Jewish Ideas of Peace & Nonviolence

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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.

Avoiding Conflict and Violence

Indeed, when war is declared, the Torah requires that peace be offered prior to commencing an attack. "When you come near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim shalom to it" (Deuteronomy 20:10). Admittedly, in this context, shalom means something more like "submission" than "peace." Nonetheless, biblical morality opposes a violent solution when a nonviolent solution is possible.

In addition, the rabbis of the Talmud established parameters for discretionary wars of aggression that make them virtually impossible to declare today. For one, the Sanhedrin (the traditional Jewish high court) must be consulted. Today there is no Sanhedrin, though some thinkers would extend this ruling to any equivalent body of representation, such as the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). In addition, the urim v'tumim, the priestly breastplate and oracle, must be consulted to determine the probability of victory. The urim v'tumim, however, no longer exist.

Finally, permitted wars do not trump obligations to fulfill commandments, and thus one is not allowed to begin a non-commanded war (i.e., any war that is not either defensive, or against the seven nations of biblical Israel or the biblical nation of Amalek) unless it is probable that commandments will not need to be transgressed. This is hardly feasible (imagine a war that takes a break every Saturday!).

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