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Some Thoughts on Violence

by Brent Spodek | Published on May 3, 2011 in The Emek Project

We’re not quite done with the passover story in my house.

Noa, my almost four year old daughter asks again and again for “the Egypt story,” and again and again, she gets hung up once people start dying. “Why did everyone die?” she asks? “Why did all the Egypt people drown?”

I really want to tell her a different story, a story that sounds a lot more like the way we try to teach her to deal with conflict. “You see, Noa, the Egyptians weren’t sharing all the things they had, and that was making the Israelites feel bad. Then, however, Moses used his words and told the Egyptians that they way they were acting made the Israelites feel bad…”

I know that isn’t the way the world works, at least not most of the time. Its not even the way the play­ground works. But it is the way I want it to work.

In the fall of 1938, Gandhi wrote that the Jews of Europe should prac­tice nonvi­o­lence [satya­graha] against Hitler, because he “refused to believe that the Germans as a nation have no heart,” and if they saw the nonvi­o­lent resis­tance of the Jews, they would turn on Hitler. In response, the theolo­gian Martin Buber wrote Gandhi a letter asking, “do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concen­tra­tion camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concen­tra­tion camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter? I cannot assume that you know of this… or the things you say would not cross your lips” He went on to say that the non-violent resis­tance which Gandhi prac­ticed against the British would lead to the destruc­tion of the Jews if they prac­ticed it against the Nazis.

As hard as it is for me to accept, violence has saved lives. I don’t cry over Pharaoh’s army, and I know that in my personal gallery of heros, I have a place for Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the armed, violent and ulti­mately suicidal Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

But while some­times neces­sary, violence isn’t the path I want to cele­brate or glorify. It’s not the path I want to teach Noa. We Americans killed one of our enemies this week, and I’ll leave it to more strategic minds than mine to assess whether that advanced our pursuit of peace. But I know that killing, even of this wretched man, is not some­thing I want to celebrate.

In the Gemara (Berakhot 10a) Beruriah, who is one of the few well educated women of the time, quotes Psalm 104:35, which is usually read to mean “May sinners be removed from the earth” such that it reads, “May sins be removed from the earth.” She teaches that one should pray for the wicked to repent, but not for them to die. When that trans­for­ma­tion happens, that is cause for celebration.

This sort of repen­tance, which is hard to capture in an action movie, does happen. Sheikh Talal Sidr, one of the founders of Hamas, heard the voice of Allah come to him in the middle of the night and say, “You’ve been a warrior for blood; now be a warrior for peace.” He renounced the violence of Hamas and sought the liber­a­tion of his people through peaceful means. Through the efforts of my incred­ible friend Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, I’ve stood in his home in Hebron and even davvened Ma’ariv there. Transformations get less press than dramatic assas­si­na­tions, but they do happen. Rabbi Michael Weisser, who engaged the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska KKK with love, took him into his home when he was sick, and even helped him leave the Klan and convert to Judaism (!).

So next year, I’ll cele­brate Passover and even sing the Song at the Sea, valorizing the mighty God who set us free. But perhaps its time to find a way to cele­brate those who pursue justice without violence. I’m open to suggestions.

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