Can I Be A Jewish Pacifist?

In my sophomore year of college, I took a course called Introduction to Indian Civilization.  For an hour and a half after lunchtime every Wednesday, I would sit in my stiff wooden auditorium seat and listen to our professor describe the randy poetry of the Bhakti tradition, or sweeping Bollywood musicals, or the four-armed god Vishnu and his eight avatars, including Krishna, often depicted as a baby eating butter with his bare hands.

One class, the teacher showed us a short documentary about Jain nuns on a big projector screen.  Practitioners of an ancient faith committed to avoiding violence against all living creatures, the nuns were shown brushing the ground with a soft yarn broom before stepping on it with their bare feet (to avoid crushing a bug) and discussing how even digging to a certain depth into the soil was forbidden, lest they “disturb” plant life.  At one point, they plucked out the hair on each other’s head, a ritual known as Keshlochan performed once or twice a year to teach them to endure pain calmly.  It was excruciating to watch, and I was enraptured. Thus began my fascination with pacifism.

Though I probably considered myself more serious about non-violence than many, I can see now that my pacifism was not at all different from the anti-war stance of many of my age contemporaries, that is to say more about emotion than action.  I felt strongly that violence was wrong, but I committed tiny acts of violence multiple times a day.  I ate meat, for one thing; I had no objection to fur coats, and surely, though I was still legally a dependent and ergo didn’t pay boatloads in taxes, funneled money to a government engaged in a war I loudly proclaimed unjust.  Still, pacifism was to me the political and spiritual ideal, and I spent long afternoons in my dorm room pondering whether I could walk empty-handed into a line of soldiers wielding laiths if I had enough conviction.  

Fast-forward ten years.  I’m not a Jain monk, but a convert to Orthodox Judaism, observant to the best of my ability.  Wizened Talmudic scholars are a far cry from the hairless vegetarian spiritual paramours of my youth, but what can I say?  Love doesn’t always make sense. In fact, a romantic partnership is a fitting parallel here, because my literal marriage, though perfect in many ways, of course has its potholes, and one of them is the use of weapons.

My husband is the son of a decorated Vietnam veteran, and was raised in a firmly patriotic home.  He grew up shooting pistols and rifles at the local target range.  I, on the other hand, spent my childhood in a house in which the doors were always unlocked (though more out of casual comfort than any overriding principle.)  One of our first dates was actually to a gun range in South Florida, where we aimed our glocks at the heads of silhouettes hanging from a clothesline.  My future husband confidently wielded his weapon, whereas I tensed up when I squeezed the trigger, causing the gun to jam every. single. time.  We kept calling the surly range manager over to our booth to figure out what was going wrong, and he’d fix the gun and demonstrate for me how to hold it, and then I would panic and it would jam again, at which point the manager would cartoonishly roll his eyes and look at my husband as if to say, “Are you sure you want to date this delicate flower?”

He did, thankfully, and over the next five years, we bonded together as an increasingly Jewish unit.  Though he grew up basically secular, my husband was born Jewish, so the transition to being more religious, while not a cinch, didn’t involve an identity shift as drastic as the one I experienced.  To become the new, Jewish me, I had to give up a lot of things.  These ranged from the practical––going to a bar on a Friday night, or buying a sweater without checking the list of materials first––to the ideological––a hearty approval of interfaith marriages, for example, or, yes, a pacifist streak.

Like many people, I assumed pacifism belonged to the Quakers and the Buddhists, and that our Old Testament G-d, not afraid to put up His incorporeal dukes, would make no concession for those of us who looked at warfare askance.  I assumed it was simply impossible to identify as both non-violent and Jewish.  But not more than a month ago, while visiting a Tolstoyan commune three hours north of my home in London, I was asked whether there was such a thing as Jewish pacifism, and I realized the extent to which I rested my answer on that ugly word “assume.”

In truth, I had not done any studying at all on the matter, and so, at the risk of opening up mostly healed wounds, I ordered the only book I could locate dedicated to the subject, appropriately titled Pacifism and the Jews, by sociologist and historian Evelyn Wilcock. and began shteiging.

One thing Wilcock does to examine the issue fully is separate between conscientious objection––or refusal to enlist in a military operation––and unconditional nonviolence like Gandhi’s satyagraha, which would view even a murder committed in self defense as ratsach.  To the first, there are a number of Biblical and Kabbalistic arguments to justify refusal to serve in the military, though they all register as slippery to me, as they hinge on the idea that a just war is no longer legally permissible, rather than any concept of war being inherently immoral.  In the Talmud, for example, chazal outline three categories of “acceptable” war: commanded, permitted and forbidden.  The latter is obviously inapplicable, and the first were to be waged against Amalek and other tribal enemies of Israel now extinct, so those are irrelevant, too.  Permitted wars (milchemet reshut) could be launched only against “declared enemies of Israel” after a) G-d instructed the high priest in the Temple to announce military intentions and b) the Sanhedrin of seventy-one approved the advance.  No Beit Hamikdash, Jewish pacifists say, no permitted war.  Simple as that.

