Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Sword and the Plowshare as Tools of Tikkun OlamArthur Waskow*
Mention "the Jews" and "nonviolence" in the same breath, and in our generation many will look you askance. Mental images of the Israeli Army, the Maccabees, an "angry God," will flood the eye. Perhaps they will be followed by images of quiet and passivity and wisdom "sheep to the slaughter" during the Holocaust, Torah-scholars and scientists and pianists. But rarely will there surface the memory, rarely will there arise the hope, of an assertive, vigorous nonviolent Jewish resistance to the arrogant in power.
But the past and the future are much more complex than this parade of images suggests. And since Jewish thought has always proceeded in a spiral where the future and the past are intertwined, it is hardly possible to think about a future of assertive nonviolent Jewish action without unfolding the meaning of our limited memories.
For Jewish wisdom is neither the endless circle of tradition nor the abrupt progression of a straight line forward. Always it does midrash takes an ancient tradition, gives it a twirl, and comes out somewhere new. Spiralling.
And today this midrash is not simply a twirling of the text, but an unfolding of the historical transformations that gave birth to the many layers of the text. Not as an antiquarian dust-off of ancient oddities, but as a way to join the spiritual searches of ages past, renew them, and create new forms of action in the ancient search for peace and justice.
I. Biblical Israel: Civil Disobedience and Ultra-violenceIf we look back at the history of Biblical Israel, there are two very important strands from which we need to learn and with which we need to wrestle. One is the strand of constant willingness to challenge and disobey arrogant power, whether it's located in Pharaoh or 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. For example, 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 famously are cast into the lions' den for nonviolently refusing to obey the king's command to worship foreign gods. And, although the Book of Esther ends in violence, Esther herself demonstrates nonviolent civil disobedience when, in fear and trembling, she approaches the Persian king without having been invited so that she can carry out her mission to save the Jewish people from a murderous tyrant.
Well, we might say, it is not surprising that Israelite culture would celebrate resistance to foreign potentates. What about Israel's own 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 let them 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.
II. Rabbinic Judaism: Internal Tikkun and Passive NonviolenceBut the Jewish people faced both an outside practical challenge to that set of assumptions about military power, and an internal ethical challenge to it.
The external challenge came from the Hellenists and the Romans who swept over the Mediterranean basin, conquering the Jewish state. Jews revolted, most famously under the Maccabees and under Bar Kochba, until the Romans finally proved military revolt against their empire impossible by decimating Israel's Jewish population. After this Diaspora, the Rabbis refused to make heroes of Bar Kochba or even of the Maccabees. Rabbinic Judaism essentially said, "No longer can military power create a decent society in this sliver of land. Can't be done. Shouldn't be tried. "
Internally, the Rabbis also decreed that military power should no longer be used. They did this by evading, nullifying, and otherwise interpreting away the Torah's genocidal commands against the Canaanites and other idolatrous people. Instead of extrapolating from these commands that it would be all right even obligatory to wipe out any people that rejected the Jewish God, the rabbis went in the opposite direction, ruling that the Canaanite example was a limited one by the time of the rabbis, a nullity.
Since the Canaanite peoples no longer existed the rabbis explained that the Assyrians had scattered and shattered them as well as the "ten lost tribes" of Israelites themselves the rabbis decreed that the commands to use military action against the Canaanites were a dead letter. If military action against the Canaanites was no longer necessary, then military action itself was no longer commanded.
The Rabbis who were so creative in applying ancient Torah in a new situation could certainly, had they wished, have understood the Jebusites, Hivites, Amalekites, and so on as symbols for ongoing threats and dangers to be dealt with militarily. They chose instead to nullify the genocidal meaning of the text. And they even dismissed the Torah's commands to execute a rebellious Israelite child or wipe out a rebellious Israelite city, saying, "This never happened and it never will." Perhaps "this never happened" was a historical claim, but "it never will" expressed an ethical decision never to carry out the seeming command of Torah.
While some may say the rabbis were merely being pragmatic, given the amassed power of the Roman and Byzantine empires these rulings on matters internal to the Jewish people certainly point to a real ethical revulsion against the use of violence.
Indeed, 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 was that the Rabbis constructed a nonviolent way for the Jewish people to live in the world. Living in the nooks and crannies of Roman, of Christian, of Muslim civilization, Jewish communities in the rabbinic period 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 the rabbis, can we make a decent world. Someday, if we do a good job, then somehow a transcendent God will 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? Forget it.
People sometimes call Gandhian nonviolence "passive resistance" even though Gandhi's form of nonviolence is in fact highly assertive. But in the case of Rabbinic Judaism, the phrase "passive resistance," or "nonassertive nonviolence," is indeed quite accurate. For almost two thousand years, rabbinic Jews accepted that they would suffer expulsions, they would suffer pogroms, but believed that the Jewish people could live beyond expulsions and pogroms.
