Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Why is there war?

photo credit: Haviva Ner-David
photo credit: Haviva Ner-David

I have been grappling with existential questions since the beginning of this war. Ideally, I am against war and violence. I do not believe violence is a cure for violence. And I do think conflicts can be solved through talking, understanding, compromise, and acknowledging one another’s pain, humanity, and narratives.

But when there are violently destructive — even evil — forces in the world who are determined to kill you and are not willing to talk, what can one do? I do not believe as Gandhi did that peaceful civil disobedience on the part of the Jews was the answer to Nazi Germany (he wrote this), for example. I cannot accept that submitting to death by the hands of those who want to unjustly murder you is the only moral act in the face of such horrific immorality. I do believe in self defense.

But I also see how violence breeds violence, and I wonder how we can get out of that cycle. Or can’t we? Are we meant to simply accept war and violence as part of being human — like they are part of the animal kingdom in general?

I ask myself these questions in my waking hours and in my sleep, and in my dreamlike waking states as well.

This Passover Eve, right before the seder, I went for my daily swim. For years, my swim in my naturally filtered lake-like lap pool is when I do my clearest thinking and my deepest feeling (you might want to try crying while swimming some time, too!). It’s also where a range of different Spirit Animals have shown up to bring me their messages.

For the past few years, it’s been frogs; they arrived during COVID and have been multiplying and singing their beautiful croaking song (so loudly my neighbors hear it, too) ever since.

A few weeks before Passover, a chameleon had paid me a visit in my home. I found it sitting on my leg while I was working on my computer. So I was not surprised to see one (the same? a cousin?) sitting near a frog in my pool on Passover Eve. I started swimming, and after a few laps, I saw the chameleon was inside the mouth of the frog — head first!

photo credit: Haviva Ner-David

For a moment, I was horrified. But I did nothing; that would have interfered with the natural order of things. I felt empathy for both the frog and the chameleon. So I continued to swim as the frog slowly swallowed the chameleon live over the course of an hour.

A few days later, I was at a Palestinian-Jewish peace-workers retreat in Beit Jalah (in the West Bank), in which we were given various writing prompts inspired by quotes from Etty Hillesum’s diary. Etty was murdered in Auschwitz at age 29 and kept a diary for the last two years of her life; she chose to go to Westerbork (and was then transferred to Auschwitz) rather than join the resistance or try to save herself by going into hiding.

photo credit: Haviva Ner-David

Yet, for months after October 7th, I found it hard to find inspiration in Etty. I do not judge her decision not to save herself physically, as she felt she was saving herself spiritually by joining the fate of her people, as she put it. I admire and have deep respect for her. But I also have respect for and gratitude to those who did resist by going into hiding or even fighting with arms.

The Nazis were beyond reason, and I do not think a peaceful sit-in would have made a difference to their plan. Would surrendering to them have made the world a better place, as Gandhi suggests? I don’t know, but I doubt it. And I am glad the Allies did not wait to find out. In fact, I wish they had acted sooner.

Yet, Etty has made the world a better place by being who she was and sharing her inner world with us in her diary. She continues to inspire more and more people to find inner peace and strive to be the best people they can be no matter what their circumstances. “Wherever you happen to find yourself, be there with your whole heart,” she writes. And that is truly what she did in her own way, while others may have chosen a different way.

I wonder what way I would have chosen had I been in her shoes. But I am not. I am in my own shoes in my own circumstances. And I must find my own way.

Thankfully, in my reality, I do think peaceful demonstrations can make a difference. So I demonstrate against the occupation in the West Bank and for an end to the war in Gaza — but via a bilateral cease fire that would include the return of the hostages, not a unilateral one that would require only Israel to lay down arms. I want an end to the war that would include a peace agreement and a political solution to the conflict to follow.

I do not want Israel to beat down Hamas only to reoccupy and resettle Gaza. That would be a nightmare! But I also do not want Hamas to continue to rule in Gaza (and perhaps even win in an election in the West Bank), gain popularity, rebuild its military power, and attack Israel again (as they have said they will do).

I really do believe only peace will bring security. But that requires leaders on both sides who are willing to work for and educate towards peace and mutual humanity, which, tragically, is not our reality at the moment. Instead, we have demonization of the other by our elected leadership (which hopefully does not represent the majority of our populations like the Nazi party also did not in Germany) on both sides, which makes it easy to condone killing and oppression and can easily become the majority ethos (or at least scare the opposition into silent compliance) if it is not stopped in its tracks of seizing power through violence and intimidation.

So what is a person like myself who believes in peace, supposed to think? To feel? To do? How am I meant to BE in this reality? I vacillate back and forth between my spiritual intention to surrender to what is and my activist spirit to try to fight it. I continue to protest my government and the war and do work to bring Palestinian and Jewish Israelis together, and I do my spiritual practices. But these existential questions still occupy my mind and my heart.

So, when I saw the invitation to the Etty Hillesum retreat in Beit Jalah, I felt called. It was time for me to sit with this all and see if I could find inspiration in Etty again.  As part of the retreat, we were given five minutes to write in free-association mode after hearing a quote from Etty’s diary. What I wrote follows. (The sentence in bold opening each paragraph below is both the writing prompt we were given each time and the opening sentence of each quote read aloud to us for the exercise.)

