Passover and Nonviolence

Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret


By Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret

Translated by Rabbi Everett E. Gendler

[Aaron Samuel Tamaret was born in 1869 in a village near Maltsh, Grodno, to poor and pious parents. His father, an inn-keeper, was a grandson of the Maltsher Rabbi, Reb Arele. While still very young Tamaret showed a marked enthusiasm for religious studies as well as for the natural surroundings of his small village. Encouraged by his father, he was soon renowned as the "Maltsher ilui (prodigy)." Completing his studies in Maltsh, he later studied at Kovno and then spent two years in the Volozhin Yeshivah, where he again excelled. Married at the age of seventeen to the daughter of the Mileitchitzer Rabbi, he assumed his father-in-law's post upon the latter's death in 1893.

[Rabbi Tamaret gained general renown in the early days of the Zionist movement by his spirited activity on its behalf. A series of articles in Ha-melitz (1899) created such an impression that the Brisker Zionists sent him as their representative to the First Zionist Congress in London. Distressed by what seemed to him excessive officiousness, egotism, and overweening nationalism, he later broke with the Zionist movement and published in 1905 a monograph, "Judaism and Freedom," in which he sharply attacked falsely understood nationalism. The monograph listed as its author Ahad Harabbanim Ha-margishim ("One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis"), the appropriate nom de plume under which this and his later works were published.

[In 1912 when Chaim Tchernovitz (Rav Tzair) was preparing to leave Odessa and seeking a successor to head the Yeshivah he had founded and directed, he turned to Rabbi Tamaret. Tamaret obliged, but the noise, bustle, and tumult of Odessa, together with its estrangement from nature, so disturbed him that, disregarding the consternation of the trustees and notwithstanding the presence in the city of Mendele, Bialik, and other luminaries, he returned to his small village, Mileitchitz. There he served the community and composed his works until his death on the eleventh of August, 1931.

[Throughout his life, Rabbi Tamaret was preoccupied with such problems as the means-end relation, intellectual versus natural evil, freedom, self-defense and nonviolence, economic justice, modern nationalism, and the focus of them all - modern war. His various writings are eloquent and impassioned treatments of these central issues, and his anticipations of Gandhian theory from a purely Jewish point of view are especially noteworthy.

[The following are excerpts from Tamaret's sermon, "Liberty," delivered on Shabbat Hagadol, 1906, and published in the volume Musar Hatorah v'Hayahadut (Vilna 1912).

[ — E. E.G.]

A. Natural as distinguished from intellectual-political evil, and the greater destructiveness of the latter, with examples.

MEN'S IMPROPER ACTS flow from two sources. Some come from the material aspect of man, his body, and some from that other aspect of man, his mind. Those deriving from the body we classify as "good" or "evil"; those deriving from the wayward intelligence we classify as "true" or "false."

The violence due to the body are those natural acts of murder which are plainly performed, with no rationalizations or justifications. In such cases anger may overcome a man because another has grabbed some desired object, or he may so strongly covet his neighbor's possessions that he at last assaults him bodily. The prototype of such murders is the episode involving natural primordial man, Cain and Abel, where "it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him" (Genesis 4:8). Such occurrences still take place occasionally, as when bandits ambush travelers in the forests, kill them, and take their possessions. All such murders are simple ones and do not claim any justification.

But these acts of violence flowing from the perverted intellect do claim justification and are accompanied by excuses. Examples of such are century-old persecution of Jews by non-Jews because they refused to accept the Cross, or the persecutions within the Jewish community by fanatics claiming to act in the name of true piety.

THESE TWO KINDS OF EVIL are not to be confused, for they differ basically. The plain acts of violence stemming from the body alone, without intellectual justifications, are deeply planted in the nature of man; for man does, after all, covet that which is not his, and he does become angry with those who refuse to perform his will. But those acts of violence abetted by the intelligence, that is, by deception and deceit, do not have their roots in the nature of man. For by nature the spirit of man aspires toward truth and honesty, and falsehood and deception are artificial and unnatural creations. In the words of Ecclesiastes (7:29): "Behold, this only have I found, that God made man upright; but they have sought out many contrivances."

But the difference is greater still in other respects. The violence wrought by the lying mind is both more constant, more widespread, and more destructive than that due to the natural instincts of man. For the instincts of the body, precisely because they are natural, do not attempt to deny the good and the just, which are also part of the natural man; and this holds not only for bystanders but for the murderer as well.

Even when overcome by passion, the murderer still recognizes that he perpetrates evil, and during the act itself he must fight against the insistent voice of justice which clamors within. Furthermore, after the deed is done, that same inner voice gives the murderer no rest, as all acquainted with matters of the soul will agree. Natural acts of violence, then, result from a person having failed to develop his powers of restraint to the same degree that he has nurtured his passions; consequently, at the bitter moment when the beast rages within he is unable to control it.

