The whole Torah exists only for the sake of shalom.
— The Talmud
War is so unreasonable and wasteful a method of adjusting human differences that one wonders that men would have resorted to the hypocrisy of religious wars and the rationalization of secular wars to escape peace. No profound study of history is required to demonstrate that even Judged by worldly standards the Prophets were right; and that man’s happiness is dependent upon world peace. It is aggression that is unrealistic in terms of the present, and fantastic in terms of the future.
— Rabbi Louis Finkelstein
In 1968, when I was almost ten, my mother threw out my toy guns.
That year, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for president in California. My mother was watching the newscast of his speech, and saw the candidate fall. To this day, I remember her body shaking as she sat before the television and wept.
Soon after that tragedy, she announced that she was taking away every toy gun, every symbol of violence. I was beside myself. How can you play G.I. Joe if there are no guns? What were my plastic soldiers supposed to do with each other if their hand grenades, guns, and rifles had been confiscated by my outraged mother?
The ban encompassed more than just toys of war. Anytime she heard the sound of gunfire on the television, she would sweep into the room and turn the TV off. There were no negotiations and no appeal. My mother’s zeal, her sudden lack of accommodation, lent urgency to the insight that violence, killing, and war were intolerable. One didn’t “play” at butchering another human being. Execution was not a game.
I didn’t recognize her righteousness at the time. As a preteen, I was furious. With a single act, my mother had taken away my favorite games and trivialized my most powerful toys. I don’t think my toy soldiers ever recovered. But even in my anger and frustration, I knew I was face to face with something of supreme importance. My mother was willing to weather my resentment, was imposing a limit because of a moral principle: warfare and gunfire are not games; at best, they might be a tragic necessity. At worst, they reflect a deep-seated perversion.
A few years later, during the height of the Vietnam conflict, my mother told me that if there was still a draft when I reached the age of 18, she hoped I would move to Canada rather than participate in an unjust war. She promised that she would visit me and that she would support me. She assured me that it was better to stand for something right than to follow unjust orders. Her indignation and pain, her love and guidance were never stronger than on the subject of peace. I can only hope I would have lived up to her expectations.
My mother knows that peace, along with justice, embodies humanity’s greatest blessing. Without consciously articulating Jewish tradition, my mother is an accurate reflection of this traditional priority, a passionate Rodef Shalom (pursuer of peace).
Language itself hints at the centrality of peace in Jewish traditions. Whereas the ancient Greek word for peace simply means the opposite of war, and the Ro¬man goddess Pax (peace) was a minor deity until the time of the empire, the word Shalom, from the time of the Bible onward, carries a wealth of positive meanings. Not merely the absence of war, shalom means “safety,” “wholeness,” “completion,” “fulfillment,” “prosperity,” “health,” and “peace of mind and heart.” In English, peace is something negative — a lack of conflict. In Hebrew, shalom is something positive — well-being and fulfillment.
Not only Hebrew words, but the structure of Jewish religion reveals the centrality of shalom. Every major Jewish prayer ends with a petition for peace. The first book of rabbinic law and wisdom, the Mishnah, ends with a prayer for peace. One of the minor volumes of the Talmud is called Perek Ha-Shalom (The Chapter of Peace) — the only ethical topic to receive exclusive consideration in a Talmudic volume.
Symbols of shalom, found in all aspects of Judaism, became a dominant thread uniting many distinct practices and festivals around a common theme. Thus, Shabbat is known as a day of peace, celebrating the harmony between humanity, God, and nature. The Temple in Jerusalem was a monument to peace, where the Jews would pray for their own well-being and for that of the nations of the world. The most prominent religious leader in biblical Judaism, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) became a symbol of peace and an instrument for its advance.
Our world, and our souls, are desperately in need of shalom. In an age of increasing violence — in the streets, the schools, and on our televisions — we have become drunk on the thrill of human blood. As demonstrated by millennial events in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and throughout the world, we are no safer or more secure than we were when the world was split into two hostile camps. Terrorism, drug killings, and aggression are the staples of international dealings. Within our own country, crime, often as a result of manipulated addiction and imposed poverty has made our cities unsafe even in the light of day. Social media and entertainment bombard our young and our old with increasingly more graphic displays of killing and torture. As with any addiction, we require ever-larger doses of bloodshed to produce a “high” sufficient to distract us from the pain of a society let loose.
The world around us and the communities we live in interact all the time. Violence is not limited to crowd¬ed centers: in every community people are attacked because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or because they are women. Violence against children, sexual abuse, and rape no longer elicit surprise and barely provoke disgust.
At its core, this lack of shalom in society and the world reflects insecurity and neediness within the psyche. Shalom may encompass more than a lack of violence, but it is not possible to begin to attain inner peace without public tranquility. Our communities suffer from frequent assault and our souls are alienated from their own well-being. Having lost the ability to enjoy quiet contemplation, bred and trained to function as tools of ambition and of financial conquest, we no longer remember how to relax and to be.
Tormented by our own unfinished agenda, harassed by the intrusions of a rude and ruthless world, where can we retreat for our own solace? When is there time for our own renewal? The complexities of our age will not go away. Shalom does not come about through escape, but through the understanding and transformation needed to con¬front our demons and to restore sanity and compassion to public life and to private aspiration.
Because of its centrality, shalom has implications for how we live our lives on every level. Because of the complex interplay between different aspects of shalom, we must strive to distinguish and to integrate five distinct categories of shalom: inner peace, the home, the community, the nation, and the world.
In turning to shalom as a value and even more pattern of behavior, we seek a tool potent enough to reduce discontent at every level — personal, social, and global. Examining how to make shalom a part of our own daily work, part of our own commitment to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) itself reveals the prime necessity: confidence at strengthened solutions is yet possible.
Ultimately, we cannot be true to our ancient covenant, cannot begin to reorient our lives to God’s perspective, without actively involving ourselves in the quest for shalom. War and violence are over-riding acts of injustice, compelling soldiers, civilians, and police to die and to kill, forcing nations to defend themselves, and condemning the poor to their poverty because the world would prefer to squander its resources on death rather than marshal them to enrich life. In the bigger picture, happiness, poverty, and warfare are the great distractions, diverting our energy and intelligence away from more nurturing pursuits in order to shield us from the divisions of our souls and the raging of humanity.
All of us have an interest in combating this ultimate perversion. Through our efforts, we can bring greater harmony to our families, cooperation of our communities, and peace to the world. Shalom, that greatest of blessings, is wholeness. As we work toward that day when humanity will be united, with our individual lusts and urges pacified, we advance a time when the abundance of our joy and curiosity and playfulness are finally free to enrich our lives and our loves, to plant rather than to uproot, and to fashion ourselves and our world anew.