Towards a Jewish Pacifism

Historiography is always political. The right to write the history books, to set the narrative, to fix the canonical account is always claimed by the victors and bitterly contested by their opponents. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Jewish history. The mainstream account, emanating form the Zionist movement has achieved almost total hegemony. From its most outlandish claims, talking of Abraham having madet the first aliyah, claiming the the land was essentially barren and void between 70 CE and 1948, to more subtle and insidious propaganda, such as presenting the entirety of diaspora existence as negative and essentialising a difference between Jews and others (particularly Muslims) to imply that they will never be able to live together without separation, the mainstream account has become the dominant narrative. This dominance has been aggressively enforced, anyone who contests it is at best ignored and at worst denounced by means of the usual asssimilationist/self hating insults. It may be, as Art Nelsen recently suggested, that Zionists are so defensive because their case is so dubious.

One of the strongest idols of Zionist/mainstream Jewish opinion is of the importance of military strength, and the need for Jews to be strong and able to fight their enemies. A whole range of role models from the tradition are dragged up to support this viewpoing, usually figures like Samson, King David and the Macabees and occasions like Masada and the Bar Kochba Revolt. These, of course were not the key heroes of rabbinic thought, and most violence in biblical traditon was either explained away as being only possible at that time, or actually condemned by the rabbis, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. The Macabees were written out of the Channukah story, and a haftarah reading alloted for shabbat channukah containing the lines ‘not by might and not by power’, while the Masada martys were traditionally considered grossly irresponsible, and the story largely forgotten. Its is revealing, that when an Israeli Kibbutz wanted to call itself Masada, no-one knew how to spell it in hebrew. Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct, about Judaism and masculinity, points out that in the haggadah, the wise son was regularly depicted as a scholar and the wicked son a strongman. This is not reversed until a Palmach haggadah of 1948 illustrated the wise son as a haganah fighter. The vast majority of traditional Judaism venerated the Jacob, the stereotypical gentle, scholarly Jew, over Esau, seen as the epitome of empire an violence, a model to be avoided at all costs.

In this context the figure of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret occupies a strange position. As a radical pacifist, he is, according to the mainstream account, a total anomaly, a freak in Jewish history, the exception that proves the rule. According to the ‘counertcultural’ narrative offered above, he may be in direct continuation of a tradition whose Talmud declares ‘Better to be one of the persecured than one of the persecutors’ (Bava Kama) and ‘A man should concern himself more that he not injure others than that he not be injured’ (Tosfot to Baba Kama 23)’. Tamaret was born near Maltsh in 1869 and received a traditional orthodox education before spending two years in the Volozhin Yeshivah. He inherited the title of the Mileitchitzer Rav in 1893, where he worked for much of his life, excepting a period in Odessa. Unlike many orthodox rabbis of the time, he was not insular, and became a member of the Zionist movement. After attending the First Zionist conference however, he became disillusioned, and turned against its nationalism. Also hugely formative on Tamaret was the experience of the first world war, which convinced him that military violence was both futile and antithetical to genuine religion.

Much of Tamaret’s work remains either unpublished or untranslated. While an anthology of his writings in hebrew has been published (Torah and Pacifism, Jerusalem: The Dinur Center, 1992), the sole english translations are by Everett Gendler, both in journal in the 1960s, and more recently in Tikkun magazine and at Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center. It is his translations that are quoted below.

In ‘Passover and Non-Violence’ Tamaret deals with the difficulty in separating attack and self defence:

HOW SHALL ONE DISCERN this faith which lies within the heart? Through deeds and actions which are appropriate to such a faith. This means that both individuals and entire peoples must order their lives on the basis of the saying recorded in the Tosefot to Baba Kama 23: “A man should concern himself more that he not injure others than that he not be injured.” For when a man tries to keep watch that his fist not injure others, by that very act he enthrones in the world the God of truth and righteousness and adds power to the kingdom of justice; and it is precisely this power which will defend him against injury by others.

