Does re­li­gion en­cour­age or help to pre­vent the use of vi­o­lence?

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI SYLVIA ROTH­SCHILD Sylvia Roth­schild is rabbi of Lev Chadash Pro­gres­sive Syn­a­gogue in Mi­lan

Does Ju­daism Con­done Vi­o­lence? By Alan L. Mit­tle­man Prince­ton, £24 Confronting Re­li­gious Vi­o­lence

edited Richard A. Bur­ridge and Jonathan Sacks Bay­lor Uni­ver­sity Press/SCM, £25

Al­most the very first sto­ries in the Bi­ble are of vi­o­lence; ex­pul­sion from Eden is soon fol­lowed by an­gry frat­ri­cide. And as Jonathan Sacks re­minds us, we are the sto­ries we tell. Many ap­proaches to un­der­stand­ing vi­o­lence in re­li­gion ei­ther link it to an im­per­a­tive to ho­li­ness, as in holy wars fought to pre­serve a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy, or else com­men­ta­tors nar­row the fo­cus in or­der to ig­nore our more dif­fi­cult tra­di­tional texts, high­light­ing in­stead those that af­firm our own mo­ral­ity. A good ex­am­ple of the lat­ter are the texts in Deuteron­omy which re­quire try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate peace be­fore at­tack­ing a city and even then leav­ing an es­cape route for its in­hab­i­tants.

Some see vi­o­lence as a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of re­li­gion, blam­ing it for cre­at­ing “us and them”, a nar­ra­tive which will al­ways lead to im­bal­ances of power and per­ceived value of the dif­fer­ent groups. So, for ex­am­ple, the in­ter­nal pa­tri­ar­chal sup­pres­sion of women can be sup­ported by re­li­gious texts, as can the view that those who do not share the same re­li­gious world­view are lesser than us and are un­sav­able and an­i­mal­is­tic.

Monothe­ism has been blamed for cre­at­ing a sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity and in­tol­er­ance among its ad­her­ents, as the per­fect cru­cible for see­ing the other as “less than” us. Su­per­ces­sion­ist the­olo­gies reg­u­larly di­min­ish and dis­hon­our that which came be­fore.

But is re­li­gion ac­tu­ally a con­trib­u­tor to vi­o­lence or is it a way of con­strain­ing it?

Ag­gres­sion is older than love. Vi­o­lence is both ex­is­ten­tially hu­man and a force that be­longs to the nat­u­ral world. Two re­cent books dis­cuss re­li­gious vi­o­lence and bring re­fresh­ing nu­ance to a vexed sub­ject.

Ask­ing Does Ju­daism con­done Vi­o­lence?, Mit­tel­man frames the ques­tion in the idea of ho­li­ness and, us­ing bib­li­cal texts, con­structs a clear case for sev­er­ing the two con­cepts. Un­pack­ing the com­plex­ity of what ho­li­ness can be — value, as­pi­ra­tion or prop­erty — he re­minds us that ho­li­ness is nor­ma­tive in Ju­daism, a way to per­fect the world.

Ho­li­ness maps on to good­ness but is con­cep­tu­ally dif­fer­ent from it, though en­twined with it. In real­ity, ho­li­ness en­com­passes both rit­ual and mun­dane worlds, and he as­serts it is an im­bal­ance of th­ese that leads to eth­i­cal de­range­ment; if we care more for the rit­ual than the prac­ti­cal, or more for the quo­tid­ian than the sa­cred, we will in­evitably lose fo­cus on mo­ral­ity, lead­ing ul­ti­mately to our jus­ti­fy­ing vi­o­lence as re­li­giously per­mit­ted. One need only look at the threats to a non-Ortho­dox rabbi re­cently in Jerusalem, where he was told his soul was “less-than” and he de­served to be butchered.

Ju­daism did not evolve a mo­ral­ity from the rit­ual sys­tem to the eth­i­cal one; both are in­trin­sic to and rooted in our tra­di­tion. Our prophets did not cre­ate an eth­i­cal world­view, but op­posed the pre­sumed suf­fi­ciency of a solely rit­ual one, de­mand­ing that ho­li­ness should ex­pand be­yond the Tem­ple cult and in­ter­act with mo­ral­ity to mu­tual ben­e­fit.

Our tra­di­tion nei­ther con­dones nor re­jects all vi­o­lence; it records it and cri­tiques its use. It un­der­stands the pri­mal na­ture of vi­o­lence, recog­nis­ing there are times when vi­o­lence might be an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse, but de­mand­ing too that we should weigh such a re­sponse against hu­man suf­fer­ing and the eth­i­cal and so­cial im­per­a­tives col­lected un­der the rubric of the ho­li­ness code.

We have nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of how re­li­gion con­strains the vi­o­lence that is in­te­gral to hu­man­ity. So the tribe of Levi are recorded in the Bi­ble as vi­o­lent in their de­fence of “ho­li­ness”. From Ja­cob’s deathbed bless­ing, where he curses Levi’s anger and scat­ters them among the other tribes to weaken them, to the Mo­saic pre­scrip­tion that en­sures the Le­vites be­come land­less priests, de­pen­dent on oth­ers for their food and never mo­bilised for army ser­vice, we see how the Bi­ble works to limit struc­tural vi­o­lence.

Rab­binic Ju­daism con­tin­ues this path, as­sign­ing many prob­lem­atic ide­olo­gies to a the­o­ret­i­cal mes­sianic fu­ture. Mai­monides ex­plic­itly dis­tances emo­tion from jus­tice, writ­ing that “there is no vengeance in the com­mand­ments of the Torah, but com­pas­sion mercy and peace in the world”.

Vi­o­lence is cer­tainly done in the name of re­li­gion. The rise of na­tion­al­ism has brought it back as a live is­sue for Jews as the bat­tle for the Land of Is­rael and its in­hab­i­tants mas­quer­ades as a holy war, and the same be­hav­iour of de­hu­man­is­ing the other and of pri­ori­tis­ing rit­u­al­is­tic re­li­gion over eth­i­cal im­per­a­tives sur­faces once more.

It is our turn to chal­lenge this dis­tor­tion, to re­mind those who would abuse the idea of ho­li­ness and des­e­crate what is re­ally sa­cred, that their jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for vi­o­lence are nei­ther holy nor good. We have just cel­e­brated Chanukah, whose story of mil­i­tary vic­tory is de­lib­er­ately glossed into one of or­di­nary trust in God. As Zechariah says to those who would use vi­o­lence to es­tab­lish them­selves on the land: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says God”.


Simeon and Levi take re­venge on the men of Shechem for the rape of their sis­ter Di­nah — il­lus­trated by Ger­ard Hoet, 1728

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