Another argument in that vein (this one somewhat more palatable to me, though I can’t quite articulate why) is one that claims in our era, the laws of a just war, so clearly outlined by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, simply cannot be followed.  In an age of drone warfare, it’s impossible to ensure that the trees, buildings, and food supplies, to say nothing of the women and children, won’t be obliterated, and to destroy these things is expressly banned.  So instead of risking transgressing these edicts, better to not wage war at all.  

It’s one thing to not have martial inclinations, though; many Jews can without much difficulty see that as compatible with our goal of restoring the world to wholeness.  Yiddish, as many scholars have pointed out, doesn’t really have a military lexicon; as Wilcock puts it, “A heroic death and military glory were not part of the Jewish tradition.”  It’s less immediately understandable––to Jew and non-Jew alike––to say that in the face of all aggressors, you aspire to turn the other cheek, that phrase originally from Eicha made famous as a Christian refrain.

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Over the course of Jewish history, there have been the odd few who have espoused and personified this second, more extreme type of pacifism, and Wilcock gives them their due.  It’s a motley crew, indeed, and to find yourself ideologically identifying with a Reconstructionist on one page and Joel Teitelbaum on another is disorienting, to say the least.  To spotlight a few: there’s the writer Yosef Chaim Brenner, who allegedly went, unarmed, for walks in the orchards near Jaffa during times of unrest; Morris Hillquit, the charismatic socialist politician, much maligned for arguing America shouldn’t interfere during the First World War; Ahad Ha’m, a secular Zionist whose book The Law of the Heart argued for following the gut-punch of instinct over the nitpickings of halakha; and kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the rare rabbi to say that to overlook the sins of others is virtuous, and to die for G-d is “a very great illumination.”

These men are very much in the minority, though, and Judaism, for better and worse, has always sought a definite ruling.  In other words, you and I could spar with contradictory Talmudic edits––you cannot kill another even to save your own life, and yet you should rise early to slaughter the person who seeks to annihilate you––but rabbinical authorities have been pretty consistent on the matter: any Jew who objects to fighting does so on the basis of his or her individual conscience alone.

So can a person be a Jewish pacifist?  It’s debatable, but it’s been modeled successfully.  Could I, a convert, be a Jewish pacifist?  The answer here is far less clear.  Technically, I have the same rights as any other Jew does, and yet as someone who still so often feels the need to prove herself as “authentically” Jewish, I find it uncomfortable to assert my desire to rebel, or even to voice an unpopular opinion.  My identity is so relatively new and so precious that I’m afraid to announce any unconventional leanings––and, to be honest, I’m brimming with them––lest someone yank it away from me.

I’d guess it would be comparable to being a foster child in a home where biological children are also living; if the others act up, they’ll get a scolding, but if you throw a tantrum even once, you might be kicked out.  They say it won’t happen, that they won’t abandon you, but how can you be sure, when you’ve been out in the dark alleys of unbelief before?  And yet the alternative is to transform myself into a docile lamb, and to suffocate any part of me that doesn’t fit the model of a geress tzedakah.

To this, my whole being screams no.  G-d has given us all individual proclivities, and He cannot have meant for us to ignore them.  I’m not talking about rationalizing acting upon every little impulse one has, or stomping all over the rule of law for the sake of ego, by any means.  I’m talking instead about taking sober stock of one’s spirit and not dismissing what one discovers there because it appears at first glance to be “less Jewish” than something else.  And it is for this reason I admit that I have searched in me and I cannot find any impulse to violence.  As Primo Levi wrote in The Drowned and the Saved, “I have never known how to ‘return the blow,’ not out of saintliness or intellectual aristocracy, but due to intrinsic incapacity… trading punches is an experience I do not have, as far back as I can go in memory…”

Maybe some of us are meant to fight, and others, to be aggressively peaceful (less of a paradox than it sounds)?  What this means for me is arguably not much.  I’m over thirty, female, and I live in a relatively safe first-world metropolis.  It’s unlikely I’ll ever be drafted into any army.  To wit, I’ve never really been threatened with violence in my lifetime, so I have no reliable barometer for how I would react if it happened.

Most likely, my penchant for pacifism––its great political champions, its underlying philosophy, its idiosyncratic spiritual gurus––will only ever express itself in the arena of scholarship.  I admit I like to imagine that I’d be brave enough to not fight back if provoked, but again, here, my husband objects.

The citizen owes a duty to one’s nation, or do I not believe in democracy?  Do I really think that one person sacrificing herself would do anything in the face of such true evil as the Third Reich would make one iota of impact?  Isn’t it possible that pacifism, in many cases, might be a disguise for underlying masochism––a circuitous, more socially acceptable route to suicide, at worst?  Haven’t I considered him, or that I might feel differently when we have children?  In order: I do, I don’t, it is, and (G-d willing) I’m sure I will.

This isn’t a pacifist coming-out or anything, just an acknowledgment of a wrestling, an admission of admiration for the “fainthearted” among us.  “וְיָסְפוּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים לְדַבֵּר אֶל הָעָם וְאָמְרוּ מִי הָאִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ וְלֹא יִמַּס אֶת לְבַב אֶחָיו כִּלְבָבוֹ.”  Fainthearted: rakak, which can mean fearful or weak, but also tender, soft, and kind.


Image from Flickr.