Author Archive

  1. Choosing A Peaceful Path In a Time Of Violence

    July 3, 2014 by Shelly

    In Pirke Avot, we learn that one mitzvah leads,even causes another mitzvah to be done. Likewise, one transgression leads to another. It seem that, in human affairs, we do tend to imitate each other. When there is an atmosphere around us of anger and violence, we often have the impulse to follow suit. Our anger is kindled, and we are capable of committing violence as well. On the other hand, when a hand is extended to another in compassion and friendship, often there will be reciprocal gestures. What seems especially hard and even unnatural is to break this powerful cycle, to change the direction by responding to violence with restraint and even a token of respect and hope.

    In Israel and the West Bank at this moment, we stand now at such a precipice. Cruel violence has been committed. We ask ourselves so searchingly how best to respond. Of course justice must be pursued so that those who murdered innocent young people are severely judged. Yet, beyond justice, there are choices. The tradition is so clear. “Do not seek vengeance”. Instead, “Seek peace and pursue it.” We are now at a time of momentous decision making. May we learn restraint and pursue peacemaking with even more determination.

  2. Making a Difference

    March 10, 2014 by Shelly

    hope-israelIsrael is beset by complex, painful, seemingly inscrutable issues. Yet, perhaps because it is a young, tiny land, it is brimming with people who live their lives knowing they can make a difference. In our circle of friends, we know inspiring people who have found or created a niche to which they passionately devote themselves with the conviction that what they do really matters.

    The areas are diverse, improving the environment, caring for the huge population of birds who migrate through this land, reaching out to new emigres, mapping fault-lines in the region so that all of the inhabitants will be more prepared in an emergency, and, especially reaching out across the lines of conflict between Arabs and Jews to create grassroots relationships in preparation for a time of peace.

    Of course this idea that each of us really counts is basic in Jewish thought. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin testifies that each person is equivalent to an entire world. A very eloquent statement is contributed by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamaret:


    “When the Holy one, blessed be He, stated at the time of Creation,
    ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,’ He thereby
    placed in man’s hands the power to create worlds as He had done.
    And if it be true, as our sages affirm, that man affects even the
    higher spheres, then how much more must he affect this very earth
    itself. Certainly his own situation is shaped by his own hand. The
    effect of society upon him is but the harvest of those deeds previously
    sown by him in this world. Good actions set good waves
    moving in the air, and a man performing good acts soon purifies
    the air which surrounds him. Evil actions poison the atmosphere,
    and a man’s evil acts pollute the air until finally he himself breathes
    the poisonous vapors, and such actions flow from all the actions of
    a man, whether physical or mental. Were the eye able to perceive
    it, we should see that when a man raises his fist against another
    man, the air surrounding him is filled with waving fists; that when
    a man raises a foot to kick another man, the air registers feet raised
    high and aimed at him; that when a man casts a designing eye upon
    another man, the atmosphere reveals designing eyes aimed at him;
    and that when a man stands inert as clay while another’s blood
    is shed, the air surrounding him is filled with congealed lumps
    awaiting the hour when his own blood will be shed.
    (Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, Musar Hatorah v’Hayahadut (Vilna: Garber,
    1912), translated in Allan Solomonow, Roots of Jewish Nonviolence (Nyack, NY:
    Jewish Peace Fellowship, 1981), p. 58.)

    The dream of creating a better world is rooted in our confidence that we can work to make it happen. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav famously taught: “Know that if you can cause ruin, you can also repair and perfect.”

  3. Building the Infrastructure For Peace

    March 9, 2014 by Shelly

    elana.rozenmanI was privileged to be present on Friday in Jerusalem at a moving program about women’s roles in bringing change. My friend from kindergarten(!!), Elana Rozenman, founder of Trust-Emun, a network of Israeli Jewish and Arab women, sponsored the program which screened a documentary film about the decades old turmoil on Cyprus between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Their ongoing struggle, involving war, ethnic hatred, and uprooting of populations has resulted in a divided island with physical barriers separating ethnic groups. People fled or were forced from their homes.

    The film, directed by a Greek parliamentarian, resonated thoroughly with population movements in the Arab-Israel conflict. With attempts to reunify the island in recent years, women have knocked on doors of their former homes and developed relationships with the present residents. A panel of Jewish and Arab women whose life experiences and present involvement truly parallel Cypriot experiences spoke passionately about steps forward.

