The Meanings of Shalom in Prophetic & Rabbinic Thought and in Action Today

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

[Rabbi Liebling is a member of the Board of The Shalom Center. He is a former director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and former vice-president of the Jewish Funds for Justice. He teaches at the Reconstructionist rabbinical College. He gave these talks at a gathering of mostly Protestant clergy and laity in retreat at Lake Junalaska, NC, in September 2009.]

Shalom Aleichem, salaam aleikum, - Peace be unto you. – It is an honor and pleasure to be here.

Let me say the traditional Jewish blessing for arriving at a special moment in time….

It is a tradition to dedicate a teaching. I would like to dedicate this teaching to the healing of my teacher and friend Arthur Waskow who couldn’t be here today.

Allow me to set for you the Jewish context of where we are in time. Saturday and Sunday were the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah- the beginning of the year and the celebration of the creation of the world. Today is the third day of the Ten Days of Repentance which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these Ten Days we are enjoined to ask forgiveness from anyone that we may have hurt in any way during the year. It is a time for reflecting on the previous year, taking full responsibilities for our actions, and resolving to change our behavior where need be, in other words --- repentance, changing one's ways. A good prescription for embarking on a path of peace.

There is a story about changing one’s ways that I am reminded of:

Tell God’s partner story

To be God’s partner means to transform one’s anger, upset, thoughts of ill will into blessings , vehicles for bringing peace into the world.

We are here together at this conference to become better peacemakers- we are not here just for intellectual edification, or just to meet interesting people; we are here with a purpose of learning more about creating peace, we are here with an intention, we have a purpose. How many of you came here with the intent of bringing what you learn out into the world?.. Good, I thought so. Let’s proceed.

This morning I will talk about how the prophetic understanding of achieving peace differs from the rabbinic understanding of the phrase “m’pnai darkhei shalom- for the sake of peace”. You will have a chance to study some rabbinic texts. I’ll talk about the implications for action that arise from the rabbinic teachings and we will explore some of the inherent tensions.

We will see that our individual obligation to pursue peace is rooted in our particular circumstances and that our actions require a universal context.

When most of us think about Jewish texts or teachings about Peace our first thoughts would be to turn to the prophets: Isaiah -- "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares; their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”- how many times have we sung that? Or Micah teaching us to sit under our vine and fig tree each unafraid. At that time these were radical, revolutionary statements and they are still inspirational. When they were first uttered the prevailing belief was that war was part of the very fabric of the universe- the great myths were of Gods warring with each other, war was accepted as a fundamental fact of life. To assert that human beings could and would all live in peace was a grand new vision. These are visionary teachings about what the Kingdom of God would look like, about what God would bring about.

You have a sheet with some rabbinic teachings about peace- which I’d like you to look at now. We will learn in the traditional Jewish style. Each person turn to a neighbor so that you are in pairs, or Hevruta --- study friends. The traditional way is for one person to read the text aloud to the partner and then for the two of them to discuss it-, asking questions to probe its varied possible meanings.

The first two are from the rabbinic era about 2000 years ago, the third from the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher and authority on the law, Moses Maimonides, known as the Rambam. The final one is for you to read at your own leisure. Read one, ask questions of each other, discuss, and then go on to the next one. Two things I’d like you to think about are: How do these compare with the statements of Isaiah and Micah about peace? And how would you apply theses teachings to your life? You will have about 10 minutes.

A word of background: Rabbinic Judaism begins in the first century before the common era and extends to about the fourth century of the common era. Jesus was a rabbi during that time.

Rabbinic Judaism is what allowed Judaism to survive the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century and continue in the following two millennia all the while Jews were a minority people. The Talmud is the foundational document and there are many books of commentary on the Bible.

The teachings of Isaiah and Micah are grand, epic. The rabbinic teachings are on a human scale; their ways of peace --- m’pnai darkhei shalom -- are what everyday people, in other words- you and I, can do.

The teachings of the rabbis are about individual attitudes, they are positive obligations. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the current chief rabbi of England, points out the striking contrast between the rabbis and the prophets.

Rabbi Sacks adumbrates the shadow side of the prophetic teachings. They all take place at the end of days- when everyone shares the same faith- when everyone believes the same things- worships in the same way, there will be peace.

