Peace Activism in the Orthodox Jewish Community

There are an increasing number of orthodox Jews who are engaging in peace activism, an activity often thought to be the realm of the secular and the left. I have been challenged as to whether my work in Muslim-Jewish conciliation is in line with a Torah lifestyle, so I will here in share the philosophical framework from which I am working, influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

Of course I have the blessing of my Chassidic Rabbi, a descendant of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov, who connected with the good in everyone. One Rebbe from this dynasty had said publicly, “many religious people have a misconception that if the secular do something first, it must be forbidden. There is nothing forbidden about a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, but because the Reform did it first, the Orthodox think it is forbidden. Likewise with the state of Israel, the religious should have been at the forefront, founding a Torah state. Instead, the secular were the pioneers, and so we turn around and say that the state is forbidden. We need to be at the forefront.”

I would add that there is nothing forbidden about seeking peaceful relations with our neighbors, wherever we live. I live in Israel, there is a need for conciliation between Muslims and Jews, so why shouldn’t I cull from the teachings of the Berdichever dynasty and our Rabbanim in promoting a Torah-true peace activism? Seems like I must! I am not making anything up here; you see, a fundamentalist woman does not act alone, when she moves, she moves large areas of ground.

In brief, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik prohibited interfaith dialogue concerning theology, asserting the impossibility of being able to fully comprehend another faith. Instead, work together on projects for the common good.  Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh regarded the mission of the Jewish people as teaching the Seven Laws of Noah to the nations of the world, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz concurs, noting the limits of pluralism, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov emphasized the mission of the Jewish people as working for the rectification of mankind.

Rabbi Jospeh Ber Soloveitchik – The Abyss That Divides

Rabbi Jospeh Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known reverently as “the Rav”, was a renowned philosopher, head of Yeshiva University, NY, and one of the fathers of American modern orthodoxy. His essay “Confrontation” has served as the guidepost for the Jewish community on inter-religious dialogue since its publication in 1964. Although Rabbi Soloveitchik focused upon Jewish-Christian relations, his basic premises can be applied to other intercultural relations.

Confrontation – The Rav’s key word

Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the word “confrontation” to connote humanity’s relationship to its Creator as well as relationships among nations. He notes the double confrontation of the Jewish people – first, by G-d who bestowed the covenant at Sinai, bequeathing commandments and restrictions, thus giving us purpose and definition. Then, the Jewish people are confronted by their interactions with other nations as a unique people because of this exclusive covenant.

Of course Rabbi Soloveitchik’s premise can be applied to other faith communities. Every people is doubly confronted – first, by their own unique religion, then by interacting with members of another.

The Abyss

Rabbi Soloveitchik repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of fully understanding the Other – and in this, we actually find a healthy space for respect to blossom. He says,

“…each human being (is) surrounded by friends, (as well as) confronted by strangers. In each… I find a friend, for we have many things in common, as well as a stranger, for each of us is unique and wholly other. This otherness stands in the way of complete mutual understanding. The gap of uniqueness is too wide to be bridged. Indeed, it is not a gap, it is an abyss.”

What one faith community means by the term prophet, messiah, or even holy book is not directly comparable to the teachings of another faith community. These terms cannot be imported or exported, we cannot have full understanding of how language is used in another framework.

I would add that respect is borne of a certain distance. Respect and understanding are not the same word nor are they the same concept. If you wait to respect an idea on condition that you understand it, you have violated a boundary, you have set yourself up as triumphalist master, from whom tolerance will flow on the impossible condition of your ability to understand everything. Rav Soloveitchik’s admission of the “abyss” grants the humility to respect boundaries. It eschews triumphalism. Indeed, when you cannot understand an other, whether it be the tenets of another faith, or another sect within your own faith, or even another individual, then you have reached your personal limit, a limit which one of the most brilliant rabbis of our age acknowledged.

So, feel fine in admitting your limits of understanding. The Rav admitted his.

