Is Peacemaking a Jewish trait? Is it something inherent to the Jewish Tradition? Or is it some new liberal invention of a small group of Jews in the contemporary period?
Well, at least one rabbi thinks that Peacemaking is central to Judaism, and ought to be more well known as one of our most central Jewish characteristics.
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis—of Palo Alto, California — who is spending six weeks in Jerusalem this winter — makes a persuasive case for peacemaking as a core Jewish value in his new book entitled Torah of Reconciliation (Geffen Publishing House, 2012, and website http://www.torahofreconciliation.com/). In his preface, and throughout his book, he explains why he thinks that peacemaking is a key Jewish value:
Embedded in Torah itself and in the shaping of the Jewish tradition over time by the most gifted Jewish sages, there is a strong tilt towards peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution, a full embrace of others, and a relentless pursuit of reconciliation. The sheer volume of texts concerned with reconciliation—and the passion invested in these passages—carries a message about the place of these values in the constellation of Jewish mores. (p.xix)
Rabbi Lewis goes on to prove his thesis in chapter after chapter in the book, in which he brings amazing and creative interpretations – often for the first time in English — to enlighten each Torah portion of the week, throughout the year. He also has a wonderful website in which all the sources can be found, which is very useful for preachers and teachers, as well as students and laypersons.
But isn’t there another side to Judaism that Rabbi Lewis downplays? Yes, there is. He is well aware that there are opposite currents of thought in the Jewish tradition:
The tradition records voices that are militant, that advocate violence, that understand Jewish closeness as exclusive, that see Jewish destiny in insolation from the fate of others. These are also authentic Jewish voices. The Torah is harsh, militant, wary of the stranger, chauvinistic. (p.xviii)
Unfortunately this version of Judaism is the one that dominates in the public square in Israel. It is very sad but true. Judaism in Israel has become synonymous in this country with ultra-nationalist “religious” Jewish settlers who show no concern or empathy to “the stranger” in their midst and maintain a brutal occupation over another people in the name of religion, or with the ultra-orthodox haredi Jews (“God-fearing”, or just “fearing”, i.e. “xenophobic”) who are totally exclusivist and reject any idea of reconciliation with anyone, certainly not anyone who is not Jewish.
This is why Rabbi Lewis’ book is so important, not only for Diaspora Jews, but for us in Israel. I wish that the Chief Rabbis –and many of the local community rabbis –would read it! And it would be good if our Prime Minister or Mr. Naphtali Bennett (both of whom read English well) and their colleagues would get copies of the book. Perhaps they would reconsider the essential meaning of Judaism and apply it to our own search for peace in Israel today.
In addition to the political search for peace, we have a culture war going on today, which is reflective of our core values. Are we a militant, security-dominated, chauvinistic Jewish people today in Israel? Or are we — because we are Jews and we know that our tradition demands of us that we seek peace and pursue it actively and seriously (not just through lip service and publicity maneuvers) — a people that genuinely wants to have reconciliation with our neighbors so that we can all live in a country and a region in peaceful coexistence?
(For those of you who live in Israel, you can hear Rabbi Lewis speak at the American Center, 19 Keren Hayesod St., in Jerusalem, on Wednesday afternoon, March 5 at 5 pm. For more information, and to register, write to firstname.lastname@example.org )