Historically this path has led to war, Holy Wars. Each of our Abrahamic faiths has engaged at some time in history in wars of conquest or holy wars. Each faith has its shadow side. The prophets talk about peace outside of history --- at the end of time. It is a peace that eradicated differences --- the lion will lie down with the lamb. When humans try to eradicate differences and want everyone to worship the same way it results in war. The paradox of the prophetic ideal is that it can lead to war. Any peace that is predicated on the conversion of the world to one set of beliefs is bound to fail and even worse, the pursuit of this peace, the attempt to impose homogeneity, to destroy diversity leads to war.

. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin --- a Jew whose family fled Europe because of anti-Semitism, went on to become a distinguished professor at Oxford. He was seen by many as the most important liberal political philosopher of the 20th century. He saw that the prophetic desire to impose a single vision on the world or even on one country goes against human nature and destroys freedom. He learned from history and from his own lived experience. Berlin’s approach to peace is a liberalism defined as a search “for terms of peace amongst different ways of life”.. a project of coexistence than can be pursued in many regimes.

This is a more sophisticated formulation of the rabbinic principle of m’pnai darkhei shalom -for the sake of the paths of peace, learning to live with others who hold beliefs radically different from our own.

The rabbis knew they were not prophets. Moreover, they had suffered at the hands of the Romans, knew defeat, and saw that war was not an option for them. They were living in a world of difference and conflict. To quote Rabbi Sacks, “The prophets articulated utopian peace; the sages, a non-utopian program for peace in the here and now. This is what is fundamental and original in the idea of the ways of peace.”

Jews were a minority when these laws were first formulated, Christianity if it existed yet was a sect of Judaism and of course Islam did not yet exist. This was a pre-monotheistic world and these rabbinic formulations are radically inclusive, they include idolators whose beliefs were in direct opposition to Judaism.

I want to take a minute to explore some possible antecedents of these rabbinic teachings. A precursor to these ideas can be found in the prophet Jeremiah, who lived 2600 years ago. He preached to the Jews in exile in Babylon,

“Build houses and settle down, plant vineyards and gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and children. Seek the peace of the city to which you have been exiled.” Jeremiah 29: 5-7. He taught them to both maintain their identity and contribute to the welfare of the whole society.

The principle “for the sake of the ways of peace” m’pnai darkhei shalom- reflects the moral sensitivity of the most oft repeated commandment in the Torah- the first five books of the Bible. It is “to not oppress the stranger because you were a slave in Egypt” it is repeated 36 times- a significant number in Judaism that means twice life. For example Exodus 23”9 - Israel is commanded not to oppress the stranger “because you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.”

Each year on Passover we are commanded to remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt- to remember suffering and oppression. They taught that the lesson to take from our own being oppressed is to not oppress the other- to not do to someone else what we didn’t like being done to us. This is one entryway on the path of peace.

As we have studied this morning, the rabbis taught that we need to care for the immediate needs of the other, act when the other is hungry, sick or in mourning. These are direct things that one can do for another, actions that create face to face human relations. Notice the human contact, it is not giving money to their poor houses. Visit the sick, it is through human contact, being with the other that we lay the foundations of peace.

One example of this now- is a group called the Bereaved Families Forum- Members are Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones in the conflict. They have held numerous dialogs and taken joint action for peace, and continue to do so, even in the midst of the turmoil now gripping Israel and Palestine.

In the Bible shalom --- peace -- is most commonly used to refer to a state of well being, tranquility, prosperity and security. It is seen as a state of harmony in all levels of life --- physical, spiritual, emotional, political. It is sign of God’s grace.

In rabbinic texts shalom is used more as a value, an ethical category. It means to act with integrity at all times, it overcomes strife, disagreements, social tensions, it prevents hatred and war. It is something that we work for- The key phrase is our obligation to pursue peace- to be a rodef shalom - a pursuer of peace. The phrase is from the book of Psalms 34:15. The rabbis turn this phrase into an obligation of the individual, and it is the goal of various social behaviors and structures. They create the teachings about acting for the sake of peace –m’pnai darkhei shalom to help us become rodfei shalom- pursuers of peace. To be clear the majority of rabbinic texts are about internal communal life and family and only a minority about external relations.

