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.