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    A Jewish theology of violence

    Paper by Rabbi Raymond Apple delivered at the conference, “Theologies of Violence: The Ethics of Hatred, Healing and Harmony in International Peacemaking”. Hosted by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, the conference was held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, on 6 November, 2002.

    Our subject is theologies of violence. The term “theologies” worries me for a number of reasons. Firstly, theology is a notoriously difficult exercise. Unlike most other academic disciplines, it can never attain a knowledge of its subject. Its field of interest is God, and any attempt to understand His essence is bound to fail; the classical Jewish thinkers said, “If I knew Him, I would be Him”. This is partly why Judaism is wary of finished theological statements and prefers to work with practicalities and regulative principles. It does not presume to define God’s nature, but is more interested in discerning what He wants of us. Not only, therefore, can we not speak of the Jewish theology of violence; we can not even speak of a Jewish theology of violence. The most we can do is to try to identify a Jewish ethic of violence, and that is what this paper will attempt.

    We begin with the great visions of the Biblical prophets, notably Isaiah 2:4 – “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation”; Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb”; Isaiah 11:9 – “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain”; and Isaiah 60:18 – “Violence shall no longer be heard in the land”. Psalm 92:10,13 (the Sabbath psalm) assures us that the time will come when “all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered… the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”.

    The eradication of violence is the essence of Jewish messianism. The midrashic tradition sees it as a return to God’s original plan; according to the Midrash, God said to the first human beings, “How lovely the trees are; do not lay them waste” (Midrash, Kohelet Rabba 7:28). Violence contravenes the basis of Divine creation: “He that formed the earth and made it, He created it not to be a waste but to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). Because violence leaves a trail of human and environmental devastation, it lays the world waste. It not only diminishes man, both the victim and the perpetrator, but since man is in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27) it also diminishes God. A liturgical poem that appears in some orders of worship for the festival of Shavu’ot explains that in the traditional depiction of the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone, “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2) appears opposite “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) because if we believe in God we will not murder, and if we do murder we harm God as well as man.

    Yet the experience of violence has accompanied man throughout centuries, and if 11 September, 2001 and 12 October, 2002 are any indication it seems to be getting worse. The weapons are more frightening than ever before. Unlike conventional warfare, there is random targeting for death or injury without warning, escape or exoneration. The perpetrators usually claim ideological “justification” of such an insidious kind as to be totally and frighteningly simplistic: “I (and my friends) are suffering; you are the symbol of my humiliation; therefore I must attack you.”

    Those who plan or carry out the violent acts have no lack of protectors: the rabbinic sages observed, “It’s not the mouse which is the thief but the hole it hides in” (Talmud, Gittin 46a). There is even a culture of violence – “cops and robbers” writ large – and we tend to think that violence is normal and inevitable.

    All this sounds diametrically opposed to Biblical teaching. But the trouble is that there is actually much violence in the Bible – some carried out by God (cf. Deut. 20:4) and a greal deal by man. The Bible often records human violence without passing moral judgment, though there are major displays of disapproval, e.g. the criticism of the violent acts perpetrated by Jacob’s sons (Gen. 34:30, 49:5-7). The Talmud, centuries later, records destructive acts of which even pious scholars are guilty when their nerves are frayed, but overall the sages’ disapproval is unambiguous (Talmud, Shabbat 105b).

    In seeking a way of assessing the resort to violent acts we find two types of violence – destructive (an end in itself: e.g. Deut. 20:19), and constructive (a means to an end). The second is legitimate if there is no alternative, or if other options have not worked. The message is that though a non-violent Utopia is the goal, the attainment of that Utopia will not necessarily be bloodless. Constructive violence, however regrettable, is condoned as an interim ethic, a temporary measure on the way to a new world (Isa. 65:17; Jer. 1:10).

    The borderline between the two types of violence is delicate and fragile. The Bible implies that such a borderline exists; the rabbinic sages try to delineate it. As an example, the scriptural text records that Jacob, prior to meeting his long estranged brother Esau, was “afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:8). The sages say he was afraid lest he be killed, and distressed lest he have to kill. “A person should be more worried about injuring others,” say the sages, “than about being injured” (Tosafot to Talmud, Bava Kamma 23b).

