Rabbi Shalom Noach Beresovsky was the rebbe – the grand rabbi – of the Slonimer Hasidic sect until his death in 2011, in Israel. In his Torah commentary, Netivot Shalom (“Paths Of Peace”), Rabbi Beresovsky wrote a beautiful and insightful essay on the nature of peace from a Jewish religious perspective. If Rabbi Beresovsky were alive today and were invited to speak to an assembly of worldwide Jewish leadership from across the ideological and religious spectrum, what would he say? Based upon his essay, what follows is an address I imagine him giving about the complex quest for peace.
“Gadol Ha-shalom, peace is great. So begins each passage in that small Jewish classic, Perek Ha-Shalom, “The Chapter On Peace”, a medieval collection of ancient Jewish wisdom concerning peace.
Gadol ha-shalom, peace is great. Allow me to rework this Hebrew phrase somewhat scandalously: nadosh ha-shalom, peace is a platitude. We endlessly mouth praises of peace; we say we love peace; yet our actions indicate that we have little idea about what we mean by the word. Our commitments to peace can be hollow utterances at best, blind loyalty to life in narrow, rigid comfort zones at worst. We labor under two dangerous misconceptions about peace that obstruct our ability to achieve it. Some people assume that peace is a matter of mere absence of war, conflict and violence at best. Some assume that peace is a kind of pugilism, in which all disagreement and conflict are forcibly beaten down in the interests of lockstep conformity and rigid uniformity. Both ideas are wrong, for the first leads to passivity and the second leads to dictatorship. Jewish religion takes a different view.
All of creation is founded upon a dynamic relationship between opposites: cold and hot, winter and summer, night and day, love and hate, to name a few. At the level of cosmic reality, all pairings of opposites are inherently contradictory, so that it is uncanny that life functions at all, given so many irreconcilable forces in existence. Underlying and integrating all of them is peace, a unifying energy created by God that causes the universe to remain a coherent whole and that keeps us alive. Our most ancient texts express this idea mythically through the image of the two angels, Michael and Gabriel. Angels don’t get violent or have conflict because they lack yetzer ha-ra, the human propensity towards evildoing. Nonetheless, Michael is made of fire, while Gabriel is made of water, two elementally opposed forces that, left unchecked, can destroy the entire universe and each other. But as the popular prayer tells us, God is Oseh Shalom Bimeromav, the One Who actively imposes peace upon those angelic inhabitants of heaven. God never changes or obliterates their character, but God does reconcile and integrate them with one another.
If this is what God does in the sedate celestial realm, how much more so does God need to do this here on earth, where human moral freedom allows us the freedom to be immoral and violent? However, God largely leaves this arduous peace-making to human beings, for we are morally free and thus responsible for ourselves. Here is where Jewish mysticism emphasizes the critical role the Jewish people plays in bringing peace into the world. It teaches that none of God’s peace-making can fully succeed cosmically until we harness that divine energy by promoting peace within all of humanity. Yet how can we even begin to do this for others when we are, at times, at war among ourselves?
It is tragic that we sometimes treat each other with so much ugliness. We seem to be driven by a primal fear that is fueled, simultaneously, by ongoing, blind anti-Semitism and our unprecedented acceptance by the societies into which we have blissfully assimilated. Some in the world wants to kill us at the same time that the world is loving us to death: we too often react to both by driving our terror inward and taking it out on one another. We walk a comfortable, yet ultimately futile and circular, path by demeaning, stereotyping or dismissing each other because our mutual differences make us so uncomfortable.
I am a Hasidic rabbi and thinker, not a religious pluralist. However, my love for my fellow Jews and my desire to see us all at peace transcends my antipathy towards their ideas that make me uncomfortable, even angry. I have struggled to arrive at this self-transcendent love in my own life by reining in what Hasidism calls in Hebrew yeshut, that part of my ego which causes me to put my beliefs, needs and desires at the center of the universe. When I recognize that God is at the center, the humility that hopefully follows allows me to perceive that, whatever differences exist between me and a fellow Jew or any other human being, we are all reflections of God’s image. How then could I not love peace and pursue it with others, even if I stand firmly in disagreement with them?
Judaism ultimately rejects the concept of loving your enemies as self-deluding. Our religion obligates us to protect ourselves from evil and harm. Yet we are also obligated to break open our ego-centered cages of fear and mistrust so that we can see those we assumed were enemies with different eyes. This is how we begin to do the work of achieving world peace. We are supremely responsible for doing this as a Jewish community: one dedicated people with a God-given mission among the family of nations, within all of creation. Before we can even get to that goal, we have to struggle towards peace among ourselves. Before we can even get there, we have to create openness towards peace within ourselves.”