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Jewish Teachings on Reconciliation and Peace

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This week Jews around the world will read the weekly portion from the Book of Exodus in which we find the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), one of the most troubling portions in the Bible, in which God is referred to as a man of war. This raises the question of whether the God of the Bible -- and the God of the Jewish Tradition -- is a God of War or a God of Peace! Or can this God be both?

There is no question that the Bible is replete with wars and conquest. It is part of our history. We can't deny it. Joshua conquered the land from the local inhabitants, and the kings of Israel fought many a war.

But is this theology the essence of Judaism? Or can we uncover a theology of peace and reconciliation as more central to Jewish faith and yearning.

Well, one rabbi has uncovered it!

I recently received a new book called Torah of Reconciliation by Rabbi Sheldon Lewis (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2012). In this book, Rabbi Lewis' introduction on Peacemaking in Jewish Tradition is the best article that I have ever read on the subject. It is thorough, well-documented and convincing. I would say that it is a "must read" for anyone who wants to know how deeply the search for peace and reconciliation is central in Judaism.

Rabbi Lewis argues persuasively that "there are more expressions lauding the virtues of peace than of any other single value" (p.2). Indeed, he claims that "when one turns the pages of Jewish sources, the quest for peace and the praise of peace appear to be an obsession" (p.1). It is certainly an obsession for him! And for me! And I only wish it were more of an obsession for more rabbis, Jewish educators, and Jewish leaders In Israel,; to my sorrow, very few rabbis in our country speak up for peace these days. Perhaps there are more in North America. I'm not sure any more, but I still hope so.

For Rabbi Lewis, peace is one of the central tenets of Judaism, certainly of his understanding of Judaism. It is linked inextricably to justice and it could become a central component of our Jewish way of life, if we not only preach peace but pursue and teach it, and live it in our human behavior through moral interpersonal relations.

Lewis emphatically believes that pursuing peace leads us to the values and methods of reconciliation in our personal, communal and national lives. It is not just an abstract concept, but a guide for living.

Beyond the major introductory chapter, this book takes each Torah portion of the week and mines it -- as well as classical and modern commentaries -- for inspirational sources that can guide us to seek out peaceful living. It is a wonderful book to take to synagogue every week (as I do now) or to read on Shabbat afternoon.

Rabbi Lewis brings to us wonderful, meaningful, and inspiring commentaries, which can often turn difficult passages on their heads, by creative interpretations which are always well-grounded in classical commentaries as well as new ones. For example, he brings an enlightening explanation of the problematic verse that "God is a man of war," the verse that we confront this week in our Torah text:

God is a man of war. Rashi interprets: This means a master of war. According to Rabbi Raphael Gold, this means that God has mastery over war. He rules over it and stands above the cruel manifestation of war. Even at a time of war, He is a master of mercy since God is His Name.

Therefore, even if war is sometimes necessary, as in a just war for self-defense, one must approach it with care and mercy. Killing of innocent civilians should clearly not be allowed.

In another famous rabbinic commentary, which is often mentioned this week with reference to the miraculous exodus story in which the Jewish people are saved by parting of the Sea of Reeds, they are criticized for singing a song of triumphal victory: "The work of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing a song!?" (Talmud, Megilla 10b)

We are taught never to rejoice when other human beings are killed. This is a vitally important Jewish value.

Rabbi Lewis ends his introductory chapter on Peacemaking in the Jewish Tradition with a powerful statement that responds to my initial question of whether our God is a God of war:

Nowhere (in the Jewish Tradition) does one find militant, angry, warlike or violent images of God held up as worthy of emulation. The sages carefully filtered divine actions on their way to a more compassionate understanding of God, and that evolving belief shaped what they asked of the Jewish people. The softer, gracious image of God became the model to which to aspire.

I suppose that one of the reasons that I found Rabbi Lewis's new book so important is that it provides the Jewish textual foundation for so much of my own work in peace-building through interreligious dialogue and education in Israel during the past 22 years.

In addition, the idea that traditional Jewish sources actually call for peace and reconciliation--and not just for conquest, occupation and settlement--is unfortunately virtually unknown in Israeli society, especially in establishment circles here. I wish that every rabbi in Israel would come to understand how central these values are in Judaism. They might even begin to preach and teach peace to their congregants and to the Israeli public at large! Wouldn't this be a refreshing change! And maybe even some of our politicians--especially some of those on the so-called "religious right"-- might learn some new ideas, which would influence Israel's search for peace with our neighbors!

I look forward to hosting Rabbi Lewis to share his important insights about the Torah of Reconciliation when he will be in Jerusalem next month.