III. Reviving a Military ModelRabbinic Judaism's model of nonassertive nonviolence worked well until the last century or so of Modernity, when sadism became industrialized, when we experienced not only pogroms and expulsions, but the Shoah, the Holocaust, the death of one-third of the Jewish people. It then became clear to almost all of us that we could no longer live with the Rabbinic model anymore.
One powerful lesson of the Holocaust has been that 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? Not anymore. With satellite technology, global corporations can spot your resources. With modern transportation systems, they can airlift entire factories into your remote area. With telecommunications, they can supervise the plundering of your community from afar. This is how, in the Amazon, global corporations have managed to log the rainforest and in its place create pasture for cattle destined to become fast food hamburger. Your resources gone, your community dies.
The Rabbinic answer is no longer sufficient. What to do?
The first response to industrial sadism and industrial arrogance was to revert to the military model of the biblical period (though without its acceptance of genocide). Jews thought: " 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 was the response of what became the major forces in the Zionist movement, the Zionism of Herzl (who chose as the music to be played at the first Zionist Congress the music of Wagner), of Ben Gurion as well as Jabotinsky, of the left-wing Palmach and the right-wing Irgun. (There was another Zionism: that of Ahad Haam and Martin Buber and Henrietta Szold; but their vision and version of Zionism were almost drowned out, especially by the flood of bloodshed in the Holocaust.)
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." Perhaps this was a throwback to the ethics of the Rabbis. The idea behind the "purity of arms" was that civilians should not be attacked, that Jewish settlements established by purchase should be defended whenever necessary, but that Palestinian Arab towns should never be attacked.
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 changed into an addiction to use 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, till as I write the State is in the midst of a massive repression of a rebellious people, and the rebellion as well as the repression are taking crueller and crueller forms.
It is already becoming clear that a small people cannot maintain "purity of arms," cannot wage an ethical military effort, cannot compete with the Great Powers and 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 for generations wage continuous war even "a pure war" 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.
IV. A New Tikkun OlamWhat is a decent alternative to military action?
The advantage of the Biblical vision was that it was assertive, rather than passive. The advantage of the Rabbinic vision was that it avoided violence. Is there a way to synthesize these virtues in the new era of Jewish peoplehood into which we have entered? Is there a way to create a Jewish path of assertive nonviolence?
Let's look at what may have been the most successful single use of nonviolent civil disobedience by the Jewish people since the midwives Shifra and Puah, even though we have almost never put the tag "nonviolent movement" on it.
That was the Soviet Jewry movement. With only one or two exceptions, it 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. Through years of struggle, this movement made some cracks in what to many had seemed a monolithic Soviet totalitarian state. Even before those cracks and many others brought the whole system down, millions of Soviet Jews either became free to leave or free to begin recreating a Jewish community and culture.
Why did we not think of this movement as Gandhian or Kingian? I think it was 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 the movement to free Soviet Jews was an assertive nonviolent movement. We should with joyful pride name this nonviolent victory as what it was, lift it up to our own awareness, celebrate it.
This effort was the strongest, but not the only, use of assertive nonviolence by Jewishly conscious Jews during the past generation.
There were the Freedom Seders of the early 1970s, 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 U.S. 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. More recently, that environmental activism has continued with 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.
The movement toward a Jewish nonviolent civil disobedience has helped invigorate and renew Judaism. For example, Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, was originally a ceremony that happened at the banks of rivers. Since ancient times, Jews beat willows on the riverbank, dancing seven circles with the Torah and 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 synagogues, having no way of connecting with the festival prayers for healing the earth.
In 1998, a small group of Jews changed all that 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. That fused the ancient meaning of this festival with an act of assertive nonviolence against one of the Great Powers of the planet.
Today, as the state of Israel pursues the older, biblical path, using military action to push its policies, Jewish nonviolence sadly must be used against Jewish military action. So we see Israeli Jews and Jews from the Diaspora, along with international supporters from many countries, sitting down against the Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes. With their own bare hands, pushing aside the concrete blocks that cut off Palestinian villages in blockades, in sieges. Coming on Tu B'Shvat to replant 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. Being arrested, even beaten, for their nonviolent resistance.
And we have seen 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 going to jail for refusing. In these brave nonviolent protesters we see the hope and the promise of an assertive, yet nonviolent means to secure Jewish life and culture.
Most of these campaigns and struggles have drawn explicitly on Jewish ceremony and Jewish practices. For that reason, they 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. That is why we call this new Jewish form of assertive nonviolent civil disobedience "tikkun olam," the healing of the world.
V: Creating the Future in the PresentSurely the development of Jewish assertive nonviolence has owed much to the experience of the movements we connect with Gandhi and with King. Yet there are differences. Not only does Jewish nonviolence draw on Torah to embody as action-forms some ancient practices and rituals; it also draws on the Jewish tradition for counsel on when violence itself may be necessary, even for the committed nonviolent activist.