Where We Can Work Together – Efforts for the Common Good

Rav Soloveitchik encourages cooperation between differing communities along the lines of pursuing the common good. Environmental protection, eradication of disease, the advancement of education, are examples of worthy goals that all can and must pursue together. He re-emphasizes that working together will not lead to any theological overlap by one community into another, by stating that we are really working in parallel with others, and not in an effort to merge. The abyss concerning theology is held throughout.

So on the way to a Muslim-Jewish meeting, in the spirit of Rabbi Soloveitchik, I will live and let live regarding theology, and seek opportunities to participate in projects for the common good.

Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh – The Teachings That Unite

Eliyahu Benamozegh (1822 – 1900), Rabbi of Livorno Italy, studied the major religions as well as Kabbalah – mysticism – and Greek philosophy in an effort to encourage universal brotherhood via finding affinities among various systems of thought, all of which, he declared, fundamentally arise from divine precepts. His magnum opus, “Israel and Humanity”, a treatise on the role of the Jewish people vis a vis the nations of the world, was published posthumously by his disciple, Aime Palliere, whom he instructed in the seven laws of Noah.

Rabbi Benamozegh is widely quoted in liberal publications for his cosmopolitanism, but he did strongly emphasize the mandate of the Jewish people to maintain their uniqueness by upholding the covenant of Sinai. This crucial detail, which Rabbi Benamozegh held passionately, cannot be dismissed.

His basic theme is the mandate of the Jewish people to communicate the Seven Laws of Noah to the nations of the world. It is these laws that form the base of true religion and just society, they are:

  1. Monotheism- Belief in One G-d
  2. Respecting and revering the Almighty- Do not blaspheme
  3. Protecting life- Do not kill
  4. Protecting family- Morality
  5. Protecting possessions- Do not steal
  6. Protecting the natural world – Do not tear a limb from a living animal.  Prohibitions against grafting are allegorized to mean protecting cultures.
  7. Social justice- the establishment of courts of law
  8. He states that each nation has its unique gifts, and in order for Torah to rectify and uplift each unique nation, the Jewish people must remain separate, a nation of priests. Indeed, the Hebrew term “Holy” – Kadosh – connotes separateness. Holiness cannot be maintained if identities merge.

Rabbi Benamozegh’s belief in the uniqueness of the Jewish people did not cloud his love of humanity, quite the opposite, he held that the mandate to teach should create positive feelings, upon recognizing one’s duty to another. Indeed, warmth is engendered, as the Torah Jew recognizes that his or her particularism in keeping the commandments, rendering us separate, is a vehicle for universal service. Both particularism and love of humanity are actually interconnected. The teacher does not merge with her pupils as she educates them. Such disrupted roles would hurt both sides: the teacher would no longer be able to instruct, and the pupil would lose out on the education he needs.

Rabbi Benamozegh compares the varied nations of the world to craftsmen constructing a great palace for the king. Each one believes his craft to be the most important, and takes pride in his unique talent. A sense of pride is necessary in skillfully honing one’s task. Indeed, the carpenters are the best at building the structure, the electricians, the best at facilitating the power. Merging of talents would reduce the specialty and diversity needed to create the most perfect palace, and would be a loss to the entire project. The diet, clothing and training of each group must differ, yet their goal is all the same.

There is thus no room for feelings of superiority or arrogance.  Just as those constructing the palace recognize the important roles of the other workers, we must appreciate other believers, with whom G-d has given different modes of expressing the Seven Laws.

Rabbi Nachman – Getting the Nations to work in Harmony

Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was the great grandson of the founder of the Chassidic movement, the “Baal Shem Tov”, or “master of the good name”.

In his parable “The Master of Prayer”, he presents concepts of nationhood based on the Tower of Babel. The parable recounts ten righteous leaders who performed specific tasks in a kingdom: King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Chamberlain, Bard, Wise Man, Warrior and Prayer Leader. After a great hurricane the leaders were scattered. They tried to select a new King, but disagreed on the “goal of life” and fragmented into ten different nations – an obvious parallel to the account of the Tower of Babel, which focuses on dispersion and formation of nations due to a distinction of languages. This parable however focuses on dispersion due to a disagreement concerning the “goal of life”, i.e. of national character.

