Sword and Plowshare in Jewish Thought

by Robert Eisen
Oxford University Press, 2011

Waskow.CoverRobert Eisen is a professor of religion and Judaic studies at George Washington University. His book seems to promise a full scholarly account of Jewish thought on peace and violence, from ancient Torah to contemporary Israel.

The book is written as a series of dialogues between two voices: one that believes Judaism accepts and affirms the use of violence, and one that believes Judaism much more strongly seeks and urges peace. Each section of the book—which is chronologically arranged—presents the arguments for one voice and then the other. To assure the reader that for most of the book he is not taking sides between these voices, Eisen begins the biblical section with the voice that promotes violence; the rabbinic section with the voice that promotes peace; and so on, back and forth, for the rest of the book. (The remaining sections are on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and modern Zionism.)

This pattern is useful but could be a lot more useful, were it not for two baffling failings in this review of the multimillennial literature.

The first is that nowhere in the book’s fifty pages on the Bible is there any reference to the midwives Shifra and Puah, who use nonviolent civil disobedience to resist Pharaoh’s command to kill Israelite boy babies; or to the refusal of King Saul’s own bodyguards to obey his order to kill the priests of Nov for sheltering David and his guerrilla band when they were fleeing Saul’s army; or to Daniel’s nonviolent resistance to Nebuchadnezzar; or to the passage in Deuteronomy that forbids an Israelite King from amassing “horses”—that is, the cavalry necessary for an aggressive imperial war; or to the many outcries from many prophets against the warlike behavior of Israelite and Judean kings.


These blind spots accord with Eisen’s assertion that “wars have always been a primary mover of world events, and therefore violence has shaped world history in a way that peace movements have not.” The well-attested history of the nonviolent and politically successful “secession” of the plebs from Rome in reshaping the Roman governmental system is only one example of many occasions when strikes, boycotts, sit-downs, and other uses of assertive nonviolence have in fact changed world history, even before the twentieth-century nonviolent movements in India, the American South, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Philippines. The work of Gene Sharp should have been enough to prevent any scholar from making such a mistake.

Perhaps even more important, the book addresses twentieth-century Judaism only in its section on modern Zionism. Here it presents both the peaceable and warlike faces of the Zionist movement before and since the creation of Israel. Separately from his evenhanded discussion of more violence-ready and more peace-oriented Zionisms (devoting considerable space to both Martin Buber and Meir Kahane), the author makes it clear that his sympathies lie with those contemporary Zionists who seek to make peace with the Palestinian people through a two-state settlement. Yet he does not mention Rabbi Arik Ascherman or Rabbis for Human Rights, exemplars in our own generation of conscious devotion to nonviolence in the name of God and Torah.

The Protector by Elspeth Young

"Nowhere in the book’s fifty pages on the Bible is there any reference to the midwives Shifra and Puah, who use nonviolent civil disobedience to resist Pharaoh’s command to kill Israelite boy babies," the author writes. "The Protector" (Shifra) by Elspeth Young. Copyright 2003. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of Al Young Studios (www.alyoung.com).

Perhaps even more surprising, the reader looks in vain for any examination of warlike and peaceful Jewish ideologies in the twentieth-century Diaspora. Nowhere is there a discussion of the almost entirely nonviolent tactics used by the movement to free Soviet Jewry.

Nowhere do the names appear of any of the leaders in the American Jewish community who have struggled for peace and appealed to Judaism as the root of their commitment: Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Everett Gendler, Arthur Lelyveld, Michael Lerner, David Saperstein, and Sheila Weinberg; or Bella Abzug, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Murray Polner, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, the Shalom Center, and Tikkun magazine.

And nowhere do the names appear of those American Jews and Jewish institutions that strongly supported the American wars against Vietnam and Iraq: Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, and other so-called neoconservatives often centered in Commentary magazine.

Eisen acknowledges that he is leaving aside all the Diaspora expressions of Judaism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He explains this by saying, “Zionism is such a focal point of recent discussion about the issues of peace and violence in Judaism that it dwarfs all other modern manifestations of Judaism.” Considering the size and political power of the American Jewish community during the second half of the twentieth century and during the twenty-first century, and its influence on American policies of war or peace during that time, omitting that whole history seems astonishing.

By far the largest number of citations in Eisen’s bibliography are to scholars who have studied Judaism. With the caveats noted above, the book can be a useful jumping-off place for other scholars to examine peace and violence in the history of Judaism. It will be much less useful for those Jews who are struggling to shape a Judaism that can shape the future into a world that will be, as Eisen says in his dedication of the book to his children, “more peaceful than the one [they] have inherited.”

(To return to the Fall 2011 Table of Contents, click here. For an attractively formatted, ready-to-print PDF of this article, click here.)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center (theshalomcenter.org). His books include Seasons of Our Joy, Godwrestling—Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and Freedom Journeys (co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman). He has often been arrested in protests urging peace and eco-social justice.

Source Citation

Waskow, Arthur. 2011. Sword and Plowshare in Jewish Thought. Tikkun 26(4): 34.

tags: Books, Judaism, Rethinking Religion   
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