The significant difference between the biblical and rabbinic understandings- is that Biblically it is God’s grace that brings shalom- and for the rabbis we have to pursue peace. In rabbinic Judaism peace is the meta value. One commentary states, “The very aim of Creation is that there should be Peace among the created beings.” The rabbis frequently taught that peace was the value above all other values as in this statement, “All that is written is for the sake of peace.” Shalom is the name of the Holy One, the name of Israel and the name of the Messiah.”

Peace was understood to be unique among the commandments. To quote the rabbis “Great is peace, for in all of the commandments it is written "If you see, If you meet, if there is a chance," -- that is If the occasion for the commandment should arise, you must do it, and if it does not arise you need not do it. In relation to peace, however, it is written, seek peace and pursue it- seek it in your own place and pursue it even to another place as well.- from Levitus Rabbah 9:9 a commentary on the book of Leviticus.

The pursuit of peace is the purpose of our existence. Even truth could be sacrificed for peace, they taught “All falsehood is forbidden, but it is permissible to utter a falsehood for the purpose of making peace between a man and his fellow.”

And yet, there is tension between peace and other values, particularly the value of justice- the only other value that is associated in the bible with the verb pursue. The most commonly quoted verse regarding justice is ‘tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” justice, justice, you must pursue (deut 16:20 ).” The verb root that is composed of the three Hebrew letters Raish Dalet Fay--RDF meaning pursue is the same as in the biblical phrase “bakesh shalom ve-rodfehu”- seek peace and pursue it. Peace and justice are not passive we must pursue them. And Are they always compatible? No, We know that there can be tension between them.

In the Talmud Rabbi Joshua ben Korha taught, “Where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no strict justice.” He consequently instructed the judge to act as an arbiter that is to rule for compromise which is justice tempered with peace.

Other rabbis tried to reconcile these competing values differently, the Talmud also says “By three things the world is preserved --- by justice, by truth and by peace and these three are one: if justice has been accomplished, so has truth and so has peace.” There is an ongoing tension in rabbinic literature between justice and peace. We are commanded both to pursue justice in a just fashion and to seek peace and pursue it.

It is important to remember that for over 2000 years Jews were in a minority, and did not have political sovereignty --- so that the ideas about peace between nations were theoretical. The ideas are played out on an individual and communal level.

There are said to be three general categories of theories to bring peace:

One through reforming individual consciousness-. One thinks of Gandhi: peace begins with me, then going into action.

The second: peace brought about through the international world order --- a single universal framework, a world government or court.

The Third= Peace brought about through the reform of the social order, bringing about justice in each society.

In the Bible, the first two are clearly brought about through divine grace or the coming of the messiah. The international world order of the prophets is all the world looking to Zion and the messiah as the ultimate judge. The third one -- - justice through the social order --- is brought about through following God’s commandments- particularly the most radical- the Jubilee year, requiring the complete redistribution of all wealth every fifty years- an act that we have no evidence was ever fulfilled.

On the other hand Rabbinic Judaism wanted to bring about peace in this world and shifted the emphasis to actions that we can take. Remember, the fundamental teaching of rabbinic Judaism is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’

Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina is quoted in the Talmud teaching, “ The verse says , “You shall follow Adonai your God (Deut 13:5) he comments Is it possible for humans to follow God? means that people must imitate the divine attribute of the Holy One. Even as God clothes the naked, so shall you do likewise, even as God visits the sick, so shall you, even as God comforts mourners so shall you.” Notice how it follows what we studied earlier addressing poverty, illness and death..

They, too, taught that peace begins with us, as it says in a commentary on Genesis, “Yet peace, of universal significance, must originate in a person’s heart. In conquering the evil urge, a person creates peace in this world and in the world to come.” A central theme in rabbinic literature is the internal battle each person wages between one’s good and evil impulses.

There is another constant tension throughout Jewish literature and history, the tension between the universal and the particular. The particular being narrowly focusing on the well being and needs of one’s self or one’s people, the universal focusing one’s concern on the well being of all peoples.

This coming Monday afternoon, in synagogues throughout the world Jews will be reading the Book of Jonah, the traditional Yom Kippur afternoon Biblical reading .

