Pursuing Peace in a World at War

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While individuals in Paris claimed religious sanction for grotesque acts of bloodshed, rabbinical students learned how Judaism — and other religions — can offer wisdom, tools and inspiration for the transformation of conflict, both at home and abroad.

While the world’s attention was captivated by violence in Paris last week, a different, quieter, drama unfolded in suburban Philadelphia. Over four days, eight rabbinical students and five rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote immersed themselves in the study of “The Rabbi as Rodef Shalom/Pursuer of Peace.” In Paris, individuals claimed religious sanction for grotesque acts of bloodshed. In Philadelphia, students learned how Judaism — as well as other religions — can offer wisdom, tools and inspiration for the transformation of conflict, both at home and abroad.

Participants engaged in traditional study of Jewish texts — biblical, rabbinic, medieval and Chasidic — and in a range of experiential training exercises designed to deepen understanding of the dynamics of conflict and build skills for intervening in conflict in ways that enhance and deepen relationship. My colleague, Rabbi  Daniel Roth, taught that hevruta study, the time-honored Jewish mode of text study, with two individuals bent over a sacred book together, arguing for different perspectives and bringing their own life experience to bear on ancient teachings, is an indigenous Jewish method of conflict resolution. Wrestling multiple meanings from an ancient text, students practice the art of acknowledging multiple perspectives on any issue, a key skill for conflict resolution.


Throughout the week, the rabbis and rabbis-to-be studied key Jewish concepts and practices of conflict transformation: the practice of machloket l’shem shamayim (sacred controversy), empathy for an adversary’s point of view, recognition of the spark of the divine in all parties to a conflict, the art of tochacha (constructive feedback) and spiritual practices that strengthen the capacity to act wisely and constructively even in the midst of painful encounters.

This was no mere academic exercise. The wisdom texts we studied and the techniques we practiced were immediately applied to real-life conflicts within families and communities.

In one particularly powerful moment, a rabbi sat in the center of the room, convincingly role-playing her own sister’s political tirade, expressing positions on policy issues offensive to most of us in the room. A courageous student stepped forward to challenge the speaker’s assumptions, doing so with deep respect rather than the reactive, aggressive response that so often comes more naturally. The speaker was so disarmed that the argument immediately ended. It was a moment of deep learning for all.

For rabbis and students alike, the often-contentious conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frequently came to mind as an example of intracommunal conflict. Everyone present knew of many instances in which rabbis and community leaders have attacked one another and been attacked for their deeply held views, and the fabric of relationships within congregations has been torn because of the inability to live with diverse opinions within communities. These rabbis and rabbis-to-be left the training with renewed clarity and confidence about leading their communities in constructive conversation, even across the most passionate political divides.

The learning culminated on Jan. 11, when a multifaith group of clergy and religious leaders gathered for a half-day workshop, “Seek Peace and Pursue It: Becoming Peace Builders in our Communities.” Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Quaker and other leaders gathered in a spirit of warm camaraderie, particularly against the background of the deaths in Paris the previous Friday afternoon. When asked what came to mind in response to the word “peace,” many responded with clear-eyed realism and even despair, reflecting the feeling of so many that the forces of violence seem to be ascendant in our world.

But these leaders, eager to create a different reality, joyously reached across religious divides to study and practice Jewish wisdom on conflict transformation. Participants studied the biblical character of Aaron, viewed in Rabbinic Judaism as an exemplary “lover and pursuer of peace,” and shared their own personal models of “peace builders” in their lives. We studied challenging Jewish texts about relations with “the enemy,” and practiced stepping inside the worldview of an antagonist in a communal conflict, learning to appreciate the perspective and the humanity of those with whom we profoundly disagree.

We examined the climax of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, recognizing how different communities of Jews have read this story as demonstrating either the possibility of reconciliation between forsworn enemies or of eternal conflict between Jews and others.

Surely no week of study and training can resolve the problem of violence in the world. But these religious leaders gave the lie to the widely held view that religion is only a source of conflict, violence and hate in the world. In Paris and around the world, millions grieved and protested the distorted use of religion to inspire aggression and hate. In Philadelphia, groups of religious leaders strengthened their knowledge and skills to harness the power of religion for good, for life and for peace. l

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a native of Philadelphia, is the author of the recently published From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace. She co-taught the course at RRC with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, a talmudic scholar and founding director of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution in Jerusalem (pcjcr.pardes.org).

 

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