Peacemaking and the Quest for Holiness

Behar By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On May 9, 2014 / 5774 | Main Commentary
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Truth in advertising: Rabbi Amy Eilberg (GS ’78, RS ’85) is an old and dear friend of mine—we raised our kids together in California. Rabbi Eilberg will be feted this coming week at the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) convention in Dallas as honoree of the RA Joint Campaign supporting the four Conservative-affiliated seminaries (JTS, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies), The Masorti Foundation, and the RA. So in deciding to put her important new book about “peace-building” in dialogue with this week’s Torah portion, I am carrying forward an ongoing conversation with one of my most beloved conversation partners of long standing about a text (Leviticus) and a topic (what the Children of Israel should and should not do in the Land of Israel) that are both very dear to my heart.

The book of Leviticus could not be clearer on the point that extraordinary action is called for as part of the Israelite’s calling to be “holy unto the Lord your God.” Every seven years, the Land must have its Sabbaths of rest from cultivation. Every seven-times-seven years, there must be a jubilee year, in which Israelites shall neither reap nor sow. They shall “proclaim liberty [or ‘release’] throughout the Land to all the inhabitants thereof,” provide for return of all lands to their original owners, and—seemingly the simplest of all these injunctions but, to my mind, the most difficult to enact—“not wrong one another, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:1–17). That final command, and its accompanying rationale—“for I am YHWH your God”—recalls the very heart of the so-called “Holiness Code,” where the Torah commands us not to bear a grudge or take vengeance but instead “love your neighbor as yourself, for I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18). That verse in turn echoes the overarching message at the start of Parashat Kedoshim: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

One can, of course, understand these crucial phrases of the Torah in one of two ways (if not more). It could be that we are meant to read God’s words as a threat: “you had better be holy, because I am, and I want you to be like Me in this way; and if you fail to do it, I will hold you accountable.” Thus, “do not wrong one another, but fear your God.” I prefer a different reading. God says, in effect,

I the Lord am holy, and because of your connection to Me—the fact that I created you in My image, have given you these words of Torah, have joined with you in an eternal covenant to make My world more just and compassionate, and have agreed to dwell among you—because of all of that, you have the opportunity (and, therefore, the obligation) to be holy too.

The point is not fear but awe, reverence, respect for the weight of the responsibility we bear. Israel’s holiness is not intrinsic, genetic, a given. It lies in what we do, how we treat others every day, the kind of society we build and the kind of people we are.

The greatest virtue of Eilberg’s book, to my mind, is that in calling on us to move From Enemy to Friend (the title), and to be guided by “Jewish Wisdom [in] the Pursuit of Peace” (the subtitle), she reminds us yet again of the Torah’s profound and difficult lesson that we cannot hope to make the world right unless we act to right ourselves. We have no chance of living without grudges or vengeance if we are afraid, unsatisfied with our lot, or always on the lookout for ways of gaining advantage over others. If we don’t want to rely entirely on God, “Who makes peace in the heavens,” to make peace on earth as well, but are ready to accept the responsibility of doing our part in that effort, then we had best heed Eilberg’s warning that the work is hard and will not come as a matter of course. Particular habits of mind and behavior are required. “My goal in this book is to explore this inner work of peace-building,” which means nothing less than “to transform an enemy into a friend, to move from hatred to caring, from suspicion and fear, beyond tolerance, to embrace of the other” (3).

The key biblical passage in the book, as we would expect, is the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The most often-cited modern Jewish thinker in the volume is Martin Buber, famous for his emphasis on the “life of dialogue” and the relationship between “I and Thou.” The personal experiences with peace-building that Eilberg recounts most often involve Muslims and Palestinians. She also offers cautionary tales of American Jewish communities torn asunder by heated disagreements over Israel. Perhaps because the focus of so much of the book (as of this week’s parashah) is relations among Jews, and between Jews and others in the Land of Israel, Eilberg warns the reader ahead of time that some are likely to resist or take strong objection.

During the coming pages, there may be moments when you notice emotion rising in you: anger, horror, even outrage. Perhaps you already feel angry about things I have said or have been tempted to slam the book shut. When you notice such reactions arising, I invite you to conduct your own experiment in compassionate listening. (160)

This technique of attention and self-restraint is one that Eilberg has learned to practice, and one that seems essential to the work of peace-building.

Eilberg works hard to find a balance between a language of aspiration that tries to stretch the reader beyond our usual ways of thinking and acting, and ideals so out of reach for most of us that we feel comfortable not taking Eilberg’s message to heart. I think the Torah seeks the same balance, and nowhere more than in this week’s portion. It is one thing (hard enough!) to observe the Sabbath, and quite another to allow the Land to observe its Sabbaths (sabbatical years, the next of which will be observed this coming year, 5775). The regulations surrounding the jubilee have for good reason seemed daunting to commentators—and Jews seeking to observe them—for many centuries.

But I keep coming back to that simple command not to “wrong one another, but fear your God.” I shall henceforth read it in light of Eilberg’s recurrent question to us, when we turn away from dialogue, “what are you afraid of?” There is, of course, a lot to be afraid of in this world. Some enemies cannot be won over, and if we do not resist them—at times with force—the result will not be peace or friendship, but increased violence and injustice. Some arguments are worth having, and even losing friends over. The caution that Eilberg adds, I think, is this: don’t ever give yourself carte blanche to avoid the hard work of peace-building. Always have the honesty to ask if you are avoiding it, not because it is too dangerous, but because it is too difficult. That practice has Leviticus firmly on its side.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.