Peace and Justice: Mutually Exclusive Values at the Core of our Stasis

Trending has become a focal point of our electronic interest. In the Jewish world, what’s trending now is the failure of the peace process. A recent past trend was the Pew report about Jews and Judaism. Regarding the peace process, it is easy to write a story about the other side’s failure, but it probably is more productive to examine the side we can control. This is not an attempt to examine Israel’s role in the peace process. Instead, it is an examination of one obstacle to achieving peace, the cognitive dissonance of strongly held mutually exclusive values.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory coined in the 1950’s by Leon Festinger to explain what happens when a person has two opposing views, beliefs or values. This phenomenon makes a person feel stress or discomfort, which is meant to trigger the individual to reconcile these dissonant thoughts. One example of this is the Aesop’s fable of the fox that sees a vine of grapes hanging just too high for his reach. While he is hungry for the grapes, he determines that they are probably sour in order to not feel bad that he cannot reach them. Festinger wrote about smokers who learn that smoking is bad for them. Some reconcile by deciding that the information is not correct, some say they will die anyway and continue to smoke and some quite smoking.

In Jewish history, we have experienced cognitive dissonance many times, but our strong ability to reconcile conflicting cognitions probably has helped us to outlive most civilizations. For instance, after the revelation that Shabtai Zvi was a false messiah, some Jews continued to believe in him and chose “Redemption through sin,” as described by Gershom Scholem. Others chose to become Muslim or Christian. The Rabbinic Judaism we practice today is a product of cognitive dissonance. After coming to the Promised Land and living sovereignly, we were conquered and saw our Temple in Jerusalem destroyed. The Mishnaic response was to replace sacrifice with Torah, worship and acts of loving-kindness. When Rabban Yochanan was asked by the new Roman Caesar Vespasian what he wants, he didn’t ask for Jerusalem. Instead, he asked for the health of Rav Zadok, an academy in Yavne and teachers.

One dissonance has not been reconciled in the collective Jewish mind. We continue to see our selves as pursuers of justice, Rodfei Tzedek, and pursuers of peace, Rodfei Shalom. I contend that peace and justice are mutually exclusive.

In his celebrated essay, Halacha and Aggadah, Chaim Nachman Bialik tells us that, “Halacha wears a frown, Aggadah, a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending – all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable – all mercy.” Bialik left us this essay to remind us “these two things are really one, two sides of a single shield.” Unfortunately, this is not the case for justice and peace. While these two ideas coexist in the Jewish canon, they cannot coexist in the world.

If you seek to have a world, justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek justice, there will be no world… You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure (Genesis Rabbah 39:6).

The reason peace and justice are mutually exclusive has to do with how they are administered. We learn this in Masechet Sanhedrin, “He who praises the arbitrator blasphemies the Lord. Let rather the legal judgment pierce the very mountain. For so Moses would say: Let legal judgment pierce the very mountain; whereas Aaron was accustomed to make peace between man and man, as it is written: He walked with me in peace and uprightness.”

To achieve justice, we need an authoritative judge. This is why the narrator of the Genesis Rabbah denounces the arbitrator. For Moses, the only arbitrator is the heavenly Judge who pierces mountains. To achieve peace, all that is needed, as in the case of Aaron, is a mediator. The implications of this are very clear. Justice is imposed. Peace is voluntary. One must give up autonomy to achieve justice. To achieve peace, all must be sovereign.

Rambam tells us that the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world (Mishna Torah), and in Baba Metzia (59b) we read that the rabbis understood that Torah is ours to interpret, “not in heaven.” Elijah the prophet even tells us that God was so pleased by this chutzpah that he laughed while saying, “My children have been victorious against me, nitzchuni banai.”

As a mediator, I see the so called “peace process” as fraught with clear signs of litigation. Even the “peace camp” falls into this trap by emphasizing the need for dual narratives, as if revivifying the past will contribute to peace. Dual narratives co-exist, and it is important to recognize the subjectivity of the past and the diversity of people, but narratives of the past are presented as evidence in litigation rather than building blocks for the future. Terrible things happened. Both sides perpetrated unspeakable evils. There is no benefit from equivocating. We need to look forward. The past, in this case, can only be instrumental in reminding us what we want and what we don’t want in our present and future life.

In a peace process organized by justice, an arbiter or judge is meant to look at the situation, evaluate and determine the fates of both sides. Aspiring to this is absolving the parties of responsibility for determining their future. In a peace process organized around peace, each side enters as sovereign and fully capable of determining the future in collaboration with the other side.

One person who understood this was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He knew that he couldn’t achieve real peace on the battlefield or with the intervention of outside parties, so he welcomed the creation of the Palestinian Authority with hope that they could act autonomously on behalf of the Palestinian people. Rabin understood that peace is built upon mutual interests, not rights. This is the difference between justice and peace. Rights are granted. Interests are indigenous to the parties. Mutual interests are seeds of peace.

Democracy aspires to make the mutual interests of disparate parties into a right granting authority. “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people,” is peace, unfortunately it hasn’t fully materialized. This is why the words of the poet, Yehudah Amichai are still so relevant today. “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.” To achieve peace we will have to find our rights through mutual interests and democracy, not external forces. This is the only way to reconcile interests and rights and bring justice for all.

About the Author
David J. Steiner is a Jewish educator and a mediator in the Chicago area. To learn more about David, check out his mediation practice at