The Master of Prayer visits each nation’s leaders to teach the “true goal of life”, which is to work in harmony with other nations . The need for wealth needs to be balanced with the trait of submission, the craving for honor needs to have enough contact with lovingkindness to keep that need in check, working correctly. Limited and bounded by contrasting and opposing character traits, the nations of the world will work in harmony, finally bringing humankind to perfection.

He does not try to make the leaders similar to him, nor does he actively recruit followers. If he succeeds in winning a leader’s heart, the leader in turn corrects any mistaken ideas in her nation’s tenets. The Master of Prayer’s role was only to teach by example, with no direct interference .

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov recognized a spectrum of faiths, the various religions in the world that just need to be uplifted by that “Master of Prayer”. Instead of warring against each other, the nations will accept their diversity and even utilize each others’ various talents for the betterment of humanity.

We see that the prototype of strength in diversity is found in the Jewish people, which is itself diverse, composed of twelve tribes, each of whom had distinct characters, customs, even accents. Cohanim/priests, Leviim/assistants to the priests, and the Israelites/Jewish lay people even lived by some essential different laws.

Rabbi Nachman’s Master of Prayer may symbolize the Messiah, or, similar to Rabbi Benamozegh’s thought, is a symbol of the Jewish people in their role to rectify humanity. That non-interference echoes two centuries later in the works of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: Tolerance in Jewish Terms

In his essay, “The Irrelevance of “Toleration” in Judaism”, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz states that  the modern secular state ideally promotes a live and let live attitude concerning religion, and contrasts this with the absolutist claims of monotheistic religions. From the point of view of the modern secular state, which has rendered religion as devoid of political power, anyone can keep any faith they choose.

However from the point of view of the faithful, religious doctrines are not really a set of optional lifestyle choices. Additionally, the tolerant attitude of the modern secular state towards religion has not curbed what Rabbi Steinsaltz terms religious fanaticism.  Religious people are not so to speak returning the favor by toning down their own reverence of their doctrines, indeed, Rabbi Steinsaltz says, it is impossible for followers of monotheistic faiths to do so. Islam, Christianity and Judaism do not view themselves as optional, even if the state does. They posses tenets that are absolute, thus the ideal of liberal tolerance can be held from the point of view of the state, but not from the point of view of its monotheistic citizens.

I have met real fear of religious intolerance from those who hold liberal values dear. When I share my dream of interconnected Muslim-Jewish courts as an avenue for peace, the response from liberals is grave concern – keep religion free of its normative side, we cannot go back in time. These fears are real, but to ignore the legalistic side of Islam and Judaism is to suppress them, and perhaps as a side effect, only foster the religious fanaticism as a result of that suppression. Indeed, it is essential that conflict resolution take place in line with cherished classic and scriptural values that Muslims and Jews hold dear. Otherwise, agreements imposed from without will be resented by local populations, deemed as imperialistic, quasi-colonial interference.

Professor of Government at Harvard University, Dr Eric Nelson,  asserts that human rights and fundamental freedoms are in fact derived from Scripture as studied by Christian Hebraists in the 16th-18th centuries. Such thinkers included Erastus, Hugo Grotius, John Selden, the founders of the English Parliament and the founders of the United States of America. Islamic theology and history has a place in this, based on the theological and historical symbiotic relationship between Judaism and Islam.

We need to reclaim the Scriptural basis for basic human rights. We have to resist the externally imposed identity that we are part of religions that can be sidelined to the ritual aspects only. Islam and Judaism are whole civilizations that permeate our entire lives, and when scripture is applied widely, interpretations naturally lead towards the moderate. Insist that religion remain sidelined, the flames of extremism are naturally fanned.

So next time I see Haredi women handing out candles for the Sabbath, a wonderful form of outreach for sure, perhaps they can include pamphlets that illustrate the connection between scripture and modern political science.

