War and Peace: the Jewish Version
Imagine no religion—and, therefore, no war. It’s easy if you try, and a number of recent writers have done so: the "new atheists," who find religion irrational and believe that its skewed perspective permits, encourages, sometimes even demands war. It’s true that the Torah clearly asserts that war is an ongoing part of God’s plan for the world: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). But who is Amalek in this generation, and what role do contemporary Jews—and the Christians, Muslims, Mormons, and Baha’is who have followed them in the Bible’s wake—have in that war? Put bluntly, does religious belief increase the danger of war or reduce it?
Jewish writers from the biblical period on have debated how to wage war morally; Deuteronomy (20:19-20) places limits on how much of the natural environment may be destroyed when a city is under siege (though expressing no such caution about the city’s inhabitants). Nowadays, most Jewish discussions of war in the abstract focus on the traditional split between wars that are obligatory and those that are discretionary. Since the one clear obligatory war was that to be waged against the “seven nations” of Canaan—“the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Deuteronomy 7:1)—this is a discussion that is not merely of historical or philosophical interest. For some today it is still a question, in the most literal sense, of life and death.
On this subject, reverence for Jewish tradition and the texts that embody it co-exists somewhat uneasily with the assumption that ethical progress has been and continues to be made, so that there is a growing awareness through the centuries of the moral demands placed on those who would wage war. Yishai Kiel, in his article “Morality of War in Rabbinic Literature” in a recent volume, War and Peace in Jewish Tradition, traces this growth through an analysis of what may be done to the inhabitants of a city during a siege, precisely the question Deuteronomy 20:19-20 failed to address. Kiel finds “no awareness” of moral problems in this situation in Tannaitic literature; he sees the first signs of them only in “certain” traditions of the Amoraic period. Not until Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah does “this . . . moral orientation becomes an obligatory legal norm.”
The volume as a whole is of uneven quality due to its origins in a scholarly conference on the subject. Its concerns range from the freeing of captives in the Ancient Near East to the New York Times coverage of the fighting in Gaza in December 2008. But the general impression it leaves is that Jewish sources do approach war from a moral perspective: “the ethical code of war in the Bible” (32); “the subordination of the king to written law” (70); “the Bible should not be regarded as a militaristic document” (79); from “a Jewish legal perspective war is ugly” (104); “the moral and ethical ideals expressed by Judaism throughout its history” (274).
It is not only Jews, of course, who are interested in violence in the Bible as an ethical challenge. But the challenge is a sharper one for Jews in that perhaps half of all the world’s Jews live in Israel—a country that maintains as uneasy a relationship with its non-Jewish minority as it does with the religion of Judaism, while some of its neighbors openly call for its destruction. Can a volume by a university scholar tip this delicate balance to the side of life rather than death?
Robert Eisen of George Washington University thinks it can. His new book, The Peace and Violence of Judaism, takes a different approach. Each stage of Jewish literature—biblical, rabbinic, medieval (split between philosophy and Kabbalah), and modern (focusing on Zionism)—is described from two different perspectives. One demonstrates that the Jewish sources promote violence (including societal and psychological violence) against non-Jews. The other proves that the Jewish sources promote peaceful relationships with non-Jews. The arguments are laid out as evenhandedly as possible: first, “The Bible Promotes Violence,” then “The Bible Promotes Peace,” after which a conclusion explains why the second reading does not have the last word. The order of the two sections alternates in each subsequent chapter so that neither the peaceful reading of Judaism nor the violent reading is privileged. Every argument on each side is carefully presented, and as carefully refuted. The main body of this book is as evenly balanced as Mark Twain’s conscientious and experienced steamboatman in Life on the Mississippi who would “stick to the center of the boat and part his hair in the middle with a spirit level.” It’s necessary to look for a moment at Eisen’s biography to explain the purpose of this balance.
The field of Judaic studies has grown far beyond the days when the first conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, held at Brandeis University in 1969, gathered a grand total of 47 scholars. But the field is still relatively small, and there must still be many of us who can picture Eisen during his graduate days, working steadily and methodically at a table in the Judaica Reading Room of the Brandeis library. The new volume reflects the same kind of thorough scholarship, but it also reflects a different aspect of Eisen’s Brandeis days, his friendship with another graduate student, Marc Gopin, then already an Orthodox rabbi and now a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. As Eisen reveals in his preface, it was his relationship with Gopin, along with the sight of a plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001, that turned him from a scholar of medieval texts into a professor who “could no longer remain aloof from broad global concerns.” His excruciatingly balanced discussion of peace and violence in Jewish thought is meant to cast doubt on any argument that promotes either side of the dispute. He wants to remove religious texts from the controversy while leaving the moral imperatives of religion.
Will The Peace and Violence of Judaism bring peace to the Middle East, let alone among all the Abrahamic faiths? The short answer is: no. But it makes an extraordinary contribution to long-term hopes for peace in two ways. First, it will no longer be possible either to attack Judaism for its contribution to violence or to claim that the Jews cannot be wrong because they practice a religion of peace. Eisen makes clear that Jewish sources can provide no excuse; peace and violence are choices and not paths that tradition compels the believer to follow. Moreover, he calls on scholars of other religions “to examine their own traditions and engage in the same kind of reflection.”
Some may be skeptical that scholars of ancient texts can bring peace, but Jewish tradition refutes such skepticism. Four talmudic tractates end with a statement by R’ Eleazar, in R’ Hanina’s name, that became a standard part of the prayer book as well:
Scholars increase peace on earth. When Isaiah says, “All of your children are schooled by the Lord, and great is the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13), read it not as banayikh, “your children,” but as bonayikh, “those who strive to comprehend you.” Those who love Your Torah have great peace, and they encounter no roadblock.
Though Eisen’s proposals in the epilogue of his book are not likely to solve the territorial dispute between Arabs and Jews, careful attention to his work can only increase peace in the world. That is a true scholarly contribution.