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Praying For Peace

About 15 years ago, I led a group of American college students to Ukraine to clean up an old Jewish cemetery that had been turned into the local garbage dump. 

In the course of our time there, we visited Babi Yar, a bucolic site outside of Kiev where over two days in September, 1941 the Nazis murdered 33,771 Jews. Sitting with my group, one of my students asked what I would have done if back in 1941, I was the young rabbi for a group of college age Jews. It was a horrible question, which I was blessed to answer only theoretically. What options would a young person have facing the Nazis? Flee? Pray? Fight? Collaborate?

After a while, I said I could only imagine leading us to band together and fight the Nazis, even if that meant our certain death.

It was - and is - a deeply unsatisfying answer.

I share this story not, God forbid, to praise violence, but to explore its roots.

The anti-colonialist writer Franz Fanon famously analyzed violence "as a cleansing force [that]... frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." The violence of the oppressed, he argues, is about achieving psychological goals, not political goals. At times, those who are oppressed can use violence to see themselves in a grander light. 

Questions of peace and violence are never addressed in a vacuum. In the rabbinic volume Derech Eretz Zuta, Rav Muna teaches, "justice, truth and peace are in fact one; Wherever there is justice there will be peace. And wherever there is peace there is justice."

I can remember well that moment at Babi Yar, when I glimpsed, even for a moment, the constant fear and humiliation that my ancestors, hunted and persecuted Jews, might have felt. I can imagine how Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, could have said “My life’s dream has now been realized: armed Jewish self-defense in the ghetto is now an accomplished fact.…I have been witness to the magnificent, heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.”

I am ashamed that I find resonance in those words, yet I fear that my praise of peace would be nothing more than self-congratulation, if I didn't acknowledge that I can imagine moments when violence could have been the path to self respect. 

This coming weekend, we will rightfully celebrate the heroic non-violence of Reverend Martin Luther King. We will implicitly and explicitly denounce those around our country and around the world who seek to rectify their injustices through violence, as well we should, for Reverend King showed the power of non-violence as a tactic. 

And yet, perhaps we would be well served to heed the words of Rav Muna, and imagine that there are young men and women in America and around the world who see no path towards truth, no path towards justice, and find a path to self-respect, if nothing else, through violence.

May 2016 be a year in which all of us, all who dwell on earth - in this country and around the world - can also enjoy justice and truth and peace.

These comments were originally delivered at the Buddhist Association of the United States Day of Prayer for World Peace on January 1, 2016. Video is available here.

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782