By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
Over its long history, how has the Jewish people viewed violence and nonviolence as approaches to tikkun olam, social change in the service of the healing of the world? (The literal phrase “tikkun olam” has been used in that sense only recently, but the vision that one major purpose of Jewish peoplehood is to achieve justice, peace, and ecological wholeness is a very old vision.)
If we look back at the history of Biblical Israel, there are two very important strands in it, both of which we need to learn from and wrestle with. One is the strand of constant willingness to challenge and disobey arrogant power, whether it’s located in Pharaoh or it’s located in a Jewish king. The other is the strand of willingness to use violence – sometimes hyper-violence – to advance the Jewish vision of a decent society.
Let us first take up the strand of resistance to unaccountable power. The story of Shifrah and Puah – the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to murder Hebrew boy-babies –- is perhaps the first tale of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.
The process of liberation in the Exodus itself is woven with violence in the form of disastrous ecological upheavals and ultimately the death of Egypt’s firstborn. But the imposition of these plagues is ascribed to God and thus placed one giant step away from Israelite behavior. Indeed, the Israelites are specifically forbidden to leave their homes on the night when the firstborn die. The most active deed of the Israelites themselves is described as a nonviolent one: visiting the Egyptian homes to demand reparations – gold and jewels that will repay them for many years of slavery.
The Hebrew Bible also describes nonviolent resistance to Babylonian and Persian power:
• Jeremiah warns against using violence and military alliances to oppose the Babylonian Conquest, and argues instead that God will protect the people if Judah acts in accord with the ethical demands of Torah – freeing slaves, letting the land rest.
• Daniel and his friends are cast into the lions’ den for nonviolently refusing to obey the king’s command to worship foreign gods.
• Esther violates the law when in fear and trembling she approaches the king without having been invited, so that she can carry out a mission to save the Jewish people from a murderous tyrant.
And indeed the whole scroll of Esther is a joke – two intertwined jokes about how those who demean others (whether it is Ahasuerus demeaning women or Haman threatening the Jews) will have their arrogance recoil upon their own heads. The story itself is a nonviolent act of challenge to the arrogance of power.
So – we might say – it is not surprising that Israelite culture would celebrate resistance to foreign potentates. What about Israelite kings?
Here too there are tales of nonviolent resistance. There is a powerful story of an Israelite king, Saul, who had to deal with an underground guerilla whom he thought of as a terrorist, named David. And David, with a very small band of underground guerillas, went off, hungry and desperate, and found food and protection at a sacred shrine, where they asked the priests to give them to eat, the show-bread, the lehem panim, the sacred bread placed before God, because they were desperately hungry. And the priests fed them from the sacred bread.
When Saul heard about this, he said (more or less), “Anybody who harbors a terrorist is a terrorist!” (do you hear an echo?) and so King Saul ordered his own bodyguard to kill the priests of Nov. But the bodyguard refused.
His own bodyguard, yet they refused to murder these priests. An act of nonviolent civil disobedience against an Israelite king, not an Egyptian Pharaoh.
The tales of the Prophets are filled with moments of nonviolent resistance to illegitimate uses of power by Israelite kings. Jeremiah, for example, used “Yippy” acts of street theater to protest. He wore a yoke as he walked in public, to embody the yoke of God that the King had shrugged off and the yoke of Babylonian Captivity that the King was bringing on the people.
Torah also bears descriptions of how it would look to have power made accountable to the public and to the guardians of Torah. In Deuteronomy there is the description of a constitutional monarch who must write, day by day, those passages of Torah that restrict his own power. He must not multiply horses -- cavalry, the tanks and Apache helicopters of that day. He must not pile up money for his treasury. He must not send the people back into Mitzrayim, which didn’t mean sending them back to geographical Egypt, it meant sending them back to slavery. And he had to read the Torah, in public. Imagine Richard Nixon reading the Bill of Rights on national television, and having to listen directly to responses.
That’s one strand of ancient Torah. The other one is that in its vision of creating a decent society in that little sliver of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, over and over again the Torah counsels violence, even genocide. The sense that creating the decent society could only be done by military means is a very strong strand of Torah.
Even within this approach, however, the Biblical model of Jewish life preserved some limits on war. Even in wartime, the Israelite army was forbidden to cut down fruit trees, unless they were actually being used as bulwarks in defending against a siege. And the Torah provided for individual exemptions from the army for young people in the earliest journey of making a family, building a house, creating a vineyard, feeling fear of death in battle, or fearing to become a killer. The Maccabees actually applied these rules, even in the midst of a war to resist an occupying power that had desecrated the Temple and was forcing people to worship idols.
