificial system. Yet, after the obviously malicious and slanderous language that Isaiah uses in his so-called platform, we can longer cooperate with him.

“Signed, the The Jerusalem Community Relations Council.”

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading

Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches. Continue reading