A quick synopsis: Jonah is sent by God to deliver a call to repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Not surprisingly Jonah flees. What does he have to do with these strangers? Besides which, Nineveh was part of Assyria, Israel’s enemies, the very people who would later attack, conquer, and send to oblivion the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the lost Ten Tribes. From Jonah’s point of view, either they would respond to his call or they would not. If they did, they would be saved, and thus free to commit evil some other time. If they did not, Jonah would merely be the harbinger of bad news, and would doubtless be blamed if it transpired. There seemed to be no logic, no happy outcome, to his mission.

In a famous scene, God brings a storm that threatens the ship on which he is fleeing, and sends him back. Jonah proclaims his message- In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” - the people repent and disaster is averted. In his mind, Jonah has been made to look like a fool (he said the town would be destroyed and it was not) and he prays to die. God in the following scene involving a vine that grows overnight and gives Jonah shade, delivers a lesson

And the text has God saying to Jonah “ You are concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight, but Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:10-11)

The people of Nineveh are as much part of divine creation as anyone. This is an example of universality in the bible, we are well familiar with many examples of the particularity of Israel, for example in the conquest of Canaan. The Bible reflects the ongoing human tension between particularity and universalism- two essential aspects of human identity. This tension has grown throughout human history. Now- after the iconic photo of the earth from space- we are all more acutely aware of being citizens of the earth as well as of our own countries and this tension has reached a greater level of importance.

We are humans sharing basic human traits with all others and we have our own particular ways of being human. We each live a particular existence- and the paradox is that our particularity is our universality- the fact that we all share this HUMANITY in common.

We each can only speak from own particular place in time and space. Now in the year of 2009 living in the Unites States, I am a Jew, I am an American, I am a citizen of Planet Earth, I am a human being, the outcome of 15 billion years of evolution. My tradition teaches me that I have a responsibility to understand what it means to seek peace and pursue it, wherever it needs pursuing. I need to understand my particular existence in the widest, most universal framework. My particularity only has meaning within that framework. Each one of us needs to discover what our responsibilities for peace making are. What are Yours….?

I believe that as a Jew I have a responsibility to seek peace between Israel and Palestine;

As an American to seek peace in Iraq and Afghanistan;

As a citizen of the Planet to seek peace throughout the world;

As a human being to end the violence we are doing to the Earth and seek peace with the ecological system that sustains the life of all creatures and to promote peace in every interaction I have, in all of my roles, such as i, parent, partner and community member.

The eco-system that sustains our lives is in crisis, it is in great danger of being permanently altered. The rabbis taught in a commentary on Genesis that God said to Adam I have given you this earth to take care OF , if you despoil it there will be no one left.

I believe that now it is our common situation as dwellers within the same eco-system- as members in the same endangered web of life- that has the possibility of bringing us together. One of the most hopeful projects between Israelis and Palestinians is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev desert in Israel, it is a regional center for environmental leadership. By encouraging environmental cooperation between peoples, the Arava Institute is working towards peace and sustainable development on a regional and global scale.. With a student body comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis, it works to prepare future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges and generate capacity building for conciliation and cooperation in the Middle East, in order to transcend political boundaries and achieve environmental change.

One of the essential principles of conflict resolution, or peace making is to raise the issues to a higher level – a level where there are common interests, a level that requires cooperation for there to be a solution that benefits everyone.

We are in a historical moment that some are calling the Great Turning- a time of civilizational change as great as the agricultural or industrial revolutions. The environmental, economic and technological changes we are facing could lead to a period of chaos and great suffering or to an era of greater peace and cooperation. To seek peace at this time is to work together for collective solutions to the global dangers. The Shalom Center is working to organize the Jewish community to participate in the worldwide demonstrations to bring the amount of Carbon in the atmosphere below 350 ppm. on the weekend of October 23-25, it is the Sabbath that we read about Noah.

Another aspect of the universality of rabbinic teaching is calling on us to recognize the sacredness and equal worth of each person. The first reading that we studied this morning, we read , “For this reason, the first human being was created alone to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as though she had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever saves a single life is as if she had saved an entire universe. Furthermore [the first human being was created alone] for the sake of peace among peoples, so that no one could say to another, “My ancestor was greater than yours.” And when the Holy One, blessed be God, fashioned every human being in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them resembles another. For this reason, every human being is obligated to say, “For my sake, the world was created.” Notice all is for the sake of peace.