For at least a thousand years, the same culture and tradition that often counseled nonviolent resistance against unaccountable power also counseled the use of military conquest against cultures it deemed indecent, so as to be able to implant Israelite society and culture in what it claimed as the Land of Israel.
But the Jewish people faced both an outside practical challenge to that set of assumptions about military power, and an internal ethical challenge to it. When Hellenistic and Roman power swept over the Mediterranean basin, Rabbinic Judaism said, “No longer can military power create a decent society in this sliver of land Can’t be done. Shouldn’t be done..”
From outside, the Romans finally proved it impossible after the Bar Kochba revolts by decimating the Jewish population of the land of Israel. From then on, the Rabbis refused to make heroes of Bar Kochba or even of the Maccabees, who had been far more successful in using military force against an overweening empire.
And internally, the Rabbis also evaded and nullified the Torah’s genocidal commands against idolatrous people, by ruling that the Canaanite peoples no longer existed – that the Assyrians, not Israelites, had wiped them out – and therefore the command was a dead letter.
The Rabbis who were so creative in applying ancient Torah in a new situation, and who could certainly had they wished understood the Jebusites, Hivites, Amalekites, and so on as symbols for ongoing threats and dangers to be dealt with militarily, instead chose to nullify the genocidal meaning of the text. And they even dismissed its commands to execute a rebellious Israelite child or wipe out a rebellious Israelite city, saying, “This never happened and it never will.” “Never will?” – surely a claim rooted in ethical revulsion.
And the rabbis, who continued to shape a court system within Jewish society, mostly rejected the violent punishments prescribed in Torah. “A court that sentences even one person to death in seventy years,” they said, ”is a court of murderers.”
But most basic transformation of all: The Rabbis constructed a way for the Jewish people to live in the world which was a way of nonassertive resistance to the great powers of the Earth. Sometimes people incorrectly call Gandhian nonviolence “passive resistance” – it is in fact highly assertive – but in the case of Rabbinic Judaism, using the phrase “passive resistance,” or “nonassertive nonviolence,” is indeed quite accurate.
Living in the nooks and crannies of Roman, of Christian, of Muslim civilization, the Jewish communities created decent societies of their own and gave up on the vision of toppling the Great Powers and transforming the world as a whole. Only within ourselves, said Rabbinic Judaism, could we make a decent world. Someday, if we did a good job, then somehow a transcendent God would come and bring Mashiach, bring the Messiah, and so transform the world. But as for us? for our own action being able to mend the clearly broken broader world beyond our boundaries?
For almost two thousand years, that meant accepting that there would be expulsions, accepting that there would be pogroms, but that the Jewish people could live beyond expulsions and pogroms.
And indeed this worked.
But in the last century or so of Modernity, when sadism becomes industrialized, when we experience not only pogroms and expulsions, but the Shoah, the Holocaust, the death of one-third of the Jewish people, then we -- almost all of us -- agree that we cannot live with that Rabbinic model anymore.
For now Rabbinic Judaism faces something, in Modernity, as overwhelming to its way of life as Biblical Judaism faced in the Roman Empire.
One powerful lesson of the Holocaust is, there is nowhere to hide anymore. Not just for the Jews. If you’re the tiny, powerless, native communities of the Amazon basin, can you hide? Global corporations decide they want to burn the Amazon forest in order to create a few years of fodder for growing cattle from which to make fast-food hamburger, and your community dies.
When Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania almost went critical, who are the people who would have died first if it had turned into Chernobyl? It would have been the Amish. And they don’t even use the electricity. They tried their best to get “off the grid,” and yet they still live on the griddle, ready to be fried by the Great Powers of the world.
There is no place to hide from Industrial sadism, Industrial Arrogance. There is no place to hide from the great powers of the world when the raw need for utter power becomes industrialized. When Modernity can produce not only Zyklon B, not only the railroad train, but the Modern bureaucratic state and corporation with the power to shatter the ozone layer, to poison the planetary atmosphere, to melt the polar ice cap -- then there’s no place to hide. There are no nooks and crannies.
So the Rabbinic answer is no longer sufficient. What to do?
The first response, predating the Shoah but gaining much greater strength after it, was a kind of reversion to some aspects of the Biblical model (including military force, not including genocide): “Well, then, we need to protect ourselves from the Modernized hatreds of other peoples with military force. And we can do this once more on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.”
