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The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism Hardcover – 24 Feb 2011


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This innovative exploration of the potential for the promotion of both peace and violence within Judaism arising from its inherent ambiguities leads Eisen to a thought-provoking consideration of constructive ethics and his conclusion that pragmatic concerns might legitimately be considered alongside the textual evidence in accepting a reading that Judaism inspires and promotes peace rather than violence. (Dorothy M. Peters, Journal of Semitic Studies)

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Professor of Religion and Director of the Judaic Studie Program, George Washington University

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Amazon.com: 12 reviews
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Robert Eisen "The Peace and Violence of Judaism." 21 Mar 2011
By Aron - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Rob Eisen's provocative and sophisticated book enables his readers, for the first time, to understand the complexities of peace and violence in Judaism by exploring the treatment of these topics in Jewish sources throughout the ages. He starts with biblical sources and then continues to modern Zionist thought with an excellent analysis of rabbinic, medieval and kabbalistic writings. The uniqueness of his book is that rather than merging opposing viewpoints within his chapters, he clearly divides each chapter into two. One section from the viewpoint of promoting peace, and the other from the viewpoint of promoting violence. This interesting structure assists the reader to come to his/her own conclusions as to which way the sources should be read. Eisen's book belongs on the shelf of any scholar interested in these confrontational topics. It contains excellent, sophisticated and readable interpretations and demystifies the often difficult contextual issues related to this topic.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Book offers balance, insight and hope 1 April 2011
By Robyn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book because it attempts to show the balance of sources in religions, in this case Judaism, that sometimes are in favor of violence and sometimes in favor of peace. The author takes the reader through many stages of Jewsih religious texts and history and does so with great skill, erudition and balance. I find it very hopeful because any honest approach to religion these days is bound to mke our world a little better, a little more tolerant. Relgions need this kind of honest and fair analysis. Also, the Jewish texts for peace are really isnpiring.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Apologetics & Reflections 3 Sep 2013
By L. King - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The approach taken by the Professor Eisen is a deliberate dialectic with himself that is strongly polarized in black and white. It selects different eras and milieus in Jewish history and gives arguments for and against Jewish social mores as being peaceful or violent. This is announced in his Introduction and I admit being apprehensive that a more blended approach would better suit the subject and be less stark. So was the author, but the feeling remained with me to the end. The author is also active in interfaith dialog with an interest in peacemaking and building bridges to non-Jews, Christians and Muslims in particular, and this shows up in his section on modern Zionism.

The book begins with the Bible and the themes of universalism vs particularism. All people are descended from Adam and Eve, a universal theme, but Abraham and his descendants are "chosen". A common meme of antisemitism is that this is a form of chauvinism or even racism towards others, but scholars can point to Genesis 12 which states that "all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Abraham)" and therefore share in the blessing, and that the theological implications of "choseness" here is more about a special set of obligations incumbent on Jews and does not preclude God caring for or having relationships with others. Then there are the moral problem of the injunction against the tribe of Amalek and the Canaanite conquest. Historically the argument was made that this was due to the extreme wickedness of both groups. It is problematic because God is ordering genocide, or at least tribalcide, which is the worst crime of the modern age, only slightly tempered by the fact that the narrative shows that the order was not fully carried out and historically may never have occurred. Nevertheless critics not only of Judaism but of religion in general point out that these episodes have inspired the rhetoric of European Christians in the Crusades and Puritans against the North American natives.

Conversely the Bible also preaches justice, peace and accommodation. The wicked are punished, God will act as a judge and nations will beat their swords into plowshares. When violence is portrayed it is for the most part presented in a negative light, and God is shown to favor the meek - Abel vs Cain, Isaac vs Esau. Joseph offers his services to Pharaoh and Egypt, his brothers are forgiven. In Exodus 22:20 the Jews are commanded not to oppress the stranger, in Ruth the stranger is not only welcomed into the fold but her descendant David becomes king.

