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As Jews: we have a special affinity and longing for peace, shalom

Peace, Peace and No Peace

By Rabbi Basil Herring

As Jews: we have a special affinity and longing for peace, shalom. Throughout our long and often lachrymose history we, perhaps more than their nation, have known the horror of t its most bestial. And so we are particularly partial to the sentiments that bespeak peace, vulnerable to the voluptuous of armistice and accord. Which Jew, after all, can long deny the obvious benefits that come with the peaceful resolution of our standing differences? And yet, it is necessary to say that this affection for the thing called peace can also be a source of danger and destruction. Peace is not always a panacea, and what sometimes parades as peace is nothing more than a prelude to the winds of war-- the failure of Neville Chamberlain being a case in point. And so, I would fain take another look at this most vaunted of values -- and perhaps draw one or two concrete conclusions -- in the context of both politics and religion, both in Israel and America, in our communities and in our homes.

Need For Reconciliation

I attended a conference last spring organized by CLAL, an organization devoted to the unity of the various religious components of the Jewish people, orthodox, conservative and reform. As Ilistened to the speeches, and talked to rabbinic colleagues, both orthodox and non-orthodox, I was forcefully reminded of the deep divisions and animosities that need to be overcome in the Jewish community. There are without doubt very real sources of hostility and mutual antagonism in inter-group relations, including the denial of recognition, blatant opposition to meeting on common grounds, and real religious rivalry, all of which threaten to split and weaken Jewish life immeasurably. We have never, I believe, been in more need of the healing balm of tolerance and mutual respect. There is no question to my mind of the rising tide of extremism and intolerance, both on the left and on the right, threatening to engulf Jewish life, as a result of what appears too many to be the receding role and vitality of the center. Put in slightly different terms, there is a real hostility in Jewish community life, a hostility that should give us all pause to contemplate the virtues of reconciliation, of communal harmony - in short, of peace.

Let me give another example of an area where peace is sorely lacking. In Israel today there is a real danger of widespread communal strife. With elections slated a few months hence, a great national debate over the disposition of the so-called territories has already begun in earnest. Already hard liners on either side have staked out their positions. On the right. are the ardent nationalists opposed to any territorial compromise, completely distrustful of the Arabs, and skeptical of the very word ?peace.? On the left stands the so-called ?peace camp,? ready to negotiate everything, opposed to the further rule of Israel over the Palestinians, and fundamentally opposed to holding on to the territories of Judea and Samaria. Both sides harbor deep animosities toward each other: those on the left are deeply distrustful of those whom they consider nationalist-religious zealots who endanger the State of Israel -- and those on the right scoff at those whom they consider misguided and self-deluded liberals whose weak attitude to the Arab threat will ultimately undermine and destroy Israel. And the gap between them is growing, the extremes on either side being augmented with each passing day, as the election comes closer and closer. In other words, we have yet another instance and we are witness to the splintering, the polarization, of Jews and Jewish life. Again, hostility. anger, strife, internecine fighting, everything, except peace.

No Peace at the Expense of Principles

It is hard, therefore, to disagree with the virtues of, and the need for. peace, peace, and yet more peace, as a consummation devoutly to be desired. And yet, there comes a point at which one must draw a line -- or at the very least question an unqualified pursuit of peace at all costs. It is all very well to want peace, but peace cannot stand alone in the pantheon of our values. What, for instance, if peace can be bought only at the expense of one's principles? If peace is treated as an absolute value, then what of the virtues and fundamental beliefs for which we stand? Are we to sacrifice them too in our quest for tolerance? To give an example or two -- sure the US could have made peace with Germany and Japan in 1942, but at what cost to principle and honor? And to be sure we can avoid nuclear destruction by unilateral disarmament, but what if that leads to Soviet world-wide hegemony? Peace may be fine, but what if it is the peace of the grave, or the betrayal of those things for which a man must be prepared to die, if need be?

But there is an even more important consideration to be raised, and it is this: even assuming that peace is the blessing that outweighs all else, is it not true that sometimes one has to use non-peaceful means, including hostility, argument, strife, and implacable opposition, in order to achieve that very peace? Is it not true that a misguided and slavish commitment to short term peace is likely to ensure even greater hostility or war over the long term? Had Chamberlain gone to war before Hitler expanded into neighboring countries, would he not have avoided the massive death and destruction of the ensuing years? In short, peace is not a solution, it is not a panacea, it is not a means -- it is rather the result of strength, the product of principled perseverance, and the outcome of an unflinching commitment to stand straight in the hour and day of destiny. It might sound trite, and some might think it a truism. but it needs to be repeated again and again -- as regards nation against nation, and equally as regards the ?storm and drag? of Jewish community, that true ?shalom? can only be built on a principled defense of right in the face of wrong, with an absolute and uncompromised commitment to good in the face of evil, and a loyalty to what is authentic as opposed to what is merely popular or most convenient.