This is of course par excellence the response of the Zionist movement, or rather those aspects of it represented by Herzl (who chose as the music to be played at the first Zionist Congress the music of Wagner) and of Ben Gurion and of the left-wing Palmach and of the right-wing Irgun, Jabotinsky and others. (Not the response of the Zionists Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am, Judah Magnes, Henrietta Szold.)
When military force was first applied by the Zionist yishuv, some elements of the Jewish military forces tried to apply the concept of “self-restraint” and “purity of arms.” Never was this purity quite pure, and some branches of the Zionist movement did not honor such strictures. Yet the effort to secure and defend Palestinian territory on which to build a Jewish society was originally prepared for compromise, partition, self-restraint.
But it is clear that more and more, this decision to use military force sparingly has become an addiction to military force and violence, aggressively as well as defensively, for conquest as well as for self-defense.
Successive governments of Israel have chosen the path of competing with the Great Powers of the world. Tanks, planes, even H-bombs. The horses against which the Torah warned us.
But is already becoming clear that for a small people to try to do this makes it extremely difficult to carry on a decent society at the same time. Not even the Soviet Union, a continental super-state, could shoulder this burden. It is not altogether clear that even the richest society in the history of the world, the United States, can do this and remain or create a decent society at home.
The chances that Israel can do so are very small. Pursued to its logical fulfillment, this reversion to the biblical path leads to a dead end. And I do mean a dead end.
What is a decent alternative?
First, let us realize, there is something that actually those first two models had in common. They both said that the Jewish people is on its own. Whether we were making a decent society with military means in the ancient land of Israel, or making a decent society in the nooks and crannies of other civilizations all over the world, both Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism said, “We are on our own. There’s nobody else who cares. There’s nobody else who shares anything like our vision. They’re all enemies and only we carry the vision.”
But one thing that Modernity has brought with it has been the discovery that there are other communities in the world with which we can in fact share a vision of a decent society. It is possible to find allies.
Now we have to behave in a certain kind of a way to be able to find allies. But it is no longer impossible to find them. And the question is whether, in response to the smashing of Rabbinic Judaism by Modernity, we can connect with Christians who are responding to Modernity’s shattering of the Christianity that has till now existed, and with Buddhists who are struggling with a Buddhism similarly shattered by Modernity, and with Muslims struggling with a shattered traditional Islam.
Within each of these traditions – within the Jewish people, within Christian communities, within Islam, within Buddhism, within Hinduism, there are energies that say,
”Then let’s go back two centuries, three centuries, and vomit out this disgusting, destructive modernity.
“Let’s put women back in their place, put the earth back in its place and put the other communities back in their places.”
All of those places were, of course, underneath, below, subordinate. From that standpoint, these efforts to restore pre-Modern religious cultures cannot make allies with each other, because each denies the others’ legitimacy.
Indeed, these restorationist versions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism must be far more coercive, more violent, than the traditional communities they are hoping to restore. For it always takes more force, more coercion, to force a genie back in the bottle than it did to keep it there in the first place. two centuries ago, no one had to beat up women to keep them from vocally , audibly davvening at the Western wall. They just didn’t try. Now – throw chairs at them to “restore” the past. Use State power. All new, in the name of restoration.
But these restorationist forces are not the only response to Modernity’s shattering of traditional religious life. There are also energies that say, “Let’s absorb into our traditional religious teachings some of the sacred teachings that have come from Modernity, and go forward Let’s renew these communities rather than restoring them as they were three or four centuries ago.”
Let’s renew the sacred teaching of the sacred earth, for which indeed we have ancient warrant. The sacred teaching of the sacredness of the full equality of women, for which neither we nor any of the old traditions has warrant. The sacred tradition of the sacredness of other strivings for truth from which we can learn and with which we can make allies.
We can no longer hide alone in nooks and crannies, we can no longer conquer or even defend along our own decency, we must try to mend the world after all.
So let’s reach out for allies – and let’s bring assertive nonviolence, not passive but assertive, to bear on transforming or even toppling the Great Powers of the earth, so as to heal what now needs to be a planetary community.
What would it mean to do that?
Let’s look for just a moment at what may have been the most successful single use of nonviolent civil disobedience by the Jewish people since Shifrah and Puah and company – even though we have almost never put the tag “nonviolent movement” on it.
And that was the Soviet Jewry movement. Both in the Soviet Union and around the world, that movement almost totally, with only one or two tiny exceptions, avoided the use of violence, and used assertive nonviolence to win freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union.