Just after World War I, in his essay "Recollection of a Death" (published in Pointing the Way), Martin Buber thought deeply about whether the means might justify the ends. He wrote about the Leninist "Red Terror" of the period
"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!"
He continued, "The more out of accord with the goal is the method by which it is realized, the farther will be the goal that is actually realized from the one that was set."
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; but a close reading of the way Buber puts his point suggests a different possibility: that Buber is not so absolutist about the avoidance of all violence. All his thought and writing leans away from enshrining rules of behavior and toward experiencing the unique need in the unique moment.
In one such specific situation, during 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. In the passage above, Buber is not necessarily saying you must choose a means that matches your end. He sternly warns you should realize that if you want, for example, peace in the end, it will be far harder to achieve if the means you use is war.
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 Union 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 that 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.
This willingness to consider violence makes Jewish civil disobedience different from the Gandhian or Buddhist model. After the passiveness of the Rabbinic model, with its acceptance of pogroms and massacres, Jewish nonviolence must be robust, and willing to consider violence in the last resort.
The main thrust of Buber's point, however, is that the best way to bring about the future you desire is to actually build a miniature or microcosm of that future in the present. No longer a passive nonviolent protest against the world we disdain, Jewish nonviolence today stresses that we must actively and positively create the world we want.
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 later bought homes in West Bank settlements because government subsidies made them 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.
Seeing the issues of violence and nonviolence in social action through 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.
VI. Finding AlliesTo act in this way, the Jewish community must see ourselves as no longer utterly engulfed by enemies. For the assertive nonviolence of a small and lonely people challenging Great Powers will simply bring catastrophe the sooner, if there are no allies for the challenge.
The mindset that felt we stood alone imbued both biblical and rabbinic Judaism. It grew up in the effort to conquer Canaan against what we thought was an ocean of idolators and the effort to survive the Roman Empire. That mindset was reinforced by Inquisitions and pogroms and even by the gentler Muslim habit of treating the Jews like tolerated pets.
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. Nobody else cares. Nobody shares our vision. They're all enemies and only we carry the vision."
For centuries, this may well have reflected considerable truth.
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 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 some who 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, the earth back in its place and especially 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. (They may become de facto brothers in blood, each fuelling the other's violence.)
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.
From this restorationist energy have stemmed the terror attacks of 9/11, the Christian anti-abortion bombings, Baruch/Aror Goldstein's murder of 29 Muslims at prayer in the Tomb of Abraham, the Hindu burning of the Golden Temple, the Buddhist-Hindu violence of Sri Lanka.
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 make distinctions between what is holy and what is destructive. Surely the Modernity that made possible the Holocaust, the H-bomb, and the burning of the Amazon Basin is not wholly good. But some of Modernity is sacred, and that part we can absorb into our traditional religious teachings and go forward. Let's renew our 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. And the sacred teaching of the sacredness of the full equality of women, for which neither we nor any of the old traditions has warrant. And 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 alone our own decency, we must try to mend the whole 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."
VII. Seeing Ourselves Mirrored in the OtherTo heal the world, we cannot see ourselves as utterly pure and the world as utterly polluted. Just as we must be able to see the good in others if we are to find allies, so we must be able to see the violence we hide within ourselves.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us of this wisdom in an essay on "The Meaning of This War [World War II]," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heschel.
The date of this remarkable essay is crucial to understanding its depth. It was written in 1943 and first published in February 1944.
Heschel asks the question:
"Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?" And he the Polish Hassid just transplanted to America answers as a Hassid might, 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."
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. Heschel writes:
"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 away 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 upon himself, ourselves, for having helped create 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 9/11/01. 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 of peace? In Jewish language these are korbanot, "near-bringings," bringing near to the Unity of All what is nearest to our own selves.
The first such "near-bringing" would be to do as the Baal Shem Tov and Heschel teach, bringing near the evil behavior we see in others as a mirror to look within our selves. Looking at Al Qaeda, to see the CIA that trained them. Hearing Bin Laden's call for jihad, hearing our own President's call for "crusade."
The second would be taking time to reflect, to bring our own life-experience and our own consciousness often so divorced from each other near to each other. 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 learn, to listen, to explore new possibilities.
Such a time out setting aside, for example, the first eleven days of September 2002 as a time to reflect on our experience of the previous year, on the meaning of the terror attacks and on America's place in the world would carry into public space the Jewish wisdom of the Ten Days of Awe and Transformation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Indeed, it would tune in to Heschel's teaching just a few years after the essay I have just quoted, encoded in the well-known book The Sabbath he wrote soon after World War II, while the blood of the Holocaust and Hiroshima was barely dry his teaching that the Sabbath, taking time to restfully reflect, is the deepest challenge to a civilization of techno-idolatry.
And the third "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 addressing specific wounds in the body politic with specific acts of tikkun, 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.