Both the Torah Portion (Pinchas, Numbers 25:10) and the Haftarah (I Kings 18:46) include expressions of extreme (religious) violence. In the former, Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron, publicly slays a mixed couple. In the latter, the prophet Elijah, some four centuries later, slays the priests of Baal and then dismembers their bodies. In both passages, one is left with the eerie feeling that our tradition actually applauds their violent behavior and, in fact, over time Jewish extremists have held up both Pinchas and Elijah as heroes and positive exemplars of zealotry. In fact, both are exceptions to a more widely held view that Judaism abhors violence and seeks, above all else, peace as the goal of human and international relations. “Violence,” the prophet Isaiah says of the end of time (60:18, “shall no longer be heard in your land, neither wasting nor destruction within our borders.”
On the other hand, it is also important to point out that Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. Judaism has a balanced and realistic view of life. “For everything there is a season,” the wise King Solomon declared, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3) Sometimes, it is necessary to “beat ploughs into swords” and at other times, we yearn “to beat swords into plowshares.” It always depends on the time, place and circumstance. However, if we were compelled to state Judaism essential view of violence, I would contend that Judaism is a path of non-violence and only permits violence when no other alternative is possible. Certainly, no normative expression of Judaism glorifies violence at any level of society. Over time, we have opposed mortal gladiator sports, dueling and aggressive warfare. Yet, at other times, we have been Maccabees, Partisans and Palmach fighters.
So, where do we stand today as American Jews, especially at a time of social unrest in our own country. I gravitate toward the words of Gandhi, John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, all of whom advocated non-violent resistance. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” JFK proclaimed in 1962, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” “Nonviolence,” Dr. King wrote, “is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
We are living through a period of tremendous upheaval in our society. We have witnessed massive, ubiquitous peaceful demonstrations. We have seen looting and lawlessness and we have heard calls for “order” which would ignore both law and turn a deaf ear to justice. We have calls for police reform, the abolishment of the police and the maximalization of police power. These are dangerous and important times and it is critical that we maintain our moral balance as Americans and as Jews.
What is our path? In my view, we must begin by being resolute and strong in our convictions. We believe in the dignity of every person. We have respect for the law and private and public property. We stand for justice and love the concept of mercy. We understand that historic injustices run deep and long, and that there are no easy, painless answers to them. We know that there needs to be change, even rapid change but oppose anarchy and mob rule. We accept our responsibilities to be good citizens and know we cannot abdicate our personal responsibilities to stand tall for justice and freedom. We demand courage and forthrightness from our elected leaders and expect them to stand up against falsehoods, bigotry and demagoguery. We fully embrace science, reason and facticity.
I am reminded of a protest song I sang as a camper, which is based on similar Biblical texts from the Book of Psalms and the prophet Jeremiah. It has been used by various protest movements around the world. “We shall not be moved,” the lyrics state with the purpose of imbuing us with courage when it seems our moral strength is failing. “Just like a tree that’s standing by the water side,” we are reminded, “we shall not be moved.” In these troubling times in which it feels like everything we believe is being torn from its roots we, too, must hold on to our principles and declare, “we shall not be moved.” Truth, democracy, justice. These are our roots and we must hold our moral ground. Our existence ultimately depends on our inner strength as people and as citizens.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.