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.

For Holocaust Memorial Day: “Be Not Silent”

Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, dedicated the second of his two major works (he wrote many, many more than that) Otherwise than Being with the following:

To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.

On the bottom of the same page, in Hebrew, he dedicates the book to the memory of his father and his mother, his brothers, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, all of whom were killed by the Nazis. The dedication is sealed with the traditional Hebrew acronym for the statement: “Let their souls be bound in the binds of life.” Continue reading

Super Pacs, Democracy, and This Imperfect Union

The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a “crowd” or a “mob”. This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy. Continue reading

A Lack of Imagination is Dangerous: On Israel, Iran and ♥

There is something of a surprising campaign which has taken hold on Facebook which has also garnered some attention in the press. Two Israelis, Roni Edry and Michal Tamir added a poster to their Facebook profile with this statement in bold colors: “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We ♥ you.” Within days there were tens of thousands of “likes” on Facebook, messages from around the world, a new Facebook page and even hundreds of positive responses from Iran.

What to make of all this? All the messages seem rather sappy and simplistic. “We ♥ you” is not a foreign policy. It is not a negotiating position. It is not even an obvious claim on justice or morality. It is strange.

It does, however, have resonance in its simplicity. This counterpoint to the bombast of Iranian, Israeli and American leaders is stark in the very minimalism of its claims. There is a rather strong denial of what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the “ontology of war” in these statements. The ontology of war is the understanding that peace comes at the end of a narrative which includes victory over the enemy. Peace, then is one stage in an ongoing process of war. Inevitably, peace will also be followed by war, since the peace is only assured by victory. Peace which does not partake of this narrative, peace which is a response to the Other, makes one vulnerable.

Continue reading

Justice in the City: the book is here

I am very happy to announce that my book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is out and available at Academic Studies Press and Amazon.com.

You can now download and read the introduction of the book here (just click on the cover image).

I hope that this will whet your appetite or stimulate your curiosity or at least disturb in a productive way, and hopefully you will buy the book and incorporate it in your discussions about how to make our part of the world a more just place.

Occupy the Language

Photo credit: Jeffrey H. Campagna

One young man in Zuccoti Park in New York, part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, holds up a sign which boldly declares: “We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it.” This tongue in cheek message gets to the heart of what is uncomfortable for many in the media and the chattering class about the Occupy movement (OWS and its many many offshoots in all major American cities and many cities around the world). There is an expected, almost ritual nature to American political discourse. There are critiques, followed by demands, supported by emotional anecdotes and statistics, followed by the suggestion of legislative remedies. The chattering class then gets to work vetting these remedies on two levels. First, and most important, is the “horse race” analysis. The political climate will not allow this or the votes are there but only if the opposing party will compromise on this. And so on and so forth. Somewhere farther down, or on the inside pages, the wonks get to work dissecting the numbers. Within a week at most (usually a news cycle), its all old news. Nothing has changed. Perhaps a catch phrase has been added to the stump speech of this or that candidate.
It is very frustrating when a large group of Americans peacefully assemble to air their grievances without participating in these tried and true rituals. When they do not attempt to position themselves behind a candidate or leverage a powerful constituency, but, rather display their disaffection without feeling the need to issue bullet points which any politician or pundit could easily digest and regurgitate. And then they stick around. For a long time. And they do not feel the pressure of the news cycle to make decisions or appoint telegenic spokespeople. They just put up tents, hold long meetings which need to reach a consensus for a decision, put themselves in danger by reclaiming public space and using non-violence as a trigger and a weapon to reveal the repressive reflexes of the financial and political elites. It is maddening. Continue reading