Regarding fears of religious intolerance, there are growing fears of secular intolerance – the rise of secular judicial activism indicates that the modern secular state is decidedly becoming non hands off regarding religion. That ideal liberal tolerant state is being replaced by a call for “the rule of law”, a code phrase for the real interference by secular courts in matters that should be decided by religious bodies. Anyone who wishes to preserve that liberal ideal should be the first to curb judicial activism  – here is your wake up call, you are welcome to heed it. Promote judicial activism, you will be setting the ground work for a backlash.

Rabbi Steinsaltz presents the avenue for tolerance bequeathed by Judaism – the Seven Laws of Noah. Tolerance in Judaism is grounded in diversity: within the Jewish people, the high priest follows laws that differ from those of the rest of the priestly class, who in turn follow different teachings than that of the rest of the Jewish people. Non-Jews are enjoined to follow the Seven Laws, which allow for wide variety of religious expression. Still, the tolerance offered by this acceptance of variety is not endlessly liberal, being bound by the applicable laws.

Rabbi Steinsaltz presents this as an ideal in universal peace making, despite the lack of an endlessly pluralistic ring to it. Monotheistic religions cannot be endlessly open, use the good in what they offer and build with that.

He states that Islam is similar to Judaism in its absolute monotheism, but is universal in its demand that all people adhere to Islam. Here he has not made notice of the parallel groundwork for tolerance in Islam. Islam has a strong theological basis for tolerating the other, a tolerance borne out in history during the golden age in Spain and bragged about by my Sephardic Jewish colleagues. Islam values “itjihad”, which means intellectual freedom and debate. The Qur’an itself states,

“The Messenger’s duty is but to proclaim the Message.” (Quran 5:99)

“If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed.  Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?” (Quran 10:99)

“Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth has been made clear from error.  Whoever rejects false worship and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks.  And God hears and knows all things.” (Quran 2:256)

Bringing the Rabbis Together

What unites the points of view discussed above is the conviction that each nation has a special role to play. The Jewish people can help humanity only by holding true to their covenant. Particularism assists universalism, you cannot have one without the other. Merging cannot be the goal, melting pot does not work here. I see a stained glass window before me, a tapestry.

So in this spirit, I participate in peace activism while recognizing my limits in understanding another, support each nation’s self actualization, and support the good as defined by the Seven Laws of Noah. Diversity and variety are to be expected, but pluralism has its limits.

Traditionally observant Jews reading this may have mused, “but the Rav, or Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is not my personal moreh derech, the one I follow.” I may have been brushed off by some who raise  an eyebrow at my need for my Chassidic Rabbi’s blessing.

It is crucial that Sabbath observant Jews recognize the difference between one’s personal derech/ straight path, which does not and cannot include every Rabbi listed above, verses rejecting one or more of these great thinkers outright.  The intellectual framework is there for us to take an active part in conciliation work wherever we are. With the guidance of your Rabbi, I hope more traditionally observant Jews will take part.

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If you do not already know, let me introduce you to prominent orthodox Jewish peace activists in the Holy Land. Rabbi Menachem Froman of blessed memory has bequeathed a strong legacy. Rabbi of the Tekoa settlement, Rabbi Froman engaged in grassroots conciliation work as well as negotiations with Arab leaders, culminating in the Froman-Amayreh peace agreement that could serve as a model between Israelis and Palestinians. His legacy is carried on by his widow Hadassah and his children.

Hadassah Froman founded an Arab-Jewish women’s discussion group, Keren Chai Shalom, and is involved with conciliation groups including the Abrahamic Reunion and Roots/Shorashim/Judur.

Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Nagen also functions in the legacy of Rav Froman. Rosh Kollel of Otniel Yeshiva, Hebron, he is a graduate of Yeshiva University and active in Arab-Jewish rapprochement. He has hosted Muslim speakers at Otniel yeshiva. It was Rabbi Nagen who immediately organized a rally denouncing the alleged arson attack against the Dawabashe family, Nablus, August 2015. Scores of settlers attended that rally, and Rabbi Nagen joined and signed a number of letters condemning violence. He is co-chair of the board of the Abrahamic Reunion and a co-ordinator of the Religious leaders of the Interfaith Encounter Association.