At this point I felt the need to interject the following observation: that through most of history it was considered to be honourable to be a warrior. King David is both a man of war and a peacemaker, as is the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) for Muslims. WW II and Korea were considered to be honourable and Just wars, at least from the POV of the Allies. Vietnam however made many Americans ashamed of militarism. I see Eisen's desire to present an idealized meekness as an apologetic against violence. IMV the historic record should stand as is.

The second section takes place in the rabbinic era which began in the wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish kingdom between 66 and 135 CE. What seems out of place to me as a reader is that here Eisen author equates the dichotomy violence and peace to whether or not Jews had a positive or negative attitude towards the dominant non-Jewish society. Eisen argues that quite often this animosity was justified given the behaviour of non-Jews, pointing out accounts of Roman, Christian and Muslim atrocities and discriminatory practices against Jews, and foreign conquerors before them. Eisen mentions Katz's observation that these attitudes were moot as non-Jews had their own dominant legal systems and no need to recognize the authority Jewish law.

The fourth chapter considers the positions of medieval Jewish philosophers between the 10th and 16th centuries followed by a brief discussion of Jewish mysticism in chapter 5. There not a great deal to say here as again Jews were not empowered to commit violence, so only attitudes can be commented on. He also points out that the rabbis were uncomfortable with elements of Jewish law that appeared to discriminate against non-Jews and so developed progressive responses (pp77) such as that of 14th century Rabbi Meiri who innovatively ruled that earlier injunctions applied only to idolaters. However Eisen doesn't connect this, or Maimonides proposal that prior to going to war an invitation to peace must be made, to similar positions in Islam, which would illustrate how different communities were able to listen to each other during that era. The 5th chapter briefly looks at Kabalism. There are examples in the writings of these mystics of negative attitudes, not enough to deter a derivative Christian Kabbalistic movement, but as the Kabbalists themselves tended not to engage the material world, there is little to say about the movement towards the issues of peace and violence.

Zionism is the final topic and represents the return of Judaism to the historical stage of nations. If Israel cannot use force then it may be the only nation that would be so restricted. Here the author's sense of balance disappears for Eisen only presents Jewish settlers in a negative light The majority he excuses - many are in the west bank for economic reasons and he tries to narrow down his objections to an estimated 5% that he considers the most irredentist. There's a good and informative summary of the positions and influence of rabbis Avraham and Tsevi (his son) Kook which shows how a sector of the religious community came to embrace Zionism, a de riguer marginalization of Kahane, but there are number of avenues and opportunities that, in a rush to judgement, are missed: personalities such as the late Rabbi Froman who was a great advocate for engagements, political differences in approach between Sephardic, Ashkenazic and former Soviet Jews, and attitudes towards ethical employment and relations both from within the Histadrut (the major labour union) and from the emerging 21st century business class. IMV, even given the limited space to deal with the topic, a fuller mosaic would have been more revealing and forgiving.

The concluding chapter begins with the author attempting to reconcile rabbinic thought with the Pragmatism of William James and the Consequentialism of John Dewey, both of which he admires, but there is only a partial fit - to be expected if one bringing in new furniture into multi-generational home. He also lays out his own political stance on the Arab/Israeli conflict which, not surprisingly, is fairly standard middle left - foreshadowed by preferences shown earlier in the text. And though he faults the Abrahamic religions for their history of violence he also credits them for developing an ethic of peace. In Eisen's view it is the rabbinic tradition that has modified Zionism from other nationalisms and made it less violent and more responsive and introspective of an ethical relationship to the Arabs than might otherwise have occurred. The corollary would be to ask how Muslim ethics have responded in turn.

