by Rabbi Chana Thompson Shor


Jewish tradition and communities have apparent dichotomies regarding conflict: Traditionally, Jews tend toward disagreement and disputation, but have an equal passion for peace. And while Jews are idealistic about their role in the redemption of the world — by exemplifying civility and the harmonious rule of law — they can also be deeply at odds with each other in any argument that touches on the issue of Jewish survival. Need these things really be in conflict?”

In From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace (Orbis Books, $25), Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi, looks to the rabbinic ideal of controversy “for the sake of Heaven,” in which ideas are opposed for a higher purpose. In such disputes, respect for one’s opponent is maintained, minimizing the dangers of polarization and ruptured relationships. And in our tradition conflict is not a purely negative phenomenon. As one example, she gives the view of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav that disagreement is like the kabbalistic “self-contraction” of God, which made space for the world to be created. Conflict theory presents much the same idea: that in the disjunction and distance created by “constructive conflict” new solutions to problems can arise. Conflict is therefore not the enemy of peace, but in fact can be its generator since, as Eilberg notes, peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but a condition of wholeness in the world.

Conflict is thus an opportunity (admittedly one with built-in hazards). In its presence, people can either build on, or destroy, relationships, depending on which human traits come to the fore. Thus the religious aspect of Eilberg’s distillation includes not only outward action, but also an inward discipline in the form of mussar (a system of Jewish moral discipline beginning in the 10th century), to cultivate “peacebuilding” responses to conflict, rather than unproductively defensive or angry reactions.

The term “peacebuilding” normally refers to the work done by civil leaders to create favorable conditions for official “peacemaking” (the latter being the purview of diplomats and other government professionals). However, Eilberg argues that the peacebuilding is something anyone can do: interpersonally, within and between communities, with those from different faith traditions, and even — in a modest but significant way — with those considered serious adversaries.

In addition to an account of her own experience with interreligious dialogue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and dialogue between Jews on Israel, Eilberg brings to her discussion of conflict and peace in the Jewish tradition a wealth of rabbinic insight. Her analysis is not, however, dominated by a scholarly perspective. Nor, in her examination of conflict in and involving the Jewish community, does she allow her understanding of conflict or communications theory to predominate. Eilberg brings them together, as a practical answer to the commandment of Psalm 34 to “seek peace and pursue it,” creating a useful guide for the Jewish peacebuilder.

Like Eilberg, Penny Rosenwasser, in Hope Into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears, (AK Press, $21.95) notes that overriding fear for Jewish survival can impede the fulfillment of our obligations to others. Eilberg sees this fearfulness as an obstacle in relating to our adversaries’ concerns; Rosenwasser cites it as leading to an ethno- or religiocentric “Is it good for the Jews?” mentality, one obstacle to the generosity needed to pursue justice.

Rosenwasser’s remedy begins with awareness of the damage done to us as a people. She lays out a concise history of anti-Semitism (and its different faces), climaxing with the Holocaust and the legacy of trauma and fear from which many still suffer. Rosenwasser explores how the fear engendered by anti-Semitism and related oppressions such as racism, sexism and homophobia, can affect the ways Jews view themselves. She takes the position that greater concern for others is the natural result of healing one’s defensive stance, achieving healthy self-love.

While Eilberg notes the opposition of some of her colleagues, her work can likely speak comfortably to a range of readers. Rosenwasser’s book, though, is likely to raise hackles to her right. She is outspoken on behalf of justice for the Palestinian people, and her characterization of that conflict is in places still inaccurate and one-sided. However, her account of her own activism is compelling, particularly her certainty that anti-Semitism, in addition to being an abuse that must be identified, is an obstacle in the Jewish struggle for the human rights of others.

Rosenwasser, between two extremes, says, in essence (to the left, pro-Palestinian crowd): “If you’re not standing up for yourself as a Jew by identifying anti-Semitism, and rooting out the internalized kind, you’re missing the credibility you need to advocate effectively for others,” and (to the “Is it good for the Jews?” crowd): “If you’re so focused on anti-Semitism that you’re advocating only for yourself, you’re not pursuing justice.”

This book may show many on the left the historical reasons for Israel’s defensive stance, as well as highlighting the dangers of demonization for those on both sides of the question. She describes some who learned, from their experience of the Shoah, a sensitivity for the oppressed, rather than seeing themselves primarily as victims and potential victims. Consequently, it is curious that she does not emphasize the role of Jews’ having internalized the message of our foundational story of trauma and liberation, the Exodus: That rulers and slaves are made of the same stuff; that when we have privilege our only “safety” — and that of others — lies in refraining from the abuse of power, and fighting oppression and injustice wherever we find it.

Rabbi Chana Thompson Shor is a Conservative rabbi, the first woman mesader gittin (preparer of Jewish religious divorce), a Judaic fabric artist, and a writer.