?...and I shall give peace...?

In the Torah this concept can be found in two verses in the Book of Leviticus. When God, as part of the so-called tochecha promises the Israelites that they will be rewarded for their fidelity to the Torah, He tells them that they will be blessed with plenty, their cups filled to overflowing, as He says,

and you shall eat your bread to your fill, and you shall dwell in your land in security. And I shall give peace in the land, and you shall have respite with none to make you afraid.

[Leviticus 26:5-6]

Now there is a question here that needs to be addressed: surely the Torah has reversed the order of things? First it says that your reward will be to dwell in the land in security and in safety, and then in the next verse it informs us that God will give peace in the land. But how can that be--first comes peace, and then, and only then, in the wake and as a consequence of peace, and in the absence of war and hostility, comes security, safety, protection and sanctuary? Is not peace the guarantee for, and the antecedent of serenity? How can you have security first -- and only then, peace? The answer to this question, I would submit, is that the Torah herein suggests that indeed peace is the consequence of possessing real security and strength; that when the torah defines peace in this verse us being in a state wherein ?there are none to make you afraid,? it implies that peace comes about when your enemy is afraid to attack you because of your strength and your position of security.

In addition there is a second insight into these verses. Rabbi Menachem Sacks discerns in these two adjacent phrases, a pointed comment on the divisiveness that is so common to the Jewish people. It is sadly often the case, that the greatest force for Jewish unity is the enemy beyond. When Jews are faced with an implacable enemy, when they find themselves threatened from beyond, they are forced to put aside their differences and come together in common cause. Under such circumstances. it is hardly surprising that there should be Jewish solidarity. What is noteworthy, is when there is peace beyond the gates, and no enemy threatening to attack, and even then Jews are able to live peaceably with each other, so that in spite of their differences they enjoy a healthy and respectful universe of social discourse, as Jews together with other Jews. Says Rabbi Sacks, when the Torah here tells us that if the Jews are faithful to the Torah then ?they will dwell in the land in security and God will give peace in the land,? what it means is that it is possible for Jews to achieve the best of both worlds, i.e., no enemies to threaten the Jews from the outside, but also no Jews threatening each other from the inside. That under certain circumstances Jews can find real communal peace and absence of public rancor and divisiveness, even where the unifying influence of common danger is removed. And what are these circumstances'? How does the Jew find real, as opposed to deceptive. peace? The Torah's answer at the outset of the passage is clear: it is im behukotai telekhu ve'et mizvotai tishmeru, va-asitem otam -- if the Jews will live in accordance with the statutes. and the commandments, and fulfill them faithfully. (Leviticus 26:3).

Preaching Unity

In other words, if Jews think that the highway to peace in the Jewish community must traverse territory that is alien to the Torah, then such a road will be nothing but a dead end. We all want Jews to overcome their divisiveness, and we all preach unity. But if that unity must come at the cost of, and in opposition to. the substance and form of the Torah, then that peace will be illusory and self-defeating at best. For we are only one people by virtue of the Torah; it was at Sinai that we became one people, and it was the Torah which always defined Jewish life. Hence. to my thinking, there is no surer way to dissolve the integrity and unity of Jewish national life, than by diluting the Torah in the name of some imagined ?peace.? Compromise the Torah -- Torah ideals, Torah practices, and Torah standards -- albeit in the noble pursuit of peace. and you will be left with neither Judaism nor peace, neither principle nor security.

And so it is that peace comes as part of a package. In the first place, to achieve it in the face of the enemies beyond we must perforce cultivate the weapons of war, to be strong and defiant. to insist on security guarantees, rather than on paper promises or gestures of goodwill, and that being achieved we can then contemplate the modalities of peace and fraternal co-existence. In the context of the Middle East, it means that you do not give back territories if in so doing you endanger your security one iota. And then in the second place, in contemplating the absence of peace within the Jewish community per se, it is equally necessary to insist that there can be no peace without adherence to principle, most particularly to principles of Torah. In the context of American Jewish life, it means that while we should certainly seek every possible point of commonality, and should always treat each other with eminent respect, we cannot be expected to compromise the time-honored principles of Torah, mitzvah, and halakha.

In conclusion, we can quote the prophet Isaiah that great visionary of world peace, who wrote

Peace, peace, to far and to near, says the Lord, for 1 will heal him. (Isaiah 57: 19)

It is a promise of twofold peace - peace with the erstwhile enemy beyond, the one which is rahok or faraway; and peace with one's fellow Jews within, that which is karov near to our heart. And for us here in America, peace for the land of Israel that is indeed so far from our shores, and at the same time, peace for the American Jewish community in every respect. ?Thus says the Lord. for I will heal him,? for the Jewish people to be healed and whole in body and in soul, in substance and in spirit, safe and secure. as it is said,

the Lord will grant strength to His people. the Lord will bless His people with peace.



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