But despite such momentary triumphs, the natural passions cannot vanquish or silence the voice of conscience even in the murderer himself, and still less are they able to silence the strictures of others. The murderer may have been overcome by a momentary, uncontrollable agitation, but nothing about such acts persuades others to abandon their own proper values. Hence natural murderers seek forests and the darkness of night for the perpetration of their acts, for in cities and in public view such acts would naturally be restrained by others.

SUCH IS NOT THE CASE, however, with that unnatural evil which is justified by the intellect and supported by the deceptions of the mind, for falsehood is insubstantial, perishing, and cannot stand before the face of truth. Falsehood and truth cannot reign beside one another, for truth is not false. Therefore, if you see falsehood making its appearance on the public podium, you may be sure that truth has been set on its head, if not utterly crushed.

When falsehood bursts forth from its hiding place to perform its devilish work, it walks upright in the streets of the city and struts about without meeting any opposition from people around. Unlike the natural killer, who met resistance from his surroundings and from the good within himself, this fraudulent killer meets no opposition from others. In fact, by virtue of his swindling deceptions he actually enjoys the support of the less discriminating; for though he may himself be aware of the nature of his deeds, others are taken in by his falsifications.

In a word, this fraudulent evil, this evil justified by the mind — political evil — has become the greatest destroyer on the face of the earth. It is the source of the worst catastrophes which have befallen men since the beginning of the "improvement" of the intellect. For what have we seen? A steady diminution of private, natural crimes of individual violence, but an enormous increase in fraudulent murders: for hypocrisy has united whole nations and entire societies in the pursuit of weaker ones.

This is the secret of all the wars, conscriptions and organized slaughters which have occurred in the world at large and against Jews in particular, and this it is which permits entire nations to band together publicly in organized assaults upon the weaker nations. That whole populations are summoned to perform vile deeds openly and without shame requires the help of lying opinions which provide all manner of permissions and justifications for the murders: "The Jews are thus and such, and so they should be killed!"

And at the hour when deceit runs riot and takes as its task wanton destruction, the victims far exceed those of any natural violence, whose effects, after all, are by its very nature limited. But this fraud, masquerading in the name and with the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, Creator of the Universe, is utterly appalling in its destructiveness: one convulsion, and immediately the earth is covered with corpses.

IT WAS IN ORDER TO CLEAR away these two corruptions — the natural-material and the unnatural ones resulting from misrepresentations of the intellect — that the Holy One, blessed be He, manifested Himself in the world through the giving of the Torah, preceded by the exile to and redemption from Egypt. The Torah itself is valuable medicine for natural wrongs resulting from the body: its love of the holy brings about man's cleaving to the Lord, while its specific prescriptions (separating man from improper relations and forbidden foods) serve to purify and refine man's emotions, thereby strengthening his worthy impulses which check the beast within him. Thus the Rabbinic dictum: "I have created the evil impulse" — that is, the material evil — "and I have created the Torah as its condiment" — as that which will sweeten and refine natural rebelliousness.

However, despite the therapeutic value of the Torah for natural transgressions, we still have no assurance that the unnatural evil of man's falsifying intellect will not snatch the Torah first, toss it into its valise, and make of it another weapon for destruction and murder. For this is the standard method of the evil-minded murderer: to take the fruits of enlightenment and intelligence, intended to enhance life on this earth, and turn them into their opposites, tools for the angel of death.

Consider, for example, the railroad, invented for the purpose of transporting the bounty of the earth from one area to another, distributing the blessings of nature to all the inhabitants of the earth, and in years of famine rescuing from death those in any particular district threatened by starvation. But now look! The impudent diplomat-destroyers from the school of Bismarck boldly commandeer the locomotives, and without the least regard for the sanctity of science, proceed to fill the freight cars with soldiers, shipping them off like cattle to front lines where they are to kill and be killed. Without a twinge of conscience they turn the blessing, "Who has graciously bestowed knowledge upon man," into a frightful curse.

Or consider the invention of the electric light, intended to illuminate night's darkness, that men might not stumble into pits or snares. And now, in times of war, men turn searchlights upon enemy camps so that they can aim more accurately the muzzles of their cannons!

How then can there be any certainty that this same fate would not befall the light of Torah? What assurance that impostors, wolfish eyes ablaze upon hearing that the Torah had been given to Israel, would not immediately pounce upon it — not so that they themselves might understand and fulfill its teachings but rather that they might persecute others, invoking His name to justify their fiery denunciations of anyone they might catch with an improper fringe on the corner of his prayershawl!