Dancing in the streets of Moscow on the night of Simchat Torah. Marches, demonstrations, boycotts. Sit-ins in the Supreme Soviet. -- I can remember when people thought, “Hey, a sit-in in the Supreme Soviet? All those folks will be dead in a week!”
But they weren’t. Indeed, they won allies. Jews around the world, members of other communities as well. Allies. We did not need to stand alone.
Why did we not think of this movement as Gandhian or Kingian? I think, because, we were deeply puzzled as to how to cope with such a way of understanding ourselves alongside the State of Israel during that same period. But it was an assertive nonviolent movement, it actually worked, and it opened one of the earliest cracks in the rigidity of the Soviet Union’s unaccountable top-down pyramidal power. We should with joyful pride name this nonviolent victory as what it was, lift it up to our own awareness, celebrate it.
And there were other such efforts at assertive nonviolence.
There were the Freedom Seders of the early 70’s, aimed against racism and the Vietnam War, all of them rooted in affirming the liberation struggle of the Jewish people alongside the liberation struggles of Black Americans, Vietnamese, women, Nicaraguans. One of those Freedom Seders actually poured blood, frogs, cockroaches – the symbolic plagues -- on the fence around the White House. Another brought together 4,000 people in the Cornell University field house, where Daniel Berrigan actually came out from the underground to which he had fled from the government’s prosecution of his anti-war activities. Assertive nonviolence, with allies. Both a new approach in Jewish life.
And there was the Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as its Honorary Chairman, which challenged the actions of the US government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas. The Trees for Vietnam campaign drew on both the Torah’s prohibition of destroying trees in time of war, and the Jewish practice of planting trees in Israel. Raising money for these purposes was an act of civil disobedience.
Or more recently, smaller, a Tu B’Shvat seder in the redwood forest, concluding with a “plant-in” on the very property owned by a corporation that was logging the ancient redwoods.
And a celebration of Hoshanah Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot, by dancing seven circles with the Sefer Torah, by beating willows on the earth on the banks of the Hudson River – aimed against General Electric’s refusal to clean up the river after poisoning it with PCB’s.
Originally, anciently, that ceremony happened at the banks of rivers –- calling out to God to save the earth from drought and locusts, famine and plague. But in Modern times, Hoshanah Rabbah has mostly been limited to beating willow branches on the rugs in the small chapel at the back of a few traditional synagogue, having no way of connecting with the prayers for saving, healing the earth, which are the prayers of that day.
But in 1998, doing Hoshanah Rabbah on the banks of the Hudson River turned this ancient festival into an act of assertive nonviolence against one of the Great Powers of the planet.
To the traditional prayers to save the earth from locusts and famine and drought, we added efforts to heal the earth from GE -- lest they ”bring good things to death.”
And we did not have to do it alone, Jews against the world. When we danced and beat the willows on the river banks, there was an Iroquois spiritual leader, there were Catholic nuns, there was Pete Seeger, a spiritual leader from another community and tradition – dancing with us, not only despite the Jewishness of this ceremony, but because it was so deeply Jewish.
showed Jews how Jewish wisdom indeed embodies concern for all life.
And still more recently, there are Israeli Jews, and Jews from the Diaspora, and international supporters from many countries, who have sat down against bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes. Who have, with their own bare hands, pushed aside the concrete blocks cutting off Palestinian villages in blockades, in sieges. Who have replanted olive trees destroyed (despite the prohibitions of Torah) by Israeli soldiers and settlers in Palestine as well as replanting palm trees and pine trees destroyed by Palestinian arsonists in Israel. Some of whom, even or especially rabbis, have been arrested, even beaten, for their nonviolent resistance.
And Israelis, soldiers and reservists, who have refused to serve in the Army of Occupation, citing God, ethics, Torah, and the true security of Israel as their reasons. And have gone to jail for refusing.
It is important to notice that many of the actions I have mentioned – Freedom Seders, Tu B’Shvat Seders, the Trees for Vietnam campaign, Hoshana Rabbah – drew explicitly on Jewish ceremony, Jewish practices. These actions did not have to choose between being “Jewish” and being “universal”; they did not even have to “balance” being “Jewish” and being “universal.”
In the very depth of their being, they were simultaneously and organically both Jewish and universal. Putting energy into them did not draw Jews away from their Jewish heritage in order to heal the wounded world; it actually deepened their Jewish knowledge and experience. Nor did these actions pull people into Jewish tribalism at the expense of lost concern for the others endangered on this planet; like a hologram, like the presence of DNA in every cell of the body, they taught that the whole is fully present in each part. The highest good of each community and the highest good of the planet as a whole are enwrapped within each other.