Within Jewish mythology there is the belief that within each individual there is a both a tendency for good (yetzer ha-tov) and a tendency for evil (the yetzer ha-ra). There's a story in the Talmud that while the 2nd temple was being rebuilt, the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish assembly of judges, were concerned that the Jewish people might be led astray by the yetzer ha-ra, so they physically captured it and tied it up. And initially all was peaceful and good, except people stopped going to work and the chickens stopped laying eggs. So they concluded that both inclinations were required for the world to function and they let the yetzer ha-ra go. For as the Good Book says, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

Different readers may make the mistake of only taking away part of Eisen's analysis - it is worthwhile to consider the whole.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Peace, Violence, and Textual Ambiguity 19 Mar 2011
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
A Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at George Washington University, Robert Eisen recounts at the beginning of his new book, "The Peace and Violence of Judaism" (2011), published by Oxford University Press, how the events of September 11, 2001 impacted his life and career. Eisen is a specialist in medieval Jewish philosophy. Before September 11, he pursued his knowledge of this subject and tried to impart something of its fascination and importance to his young students. He tended to avoid participation in public affairs.

With September 11, Eisen realized that "the problem of religious violence has become one of the most -- if not the most -- pressing issue of our time." (p. 3) With the encouragement of colleagues, Eisen sought ways of bringing his knowledge to bear upon reducing violence in the Middle East and working towards peace, to the extent possible. Among other activities, Eisen used his knowledge to explore a difficult subject of applied religious ethics -- Eisen studies complex Jewish religious and philosophical texts to discuss the extend to they countenance, or reject, the use of violence. In exploring this broad question, Eisen found he had to address an even broader one: what is the attitude of Jewish religious and philosophical texts towards people and groups that are not Jewish. Eisen's book is part of what he hopes will become part of a larger project among scholars of religion. He invites other scholars, particularly Christians and Muslims, to examine their own texts, to read them carefully and candidly and to determine what parts promote peace and what parts promote violence. Eisner writes: (p. 10)

"The lack of balance in the treatment of religious ethics involving peace and violence is a problem by no means confined to Jews. Representatives of religious communities are often unwilling to critique their own traditions, to see the ugliness that resides in them alongside the beauty. They are often quick to criticize other religious traditions for their failings but exhibit an inability to recognize that their own traditions are part of the problem."

The larger part of Eisen's book, accordingly, is taken up with an exploration of the different viewpoints and attitudes about violence and peace that Jewish sources express over the millenia. Beyond a committment to the right of self-defense in virtually all the sources, Eisen finds a great deal of ambiguity in the texts in terms of their support of violence and in terms of their understanding of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. In five successive chapters, Eisen considers Jewish attitudes towards peace and violence in the Bible, Rabbinnic Judaism(which is considered binding by Orthodox Judaism), Medieval Jewish Philosophy, the Kaballah (Jewish mystical tradition), and Modern Zionism (which becomes a stand-in for post-Englightenment Jewish thought). Eisen offers an effective mode of presentation which may not please all readers. Each chapter begins with an introduction. Following the opening comments Eisen presents two competing interpretations of the respective texts, one of which supports a conclusion that Judaism countenances the use of violence against enemies, the other of which supports a conclusion that Judaism is a religion of peace. The two positions play off against each other before Eisen offers concluding observations. Eisen recognizes that the two positions developed reflect a polarization, but he insists that they both reflect engagement with and plausible interpretations of texts. He writes of the two positions, "they represent voices in my own head and heart that have been engaged in discussion for the past several years as I have wrestled with Jewish ethics. On one level, this study is thus quite personal. However, the viewpoints presented here are not so personal that others will be unable to relate to them. They have been constructed in large part with the help of insights of previous thinkers and scholars about texts that are often discussed in treatments of Jewish ethics." (p. 7)

In each of the textual sources he examines, Eisen finds competing strands. He finds that the texts are ambiguous on many levels and will support many different readings, including the two alternative positions he presents in each chapter. The knowledge and love of scholarship presented in this book is impressive and eloquent. The book promotes engagement with reading and with thinking. The footnotes are detailed and add scholarly references or nuances that supplement the treatment in the text. Besides presenting his authorities for the differing positions on peace and violence, Eisen discusses in substantial detail the many factors creating ambiguity in religious texts. These texts were composed over a long period of time by many different hands. They reflect many threads and ideas. There is substantial semantic ambiguity in the texts, taken section by section or as a whole, (much of the semantic ambiguity is encouraged by the nature of ancient Hebrew). Issues arise about privileging one section of text over another section in the event of inconsistencies. And important questions about the extent to which historical circumstances are to be created in interpreting texts, as well as literary considerations, also make finding definitive textual conclusions a virtually impossible task. In reading Eisen, I was reminded of the antimonies in Kant -- where the great philosopher lined up two competing arguments for differing philosophical positions in his text and concluded that reason itself could not decide between them.

