This past year, I have been blessed to write extensively about Oseh Shalom, the renowned ending prayer for peace taken from the Kaddish, the prayer of sanctification recited at various points in Jewish liturgy. Oseh Shalom is so well known because it is constantly being sung at diverse Jewish gatherings, particularly, but not exclusively, during public prayer. Less well known is that Oseh Shalom is not so much a prayer as an insistent protest that God must impose peace upon us. Here are its words.
Oseh Shalom Bi-meromav
God Who imposes peace in God’s Heights
Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu
Must impose peace upon us
V’al kol Yisrael.
And upon all of the people, Israel.
(And respond with Amein).
The original settings of Kaddish were Torah study sessions in the land of Israel and Babylonia during early talmudic times. At the end of a session it was customary for the teacher to recite Kaddish, which envisions the redemption of the Jewish people as part of the restoration of God’s power and dominion over the entire world. Based upon apocalyptic passages about God’s battle against world- wide evildoers found in the prophetic book of the prophet Ezekiel, Kaddish implies strongly that we Jews await with firm conviction not only the redemption of the Jewish people but the redemption of the entire world from evil.
The source for Oseh Shalom, specifically, is the book of Job 25:2. Job is a thoroughly righteous man whose goodness is renowned. At the instigation of one of God’s angels, God tests the purity of Job’s motives for being so good by destroying his family, his property and his health. God wants to see if he will maintain his faith and his goodness despite being hurt so badly. When Job lashes out bitterly at God for making him suffer, his three friends who have joined him, ostensibly to comfort him, set about to attack him for questioning God’s justice and protesting his own innocence. In one response to Job, his non-Jewish friend Bildad exclaims:
Dominion and dread are God’s;
God imposes peace in God’s heights. (Oseh shalom bi-meromav.)
Bildad then launches into a conventional defense of divine justice denying the ability of human beings, even those as righteous as Job, to ever be justified morally before God. Many interpreters of the Bible assert that Bildad is referring to God’s endless power to impose peace upon warring camps of angels and other celestial servants. According to this view, Bildad asserts that God’s power to coerce the heavenly hosts into harmony is, among other divine powers, so great that people can never expect to be justified before God. Puny humankind steeped in its moral weakness and spiritual disabilities, including its incorrigible violence, is nothing before God, who singlehandedly reins in the violent chaos of the celestial beings, who are far greater than humans. Where then did Job ever get the temerity to believe that he could call God to account for the violence being done to him and his family?
The author of Oseh Shalom took this fragment of Job 25:2 and turned it on its head. In Bildad’s eyes, no human being ever has the right to force or even request an accounting from God for anything that happens to him or her. In the telling of Oseh Shalom, every member of the community who chants it is attempting to “force” God, as it were, into imposing peace and harmony upon us. Our prayer takes the words of a non-Jewish biblical character about God’s power to impose peace upon the heavens and turns them into a “hope- and- chutzpah” (temerity) driven protest about peace upon earth.
I suggest that the biblical and liturgical backgrounds to Oseh Shalom demand implicitly of God not only peace for the Jewish people but for all people. Strangely, its explicit words only to demand that God “impose” peace upon our specific community and the Jewish people, with no reference to the rest of humanity. We Jews can understand this particularistic attitude, considering the precarious circumstances of oppression under which our ancestors who composed Oseh Shalom were living. Why would their hopes and visions for redemption then, and our own hopes now, not give priority to the Jewish people by imploring God to help us specifically?
Yet this kind of prioritizing can be taken to extremes of Jewish exclusivism. Though the Bible refers to us as a people dwelling alone, this was never geopolitical reality in ancient times, and it certainly is not reality today. It is also a distortion of basic Jewish values. God’s prediction to Abraham that the families of the earth would bless themselves through him and his new nation was not an empty promise. It was a charge to Abraham’s children – us – to engage the family of nations, of whom we are an integral part. The Jewish people alone received God’s Torah, but God’s Torah insists that that every human being is God’s precious reflection.
Based upon this deep spiritual truth, many of us have decided to modify the overtly parochial tone of Oseh Shalom when we recite it. We must pray for peace for ourselves and our entire people, especially in light of attacks on the State of Israel and the persistence of anti-Semitism. Yet we must also pray for peace throughout the world, not only because world peace is good for the Jewish people, but because we fervently believe that God cares about all human beings and all living things. Drawing upon the implicit universalism of Oseh Shalom that I mentioned before, I now try to add the Hebrew words, ve-al kol yoshvei teiveil, “God must also impose peace upon all the earth’s inhabitants,” when I pray it:
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
V’al kol yoshvei teivel
You might protest, “Say whatever you want in your prayers; however, you can’t actually believe that adding a feel-good world peace message to Oseh Shalom will really change anything in international affairs? You’re just handing God an expanded to-do list of tasks to which God will respond as God always does: with implacable silence.” But your protest would miss the point of my adding this line, and of prayer in general. As much as they address God with passionate rage about the lack of peace in the world, the words are not for God, they are for us, forcing us to open ourselves to the power God gives us within ourselves and within the community to bring peace to the world, as it were, piece by piece. Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, explained the point of prayer best. He said that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.”
Each Jew who prays must decide whether to add these words, “v’al kol yoshvei teivel,” to one’s recitation of Oseh Shalom, and it should not be turned into a litmus test of political or moral correctness. I personally have begun adding it because I want to transform my own prayer into a blessed act of subversiveness, one which awakens me, and as it were, God, to those pyramids of hatred and callousness in the world that need to be overthrown.