To this point I have set before you the empirical data of the last generation, the beginnings of the shaping of an approach to Jewishly rooted nonviolence aimed both at holders of formally Jewish power (like the government of Israel) and at the great powers of the world (which may or may not have Jews in authority but are not acting in an explicitly Jewish framework).
I also want to lift up what I think are two important philosophical approaches to social action and tikkun olam that were set forth by two great Jewish thinkers of the last century: Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. These contributions may offer some new ways of thinking about violence and nonviolence.
Martin Buber wrote about the Leninist "Red Terror" in his essay "Recollection of a Death" (published in Pointing the Way):
"I cannot conceive of anything real corresponding to the saying that 'the end 'sanctifies' the means; but I mean something which is real in the highest sense of the term when I say that the means profane, actually make meaningless, the end, that is, its realization!
"What is realized is the farther from the goal that was set, the more out of accord with it is the method by which it was realized."
In more direct English, Buber is saying: "The further the means you use deviate from the end you envision, the further the end you actually reach will deviate from the vision you held out."
At first glance, this may seem not different from Gandhi’s teaching that “You must be the end that you seek,” or A. J. Muste’s teaching that “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
It is surely closely connected with those teachings, and Buber may have meant exactly the same thing.
But a close reading of the way Buber put it suggests a different possibility – one not so absolutist about the avoidance of all violence. And since (for example in a dialogue/ debate with Gandhi over how the Jews of Europe should respond to Nazism) Buber actually did distinguish his own views from an absolutist pacifism, it may be useful to explore this close reading.
The point is that Buber is in a sense describing a “sliding scale” of social change. The more violence in the means, the more violence will remain in the goal achieved. In the Soviet Un ion of Lenin and Stalin, the “means” of the Red Terror became the (perhaps unintended) “end” of a totalitarian dictatorship. Buber makes clear in the essay that he was strongly opposed to the means and prophetically understood what end would be achieved. In 1949, when he published Paths in Utopia, he unfolded in great clarity his critique of what had happened in Soviet reality.
But implicit in Buber’s dread of the unfolding of violence into more and more violence, there is also the possibility that an activist may use certain limited forms of violence in extreme necessity, while being fully aware that this is likely to corrupt the society that s/he is trying to bring to birth. This awareness might make it possible to take steps to reduce the corruption that results.
Meanwhile, we should not lose sight of Buber’s main point: Actually building in the present a miniature or microcosm of the future that you desire is the most effective way of bringing about the future you desire.
There is an ancient Jewish teaching that encodes this wisdom: According to the ancient Rabbis, if the entire Jewish people were to observe Shabbat twice in a row, the Messiah would come. Since Shabbat was understood as a foretaste of the Messianic Age, this teaching meant: “Bring it by doing it.”
Indeed, I suggest that this “law” of social action (in the sense of the law of gravity – a description of empirical reality) is so basic that it applies whether the activist’s vision and practice are nonviolent, or not.
One of the clearest cases of the power of this form of social action is the sit-in movement in the United States. The sit-inners did not begin by trying to change the laws that mandated or permitted segregation. They did not attack the restaurant owners. They envisioned a future of integrated public places, and in the present they integrated them. They put on the society at large the burden of deciding what to do about them.
By disobeying the law, they changed the law. And since they tapped into a latent value system among the majority of Americans that supported racial equality and opposed segregation, they initiated a great wave of social change that echoed and intensified what they were doing, carrying their basic values into areas they had not addressed.
Let us look at a movement that ideologically, in values and worldview, was quite different – but that structurally had much the same effect. That is the ideologically motivated settler movement that began in the 1970s to set up Israeli enclaves in the West Bank, when to do so (in the places they chose was not legal. (I call them “ideologically motivated” to distinguish them from Israelis who bought homes in West Bank settlements because they were much cheaper than houses inside the 1967 Israeli borders.)
These settlers were not committed to the universalist values that imbued the sit-in movement. They were nationalists who had no compunction about using violence against Palestinians, or threatening to use it even against Jews in a “civil war” if a Jewish government were to try to force them to leave their settlements. So from a values standpoint, they were quite different from the sit-in movement.
But they were very much like the sit-inners in that they enacted in the present the future they envisioned. They imagined a West Bank populated by Jews, and they acted to make it so right away. They confronted the Israeli government and public and the Palestinians with their faits accomplis -- and challenged them to respond.
