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.

The Lebanon War and the Discourse of Peace

In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31 years ago this week)  there was a tectonic shift in the political discourse in Israel. One of the aftershocks of this movement of the political plates created a fissure in the Religious Zionist community which opened a space for a religio-political discourse that privileged people over land, and opened the possibility of a territorial compromise for peace between Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, though the community of left of center religious zionists who privilege peace over territory survives, they won a few battles but are losing the war.graffiti

Two months before the start of the June 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli army completed its withdrawal from Sinai. This withdrawal was accompanied by a paroxysm of religious and political activism, gnashing of teeth, tearing of clothes, mourning and wearing of sackcloth and ashes (sometimes literally). Under the banner of “There will be no retreat,” the messianic Zionists of Gush Emunim tied their political triumph to a path to salvation which they and their spiritual leaders saw as dependent on expanding the territory of the Kingdom of Israel. In the wake of the withdrawal from Sinai, while most of Israel celebrated a new era of peace with Egypt, this community was in a state of shock and disbelief, not comprehending how the actual course of history had impacted their vision of that course. Continue reading

Zionism, Militarism, and Fantasy Camp

For some reason I don’t think that any of the founders of Zionism are standing and applauding from their places of eternal reward (wherever those may be).

NPR reported this morning about Caliber 3, an Israeli company which, according to their website, “was established in the year 2000 to design and apply effective security solutions around the world.” They now have a special two hour course which “is geared to all tourists of any age who would like to learn about anti terrorism tactics. Experts in anti terrorism combat will teach how terrorism is fought, how to shoot a pistol and give hands on experience for all participants in shooting a weapon.” They stress that the “program … combine[s] together the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.” They also do birthday parties. Seriously. Continue reading

Women of the Wall and the Fire Next Time

The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that one only approaches the Holy with great fear and trepidation. On the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated, Aaron’s children were killed by the same sacrificial machinery that consumed Israel’s offerings. The ritual choreography which eventually became the Yom Kippur service is preceded by the warning: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone … lest he die.” God warns Israel as they gather round Mount Sinai that they not approach the mountain “lest they break through to the Lord to see and many of them perish.” The Sages applied to Torah the same paradigm. Comparing Torah to fire, the midrash warns that if one gets too close, one will be burnt, if one strays too far, one will freeze.


These are the thoughts with which I find myself as I try to bring some order to the reasons that I am uncomfortable with the movement for equal ritual access at the kotel, known as Women of the Wall. It is not that I fear the disruption of the customs of the place—customs which have only been in place for several decades, not longer, and have been stage managed by the Hareidi rabbis of the kotel, pretending that the force of the police is the same as the patina of authenticity. It is not egalitarian worship at the kotel that I fear. I strongly believe in egalitarian worship everywhere, rarely if ever praying in a quorum divided by sex. It is rather worship of the kotel that makes me anxious.

Continue reading

The Jewish People is in Danger of Destruction

This post was written together with Ruhama Weiss, an Israeli poet, author, and Talmud scholar. The post appeared in Hebrew on YNet, as Ruhama’s weekly column on the Torah portion. The English post is not an exact translation, and in fact there is a section here that is not in the Hebrew and vice versa. The whole piece was written in collaboration and the first person voice of the author is sometimes me (Aryeh) and sometimes Ruhama.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob comes close to doing battle with Laban face to face. In this week’s Israeli portion, we almost deepened our battle with Hamas and with the residents of Gaza. In the end Jacob sealed a treaty with Laban. Will we succeed in sealing a lasting treaty with Hamas and the residents of Gaza?

Jews in the world and in Israel spend a lot of time engaged in the question of whether the Jewish people is in danger of being destroyed; we worry about assimilation, antisemitism, and wars. I do not find myself worried about the question of the survival of the Jewish people, but especially recently I find myself very worried about the danger of the disappearance of Jewish culture. A culture that we built with the sweat of our brow, rare courage, creativity, and pain, over thousands of years (the majority of which were in Exile).

I turned to my hevruta, my study partner, Prof. Aryeh Cohen, an alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and today a professor of Talmud at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. I asked him to help me write a short dictionary of words of war and peace which are in danger of destruction. Here is the beginning of our sad, destroyed dictionary. Continue reading

Kinah/Lament for Yitzhak Rabin

Seventeen years ago Yitzhak Rabin, a warrior belatedly turned peacemaker, was assassinated. May his memory be for a blessing.  


Aryeh Cohen


The day after Yitzhak Rabin was killed

Moshe was remonstrating with God

This is truly Torah. Is this its reward?!

and again he felt faint sitting

in the back of Akiva’s study hall

looking over nine empty rows

bereft of students whose

master was martyred whose

flesh was parcelled

out in the market.

and God said they are turning

back the clock they are forcing

my hand they are running toward

an end that I didn’t intend to write

the benches are filled with those

whose texts are filled with dirt and

rocks. and Moshe, faint with the

hunger of unfulfilled desire

asks: is this the love of

Solomon, the holy of holies?

and Elishah saw the angel sitting

and Elishah saw the son dying

and Elishah turned on Rabbi Meir

“go find your Akiva now…” Continue reading