A Misplaced Obsession with War

In a provocative op-ed published in the Jewish Standard on November 24, 2017, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach challenges our idolization of peacemakers and peacemaking.

In “Our misplaced obsession with peace,” Rabbi Boteach argues that it is the warriors against wickedness who are the true heroes of history, not the appeasers who compromise away any advantages the warriors may have gained. He criticizes Yitzhak Rabin for “transforming himself from conqueror into peacemaker” between the Six Day War and the Oslo agreement. He prefers President Trump’s threats against North Korea to President Obama’s conciliatory and positive approach. In a sweeping though selective meditation on history, he saves special criticism for Ulysses S. Grant for preferring to be remembered for the peacemaking of his presidency than his victories in the Civil War. He blames Grant’s conciliatory approach to the South as the cause of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the century-long delay in desegregation and full civil rights.

Rabbi Boteach’s analysis is striking both in its historical claims and in its religious/moral perspective. Interestingly lacking from his brief survey is the case of George Washington himself, the quintessential warrior and political leader. Few would argue that Washington’s greatest accomplishment was not the defeat of British arms but rather the establishment of a new nation. Similarly, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, and of Grant’s military career, was in preserving the Union, not in quashing the South. While the defeat of Britain in the Revolutionary War, and of the South in the Civil War, were essential components of each story, they are not the crowns of glory that we celebrate. And for good reason. The American people have always understood that while there are times when patriotic duty calls upon the nation to take up arms, it is in the settlement of peace, not the victory on the field, where true redemption is found.

Rabbi Boteach’s criticism of Ulysses S. Grant is particularly curious, as one of the ways President Grant distinguished himself and his administration from his predecessor, President Andrew Johnson, was through his commitment to enforcement of the enfranchisement of the former slaves and the prosecution of the KKK. Grant’s administration was the first with a federal Department of Justice, a department that distinguished itself with thousands of indictments against Klan members. Ron Chernow, in his magisterial biography of Grant published just a couple months ago, cites the campaign against the Klan as “the foremost accomplishment of Grant’s administration.” As president, Grant championed the Fifteenth Amendment, secured its ratification, and signed comprehensive civil rights legislation that outlawed segregation. We should not blame Grant for the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down that law in 1883, and Congress’s inaction in passing similar legislation until 1964. Rabbi Boteach can argue that the long delay in desegregation is the fault of Grant’s folly as a peacemaker. But the weight of evidence indicates that Grant was a crusader for justice, and that he planted the seeds for a more integrated republic that needed more than the force of arms to bring it together. And neither can we rest on our laurels that the work of equality and justice is complete.

Rabbi Boteach’s assessment of Yitzhak Rabin is more disturbing because his martyrdom is still so raw for many of us. Prime Minister Rabin’s great lesson was that we don’t make peace with our friends. The reticence that showed on his face when he shook Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in 1993 indicated the many complex feelings he was experiencing. Naiveté was not one of them. The current Israeli government struggles with the legacies of Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, all of whom understood that while peace is not perfect, it is the only way to secure military success. What Rabbi Boteach sees as naiveté and recklessness, others see as courage and responsibility.

Rabbi Boteach has to explain away the Bible’s testimony that King David is not permitted to build the Temple because he “had blood on his hands” (which, by the way, many argue is a reference to his causing the death of Uriah the Hittite, Batsheba’s first husband, rather than his raising arms against the enemies of Israel). And yet the Temple is remembered as “Solomon’s Temple,” named after a king whose name encapsulated the ideal of peace (shalom).
Rabbi Boteach argues that the messiah comes from King David, but we also should note that the priesthood, those responsible for the maintenance of the divine cult in ancient times, came from Aaron, Moses’s brother. Aaron is remembered as a pursuer of peace, and as such he, not Moses, was the priests’ ancestor. At the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses loses his temper by breaking the tablets inscribed by God’s hand, while Aaron compromises with the people until Moses returns, even working with the idolaters, all the while maintaining order and avoiding mayhem.

That Aaron’s actions, not those of Moses, merit the priesthood is a powerful lesson on the primacy of peace over crusading ideals. Our tradition always has valued centeredness and stability over extremism and rigidity. God’s words break through the hands of the angry Moses. They are transmitted to the people through the loving hands of Aaron, who raises his hands in the shape of the letter shin to pronounce the priestly blessing, which is the blessing of peace.

After the disastrous defeats of the Great Revolt in the first century, when the Temple was destroyed, and the ill-fated Bar Kochba revolt, the ancient rabbis rejected the messianic fervor that Rabbi Boteach touts. Yes, of course we celebrate those in history who “fought and defeated wickedness.” But we follow in the paths of those who establish peace.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.