Like the sit-in movement, through the boldness and clarity of their action they created waves of political energy that moved in their direction. For an entire generation, they have had a profound effect on Israeli politics and culture. For like the sit-in movement, they tapped into latent support for their values among the society around them: in their case, among Israelis who were drawn to the notion of a Jewish/ Israeli West Bank, whether for religious, nationalist, territorial-security, or financial reasons.
Several of the recent actions by Israelis of a very different political persuasion have also begun to enact the future in the present: peace demonstrations jointly planned and held by Palestinian and Israeli women; joint Israeli-Palestinian actions to open roadblocks on Palestinian roads, replant trees in Palestinian villages, rebuild demolished Palestinian homes; Israeli reservists’ refusing to serve in the Occupation army. It remains to be seen whether these actions also tap into a latent value-system among a sizeable number of Israelis.
In any case, seeing the issues of violence and nonviolence in social action though this lens of “enacting the future in the present” may offer a new way to understand and to choose a course of action for tikkun olam.
So may the contribution of Rabbi Heschel in his essay on “The Meaning of This War [World War II],” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996). This essay was written in 1943 and first published in February 1944.
In this remarkable talk, Heschel asks the question:
"Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?" And he answers as a Hassid would, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him." (p. 209.)
When the Baal Shem Tov said this, he almost certainly was focusing on the spiritual situation of an individual who in order to grow must take the world not as an external object but as a moral mirror – who must treat the discovery of evil as a spur to look inward, to examine what evil lurks in his/ her own heart.
But Heschel takes this insight in a new direction. He applies it to a whole society, a whole people, when it sees political evil at a national level:
"We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?”
"Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man."
By 1943, Heschel knew that members of his own family and already more than a million other Jews had already been savagely murdered. Yet he could draw on the depths of Hassidism to call Jews themselves, along with all of Western civilization and culture, to face their own share of responsibility for letting the disaster happen. And he could fuse questions that were conventionally seen as distinct – issues of economics and issues of religious and spiritual experience. For he said "the vision of the sacred" had been killed by "greed, envy, and the reckless will to power," by not addressing such economic problems as unemployment.
Heschel, we should be clear, did not back way from a radical condemnation of Nazism. He did not oppose the war on which the Allies were then engaged. Yet he could in the very midst of that war write, “Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. … The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever.”
He could look deep into that war, beyond it and within it and beneath it, to ask not merely what were its causes, but what was its meaning? And he found spiritual meaning in taking responsibility for having created the world in which “the mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.”
What is the significance of this teaching, as we search toward a theory and practice of tikkun olam that can help support an assertive nonviolent transformation of the Great Powers of the earth?
Perhaps it would be instructive to imagine this teaching placed in the context of American life after the terror attacks of 9/11/02. If Heschel could write in this way in 1943, what would it have meant for an American to write this way in 2002?
It would have challenged both the single Greatest Power in the world, the United States, to have reflected on its own responsibility for creating the world in which terrorists chose to wear the mark of Cain.
And it would have challenged us all at the level of our everyday lives – emotional, economic, political. As Heschel says later in the essay, “God will return to us when we are willing to let Him in – into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theaters.”
It would have called on us to make the sacrifices of peace lest we need forever to make the sacrifices of war, the war against terrorism that has already been proclaimed endless and that indeed is likely to be endless because every act of war is likely to create new terrorists.
What are these sacrifices? In Jewish language these are korbanot, “near-bringings,” bringing near to the Unity of All what is nearest to our own selves.
The first sacrifice would be taking time to reflect. Time out – time not used to multiply the military, imprison immigrants, name more countries for devastation or embargo, but time simply to reflect. To pray, to study, to explore new possibilities.
And the next “sacrifice” – korban, “near-bringing” -- would be creating in the present the institutions and practices that we dream of for the future. Making near in reality what seems far from possibility.
And finally, let us bring near our wholeness as a community: that we do this not only in specific cases but also at the level of the meaning of Jewish peoplehood: --
That we see the Jewish people in our era as a transgenerational “movement” to heal the wounded world. Not through violence, and not through passive nonviolence. Not walking alone to conquer, not walking alone to cower.
Rather, as a carrier of assertive nonviolence to open up and transform the Great Powers of the world, working with allies who share many aspects of our vision.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center .and author of Godwrestling – Round 2, among many other books of Jewish renewal. This article flows from the work of The Shalom Center , a North American network committed to draw on Jewish wisdom, old and new, in order to pursue peace, justice, and the healing of the earth. It is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, but these thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of ALEPH as a whole.
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