War and Peace

Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016). As a teenager, Shear Yashuv (son of the saintly Nazir of Jerusalem) had been incarcerated by the British for singing a song in Hebrew by the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple), where they tried to starve him to death.

Later, in 1948, aged 20, he was captured and incarcerated as a PoW in Jordan for trying to save the Old City of Jerusalem from the joint hands of the British and the Jordanians.. At this tender age, Rabbi Shear Yashuv was appointed by the Chief of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), Rabbi Shlomo Goren, as the fledgling State of Israel’s very first army chaplain, and later considered his time as chief chaplain of the Israeli air-force as one of his main achievements.

Later, Rabbi Shlomo Goren became the Ashkenzai Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, having been the first to blow the shofar (belonging to the Nazir, as it happens) in June 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited again at the end of the Six Day War.

And later still, Rabbi Shear Yashuv, as chief chaplain to the air force, accompanied General Arik Sharon, for example, on manoeuvres in the Sinai Desert during the war of the same name, when Egypt and other Arab countries tried their utmost to destroy the only Jewish state in the world.

And yet, there is a huge paradox here. The fact is, that despite his enthusiasm for the IDF, of which he was a proud representative, and even married in army uniform to the consternation of many, Rabbi Shear Yashuv was one of the most peaceful people I’ve ever met. And this is why I named the English version of his biography, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace.

Steeped from early childhood in Jewish biblical norms (his first word was ‘Eliyahu’, after the famous prophet who defeated the false prophets of Baal, as depicted in the Book of Kings), Shear Yashuv was brought up during the British Mandate in a household of spirituality, poverty and saintliness, where he daily witnessed his father and mother absorbing all the blows inflicted by the occupying regime, not to mention the fact that they were as poor as church mice and couldn’t even afford the basics of life.

So, if anyone knew the real meaning of ‘shalom’, Shear Yashuv was that person.

What exactly is shalom? Shalom implies a certain sort of harmony, but not necessarily lack of stress, conflictedness or worry. There is no sense of ‘inner peace’ in Judaism, which has always yearned for peace, but, tragically, has had to constantly ready itself for war. And this is wherever Jews have lived. No-one has ever wished Jews well, and therefore Jews have had to be constantly on their guard, watching their backs, while waiting for the next bout of humiliation or worse. This still happens on a daily basis in diaspora, and those who deny it are – well – ‘in denial’.

So shalom is achieved through living a life of Torah, prayer and good deeds. This doesn’t often help against those who want to destroy Judaism, but at least the practice of Torah, prayer and good deeds cultivates traits within individual Jews, which (at best) help them deal with whatever ordeal next comes their way – as I say – normally on a daily basis.

Another meaning of ‘shalom’ is health. ‘Mah shlomcha‘ is the normal greeting you give on meeting someone. And it means ‘how is your health?’, or ‘how are you?’ No doubt this is why so many learned rabbis have also been doctors and why science and medicine have been part of Judaism from the very earliest days. No division between science and religion in Judaism.

So, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the Israelis have, for instance, set up the first field hospital in Ukraine, near Kiev, named Kochav Meir (Shining Star) after Israel’s first female Prime Minister, Golda Meir, born in Kiev. As Foreign Minister of the State of Israel, Golda founded the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development, Cooperation and Aid Progress, and travelled all over the world trying to make things better in whatever way possible, including helping with deforestation in Burma and other types of aid in Africa and Asia. Israel continues to be the first on the scene in global hot spots and sites of tragedy, to wherever she has been called, and never ever blows her own trumpet. Sadly, the British media seem to avoid talking about Israel’s prime position in bringing peace and prosperity to the global community through providing medical facilities as well as scientific, technical and educational expertise, wherever the need araises.

But, a top-level Ukrainian delegation, including President Zelensky’s senior advisor, has just visited Israel to thank the Israelis for their incredible help during the present war situation and to request that they consider acting as a possible guarantor for any ceasefire, or peace agreement in the area.

Separately, Israel’s health minister will be visiting Ukraine in the not too distant future. Ukraine simply cannot find the words to adequately thank Israel for its help on the ground and in so many other ways, the most amazing example of which was when Jewishly observant Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, travelled to Moscow on the the Jewish Sabbath, in order to try and broker a peace between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine was extremely grateful for the major gesture, which was much appreciated all round. Once again, barely any mention, if at all, in the British media.