Rav Yoel Schwartz sits on the Jerusalem Court for Beni Noah, has written extensively on the Seven Laws as an avenue for conciliation, has hosted Muslim leaders in his home and attended Arab-Jewish discussion groups.

Rav Schwartz said publicly, “It is not for nought that Jews and Arabs are found together in this land.  It must be for a reason.  If Jews and Arabs are living here, it must be because God wants us to work it out together.  To find a way to peaceably live together.”

Rabbi Yehuda Stolov runs the Interfaith Encounter Associaion, which administers ninety-one encounter groups across the Holy Land, with about a thousand regular participants and a few thousands of one-time participants every year, for people of all faiths to meet. They form the foundation of a large-scale social movement to build sustainable peace by people at all levels, using their religious roots

Eliyahu McClean’s Abrahamic Reunion brings together people from all faiths in the Holy Land for joint projects, tours, and “Praying Together in Jerusalem”. He notes “we are not proposing any solutions here, we are the solution.” That is, gathering peacefully on a regular basis on a small scale portends the ultimate goal of living together in this land peacefully on the larger scale.

Rabbis Hanan Schlesinger and Shaul Judelman are co founders of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, and describe Roots as “a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence, and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians.” Its website states, “We hold many ongoing programs, often working within the heart of the conflict to address victim-hood and suspicion with trust, empathy, dialogue, and mutual support. We believe human interaction is the first agent to transformation. Our initiatives focus on creating the spaces and activities for such personal engagement.” Active members include include women leaders Chaya Tal, Raz Jones, and Leora Balinsky.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen is a peace activist and teacher at several Jerusalem institutions. Born and raised in New York City, he moved to Israel in 2001 to enlist in the IDF at the height of the second intifada. As a leader in the Alternative Action movement, HaKohen organizes grassroots dialogue sessions for Palestinian and Israeli activists seeking to transcend competing one-sided narratives in favor of a more scientific analysis of the factors forcing both peoples into conflict.

Rabbi Gabriel Reiss of the Lavi group leads monthly seminars for college students who are committed to becoming future leaders in conflict resolution. His impact on hundreds of students each year makes him a vital key in peace activism in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Ben Abrahamson of the AlSadiqin Organization researches the commonalities between Islam and Judaism. Rabbi Abrahamson is consultant to religious courts with the purpose of establishing for Muslims their rightful place in Jewish law and in the land of Israel. He has travelled and spoken extensively.

Rabbi Mordechai Vardi is Rabbi of Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim. He uses his talents as film producer to express various points of view in the Land of Israel. He is head of the Institute for Torah and Creativity at the Ma’aleh School and teaches in the pre-army religous training program “mechina” in the city of Lod. Rabbi Vardi learned in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, in Ateret Cohanim and Merkaz HaRav Yeshivas in Jerusalem.

Shmuel Aiello is vice president of the model United Nations Club at the Interdisciplinary Center in Hertzliya, which brings Arab and Jewish students together for discussion and debate concerning current events. He emphasizes the importance of bringing people together in grassroots efforts as the most potent path for conciliation work.

A group of Haredi women and Arab Muslim women meet regularly in Jerusalem, the leader however wishes to maintain a low profile for now.

The above is only a list of prominent leaders, who of course have many traditionally observant followers.

About the Author
Rebecca Abrahamson is co-director of AlSadiqin, an organization that researches the common heritage of Islam and Judaism. AlSadiqin strives to conform in every way to sharia and accepted convention, with the conviction that conflict resolution occur in line with scriptural values that Muslims and Jews hold dear. Peace agreements that organically grow out of our scriptures and shared histories are truly the key to lasting peace. Rebecca co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, edited “Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims”, began a column in the Israel National News service entitled Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace and has written in the same vein for the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press. She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. She is a school nurse and is busy with her children and grandchildren.
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