When I was a college student, I flirted with calling myself a pacifist. It was a time of upheaval in this country, and I was anxious to ride the peace train.
What changed my mind, in the end, was an essay by a rabbinical scholar who challenged the notion of absolute fidelity to any value, including peace, on the basis that, for the Jew, there is only one absolute that can demand our allegiance, and that is the Holy One.
So, it is fair to say that while Jewish tradition does not counsel violence in most circumstances, neither does it counsel nonviolence in all circumstances.
In fact, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible and the subsequent history of the Jews to modern times will understand that both by Scripture and thousands of years of historical experience, Jews must be prepared to respond to the violent proclivities of antagonists in kind.
A short essay like this cannot be comprehensive in examining 3,500 years of history. To be sure, there are examples of characters whose eschewing of violence in deed and word were legendary and admirable.
Aaron, brother of Moses and first of the High Priests, was a man known as a conciliator, “loving peace and pursuing peace.”
In midrash (homiletic commentary), he is described as telling each quarrelling party privately that his opponent was sorry and desirous of reconciliation so they would end their feud.
He and his descendants were prohibited from having any contact with death to keep them in a perpetual state of ritual purity.
When God tells the Israelites they are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), it is conceivable that in ideal circumstances everyone should aspire to Aaron’s qualities.
At the same time, aggressive antagonism is affirmed against the tribe of Amalek and all of its descendants (Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 25:19).
The Amalekites were guilty of attacking the weakest flank of the fleeing Israelites – the old, the infirm and the young – not only to defeat them, but also to demoralize them in the process.
What is fair to say is that Jewish tradition rejects violence borne of anger. When harsh treatment is employed, it must be in the service of justice and as something of a last resort.
Violence that expresses a sense of personal outrage has consequences that rebound onto the perpetrator, always to their detriment.
Perhaps the most famous example is that of Moses who, in his anger at the complaining Israelites, disobeyed God’s instruction to speak to the rock that would give forth water.
Instead, shouting angrily, he struck the rock, and for that violent outburst was denied the opportunity to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:10).
Many stories of dangerous anger are part of the literature of the rabbinic era of 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, the formative period of what became post-biblical Judaism (and was the Jewish context of early Christianity).
One such story involves Rabbi Eliezer, son of Hyrcanus, the preeminent scholar of the later first century, and brother-in-law of Gamaliel.
Challenged in the academy over a matter of law, his insistence on being able to overrule the consensus of others resulted in him being deposed from his position as head of the academy.
His anger was so fierce, the story goes, that his glance could set objects on fire. His prayers for revenge were so effective that his wife continually interrupted them lest her brother, Gamaliel (who had sided with the consensus), die as a result.
Distracted from her task one day, Eliezer’s words reached the heavens and resulted in Gamaliel’s immediate death (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b).
Historically, Jews in the diaspora became known as fierce warriors, sought after as mercenaries, especially because of their resistance to Roman oppression.
However, as the communities seeded by trade networks became more settled and dispersed, a tradition of reticence (rather than nonviolence) emerged, and the notion that victims of aggressive attacks by non-Jews were martyrs arose.
The name given to their deaths was “al kiddush hashem,” meaning, “for the sanctification of the name [of God].”
There was no implication of the desirability of nonviolent resistance; rather, the almost sacrificial nature of such murders was accorded sanctity.
Jewish history from the Middle Ages forward alternates between explosive creativity and catastrophic tragedy. Without exception, Jews were minorities hosted by societies into which Jews attempted to acculturate if not downright assimilate.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that in those cultures in which Jews were welcomed and encouraged, many of the values promoted by their hosts found their way into Jewish life and thought, retrofitted into inherited traditions and teachings.
Likewise, in those societies that oppressed and denigrated Jews and Judaism, any form of resistance that did not provoke physical retribution was likewise justified.
An example of the former is Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), a devout and learned Jew who was physician and philosopher in the Islamic societies of his time in both Spain and Egypt. Muslim scholars still honor and study his Arabic-language writings, just as Jews revere his Hebrew texts.
On the other hand, is Hershel Ostropoler, a sly and sarcastic prankster who made fools out of elite Gentiles and Jews alike in 17th century Germany.
But any notion of a principled dedication to nonviolence by Jews was undoubtedly erased by the Shoah, the Holocaust.
The attempted – and almost successful – eradication of European Jews by the Nazis makes a philosophy of nonviolence almost inconceivable to the surviving Jews in the world today. Indeed, among many, a cautious militarism is almost a default position.
That is not to say there are no Jews inspired by or subscribing to the teachings of Gandhi or King, but there is no parallel to the movements encouraged by the likes of James Lawson and John Lewis, veterans of the civil rights era.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that for all of the involvement of Jews in the cause of equal rights over the past 60-some years, there is not a single leader in the Jewish community who espouses a philosophy of nonviolence.
What has never evaporated from Jewish values, however, is the rejection of violence borne of anger.
Every person, no matter how much of an opponent, is affirmed to be created in the image of God and must therefore be treated with full respect unless seeking to do harm to another.
The proclivity to provocative violence is among those sins confessed by individuals and community alike on the Day of Atonement along with a roster of noxious behaviors, which cause injury to body and soul of fellow members of the human family.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the U.N. International Day of Non-Violence (Oct. 2). The previous article in the series is:
Resolving Conflict Through Nonviolent Means | Anthony Taylor