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The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism, by Robert Eisen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 265 pp. $29.95.
A very odd thing happened on the way to the Christian millennium: For most of the twentieth century, large-scale and brutal violence was associated with totalitarian, largely secular, regimes. To the average person in the West, the defeat or reform of these regimes would mean a peaceful world. But to almost everyone’s surprise, beginning in the 1990s and reaching a crescendo in the early 2000s, religion assumed the role of the most likely sponsor of gruesome attacks and systematic violence. Many scholars of religion were asked—or were themselves drawn—to explain this frightening trend; articles, conferences and books uncovered and explored the ambiguous relationship between organized religion and violence, whether comparatively or with focus on a particular tradition. Without doubt, Robert Eisen has given us the most comprehensive—and timely—analytic survey of the role of violence in Judaism to date.
Early in the book and again in its conclusion, Eisen, a noted scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy (and Islamic philosophy, which inspired it), explains how 9/11 prompted his foray outside his traditional academic realm: “I could no longer remain aloof from broad global concerns . . . in fact, I was in a better position to do something about those concerns than most” (p. viii). This normative impulse drives both the unique structure and rich content of The Peace and Violence of Judaism, to interesting, if at times confusing, effect.
Elaborating on his opening insight that “all major religions are ambiguous regarding the issues of peace and violence” (p. ix), Eisen takes us on a historical tour through Judaism’s major period literature: biblical, rabbinic, medieval rationalist, and medieval to modern mystical speculation. In each of these four chapters, we are naturally first introduced to the methodological issues and scholarly debates related to the sources available, and what can responsibly be said about them. We are then given a long “brief” showing the connection between texts of that period and either peace or violence, followed by an equally detailed and justified argument for the opposite by citing either contrary sources or alternate interpretations (Eisen deliberately alternates which connection he makes first). This highly original approach thus brings the reader into intimate contact with “the fundamental ambiguities in Judaism” (p. 8) by witnessing firsthand how select stories, texts, legal rulings, aggadic statements, or metaphysical assumptions of each period can lead to both peace and violence. Eisen as well marshals scholarly literature for both sides, well footnoted, showing us that no consensus exists on how to read the original sources or what they imply. Thus, any effort to connect Jewish sources intrinsically to either peace or violence is seen to be facile, partial, and subject to multiple interpretations. After each chapter, no reader is left firmly convinced of his or her original view.
His longest chapter is devoted to modern Zionism, the Jewish movement that was from the start most concerned with, and ultimately most involved in, violence. The scholarly ambience shifts from the mythic and literary to the real and historical; the arguments assume three-dimensionality as the emotional and intellectual stakes rise—is modern Zionism at its core a nationalist movement with ethical moorings, meant to ensure security for Jews, or is it a colonialist movement that secured territory and sovereignty for one group at the expense of another? Once again, the scholarly split (particularly among Israeli scholars) leaves the reader in the uneasy space of ambiguity, reinforced in Eisen’s conclusion.
It is precisely this honestly faced ambiguity that brings the author back to his original normative thrust. In the epilogue “Personal Reflections on Where We Go from Here,” Eisen argues that Jews must begin to acknowledge that “we cannot be guided solely by an analysis of Jewish texts . . . our only alternative is to go outside the texts and engage the real world” (p. 220). Relating the modern predicament of Jews in Israel to the situation faced by the Rabbis after 70 CE, Eisen suggests that the model of pragmatism and the survival instinct of the Jewish community—core to Jewish culture—should be the “criteria for deciding whether Jews should support a peaceful or violent reading of Judaism” (p. 228). And pragmatic survival demands implementing the intellectual approach Eisen modeled in this book—working hard to understand the other side, and humbly acknowledging that Judaism does not require a particular political position.
While Eisen’s book is bold and innovative, this reviewer found several weaknesses in the approach. First, with respect to biblical and rabbinic literature, Eisen’s arguments often feel like straw men until the scholar comes and historicizes them in the other direction. Thus, the Bible’s insistence on destroying Amalek—a precedent for violence—is put into an Ancient Near Eastern context or treated as mere myth and loses its force. Similarly the Rabbis’ strong insistence on the value of peace is taken as discouraging violence, until the scholar notes that Rome’s might left them no choice but to glorify quiescence. The negation felt predictable after a certain point.
Second, as the study of religion has pointed out over the last thirty years, post-Enlightenment talk about religious traditions tended to reify or essentialize them. Postmodern scholars now note the importance of avoiding talk about “-isms” and instead focusing on individuals or groups and the arguments they make which evolve and change. Granted, Eisen’s conclusion of internal ambiguity is tantamount to that of the postmodern critique, yet setting up his book—in its very title—to begin with a reified notion of “Judaism out there” seems inconsistent with the insights of contemporary scholarship.
Lastly, the study would have benefited from giving more attention to the evolution of Jews’ religious expressions in the modern period, especially in the form of denominations. Reform Judaism in particular had and has a lot to say about peace and violence, and its understanding of Judaism is largely absent from the work (aside from the historicizing of the Bible in Chapter 2).
Overall, Eisen has done a remarkable job of collating and critiquing the myriad claims about Jewish sources and their relationship to peace and violence. All future thinking on the subject will need to begin with this book.
Michael S. Berger