And there is a third meaning of ‘shalom’ that of justice and a just peace, as opposed to mere cessation of hostilities, all the better to regroup. I’ll go into that in more detail later.

So, Rowan, what are the Christian concepts of peace? Maybe you could spell out some of these and let readers know in what ways these Greek and Latin definitions differ from the concept of ‘Shalom’ and whether these Christian concepts have developed over time:

Dr Williams: The contrast between Shalom and eirene is very much along the lines you imply. Shalom is a more total or integral state of balance and well-being, eirene is more obviously associated with inner settledness or harmony. And pax in Latin – certainly in classical Latin – can often have the sense of the suppression of opposition, the imposing of rule. It is qualified in Christian Latin by the shadow of both Greek and Hebrew terms, and the ‘pax’ that is the motto of the order of Benedictine monks is far more like Shalom – the coherence of a common life following common rules out of mutual love and respect.

Irene: In outlining the development of the norms for peace and war, I suppose that we’d better begin with Judaism as it is chronologically earlier than Christianity. This is on the understanding that for the last 2,000 years on the whole, whatever is cited will have been purely theoretical, as a way of remembering the days when Jews were sovereign in their own land, and therefore not under the dominion of various Churches, who aimed to keep them on a very firm leash. Recently, this has all changed of course, since the Jews are now living once again in their rightful homeland, and thankfully no longer under the brutal British Mandate authorities, who, on the whole, dealt very badly with their Jewish population. What would be good however is for Christians to recognize how much they owe regarding concepts of ‘peace’ to the Jews.

Probably the first outline of how to deal with the enemy who is coming to kill you is described in the book of Genesis (32-33) when Jacob meets Esau, whose aim is to destroy him. This is when Jacob does three things to ward off the inevitable: he prays to G-d; he offers gifts; and then he divides up his large family into what can only be called ‘divisions’. These three activities of prayer, gifts (or bribes, if you prefer) and eventually reluctantly embarking on war, are the ways that Jews and Judaism have continued to regard war and peace.

But when the Jews have been forced to reside, however, temporarily, in diaspora, as here in the UK, for example, a second approach is also required. And this is enunciated by the prophet Jeremiah in Chapter 29:7, speaking to his brothers and sisters now exiled in Babylon (Iraq). Jeremiah suggests that fellow Jews learn how to survive in foreign countries where the populations are inevitably overwhelmingly hostile, in order to escape wholesale slaughter.

Here, Jeremiah urges his fellow citizens to ‘pray for the peace of the city’ in order that both the city and they as Jews may prosper. To this end, Jews also pray in synagogue for the wellbeing of the head of state, be it a monarch, president, dictator, or reprobate. I am not sure that in the present day and age this is such a good idea any more, as Jewish values are being stamped on by the powers that be in many a western, so-called ‘democratic’ state. But that’s what has happened for 2,500 years at least, since the Jews found themselves forcefully captured and taken to Babylon (Iraq) and later all over the world.

Dr Williams: One of the contrasts between Jewish and Christian Scripture is indeed that Jesus is not ‘legislating’ for a whole society. He is urging his followers to take up a radical stance of non-violence and generosity that should certainly influence and transform society but is first and foremost a vocation for those closest to him. So in the Sermon on the Mount, he recommends not passivity but a response to aggression that can change the terms of a relationship by letting you take an initiative. Someone demands your coat? Give them your cloak too: show that you have not been robbed of your dignity or your freedom by their violence. Someone strikes you? Don’t run away; risk the second blow so as to force the other to see their own compulsive aggression.

This is high-risk stuff. I don’t think Jesus is saying ‘Accept injustice, don’t expect change, let everyone do whatever they want’. His own words and actions don’t imply that. He is saying, ‘Be careful that your response to violence doesn’t just repeat the mistake. Retaliation isn’t the only sort of response.’ And if you (Jesus’ close followers) find a way of doing this, perhaps the rest of the world might see that things could be different. Perhaps.

