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.

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.) Continue reading

Counting Jews, Again. So what?

The just released Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, has let loose the usual round of teeth gnashing, gloating, critique and analysis. Everybody, it seems, has jumped on the study as a prooftext of what they have been saying all these years anyway. The Conservative movement is doomed. The Orthodox are marching on. The Orthodox aren’t going anywhere—fifty percent of people raised Orthodox are leaving Orthodoxy. The Reform movement is the only movement keeping its numbers. But those numbers aren’t from within the Reform movement, they come from outside—everybody just rolls downhill.

So, in the spirit of this open air of inquiry, I want to suggest that the most important line in the report is found on the bottom of page seven: “This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole –not just Jews –increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).” Continue reading

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

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.  

Kinah 

Aryeh Cohen

I

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

The urgency of Tisha b’Av

My latest post on the Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast

Sitting in a cafe on Pico Blvd. in West LA that is way hipper than I am, there seems nothing further from this cultural moment than fasting. Yet, we are on the brink of one of the two most significant fast days on the Jewish liturgical calendar. The better known of those fast days is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, which is a day of prayer and forgiveness. It is also, at least in the eyes of the tradition, not only a holy day but a holiday, a day of celebration. Celebreating the possibility of renewal and atonement. The possibility of piety and holiness.

The day that is upon us in the heat of the summer is the fast of the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is a day of unrelenting sadness and mourning, a day of lamentation for the many, many evils that have befallen the Jewish people through the ages—the shattering of the Tablets in the desert, the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, even the expulsion from Spain and the “final solution.”

The question some raise is understandable.  They ask: How do we—sitting in cafes in Los Angeles or in Tel Aviv—relate to this holiday? Jews as a people are not in any existential danger now. The opposite is the truth. The State of Israel, though facing challenges, has the strongest army in the region and is allied with the strongest power on the planet. The American Jewish community is probably the most affluent and politically powerful Jewish community to have ever existed on the planet. Why do we don the sackcloth and ashes of the eternal victims?
read the rest of the post here

 

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