Following his textual analysis, Eisen offers two concluding chapters to try to unravel their significance. These chapters are less convincing than the textual analyses, and it is unclear what effect they might have on the complex issues of the Middle East. In the conclusion proper, Eisen reiterates the hope he offered in the introduction:

"It is my hope that my analysis will serve as inspiration for scholars of other religions to examine their own traditions and engage in the same kind of reflection I have provided here regarding Judaism. My plea is directed particularly at scholars in the Abrahamic communities. The violence that the Abrahamic religions have brought to the world in recent years is perhaps the greatest threat to the well-being of humanity in our day and age, but the most effective antidote to that violence may lie in the peaceful dimension of these very same religions. Gaining a proper understanding of this duality may therefor be crucial for ensuring that it is peace that will prevail, not violence." (215)

Eisen offers a more personal coda of a conclusion in which he acknowledges that religious texts themselves are insufficient to resolve questions of war and peace. He urges attention to the American pragmatist philosophers, Pierce, James, and Dewey for insight in formulating responses to conflict. I was pleased to see this reference as I have long admired American pragmatism. He affirms his own commitment to religious pluralism and nonexclusivism. And he calls again for people of all faith to work together with their texts and find trust, understanding and commonality. Eisen's book offers a concrete implementation of activites towards religious understanding that were recommended in a broad way in a recent book "Toward a True Kinship of Faiths" (2010) by the Dalai Lama Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together It does not appear that Eisen was, in fact, influenced by this specific book.

Eisen has put his prodigious knowledge of Jewish sources at the service of working towards common understanding and peace. It was inspiring, instructive, and inherently valuable to explore these texts with Eisen. One can only offer hope for the broader project.

Robin Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Thoughtful pro and con analysis 16 May 2011
By Wayne Dynes - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Scriptures of the Abrahamic Triad--the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur'an--have enormous intrinsic interest: historical, anthropological, literary, and ritualistic, But these are not the only reasons for studying them, for through the centuries they have functioned in various ways as guides for human behavior. For better and (oftentimes) for worse, this activism has continued down to the present. In the Abrahamic Scriptures, one of the most disturbing aspects of the link between texts and behavior stems from the monotheistic tradition--one might almost say, imperative-- of violence.

This issue has been addressed anew in this searching book by Professor Robert Eisen. Right away, Mr. Eisen addresses one of the thorniest issues in the Hebrew Bible, the genocide of the Canaanites and Amalekites as a function of God's election ("chosenness") of the ancient Israelites. He follows this brief, but horrifying recitation with a survey of scholarly endeavors to mitigate or counter the perception of divine authorization for these efforts at elimination of entire peoples. This reflects his principle of "double reading," whereby he finds evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that point in both directions. While this approach might be termed "dialectic," it also has something in common with a high-school debate, in which we hear first the speaker for violence, then the peace speaker, then back to the first, and so forth.

After the initial discussion of the Hebrew Bible, Mr. Eisen discusses the issue in the early rabbis, the Kabbala, and modern Zionism, both secular and and religious. It is this last phase, one that is occurring right now, that is most troubling with regard to the tendency to treat the Scriptures as a guide for action.

The book deals only with the Judaic tradition, but informed readers can easily extend the insights to address the two successor faiths of Christianity and Islam. Mr. Eisen mentions, but does not accept, the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible, an assemblage of diverse texts produced at various times, has no consistent overall ethical stand on violence, or indeed any other issue of significance. Instead, it serves as a quarry for various interpretations.

This volume is carefully researched, clearly written, and well organized. In addition to the main theme, there are a number of valuable collateral observations by Mr. Eisen. I recommend it wholeheartedly as a counterbalance to other, more somber accounts of the issues.
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