Jewish Ideas of Peace & Nonviolence

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The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, denotes a sense of completion, perfection–shlemut. In fact, in the Bible, shalom means “well being” or “prosperity,” not just “peace.” 

Thus, in Judaism, peace is not only the opposite of war, it is an ideal state of affairs. In this sense, peace–perfection–is something that will not be totally achieved until the messianic era. When the Messiah comes, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4), but this will be part of a general societal harmony and perfection.war and peace quiz

The fact that true peace is an eschatological dream, however, does not mean that it is not a Jewish value in the here-and-now. In the Talmud, peace is one of the most esteemed values.

According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, three things preserve the world: truth, justice, and peace (Avot 1:18). Peace, however, seems to take precedence even over truth, as the Talmud permits deviation from truth in order to establish peace. In addition, there is a whole category of rabbinic ordinances established mipnei darkhei shalom, in the interest of peace. For example, the Talmud says that Jews are to provide sustenance for non-Jewish poor people mipnei darkhei shalom.

There is even a sense that peace is more important than loyalty to God. In response to Hosea 4:17 (“Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.”), the Midrash says, “even if Israel is tied to idols, leave him, as long as peace prevails within it” (Genesis Rabbah 38:6). Elsewhere the Talmud says, “If in order to establish peace between husband and wife, the name of God, which was written in holiness, may be blotted out, how much more so to bring about peace for the world as a whole.”

Perhaps nothing exhibits the importance of peace more than the fact that almost every major Jewish prayer–the Amidah, Kaddish, Priestly Blessing, Grace After Meals–concludes with an appeal for peace.

And yet, Judaism is hardly pacifistic. There are clearly times when Judaism permits, and even requires, war. Jews have on occasion embraced nonviolence, even martyrdom, as a response to conflict, but not out of a sense that violence is categorically inappropriate, rather because in those situations nonviolence was the best tactical option. Nonetheless, the minimization of violence is certainly a Jewish value.

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