Almost the very first stories in the Bible are of violence; expulsion from Eden is soon followed by angry fratricide. And as Jonathan Sacks reminds us, we are the stories we tell.
Many approaches to understanding violence in religion either link it to an imperative to holiness, as in holy wars fought to preserve a particular ideology, or else commentators narrow the focus in order to ignore our more difficult traditional texts, highlighting instead those that affirm our own morality. A good example of the latter are the texts in Deuteronomy which require trying to negotiate peace before attacking a city and even then leaving an escape route for its inhabitants.
Some see violence as a natural extension of religion, blaming it for creating “us and them”, a narrative which will always lead to imbalances of power and perceived value of the different groups. So, for example, the internal patriarchal suppression of women can be supported by religious texts, as can the view that those who do not share the same religious worldview are lesser than us and are unsavable and animalistic.
Monotheism has been blamed for creating a sense of superiority and intolerance among its adherents, as the perfect crucible for seeing the other as “less than” us. Supercessionist theologies regularly diminish and dishonour that which came before.
But is religion actually a contributor to violence or is it a way of constraining it?
Aggression is older than love. Violence is both existentially human and a force that belongs to the natural world. Two recent books discuss religious violence and bring refreshing nuance to a vexed subject.
Asking Does Judaism condone Violence?, Mittelman frames the question in the idea of holiness and, using biblical texts, constructs a clear case for severing the two concepts. Unpacking the complexity of what holiness can be — value, aspiration or property — he reminds us that holiness is normative in Judaism, a way to perfect the world.
Holiness maps on to goodness but is conceptually different from it, though entwined with it. In reality, holiness encompasses both ritual and mundane worlds, and he asserts it is an imbalance of these that leads to ethical derangement; if we care more for the ritual than the practical, or more for the quotidian than the sacred, we will inevitably lose focus on morality, leading ultimately to our justifying violence as religiously permitted. One need only look at the threats to a non-Orthodox rabbi recently in Jerusalem, where he was told his soul was “less-than” and he deserved to be butchered.
Judaism did not evolve a morality from the ritual system to the ethical one; both are intrinsic to and rooted in our tradition. Our prophets did not create an ethical worldview, but opposed the presumed sufficiency of a solely ritual one, demanding that holiness should expand beyond the Temple cult and interact with morality to mutual benefit.
Our tradition neither condones nor rejects all violence; it records it and critiques its use. It understands the primal nature of violence, recognising there are times when violence might be an appropriate response, but demanding too that we should weigh such a response against human suffering and the ethical and social imperatives collected under the rubric of the holiness code.
We have numerous examples of how religion constrains the violence that is integral to humanity. So the tribe of Levi are recorded in the Bible as violent in their defence of “holiness”. From Jacob’s deathbed blessing, where he curses Levi’s anger and scatters them among the other tribes to weaken them, to the Mosaic prescription that ensures the Levites become landless priests, dependent on others for their food and never mobilised for army service, we see how the Bible works to limit structural violence.
Rabbinic Judaism continues this path, assigning many problematic ideologies to a theoretical messianic future. Maimonides explicitly distances emotion from justice, writing that “there is no vengeance in the commandments of the Torah, but compassion mercy and peace in the world”.
Violence is certainly done in the name of religion. The rise of nationalism has brought it back as a live issue for Jews as the battle for the Land of Israel and its inhabitants masquerades as a holy war, and the same behaviour of dehumanising the other and of prioritising ritualistic religion over ethical imperatives surfaces once more.
It is our turn to challenge this distortion, to remind those who would abuse the idea of holiness and desecrate what is really sacred, that their justifications for violence are neither holy nor good. We have just celebrated Chanukah, whose story of military victory is deliberately glossed into one of ordinary trust in God. As Zechariah says to those who would use violence to establish themselves on the land: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says God”.
Does Judaism Condone Violence? By Alan L. Mittleman
Confronting Religious Violence edited Richard A. Burridge and Jonathan Sacks
Baylor University Press/SCM, £25
Sylvia Rothschild is rabbi of Lev Chadash Progressive Synagogue in Milan