Robert Eisen. The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 280 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975147-1.
Reviewed by Robert Tabak (St. Joseph’s University and Cabrini College )
Published on H-Judaic (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Swords and Plowshares: Confronting Peace and Violence in Judaism
Robert Eisen’s study The Peace and Violence of Judaism is a major contribution, bringing carefully selected texts and analysis to two key questions that confront scholars of Judaism as well as those seeking ethical and religious guidance today: What does Judaism say about peace and violence? And how have “Jews as a people envisioned their relationship with other peoples”? (p.11). Eisen, a professor of religion and Judaic studies at George Washington University, steps beyond his specialty as a medievalist to cover critical and controversial Jewish texts, ethical questions, and historical events from many centuries, including a wide range of recent secondary sources. This is a daring move, one which generally succeeds admirably.
The impetus for this book is made clear in the first sentence of the preface, when the author describes seeing the smoke arising from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. He frames the issues and his own participation in interfaith dialogue in this opening and an epilogue, but tries to step back from imposing his own views on the central sections of the book. Overall, his theme is that “in every major period in Jewish history, from the Bible to the modern period, one can find texts that seem to promote violence against non-Jews alongside texts that seem to promote a peaceful relationship with them. In many instances, even a single text can be read in both ways” (p. ix).
Eisen lays out three sections for each of the historical period he examines. Chapter 2 begins with texts and analysis of the view “The Bible Promotes Violence.” He not only deals with well-known texts such those involving the Caananites or Amalekites but also notes, “The key problem is God’s covenantal relationship with the Israelites, which implies that the Israelites are superior to other nations” (p. 33). He then has a contrasting section, “The Bible Promotes Peace.” In addition to texts such as Isaiah 2, he looks at commentators, such as those pointing out that biblical wars viewed with favor are initiated by God rather than by humans, and the numerous texts, beginning with the creation story, that view non-Jews positively. In both cases he deals with texts themselves and contemporary scholarship and critique. A concluding section attempts to balance these sections. He notes continuing problems such as evaluating whether one passage is more important than another, and how much historical context matters to interpretation of text.
Chapter 3 has a similar dual analysis of rabbinic literature. Eisen notes numerous passages such as the Noahide code and rabbinic re-interpretations of violent biblical texts, as well as teachings that weapons may not be carried on the Sabbath or in the house of study (p. 88). For the contrasting view, he shows that many of the “positive” texts such as the Noahide code can be interpreted as expressing “antipathy” to non-Jews. (p. 108). He raises issues of the ambiguity of texts, and the role of historical circumstances, such as living under Roman rule.
Chapter 4 offers opposing views in medieval Jewish philosophy. Eisen contrasts both positive and negative attitudes toward non-Jews in Maimonides’ work in particular. His analysis raises the question of absolute or relative standards: “Maimonides’ views on non-Jews in general may have been more ethically advanced within Jewish tradition … but they are not advanced enough to satisfy modern ethical sensitivities” (p. 128).
Chapter 5, the briefest, looks at Kabbalah. Eisen notes the essentialist position of most Kabbalists that the non-Jewish soul was inferior to the Jewish soul, and endorsing at least metaphysical war against non-Jews (p. 131). He contrasts this with positive statements from some Kabbalists, as well as the efforts of New Age practitioners to envision Kabbalah as a universal teaching (p. 136).
Chapter 6, the most complex, examines modern Zionism. Eisen accepts as a given that there are violent elements within secular and religious Zionism, but asks what is due to the European background and what is due to Jewish roots. He states, “the argument can be made that Judaism was highly significant in secular Zionist thinking and that it was a key element in fostering a negative attitude to Palestinians” (p. 167). Eisen considers religious Zionism (especially after 1967) and the messianic teachings of Tzevi Yehuda Kook, Gush Emunim, and more extreme figures such as Meir Kahane. He also examines pro-violence secular Zionist thinkers, including Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Labor Zionists and their attraction to the Bible.
A contrasting view of Zionism offers support for Jewish texts and values promoting “peaceful and benevolent values” (p. 178). Statements of prophetic values appear in Israel’s founding documents. Eisen offers a view of violence as limited response, often in self-defense or a sense of desperation. Nationalism rather than Judaism often played a role. He notes that for much of Zionism’s history, religious Zionism was peaceful. He notes the role of critics, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz among Orthodox Jews, and non-Orthodox Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Hillel Zeitlin.
In his summary, Eisen weighs the question of whether violence in Zionism is an essential tendency, or one largely created by historic circumstances. Again, the question of how to engage historical context is central. He also notes the issue of determining whether a thinker or school has had strayed from the basic teachings of Judaism, whether by emphasizing peace or by emphasizing violence.
Chapter 7 offers his conclusions, contrasting two different views of Judaism: one promoting peace and emphasizing all human beings as created in God’s image; another reading seeing Judaism as promoting violence, and a superior attitude toward non-Jews embedded in the concept of chosenness. He legitimates the ambiguities of texts, even from the same time period. He offers the basic conundrum of drawing on history in an ethical question: does one evaluate a source “by looking at how far it has come from a moral viewpoint or by looking at how far it has yet to go” (p. 212)? He concludes by urging scholars of other religions to reflect on their own traditions.