    The principle is that peaceful means must always be tried first. If war seems looming on the horizon, the first resort must be to “speak peace” (Deut. 20:10). Only if peace talk fails is it legitimate to consider the more violent alternatives. The ethical legitimacy of war, with its heavy burden of suffering, is thus reluctantly conceded, but it is rigidly controlled by law. There is no free-for-all. A “permitted war” needs to be sanctioned by the Sanhedrin, the assembly of learned, pious men meeting in the precincts of the Temple (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1:5). Only if it is a “commanded war” in self-defence and in order to protect lives and ideals may it be waged without requiring this sanction. In appropriate circumstances self-defence includes a pre-emptive strike: “If someone comes to kill you, anticipate and kill him” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a).

    The fear of destructive violence is exemplified by the Talmudic dictum that if someone tells you, “kill or be killed”, you must rather suffer martyrdom than commit murder; a martyr does not kill, and killing does not make you into a martyr (Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a).

    Acts of angry violence are severely frowned upon; only Divine intervention saved Pinchas, guilty of indignantly slaying the perpetrators of gross immorality, from losing his priestly status (Num. 25:10-13).

    There is considerable debate about whether state-sanctioned capital punishment is destructive or constructive violence, and whilst the death penalty is clearly on the Biblical statute-books it was hedged around in post-Biblical times with so many procedural precautions and provisions that it was more or less legislated out of existence. A court which put a person to death once in seven years was deemed a “bloodthirsty court”; Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “once in seventy years”, and Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said, “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin no-one would ever have been put to death”, though Rabban Shimon ben Gamli’el, on the other side of the debate, said, “they would have multiplied the shedders of blood in Israel” (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10).

    Violence is not the ideal. At best it is an interim ethic. In time it will become unnecessary and unthinkable. Albert Einstein, writing in 1934, called this “a new stage in the life of nations, where people will look back on war as an incomprehensible aberration of their forefathers”. When that stage comes there will be peace, and all mankind will be pacifists. But in the meantime we have to cope with the circumstances of real life. It is a tragedy, but we are still living in real time, not messianic time. As things are, we cannot afford pacifism. If pacifism means the refusal to “take arms against a sea of troubles”, to use Shakespeare’s words (Hamlet, 3:1), then, for all its nobility, pacifism means silence and inaction and allows evil to flourish unchecked. It would be nice if the perpetrators of evil held back, because we were too noble to raise our hands to them, but such people do not meet nobility with nobility or heed even the most earnest of sermons. If I say I do not want to dirty my hands with blood (cf. Isa. 1:15), I risk becoming not only dirty but dead, and endangering the lives of countless others.

    Until the eradication of all violence has been achieved, the interim ethic must be “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16). Moses Maimonides explains this verse as requiring intervention whenever anyone’s life or safety is in peril: “If someone is able to save another person and does not save him, if he sees another drowning in the sea or being attacked by bandits or wild animals, and though able to rescue him he does not rescue him, he transgresses the injunction, ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour'” (Murder and the Preservation of Life, ch. 1).

    How then can we help to bring about the long-term eradication of violence and to enable the interim ethic of constructive violence to fall away? I offer the following tentative list of questions addressed to the potential perpetrator of violence. Depending on the answers we will know how much further we have to go in the process of messianic redemption. These are my questions:
    – Did you try peace first?
    – Are you aiming at an identifiable enemy?
    – Are your means entirely out of proportion to the ends?
    – Will the destructive consequences of the act outweigh its constructive potential?
    – Are you serving personal ends (to be a hero? to be a martyr?)
    – Are you not ashamed before God?
    – Is it just possible that you are wrong?

    We have to keep the prophetic ideal in mind and move towards it. Here too I have a tentative agenda to offer:
    – Let’s deal with small things first and create a climate of restraint
    – Let’s refuse to let violence prevail, rejecting the Esau principle, “by your sword shall you live” (Gen. 27:40)
    – Let’s heed Irving Greenberg’s advice to have “an alternative conception of life” and not reconcile ourselves to “the evils that exist in the world”.
    – Let’s never lose our nerve and give up the dream of a “world full of knowledge of the Lord” when no-one shall “hurt or destroy” in all God’s holy mountain (Isa. 11:9).

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