Why is there war? Is war human nature? Is it inevitable? I have been struggling with this since the beginning of this war. I know in my heart humanity can live in peace, yet it does not happen, has not happened. Can it ever happen? Is it even meant to happen? I saw that chameleon being swallowed whole by that frog, and I felt at first horror, as just a moment ago I had seen that beautiful chameleon and marveled at it. And then within seconds, it was being swallowed by that frog, who I also love. And the frog was not guilty; the frog was eating, the frog was doing what frogs do. And I wondered to myself, maybe humans are also just doing what humans do, when they fight and kill. Maybe that is one way we keep the population down, like fires and floods and hurricanes and all the other ways nature kills us en masse. Even cancer.

But I scream out in protest. Part of me says we still need to fight against this with all our might, not accept that this is the way things are meant to be. Can’t we find other ways to deal with overpopulation? We create the technology of war, can’t we also create the technology of peace? And can’t we also create the technology to fight global warming? Although isn’t it technology that causes global warming? Maybe what we need is to go back to simple living, living in harmony with nature. But even when people were doing that, they killed each other and fought wars. That is the story of Cane and Abel. Must we accept it as a given? That is my eternal struggle – between surrender to what is and tikkun olam/repairing the world. Those are the two parts of myself that are in eternal dialogue: the activist in me and the Buddhist me, the me who surrenders and the me who fights to make change.

I feel powerless to stop all the killing and senseless hatred in the world. All the violence. I feel powerless to make the political leaders stop using us all as pawns for their own political and personal gains. I feel powerless to just create my own reality without it being tainted by everything happening around me.

I feel powerful to at least try to change the world. I feel powerful as a human to do my part in making humanity better, in making the world even just a little better. I feel powerful to see the humanity in others and really see them and hold them in non-judgment. That is one of my superpowers. I feel powerful to make choices in my life that I can be proud of. I feel powerful to live my life as it was meant to be lived, in the only way I can live it. I feel powerful to move others with my words and my actions.

I draw my strength from the knowledge that this is the only chance I have in this world, and time is running out. And I draw my strength from the strength and goodness I see in others.

I feel free to make my own choices within the limitations of my life, and I feel free to control my own inner responses to what happens in my life. But I admit that is not enough for me. Until the moment when I feel like I have no more control or choices, I want to continue to be an actor and to try to make the world better. Then, when the time comes to surrender, I want to be ready to do it with dignity and grace and a sense of inner calm.”

Then I remembered the the serenity prayer, so I ended with that:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I felt affirmed by the synchronicity when the next writing prompt was “Oh God!” I felt it was a sign. So I wrote this last piece and shared it with the group:

Oh God, please give me these three things [in the serenity prayer]. That is what I ask. And please give me the strength, courage, humility, daring, compassion, faith, energy, hope, inner wisdom, and connection to my source, to work every day to live each day as if it’s my last — with purpose and in tune with my inner voice, so that when the time comes for me to pass from this physical existence, I can feel at peace and surrender to my death with dignity, grace, and inner peace.”

I continued to contemplate all this as the war raged on and the IDF went into Rafah. A friend of mine, a Buddhist, suggested I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I had read him before but looked again at his writings, which seem to me very much in line with Gandhi’s and Etty’s.

Then, last week, I went to the Umm El Fahem Art Gallery — one of my happy places — and came upon a sculpture exhibit by Meira Grossinger that addresses these questions I have been asking.

photo credit: Haviva Ner-David

The curator, Varda Steinlauf, writes: “The doll-like figures are part of a series… articulating the insight that even animals in nature do not live in perfect harmony; they also kill each other, often with man’s assistance… Grossinger confronts the viewers with the question: How do we, as a society, internalize cognitive conditioning and learn to accept a violent presence as a matter of course? What is the ‘human’ as opposed to the ‘non-human’?…

“The title of the exhibition, Fata Morgana, expresses an unfulfilled longing that stems from a strong desire and existential need for hope that entails disappointment and despair; the term refers to a mirage, an illusion which promises no real solution to one who approaches it.”

So while the exhibit did not provide me, exactly, with answers to my questions, it did make me feel less alone in the pondering. Just knowing someone else is asking the same questions and processing them with her art, like I am with my writing, is a comfort. And that description, “an unfulfilled longing that stems from a strong desire and existential need for hope that entails disappointment and despair” really spoke to my heart.

photo credit: Haviva Ner-David

I walked among the sculptures, thinking of Frog and Chameleon and of all the humans caught up in this war and this conflict in general, and of all the humans in the world suffering from human and naturally inflicted causes. I was alone in the room, among the human and animal “dolls” in various stances of suffering, and stood in the center, looking around me, taking it all in.

And I recited the Serenity Prayer.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two novels, three spiritual journey memoirs, and the first and only children's book on mikveh. Her memoirs include: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: Yonah and the Mikveh Fish is available at: Her new and second novel, To Die in Secret, is available at: Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2024. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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