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How to Find a Way to Peace in Judaism

War has been with civilization from the beginning of recorded history, like a plague always appearing somewhere on the planet. However, Judaism affirms the primary importance of peace, and the Talmudic rabbis pointed out that “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace” (Tanhuma Shoftim 18).

The rabbis warn that war is most often caused by scarcity of resources (such as food and water) and — often hand in hand — scarcity of righteous behavior, as in this statement from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.”

Our early history is full of war and violence, but Judaism ultimately celebrates the peacemakers and remembers that all humans are expressions of God and must treat neighbors (and even enemies) as such.

So while Jewish law condones war in self-defense, it prohibits a wide range of tactics, including poisoning livestock, destroying fruit trees, or laying waste to food or water sources. Similarly, Deuteronomy 20:10 points out that a peaceful solution must be sought before waging any battle, and Proverbs 25:21 notes: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

Numerous teachings support the crucial importance of peace, and yet Jews and Judaism have so often been caught up in violence and war. How can Jews break the cycle?

Civilization can’t get to peace through war. No war has ever brought the peace it promised, because war creates winners and losers. The winners too often begin to replicate the very power structures they fought against; and the losers soon begin planning their revenge.

The rabbis of the Talmud go so far as to declare that if two people need help and one of them is your enemy, help your enemy first — the reason being that it’s always better to overcome your own inclination toward evil (yetzer hara) and convert an enemy to a friend.

Here are two more Jewish ethical teachings regarding violence:

  • Murder: Although capital punishment is allowed, one may not murder an innocent person. Genesis 9:6 says: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” This prohibition is true even if killing will save your own life.

  • Capital punishment: The Bible clearly mandates capital punishment but is very careful about requiring at least two witnesses to support that judgment. Ultimately, however, rabbinic traditions made it so difficult to bring the death penalty that it was practically impossible ever to carry it out. Many Jewish groups are today on record against capital punishment.

In all Jewish prayer services there are prayers for peace. Remember that the Hebrew word Shalom, meaning peace, comes from the word “wholeness” or “complete.”

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