TO PREVENT SUCH ABUSES the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah only after the exile and redemption from servitude to Pharaoh in Egypt. For servitude, the condition of one having dominion over the person of another, falls under the second category of evil, that evil which pretends to some justification. Unlike the man in the forest who ambushes another out of anger or lust, acting from natural passion and invoking no sophistries, the "master" always makes claims: that the slave together with his possessions was legally acquired just like any other object; that the land upon which the slave walks is the master's property, and likewise the feet with which the slave walks; that the air the slave breathes is the master's, and similarly his nostrils; that his sitting, his standing, his lying down, his going about, in short, his every activity, are not really his but his master's.

Such claims can be maintained only by deceit, dishonesty and intellectual fraud, all invented by the masters to legitimate their claims to sovereignty over the bodies of their slaves: perhaps the slaves are of a different faith, then the masters have permission from their own God to trample the former; or first making sure that their slaves are kept in darkness and ignorance, the masters afterwards point to this lowly state as their excuse for bridling and treating the slaves like beasts.

THIS INTELLECTUALLY ABETTED EVIL, its slippery justification at its side, had its inception in Egypt. Consequently, when the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted some "introduction" to the giving of Torah which would make plain its purpose — the removal of evil from the face of the earth — He chose the judgment upon Egypt rather than one of His earlier acts of judgment, for the earlier punishments of Sodom and the generation of the Flood were for natural, corporeal evils only.

Not until Egypt, the most advanced of ancient civilizations, do we have a clear instance of intellectual cunning operating to justify wickedness. The phrase, "Come, let us deal wisely with them," is the clue. Here, at the very beginning of the exile, the Egyptians started their clever dealings with a variety of lies — pretending that they were threatened by the Israelites and that they feared lest the Israelites join forces with their foes to banish them from their own land in time of war — and this they continued until the end of the exile, blackening the reputations of the Israelites even as they bent their bodies to the ground, and all the while with their "reasons" — Pharaoh became God and so had absolute justification to trample men mercilessly, for who, after all, can challenge God?

Therefore, when the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to guard the Torah against impostors greedily seizing it to justify and excuse their persecuting, injuring and inflicting indignities upon other men, He chose to introduce it with His own severe retributions upon Egypt; for the vision of the plagues visited upon those fraudulent evil-doers is the most powerful expression of the absolute rejection by God of that most vile falsehood, the domination of one man by another. The plagues of blood, fire, and columns of smoke proclaimed to all the inhabitants of the earth that the Torah was to be personally hearkened to, heeded, and obeyed, not misused for vile purposes of domination.

All this is alluded to in the first of the Ten Sayings uttered by the Holy One, blessed be He, at Mount Sinai: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" — not out of the Egypt of simple, natural killers, but rather out of the Egypt of lying impostors who convinced themselves that they had the right to enslave the children of Israel (hinted at by the phrase, "house of bondage," implying a "right" established by three year's consecutive duration, as in the case of a house or other immovable property).

As if to say: You see, Israel, how I despise fraudulent evil, that evil which falsely tries to justify itself; know then, Israel, and take upon yourselves the striving after truth all your days. For this reason I warn you: "Do not make for yourselves any graven image or likeness. . ." — do not change your religion for that religion of the Cross whose Spanish priests forcibly burned innocent souls at their hellish pyres. "Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" — never perjure the name of the Lord your God by behaving within your own ranks as did the inquisitors in Spain, forcing your fellow by blood and fire to be responsible for commandments against his will; but instead let each man personally accept upon himself the Torah, observing it in truth, simplicity, and with a willing heart, and this of itself will awaken in others the desire to adopt its pleasing ways. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." "Honor your father and your mother," etc. In all cases, study the Torah in order to understand and fulfill it personally, not in order to twist, distort, and make of it a permit to carry a rifle!

B. Some dynamics of the non-violent means for defending values.

WE SHALL NOW EXPLAIN the ways in which, using the means provided by the promise ehyeh asher ehyeh, "I will become what I will become," the Jews today can achieve freedom from their oppressors.

THE PRESCRIPTION is a simple one. The children of Israel must fulfill the commandment "that ye remember the day of your departure from Egypt all the days of your life." That is, the Jews must remember always that their God is the God of truth and justice who shattered the yokes of their oppressors. They must plant deep in their hearts absolute faith in the power of truth and justice finally to triumph; and they must completely reject falsehood and evil as insubstantial and evanescent. This idea, when firmly rooted in their hearts, will itself serve to defend them from all violent and lying persecutors; for if the children of Israel will not esteem falsehood within themselves, falsehood can have no power over them.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, stated at the time of Creation, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness," He thereby placed in man's hands the power to create worlds as He had done. And if it be true, as our Sages affirm, that man affects even the higher spheres, then how much more must he affect this very earth itself. Certainly his own situation is shaped by his own hand. The effect of society upon him is but the harvest of those deeds previously sown by him in this world.