This does not happen, however, if a man is preoccupied with watching out only for himself and keeps his fist always poised to prevent others attacking him; for by such a pose he in fact weakens the power of justice and stirs up evil. When a man constantly portrays to himself scenes of terror, when he asserts that everyone wants to obliterate him and that he can rely only on the power of his own fist, by this he denies the kingdom of truth and justice and enthrones the power of the fist. And since the fist is by nature poor at making distinctions, in the end defense and attack become reversed: instead of defending himself by means of the fist, such a man becomes himself the assailant and destroyer of others. Hence, like begetting like, others repay him in kind, and so the earth is filled with violence and oppression.

In ‘The Congregation of Israel and the Wars of the Nations’, Tamaret links nationalism to idolatry:

The dictum of the rabbis: “Every house in which no words of torah are heard” (that is, any house not established upon the spirit of humility and the application of Torah, but rather upon the spirit of gross materialism) “is bound to be destroyed” applies not only to a private house, but also to the abodes of whole peoples and nations. The Demon-Destroyer will not be content with the petty idols of the local taverns, of limited destuctiveness, when from the base tendecies of men, he may carve a huge idol of such magnitude that its worship by all in the land will render his influence overwhelming and his strength sufficient to subdue all who kneel at its feet. The name of this monster-idol, fashioned by joining together all the private egotisms of individual citizens, is-“the honour of the fatherland”; its manner of worship-the slaughter of millions in wars for “the native land”.

In Judaism and Freedom, Tamaret discusses the mission of Israel, and argues that it cannot be a purely spiritual one:

Israel neither seeks nor will accept consolations or cures which are “political” “territorial” and so forth! We want none of these sorceror’s panaceas, medicines vain and worthless. Our sole healing is the purification of the spirit and the spreading of justice and compassion in the world. Indeed, the striving for justice and compassion is very near to us, upon our lips and in our hearts. It rests in out sacred scriptures, that glorious champion of justice and righteousness; and in crucible of the suffering of the exile, which has planted within us the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others……As for those who argue that the Jewish people has fulfilled its mission since all now admit “the Oneness of the Creator”, let them consider that “not the teaching but the deed is primary”. What value is there in that the concept of God’s unity has penetrated the minds of the nations if, sleek and satisfied, content and well fed, the divine illumination has failed to enter their hearts, which yet remain filled with opression and haughtiness…….It is for us, then to sit in our houses, trusting and confident, that ultimately our culture-the culture of “the people of the Book” of a “people driven and plucked”-will vanquish all the Edomite cultures: that cruelty will melt before compassion; that might will don garments of shame before the consecration of the kingdom of righteousness. Then happy and well shall it be for us, and happy and well for all the world”.

Elsewhere, Tamaret writes on the danger of Jews taking up arms:

Small and humble is Jacob, and his ability to influence humanity for good is indeed limited. On the other hand, his ability to corrupt and pollute the moral atmosphere of the earth, should he pervert his way, is greater than anyone elses. For it unfortunately follows logically: if this frail and tender people, whose existence has always been secured by Moral Force, at last acknowledges the sword, how shall one answer those nations who have always lived by the Sword? …

How terrible is that corruption which would result from any evil example set by Jacob, selected by God, Israel, His special treasure were he, also, at last to adopt the faith of Esau. … One may be sure that when Jacob behaves deviously or dishonorably, the example will be duly noted along with his distinction, and suddenly he will become a valued authority who serves to sanction their own misdeeds. …

He also attcks mainstream Zionism in the strongest terms:

…Travellers to Israel never entered as simple immigrants, merely desirous of a peaceful place in which to work and create a life for themselves, a place which would satisfy their romantic desire to hear echoes of the Biblical age still resounding on the mountains of Judah and which would, in due course, nourish their spirits with that revivifying air of the land of Israel.  A modest arrival of this sort would not have frightened and aroused the Arabs, and so it would have been possible gradually to establish there, in the land of our ancestors, a Hebrew settlement to the satisfaction of Jews everywhere, even though this yishuv did not dream dreams of statehood andsovereignty, nor presume to dominate Jews everywhere as teacher of all Jews in the Diaspora. It would have been possible to establish a simple Jewish settlement in the land of Israel like Jewish settlements everywhere on this earth, that the land of our forefathers not be less than lands elsewhere. Thus Jews in the land of Israel would have joined Jews everywhere in waiting for the true coming of the Messiah, that ideal moral redemption which is anticipated in Scripture and Rabbinic Teachings. …