One of the interesting points of contact is that in the first few Christian centuries the Christian attitude was very much what you describe the Jewish position as being. We’ll pray for the officials of the state, but we won’t pray to anyone but God. And when the state/the emperor insists on being worshipped, that’s when Christians say no and risk martyrdom. They believe that their first loyalty is to God and to the laws of God.

That’s why there was debate in the early Church about whether you could be a Christian soldier. Most theologians said no. If you were a soldier, you were involved in the expansionist wars of the Empire, you had to kill in the name of Rome, and this would regularly be a matter of killing the innocent. Also you had to take an oath by the divine power of the emperor. Some obviously found a way around this (we know there were Christian soldiers), at least for most of the time; sometimes the authorities caught up with them when they refused certain duties. But generally the attitude to soldiering was negative.

It changed a bit when the Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th century. Serving in the army could then be seen as defending the Christian state against pagan or barbarian enemies. And the need for self-defence by force was acknowledged by great thinkers like Augustine, who works out the first set of principles that define a ‘just war’. Even he, though, is clear that war itself is never desirable, even if sometimes it may be the lesser evil. There are no ‘holy’ wars for him.

Irene: Actually, I seem to recall a similar story in the Mishnah regarding the coat and the cloak issue and the concept of ‘turning the other cheek’ meaning to actually give even more than is demanded. I have experienced this myself, when our Shul was asked to donate food to local church charities, even though the female vicar who was leading this initiative had asked me publically to help her write a sermon attacking the State of Israel. When I asked her why, she said ‘for obvious reasons.’ Naturally, no obvious reason sprang immediately to mind as to why a local vicar should be wanting to thank the Jewish community for all our help and assistance by attacking the only Jewish state about which she knew nothing and showed no signs of wanting to learn more, but the Shul still carries on giving her the food to distribute to her flock.

And of course, the State of Israel is always going out to help the whole world, including most recently Ukraine, who thanks her by constantly voting against her at the UN. In the case of Ukraine, this is more than 35 times in all. Quite a record for a comparatively new country I should think. And yet, Israel still continues to offer the best kind of political, spiritual and medical assistance.

So this sounds a bit like the development, much later, based on Talmud and medieval Jewish teachings, of a Jewish equivalent of ‘just war’ thinking, the sort of thing that Maimonides in his Laws of Kings and Wars brilliantly summarized, as was his wont.

From all these sources, biblical, oral law, medieval and later, the same message is spelled out: peace is more than cessation from hostilities. Peace is no perestroika, which is of course regrouping, in order to take the charge further (as we can see at present with the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Neither is peace appeasement, and nor is it a false reconciliation (for which there is no proper word in Hebrew – the nearest meaning ‘return/teshuva’, or the contemporary ‘appeasement/pius’, which is simply a loan-word!!).

But when everything else has failed, then, according to Maimonides and other great rabbinic commentators, war has to be fought, but within very specific criteria, and empire building is definitely out. The Jews want to live in peace to practise their faith and will only go to war when absolutely necessary, in order to safeguard life and limb. There is no doubt that the State of Israel could have destroyed Gaza in a second, for instance, but prefers containment in order to honour the Jewish injunction that we are all equal and all made in the image of G-d.

Apart from this, when, as is the case in the State of Israel, your army is a citizen army, you would not dream of embarking on war for its own sake. War is only undertaken in Israel when absolutely necessary, in order to prevent further loss of life. This must be spelled out, especially because of Christian norms which, very regrettably, I have to say, always use the concept of ‘the Jews’ and ‘Judaism’ as a stick with which to constantly demonstrate Christian superiority at every turn.

I wonder what you have to say about this?

Dr Williams: The Christian just war tradition has a lot in common here. The theory insists that there is no justifiable war of aggression; self-defence is the bottom line. Before you go to war, you need to be sure you have exhausted the other options (like the interpretation you gave earlier about Jacob and Esau). You mustn’t use methods that undermine the justice of your own cause – so you can’t kill non-combatants, you can’t use disproportionate force or torture or mass intimidation by reprisal killings or the like. As you said about Gaza, there has to be something that holds your hand because of the human dignity of those you are fighting. Also you must have a clear idea of what will count as victory and what you are going to do afterwards, so that a war doesn’t just drag on with new justifications being invented all the time.

