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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Aviezer Ravitzky
War and Peace, Conflict and conciliation: A Jewish perspective


The representatives of world religions who have gathered for this conference have a difficult question to address: What can their religions contribute to the attainment of mutual understanding and conciliation? World religions have, indeed, from time to time made coexistence possible, but frequently it was they who have aggravated political or national strife by investing it with an absolute, metaphysical dimension. Notwithstanding the potential for peace revealed by the highest religious principles and religious texts, holy war, jihad, crusades, bloodshed and persecution have in actual fact filled the history of religions with violence and war.

This is evident in our own time in Northern Ireland, North Sudan, East Timor, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and elsewhere. Likewise in the Middle East today, the greatest obstacle to peace is manifest precisely in extremist religious positions, and in the personalities of religious extremists.

When a political or national conflict assumes a religious aspect it becomes extremely dangerous. It is possible to resolve a conflict between countries by reaching a political compromise. It is much more difficult to resolve conflict between peoples, since it concerns collective historical memories. But most difficult, if indeed it is at all possible, is to resolve a conflict between two monotheistic religions, especially when they are interpreted in an exclusivist manner.

An old Jewish Midrash asks, why did Cain kill Abel? It replies: Each one of them wanted the Temple to be built eventually on his territory. The Midrash relates the first murder in human history, to the religion-territorial question of the location of the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, when we think of the Crusades, of Saladin, or of the present Israel/Palestinian conflict, this Midrash gives us cause for disquiet. It is therefore important for us to re-examine our religious texts and teaching and to search for other possibilities.

I will suggest three ways to do this, on the theological level, the cognitive level, and the textual level. I commence on the theological level. Many religions, monotheistic religions in particular, profess belief in the one perfect, total and absolute God. However, this belief opens up two ways of thought for us.

One way — since we must follow the ways of God (imitatio dei), every meaningful human expression of this, must be perfect and complete. The truth I possess is perfect, there is no other, nothing else is divine truth. The Land must be great, peace must be total, its attainment absolute. Every partial human achievement, historical, political, must be considered a deficiency an act of treason towards the perfection, the dream of faith; it is not part of the whole but a broken fragment of the whole. This approach offers a dangerous opening to the absolutization of conflict and the demonization of the enemy. The enemy is no longer just my enemy but the enemy of truth and perfection — more, he is the enemy of God. Who can compromise with such an enemy?

But faith offers another path. Only God, who transcends existence, is one and complete. All human expression, simply because it is human, is partial, pragmatic and contingent. I do not possess the whole divine truth. To the contrary, perfect truth is scattered through many places and cultures, and not every expression of it is messianic or complete. Actual human life provides only partial understanding. Not every human agreement has to lead to total harmony. In human political and historical reality one can achieve only relative and stepwise arrangements. In contrast with the previous religious approach, which absolutizes every conflict, this approach relativizes it; there is room for the other, we are both imperfect, we no longer strive for the absolute but for the partial.

Second, on the spiritual, cognitive level, the hope for perfection depends on the recognition of the opposition of values. I can exemplify this through Jewish reality. Jews have always dreamed of a return to the land of Israel, the land of patriarchs and prophets, but Jews have always seen themselves as a spiritual people with distinctive ethical requirements for themselves. So long as the Jewish people were in exile, it was possible to enjoy both dreams to the full without dissonance. However, the success of Zionism placed us in a real-life test. On the one hand, if I were to be loyal only to the concept of the complete land of Israel, in its biblical and historical borders, I may find myself under the demand to act against Jewish spiritual sensitivities and the traditional suspicion of power; on the other hand, if I were to adopt only religious spirituality and to desist from the exercise of power I would be disloyal to the thrice daily prayer for the return to the land and the rebirth of the people. I am therefore obliged to seek a compromise between Jewish values, not only between myself and another people or religion, but within me, and if I fail to do this I would be disloyal to the Jewish tradition itself.

Moreover, the peace of which the prophets (Micah, Isaiah) spoke is a peace of love and brotherhood, a peace of cosmic harmony: “They shall cast their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, and nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more”. Similarly, the wars mentioned in the Bible were aimed not only at other nations but against the embodiment of evil — “Amalek,” the seven nations of Canaan — against total ethical depravity. We must make a distinction between these concepts of peace and war and present day reality. It would be paradoxical if the harmonious biblical concept of peace were to make an enemy from every real hope for peace in our time (for instance Camp David, Oslo, the Road Map), if it were to hamper our historic efforts to reach political agreement and transform them into disloyalty to a prophetic hope. Perhaps, to the contrary, we can discern in a political settlement of this kind a partial fulfilment of the complete vision of peace. Again, it is the spiritual, cognitive position that is decisive here; we speak not of agreement with another, with the enemy, but first and foremost of the inner relationship of religious concepts within the Jewish tradition.

Third, on the textual level, it is in the nature of things that a religious tradition undergoes changes, and that these changes demand creative interpretation of the classical sources. Some sources are relegated from the center to the sidelines, and others are restored from the sidelines to the center. Some texts that lay dormant are revived in a certain generation, while other texts suffer the opposite fate and lose their vitality in another generation. The issue of how to treat our abundant, and sometimes contradictory sources, is the critical question especially with regard to war and peace.

For instance, Christianity in its early years adopted a pacifist stance in line with the Sermon on the Mount and the Church Fathers. In time, towards the end of the fourth century, Augustine developed the concept of the “just war”. Is there a connection between this development and the fact that at that time Christianity changed from being a persecuted religion to being the religion of the Roman Empire? Later still, the Church moved from the idea of “just war” to that of “holy war” (the Crusades); is there not a connection between this development and the fact that Christianity had become the dominant faith of Europe?

In opposite vein Judaism, according to scripture, commenced with “holy war” (against the Canaanites). Eventually the Sages negated the possibility of such war and left only the possibility of “defensive war”. Is there not some connection between this development and the fact that Jews had lost political independence and physical power, and were subsequently exiled from their land? Judaism never proceeded to the next stage, pacifism; however, many of the biblical texts that spoke of war were progressively given spiritual interpretations, and were understood as models of the inner war that takes place in the human soul. Can this development be detached from the historical experience of the Jewish people?

One is the way of a religion whose physical power increased; the other is the way of a religion whose physical power diminished. Are we fated to follow this path every time?. Is it not possible for us to break the mould when we become stronger or weaker? I believe it is. For instance, in the religious life of the contemporary State of Israel there are those who have revived the ancient concept of “holy war,” but there are others who, to the contrary, have developed the concept of a “forbidden war”. A similar outcome is possible for Islam; when one speaks of military “jihad” another speaks of “spiritual jihad”. The religious sources offer multiple ways of reading, and the decision lies in our hands.

The twentieth century was the most secular in human history. Not only the greatest humanitarians but also the greatest murderers, Hitler, Stalin and others, were secular (or followers of a godless “religion”). It is likely that the twenty-first century will be much more religious than its predecessor. If this is so, we should be concerned that not only the most virtuous people but also the greatest murderers will arise from within the world of religion. Therefore, the question of the human face of religion is likely to be the greatest question of the century. As we have shown, the options confront us in theological, textual, and above all in spiritual guise.


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