Armed with a piece of paper, the official obtained from Balfour, and with that pride which comes from having seen the face of the king, the Zionist leaders began to proclaim loudly and openly that they had come to establish Jewish State and to become lords of the land. They further began to urge Jews to hasten from the four corners of the earth to the land of Israel, not because Jews personally needed to emigrate, but in order to achieve a Jewish majority and thereby become the dominant people, outnumbering the original Arab inhabitants of the land, who would then become a tolerated minority …

… the Zionists hid their eyes from the fact that the actual place was not a newly-discovered, unsettled island located at the far ends of the earth but was a place already inhabited by a people which was sure to feel the nationalist and sovereign political aims as a needle in its living flesh.

… Thus the result resembles the tale told by Rabba bar bar Hanna (Baba Batra 73b). A group of seafarers saw a slope which from afar resembled an island, and so they approached, left their boats, and spent several days resting on it. During this interval they wandered about, spread themselves out, and soon felt like absolute owners of the place. Finally they lit a fire with which to bake bread and roast meat, and at last discovered that, although it had appeared to their eyes as a lump of inert clay, this was not an island but rather a living whale. As soon as the fire was felt by the fish, he turned on his back, quaked, raged, and tossed them all into the sea. Had their boats not been near to rescue them, they might have drowned in the sea. The application is painfully evident.

……For whoever builds a ‘ national refuge ’ acts mistakenly, conceding thereby the Sodomite measure by which the dwellers of this planet are declared to be either owners or intruders, with the former having the privilege of disposing of the latter as they see fit. Furthermore, such a one narrows the universal image of Judaism, demeans the image of Diaspora Jews, and casts upon them shadows of despair.

Tamaret’s erudition, humanity and rhetorical skill are remarkable. His writings often sound like Gandi, Tolstoy or like the radical english christians such as the Levellers, Diggers and Quakers, yet they are firmly based in Jewish tradition. Erich Fromm understands the importance of this point, noting that while

‘many outstanding Jews in the last one hundred and fifty years, like Marx, Einstein and others, who believed in and expressed the ideas of humanism but outside of the flow of Jewish tradition……. Rabbi Tamaret’s criticism of nationalism is writ-ten in the spirit of that tradition which has God forbid the angels to sing psalms of jubilation when the Egyptians were drowned-for the Egyptians were God’s creatures’.

Of course, one figure does not make a movement, the writings of Tamaret alone will not overcome the hegemony of mainstream Jewish narratives, nor convert Jews overnight to a philosophy of non-violence. They can however, start to sow seeds of doubt in the mind of all but the most conservative Jew that Judaism has more to say about war and peace than that said by Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. They can show that pacifism and torah can sit side by side in an organic, natural fashion, without one being artificially grafted on to the other. They can, along with the writings of other figures, from Rosenzweig to Hannah Arendt to Derrida to Boyarin (no doubt also emcopassing Aher and Korach) demonstate that an alternative Jewish historiography is possible, embracing the outcasts, dreamers and humanists of Jewish history. Can there be a better tikkun than this?

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3 thoughts on “Towards a Jewish Pacifism”

  1. thank you for this article. i’m preparing to write a thesis on pacifism and torah/ orthodox Judaism for my major in college . i would like to discuss these issues with someone also familiar with the challange to find an authenically jewish voice of pacifism rather than imposing gandhi onto the torah. i started a facebook group called pacifism and torah or something like that if you are interested ( i have to admit its not very active). i have been looking at the halakhot of rodeif and martyrdom as avenues to see the possiblities for this way of being and acting.

    Daniel Shneyer

  2. Speaking of Gandhi, he wrote:

    “And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts.”

  3. I’m not Jewish, but I’m thrilled to find this blog. I deal with many so-called “Christian Zionists” who push for war in the Middle East so that Armeggedon will come. I tell them that there is an Israeli Peace Movement, and now I can prove it.
    Thanks so much.

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