On this basis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a textbook case of infringing nearly all these principles.

I think that in the modern world we need to be more cautious than ever about open warfare – simply because modern methods and weapons almost inevitably involve civilian deaths, and because the risk of nuclear escalation threatens everyone’s future. Few of our recent Western interventions have ended well. But you raise a very important point about citizen armies: it may well be that such a model discourages pointless sabre-rattling; because everyone shares the risks everyone has a stake. There will be fewer armchair generals. It’s a point to ponder.

In my experience of talking with senior military figures about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s been these people who are least gung-ho about war – because they are close to the human cost, they see directly what it is like to lose young lives.

It often strikes me that one thing we don’t always realise is the difference it makes to Israel that everyone has a stake, you could say, in what happens in the military world. Though I know that Israel of course recognises the rights of conscientious objectors.

Irene: It’s good that you see the point of citizen armies. In addition, of course (as in Israeli society generally), the IDF is anything but hierarchical. The generals are on an equal footing with everyone else and always lead from the front. It is important to point this out. And I have worked as a translator with a number of retired brigadier generals in Israel – who always treated me with the greatest of respect, as well as deferring to my expertise where relevant.

Dr Williams: It’s a good model: historically it’s been one of the curses of armed forces culture that status, risks and responsibilities are pretty unequally distributed.

I think we can say that Jewish and Christian approaches overlap, and it is a grave mistake to see Christianity as essentially pacific and Judaism as essentially not. This is ridiculous, another example of the negative, even demonic, myths about Jews that Christians have so often and so shamefully fostered or encouraged. Both traditions have had to work out how to cope with living in minority situations, though the position of Christians changed early on.

Personally, I believe that Jesus’s call to his close followers to try a different way also has continuing relevance, when you think of the witness of Quakers and Mennonites through the ages and today. Not for everyone, but maybe just a witness to the fact God’s will is always directed towards something beyond even the most justifiable and understandable of conflicts. And of course the State of Israel does recognize the right of conscientious objectors.

Irene: This is to do with the importance of the concept of ‘dissent’ in Judaism. Recently I was teaching about the life of the great American Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with my 11-year-old granddaughter. We were discussing the biblical concept of ‘justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16: 20), which was RBG’s watchword. I asked my Israeli granddaughter to discuss the Hebrew word for ‘justice’ and she said it was ‘shalom’ and I said it was ‘zedek’. But I was thinking about this, and realized that though the concept of a ‘just war’ has been uppermost in our minds when writing this article, actually, what we should be thinking about very often are the consequences of a war and what actually constitutes a ‘just peace’. And so, my granddaughter was actually correct and has taught me something herself. And of course ‘dissent’ means the theological and political embracing of difference in argument and points of view which is the essential core of Judaism, as exemplified by the two schools of Hillel and Shammai, who very much respected each other, even when they disagreed.

A final joint statement from Dr Williams and Irene:

Both Jews and Christians have had to think through what are realistic and humane ways of limiting raw violence in war and how to minimise slaughter. The record of Christian militarism – extravagant defences of wars of national expansion or imperial adventure, let alone the crusades – is not impressive. The just war principles stayed on the shelf for most of the time; but they have never been revoked and – whether in Augustine’s or Maimonides’s versions – they still have value, and ought to offer fruitful common ground for mutual appreciation and exploration – which is what we’ve been trying to do here.

And finally, as we write, a further initiative has been organized by Jewish rabbis in Israel, including Christian input, to visit Ukraine in the very near future, as a gesture of solidarity and support for the suffering of all religions. We hope that this Jewish initiative, conceived in Israel, will be successful and, like the Kochav Meir hospital initiative installed near Kiev, in memory of Israeli PM Golda Meir, will bring yet more hope and solace to the suffering multitudes.

A fitting tribute to the brave Christian police officer, Amir Khoury, who was recently murdered in the line of duty by an Arab terrorist in Bnei Brak. Amir was buried with full military honors. Many strictly observant residents of Bnei Brak travelled to attend his funeral which took place in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Nof Ha-Galil near Nazareth. Amir will have a street named after him in his honor, out of gratitude for his outstanding service as a proud citizen of the State of Israel.

Shalom: justice, health and peace

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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