Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition is part of a growing body of literature written by progressive Jews, Christians, and Muslims seeking to articulate alternative visions to those of the Religious Right, the Republican Party, and other conservative forces. This burgeoning literary subfield includes works by Michael Lerner, Obery Hendricks, and Omid Safi.
The book includes a brief introduction by the editors and 46 essays, poems, prayers, and photographs by an eclectic group of religious and secular Jews (and one non-Jewish contributor) from North America and Israel (and one from England). The majority of the pieces deal with issues of war and peace—with a particular focus on Israel/Palestine—and various forms of nonviolent political action.
Among the pieces I found most compelling were Yitzhak Frankenthal’s “To Be a Free Nation in Our Land” and Arthur Waskow’s “Violence and Nonviolence in Jewish Thought and Practice.” Frankenthal describes how the abduction and murder of his young son, Arik, by Hamas terrorists led him on an impassioned journey to become a peace activist. A religious Jew and avid Zionist, Frankenthal believes that the occupation is, in fact, the “worst form of terror” perpetrated in the region. He speaks with pain and embarrassment about the ways in which the Israeli government (including both left- and right-wing leaders) has degraded the Palestinian people over the last four decades and has contributed to the creation of a culture of violent resistance among young Arabs. While sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, Frankenthal also makes it clear that he does not support their attacks on Israeli civilians: “I am opposed to violence of all forms, be it Israeli or Palestinian. I am unwilling to justify the Palestinian logic of despair, as I am an Israeli—and it is my family and [me] that these attacks are aimed at.”
Waskow, a leader of the Jewish renewal movement and an outspoken liberal activist, writes about the evolution of Jewish views on war and violence and the need for contemporary Jews to create a peaceful religious culture in dialogue with the Jewish tradition and other sources of wisdom (ancient and modern). In discussing his own vision of peace, Waskow distinguishes between Gandhi’s model of “absolutist” pacifism and Martin Buber’s “sliding scale” of political action. Following Buber’s lead, he states that while “an activist may use certain limited forms of violence in extreme necessity,” she or he must be aware of the corrosive effects of such behavior on the individual and his or her community.
I HAVE TWO basic criticisms of Peace, Justice, and Jews. First, as a religious activist, I am disappointed that so few of the contributors engage any classical Jewish sources—biblical, rabbinic, philosophical, or mystical—in any depth. With the exception of Waskow and a handful of others, most of the writers simply quote a few well-known verses or aphorisms to support their claims, without discussing the historical or literary contexts of these quotations or the complexities of interpreting an ancient or pre-modern text in a post-modern era.
Frankly, this is a chronic issue among progressive Jewish activists, who often lack the knowledge and/or commitment to traditional Jewish life and thought to do anything more than pluck a few edifying statements from the prophets or elsewhere. But one cannot reclaim a tradition (as the subtitle of the book states) without serious engagement with its religious and ethical teachings.
Second, I think the anthology would have been stronger had the editors chosen to narrow their focus and include a smaller number of essays. The few articles dealing with issues other than war and peace or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feel out of place, like tokens added to round out the collection. Some of the articles also feel dated or repetitious and could have been left out since they were published elsewhere.
Despite these criticisms, this anthology is an important resource for progressive Jews and others involved in the pursuit of justice and peace. It contains several thoughtful and inspiring reflections by talented and compassionate individuals, actively engaged in the struggle to heal the world. I appreciate the editors’ decision to include the voices of more radical and lesser-known figures along with recognizable scholars and Jewish leaders. This book will help deepen the conversation about Judaism and social justice in the United States and Israel.
Rabbi Or N. Rose is associate dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.