What a great illustration of the equal truths of particularism and universalism- particularism- for my sake the world was created; universalism- whoever saves a single life it is as if he saved an entire universe.”

Biblical and rabbinic Judaism recognize the holiness of each person, of each aspect of creation, peace with humans and with the earth is based on valuing, respecting and being humble before each manifestation of creation. Part of seeking peace is actively showing honor to all beings. War is almost always preceded by objectification, dehumanization, or demonization of the enemy. Those who want to make war and lead soldiers, or militia or mobs to kill others know that they have to dehumanize the enemy first- they need to be made different, somehow less human. Every time we stand up against the negation of the humanity of any one, and we stand for his or her equal worth, the holiness, of each person we are seeking peace- wholeness. The destruction of the earth is made possible by turning it into an object, a storehouse of resources rather than a living system that we live within. Every time we stand up for the health and well being of our eco-system that sustains life we are pursuing peace.

Seeking peace is part of every moment of our lives, I had a teacher, some of the ministers here may have studied with him Pete Steinke, who said that every person is like an electrical transformer, we transform energy. If someone yells at me and I yell back I have transformed the energy toward conflict, if someone yells at me and I respond in a calm loving manner I have transformed the energy toward peace. On the simplest level if my wife says to me in an annoyed voice why didn’t you set the table- I can respond in kind and we have a spat, if I respond in a loving way, perhaps thinking about why she might be annoyed- we can have a thoughtful conversation. To seek peace is to understand that in every interaction we have with someone else we can pursue a path of peace.

Before concluding there is one more text I want to invoke and that is the text of history, the history of the Jewish people. For two thousand years Jews lived as a minority and in many cases in many places were persecuted, there is a collective memory, cultural experience of suffering. My own parents were Holocaust survivors, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were murdered by the Nazis.

The Jewish people suffered a collective trauma. We have a choice to make in response to that suffering, as does any person or group that has suffered. Do we particularize the experience and turn inward, concerned only with our own protection and well being or do we universalize it to understand the suffering of others, have compassion and act to end the oppression of others.

As we have seen the tradition teaches that we must pay attention to both the particular and the universal lessons. Rabbi Sacks wrote , “Judaism is a particularist faith that recognizes the universality of the human condition.”

We need to be concerned about our own safety, the lesson of history would be that Jews need a state for protection and well being. And, it is also true that we need to learn from our history that the oppression of others is unacceptable, that we can not cause other people to suffer. We must have empathy for our Palestinian cousins, understand their pain, and honor their needs. Above all we must not oppress them. We must all learn the balance between peace and justice. We cannot be so particular as to negate the needs of the other and we cannot be so universal as to not care for our own survival. Or in the oft repeated words of the greatest rabbinic sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself who am I, if am only for myself what am I, and if not now when?”

In conclusion, we have seen that Judaism teaches us to ‘bakesh and rodfei shalom’ to be seekers and pursuers of peace, and we are enjoined to care for the other for the sake of the ways of peace, because peace is the ultimate aim of creation. Peace is more than an absence of conflict, peace is harmony completeness, wholeness, a set of values to govern our lives. We look for peace within our own selves, between each other, between nations and in our relationship with the earth- the web of life that we are a part of. The pursuit of peace needs to be balanced with the pursuit of justice, for without justice there is no peace. We can only act out of the particularity of who we are, and we use our particularity to more deeply understand the Other, the universality of the human condition, the holiness of each being.

I’d like to finish in the following way, please take a moment to sit comfortably in your seat, place your things in your lap or on the ground, perhaps put both of your feet on the floor and if you are comfortable doing so close your eyes, if not just lower your gaze. Notice your breath… now become aware of the area around your heart…. Feel your breath coming into the area around your heart- now focus on a moment that you fully loved someone- a friend, a partner, a child, a parent any moment that you loved someone or even a pet now experience that feeling of love, allow that feeling of love to come in, feel it.

Now ask yourself the question- and pay attention to the very first unedited answer – how do I want to pursue peace?. Repeat the answer to yourself and now think about it what means. Open your eyes when you are ready.

I end with The priestly blessing from the daily service `

May the face of what is Eternal bless you and protect you

May the face of what is Eternals give light to you and show you favor

May the face of what is Eternal be lifted toward you and bestow upon you peace.


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