Judaic Perspectives on Nonviolence
By Rabbi Jonathan K. Crane, PhD
Though it would be inaccurate to claim that the Judaic textual tradition is pacifist through and through, it would be wrong to assert that the tradition abhors nonviolent action altogether. Pacifism, we should recall, is an overall belief that violence is morally wrong. On the other hand, nonviolence is a kind of social behavior that is perhaps inspired by pacifism or, more likely, by the idea that power derives from consent of the ruled. Nonviolence is action, pacifism an underlying worldview. It is therefore possible to distinguish between nonviolent pacifism, the belief that all forms of violence are morally condemnable, from nonlethal pacifism, the belief that unjust killing is morally wrong, and from anti-war pacifism, the belief that most kinds of warfare are morally unjustifiable.
If we take a broad look at the Judaic textual tradition, it appears to uphold anti-war pacifism. For example, the Ten Commandments explicitly rules that murder is prohibited, which intimates that killing is sometimes permissible. Indeed, insofar as capital punishment is at least theoretically apiece of Judaism’s legal repertoire, we can therefore rule out nonlethal pacifism. Both biblical and rabbinic materials repeatedly mention the necessity of using corporal punishment as a means to exact justice, as well as of using violence to defend oneself or others from unjust aggressors, which thus rules out nonviolent pacifism. And Deuteronomy 20 outlines the rules of war, rules that the rabbis take very seriously and expand upon to ensure that warfare is executed only in rare circumstances and battles are strictly regulated: hence, anti-war pacifism.
What of nonviolence itself? The biblical prohibition against murder inspired Talmudic rabbis to teach that it is better to be killed than to murder another (BT Pesachim 25b; BT Sanhedrin 74a). Admittedly, martyrdom is an extreme form of nonviolence, and invoking it as a foundation for pro-social nonviolent resistance seems misguided if not forced. Perhaps there are other sources that offer more reasonable Judaic motivations for nonviolent social change. Just as there are different kinds of violence, there are also many ways of engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution.
To begin with, in the face of direct or physical violence it is wise to avoid tit-for-tat strategies (Proverbs 24:29) despite the biblical promotion of lex talionis, the notion of proportionate retribution that, in its day, was a more just way of responding to injurious and lethal behavior (Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 19:16-21). Indeed, the rabbis insist that retribution refers to pecuniary punishments and not physical ones (BT Baba Kamma 83b-84a). Hence it would be better to treat animosity with friendliness (Exodus 23:5 [compare with Deuteronomy 22:4]; BT Baba Metzia 32b). Thus, in our personal lives, we should resist the temptation to strike back when hit. Other non-injurious ways are available to us to adjudicate conflicts and these are to be preferred.
In regard to structural violence in which social and political structures unrightfully impose upon classes of people, consider the rabbinic teaching of dina d’malchuta dina. Jews are bidden to abide by the laws of the land as long as those laws do not contravene Judaic strictures (religious and ritual, in particular) or unnecessarily punish a collectivity for the errors of an individual (MT Gezelah v’Aveidah 5.14; Ri Migash on BT Baba Batra 54b; SA Choshen Mishpat 369.8). Yet when broader circumstances unjustly endanger the whole community or even one (guilty) party within it, it would be better for the whole group to risk death than capitulate (YT Terumot 8.4; BT Baba Metzia 83b). Indeed, individuals should not comply with a regime’s unjust rules but rather prefer martyrdom (Shitah Mekubetzet, citing Ritva at BT Baba Metzia 83b). An even earlier source for nonviolent civil disobedience against oppressive regimes is the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to comply with Pharaoh’s genocidal policy (Exodus 1:15-21). Indeed, because of their nonviolent noncompliance they were rewarded by God with their own families. Might these texts suggest that in the face of structures that unduly oppress people, Jews can and should engage in nonviolent resistance?
What about in regard to a conflict over who gets to live where? For this particular kind of conflict, it may be useful to refer to a text that explicitly speaks of territorial disputes. When Abram and his cousin Lot came north from Egypt, each was too wealthy with livestock to reside on the same land without impinging on the other’s welfare. Scuffles broke out between their respective households. Abram acknowledged that because the current state of affairs was unsustainable a solution had to be found. And this is what he proposed: “Let us separate (hipared na me’alai): if you go north, I will go south; if you go south, I will go north” (Genesis 13:9).
We should note that Abram’s accurate assessment of the untenable nature of the status quo did not lead him to do a land grab unilaterally. On the contrary, he proposed his solution of separation verbally to his counterpart and gave to Lot the privilege of choosing land first. Lot made his choice (he went east across the Jordan where water was plentiful), and they parted company peacefully. In this way Abram nonviolently resolved a conflict that was quickly escalating to fisticuffs and had the potential to become lethal and uncontrollable. He de-escalated the conflict by taking seriously his counterpart’s interests, and he offered a non-zero-sum solution wherein one party would gain at the other party’s expense. It could be rightfully said that Abram put Lot’s interests before his own, yet nonetheless created a win-win opportunity achieved through nonviolence. Is it too much to claim that Abram’s creative conflict resolution became part of why God promises him his own territorial allotment immediately afterward?
The link between nonviolence and autonomy in the land of Israel is neither extreme nor only biblical. Consider for a moment the rabbinic teaching in the 2nd Century CE that if securing political independence in the land of Israel is a goal (admittedly, a problematic one at that), it can only be achieved through a vow to God not to use rebellious violence (BT Ketubot 110b-111a). In short, achieving political ends requires using political means, not force. To those who might retort by saying that the textual tradition promotes using violence in self- and communal-defense, they are correct as long as they also acknowledge that the tradition mandates that lethal force must be employed only as a last resort, that injurious force is preferred to lethal force, and that non-injurious force is preferred to injurious force. Just as this trend of thinking about defense leads toward nonviolent strategies, so too should our efforts to construct a just society be more nonviolent than otherwise.
That is, a just society requires peaceful civic engagement. This is an ancient observation championed in the bible. Not only should Jews seek peace and pursue it (bakesh shalom v’radfeihu, Psalms 34:15). Not only should Jews be pursuers of justice and seekers of Adonai (rodfei tzedek m’vakshei adonai, Isaiah 51:1). They should do both: for those who pursue justice and loving-kindness (rodef tzedakah v’chesed) will attain life, righteousness and honor (Proverbs 21:21). Ultimately, the labor of justice produces peace, calm and confidence, and people may dwell in peaceful homes, in secure dwellings, in untroubled resting places (Isaiah 32:16-17). Is this not what every community desires and seeks?