Good actions sem. Evil actions poison the atmosphere, and a man's evil acts pollute the air until finally he himself breathes the poisonous vapors, and such poisons flow from all the actions of a man, whether physical or mental. Were the eye able to perceive it, we should see that when a man raises his fist against another man, the air surrounding him is filled with waving fists; that when a man raises a foot to kick another man, the air registers feet raised high and aimed at him; that when a man casts a designing eye upon another man, the atmosphere reveals designing eyes aimed at him; and that when a man stands inert as clay while another's blood is shed, the air surrounding him is filled with congealed lumps awaiting the hour when his own blood will be shed.

The same holds in cases where one man dominates another to the latter's hurt. Such fraudulent domination could not persist for any length of time unless the subjugated themselves respected the lies of their masters. By what power does Hetman the Tartar control his Cossacks even though he treats them as abominably as his horses, housing them together in stables? Because they themselves behave like beasts and, when given the chance, prance upon people as do their horses. By what power was Germany able to send thousands of her sons to the slaughter? Because of the clod-like insensitivity of the rest of the nation, which coldly stood by and in fact even sang and cheered the plague of war with patriotic hymns and prayers; and also because the sacrificed themselves felt only the pain and not the fraud and injustice inflicted upon them.

Please notice also that the Torah itself, holy and priceless in its wisdom, suggests that Egyptians could never have succeeded in dominating and oppressing the Jews had not the Jews themselves deteriorated morally. Constantly seeing the violence and cruelty of their Egyptian masters, they themselves began to esteem the power of the fist and to grant it the right and privilege of persecuting and crushing their own oppressed.

C. The inappropriateness of violence (by nature not discriminating) in defending religious or moral values.

THE REDEMPTION from Egypt, with all the majesty and awe of the plagues which the Lord inflicted upon the tyrants, is a clear revelation to everyone of how completely the Holy One, blessed be He, loathed the deeds of the tyrants and falsifiers. With this divine paradigm everlastingly established before the Children of Israel — this example to which they might look and direct their ways accordingly — they would have at hand the means to defend themselves against persecution in the lands of their exile, means which would also, in the course of time, succeed in removing entirely from the face of the earth the lie of "one man's dominating another to the latter's hurt."

For actually the power, majesty, and awe which the Holy One, blessed be He, displayed at that time when He intervened on behalf of the persecuted, derived from the higher power of truth and justice. But since at that time the oppressed had been corrupted morally and were dominated by the values of their Egyptian oppressors, the higher power of truth and justice could only burst forth in blood and flame. However, the divine power itself could and had to be appropriated and treasured by the Children of Israel deep within themselves, for by its means other fraudulent tyrants could be terrified, toppled, and prevented from dominating them.

What is the nature of this treasure? Its nature is a strong faith in God, in the God of truth and justice.

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.

This message was conveyed by the Holy One, blessed be He, in connection with the last of the plagues upon Egypt, when He himself executed the judgment of death directly by His own power: " 'For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night,' I and not an intermediary." Now obviously the Holy One. blessed be He, could have given the Children of Israel the power to avenge themselves upon the Egyptians. but He did not want to sanction the use of their fists for self-defense even at that time; for, while at that moment they might merely have defended themselves against evil-doers, by such means the way of the fist spreads through the world, and in the end defenders become aggressors.

Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, took great pains to remove Israel completely from any participation in the vengeance upon the evil-doers, to such an extent that they were not permitted even to see the events. For that reason midnight, the darkest hour, was designated as the time for the deeds of vengeance, and the Children of Israel were warned not to step outside their houses at that hour-all this in order to remove them totally and completely from even the slightest participation in the deeds of destruction, extending even to watching them.

WITH THIS WE CAN NOW explain the words of the Braita (Baba Kama 60a): " . . . 'and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning' (Exodus 12:22) — Rabbi Joseph explained: Once He has permitted the destroyer to act, distinctions fall by the way." At first glance this appears to contradict the assertion of the Midrash, "I and not an intermediary." How then can the Braita say, "since He has given permission to the destroyer"? But by our explanation there is no contradiction in the words of the Braita, for their purpose is to explain why the Holy One, blessed be He, saw fit to execute vengeance by His glory and might rather than with the participation of the Children of Israel.

And the answer: in order not to give permission to the destroyer within them, for once having permission there will be no distinguishing between righteous and wicked, and from "defender" one becomes in the end "aggressor." The language itself is very precise both in Exodus and in the Braita. " . . . and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning" — "that there not be in your midst the plague of the destroyer." Which means: your abstention from any participation in the vengeance upon Egypt will prevent the plague of vengeance from stirring the power of the destroyer which is in you yourselves.

The Children of Israel, then, must derive this lesson from the events of that Passover eve: not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the God of truth and justice, for this will serve to defend them everywhere against those who would dominate by the power of the fist.



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