Eisen largely bypasses halakhic (Jewish legal) material in the contemporary period, particularly regarding religious Zionism, “because the amount of halakhic literature relevant to our analysis is much too large to be covered adequately in the present study” (p. 146). This note refers to several important books by Orthodox and Conservative writers, some of which deal with wider issues of war and weapons of mass destruction. Halakhic and quasi-halakhic writings often include responses such as weighing the possibility of exchanging land for peace, opposing torture, or justifying it in some circumstances.
A more serious gap is the leap from Kabbalah to modern Zionism, totally omitting the modern diaspora experience. Eisen says this because on these issues Zionism “dwarfs all other modern manifestations of Judaism” (p. 141.) While he includes contemporary writers outside of Israel on topics from rabbinic texts to Zionism, and notes how some European trends had major influences on Zionist thought, he does not develop these themes. He notes Aharon Shmuel Tameret (d. 1931), “a pacifist Orthodox Russian rabbi who expressed great concern about the potential for violence in Zionism” (p. 189, n. 99). Bialik’s 1903 poem Be-‘Ir ha-haregah (“In the City of Slaughter”), which “shocked its readers with the power of its condemnation of the behavior of Jewish victims” in Kishinev, is omitted. Eisen does not discuss the development of socialist and Zionist self-defense groups in Eastern Europe as a response to pogroms. While focusing on scholarship, he does include a few activists. In the United States, he mentions Meir Kahane (who moved to Israel) and the Jewish Defense League, but not the pacifist Jewish Peace Fellowship or the activist Shalom Center. American writers such as Abraham Cronbach, Murray Polner, Naomi Goodman, Al Alexelrad, Abraham Joshua Heschel , and Arthur Waskow are missing.
With some exceptions for Zionism, Eisen focuses on ideas rather than organizations or movements. The religious Zionist peace group Oz Veshalom-Netivot Shalom, which distributes a weekly Torah commentary, gets a single sentence. Rabbis for Human Rights, focusing on one of his key questions of how Jews regard non-Jews, is not mentioned. Its publication of a Hebrew “Independence Tractate” teaching the Israeli Declaration of Independence with its promise of equal rights as a quasi-Talmudic text is noteworthy. The prominent role of American and other Jews in peace and disarmament efforts is hardly noted.
Overall, this is a very successful and incisive work. It will be a resource for teaching, and also a challenge to all who must choose texts to illustrate certain periods or ethical questions. The importance of encountering complexity and contradiction is constructively illustrated throughout this work.
Eisen’s scholarly balance is shown throughout. In an epilogue, the author returns to his personal experiences in interfaith dialogue. While respecting the Jewish roots of both “right” and “left” perspectives on Israel and its policies, he argues that pragmatism demands compromise in the interests of longer-term goals of survival. He concludes with mutual pleas for Jews to get to know Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, and vice versa so that “just maybe, we will someday live in peace” (pp. 237-238).
. Ovadia Yosef, "Heh'zarat shetahim me'eretz yisrael bimkom pikuah nefesh" ["Return of territories of the Land of Israel in the case of saving lives,'] Torah she'be'al peh 21 (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1980). Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, “A Rabbinic Resource on Jewish Values and the Issue of Torture,” 2005, http://rhrna.org/images/stories/pdf_torture_resources/rhr_booklet2.pdf; Michael J. Broyde, “The Bounds of Wartime Military Conduct in Jewish Law: An Expansive Conception,” 2004 Herbert Berman Memorial Lecture, Center for Jewish Studies, Queens College, CUNY, 2006.
. “Hayim Nahman Bialik,” YIVO Encylopedia, http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Bialik_Hayim_Nahman; Abraham Cronbach, The Quest For Peace (Cincinnati: Sinai Press, 1937); Murray Polner and Stefan Merken, eds., Peace, Justice and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition (New York: Bunim & Bannigan, 2007); Murray Polner and Naomi Goodman, eds., The Challenge of Shalom: The Jewish Tradition of Peace & Justice (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994); Albert Axelrad, Call to Conscience: Jews, Judaism, and Conscientious Objection (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav; New York: Jewish Peace Fellowship, 1986); Susannah Heschel, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996); and Joan Chittister, Saadi Shakur Chisti, and Arthur Waskow, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
. Yehezkel Landau, ed., Violence and the Value of Life in the Jewish Tradition (Jerusalem: Oz VeShalom, 1984); Torah commentaries in Hebrew and English, Oz veShalom Web site, http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/; "The Independence Tractate," Rabbis for Human Rights Web site, http://rhr.org.il/eng/index.php/2011/09/the-independence-tractate/; Melissa S. Klapper, “‘Those by Whose Side We Have Labored’: American Jewish Women and the Peace Movement between the Wars,” Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 636-658; and Sherry Gorelick, “Peace Movement in the United States,” Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/peace-movement-in-united-states.
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