    In my time in Israel, in an atmosphere of unresolved conflict, I’ve been very impressed with the ever greater number of attempts to reach out on an interpersonal level across the barriers with ambitious NGO’s like Trust-Emun leading the way. The number and variety of organizations and projects is dizzying! When a political settlement is finally signed, it’s success will need to rest on a sturdy and vast infrastructure of grassroots relationships where newborn trust and friendship can be built.

    I’ve been very impressed with the ever greater number of attempts to reach out on an interpersonal level across the barriers with ambitious NGO’s like Trust-Emun leading the way.

    It’s clear to me that these visionary groups are not waiting until a document is signed! They are committed now, and they express a reservoir of hope. I’ve spent much of my time with Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue groups, with the Interreligious Coordinating Committee in Israel, and with Rabbis For Human Rights. I’ve loved being with heroic people who do not give up!  May their work be blessed!

  4. An Encounter in Israel.

    February 27, 2014 by Shelly

    Yesterday I was privileged to meet with an extraordinary group of Jewish and Muslim students at Tel Chai Academic College (המכללה האקדמית תל-חי) in Kiryat Shmonah, located at Israel’s northernmost border with Lebanon. They meet regularly as a Jewish-Arab dialogue group. The group is staffed by Dr. Yousef Jabareen, a scholar and human rights activist who specializes in building bridges between Arabs and Jews and lobbying for justice for minorities.

    tel-hai-logoI spoke to the group about my almost fifty years of experience in interfaith dialogue in the United States, about how much I have learned from Jewish tradition about respecting religious diversity, and about how potent interfaith cooperation can be in speaking up for issues of human rights, justice, and peace.

    I shared with them how much I have learned from members and leaders of other faiths, how precious to me are the friendships that have flowed from interfaith contact, and how much can be accomplished when faith groups join together in common action based on shared values.

    The reaction of students and their advisors was stunning to me. They were emotional. They seemed so eager to hear messages of moderation and acceptance based on religious values. Too often the teachings of religious leaders have been polarizing. Their questions were penetrating and compassionate. Is it really possible to find religious messages that are fully embracing of the other? Can people in dialogue really act with civility and compassion with one another even when they continue to disagree? Can religion and politics be separated from one another, especially in the Middle East?

    “They seemed so eager to hear messages of moderation and acceptance based on religious values.”

    Tel Chai Academic College is off the beaten track. It has about 3,500 students. It attracts Jewish and Arab (both Christian and Muslim) students from all over Israel. It is truly a place where students can learn to know each other and to explore each other’s culture and faith.

    After departing, I felt that this is a place where the infrastructure of peacemaking is happening apace. Peace accords between governing bodies are crucial, but here in this distant place, the hard work of building interpersonal trust and friendship is underway!

    tel-haiMy visit to Tel Chai Academic College was arranged by the US Embassy. I am very grateful to their staff who feel that religious lenses for reconciliation should be explored.

  5. A Weapon Endangers its User — A Passover Teaching

    March 25, 2013 by Shelly

    karpas-pesachDuring the central part of the seder, the telling of the exodus narrative, twice the Haggadah narrative emphasizes that God alone without an appointed agent executed the violence which finally brought the Jewish people out of Egypt. During the violent tenth plague, we know from the Torah’s account that the Israelites were commanded to remain inside their dwellings without even witnessing the toll among Egyptian families.

    We assume that the reason for these restrictions was to protect the Jews from harm. Rabbi Aaron Shmuel Tamaret has another, cogent idea:

    Now obviously the Holy One, blessed be He, could have given the children of Israel the power to avenge themselves upon the Egyptians, but He did not want to sanction the use of their fists for self-defense even at that time; for, while at that moment they might merely have defended themselves against evildoers, by such means the way of the fist spreads through the world, and in the end defenders become aggressors.

    Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, took great pains to remove Israel completely from any participation in the vengeance upon the evildoers, to such an extent that they were not permitted even to see the events.

    For that reason midnight, the darkest hour, was designated as the time for the deeds of vengeance, and the children of Israel were warned not to step outside their houses at that hour – all this in order to remove them totally and completely from even the slightest participation in the deeds of destruction, extending even to watching them.

    Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, “Liberty”

    His interpretation, that bearing weapons even for a just cause carries a great danger for the future, speaks so directly to the current debate about weapons in our society.

    Potential victims are at risk. The one who bears the weapon is also at risk and may be forever changed by the weapon in his/her possession. Surely there are important needs in the modern world for weapons. Yet Rabbi Tamaret reminds us of the risks we take in a society overflowing with lethal means to hurt one another.

    A society with less weapons and thoughtful controls on those that are needed would be a saner, more peaceful society.

  6. Weapons Are Shameful

    December 17, 2012 by Shelly

    149890_467105863683_361589088683_5555772_7030243_nWe are devastated by the losses of our children in Newtown. Those precious children do truly feel like our own. The terrifying weapons used in this atrocity are scandalous and should be banned in our society even for those who pass a rigorous background check. I have not yet heard a compelling argument for exceptions.

    In Jewish tradition, the use of lethal weapons is permitted when life and limb are threatened. Self defense is itself a mitzvah, an affirmation of the supreme value of life. Yet fundamentally bearing weapons is seen as demeaning to a human being.  An inspiring expression of this value is found in the Mishnah dealing with an aspect of Sabbath observance:

    A man may not go into a public domain
    [on the Sabbath] with a sword, a bow,
    a shield, a lance, or a spear;
    if he did so, he must bring
    a purification sacrifice.

    Rabbi Eliezer said: They are ornamental
    for a man. But the sages said: They are
    demeaning to him, for it says:

    “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks:
    nation shall not lift up sword against
    nation, neither shall they learn
    war any more” (Isaiah 2:4)

    Mishnah Shabbat 6:4

    On the Sabbath, an observant Jew refrains from carrying anything from place to place, a symbol of  letting go of the everyday world of commerce in which we transfer good and services from one place to another or from one person to another. Of course one can wear one’s clothing including jewelry customarily worn by men or women. The question of the Mishnah concerns the casual bearing of weapons which in some times and places would be carried almost as part of one’s apparel.  While there is a difference of opinion, the majority of sages holds that weapons cannot be worn on one’s body because they are truly shameful to being human. The Sabbath is understood as a taste of the dreamed of world to come in which peace would be achieved, and no one would threaten one another.

    Weapons are shameful! Of course our world falls far short of a world at peace. Yet we can take meaningful steps to strengthen security for everyone by assuring that the terrifying power of modern weapons are only in the hands of those who guard our safety. And we can learn from wise sages that any weapon, however needed and used with great care, remains a source of disgrace for any human being.


  7. Healing Our Post-Election Polarization

    November 9, 2012 by Shelly

    talking-headsThe tenor of the national election campaigns was bitter, reflecting the passionate feelings which separated and still separate one camp from the other. In his acceptance speech, the President said something that deeply resonated with me. He affirmed that the divisions were passionate and stubborn because those on all sides truly cared for the welfare of this country. There was a point of identity at the very root of deeply felt convictions.

    In recognizing that shared point of departure, the President pointed to a pathway to civility and compassion. If we realize that strongly expressed opposing views often stem from the identical place, we have a foundation for mutual respect. Perhaps we would be more inclined to respect the other, to listen carefully to his/her views, and even to open ourselves to rethinking.

    Rav Abraham Yitzchok Kook of the last century (p. 332 in the book) teaches that real peace encompasses all perspectives, each of which has its place. We are wiser when all sides are aired and even encouraged to be spoken. Talmudic thinking relishes multiple points of view, even those of minorities which are not accepted as halacha. No one is wise enough to express the complete truth. We need each other.

  8. Warmaking And the Sacred Do Not Match

    October 5, 2012 by Shelly

    During the festival of Sukkot in antiquity, the first Temple was dedicated by King Solomon in Jerusalem in a dramatic ceremony described in the Bible (1 Kings 8:2-21). The reading of this text takes place in the modern synagogue during the festival.

    Solomon’s father, David, was not permitted to build during his reign despite his signal achievements and his fame. The reason for his being denied this privilege is found in a later text (1 Chronicles 22):

    “The word of God came upon me, saying: ‘You have spilled much blood and waged many wars. You will not build a home for Me, for you have spilled too much blood upon the land before Me. A son has been born to you; he will be a man in tranquil times, and I will keep him free of all enemies, for Solomon will be his name, and I will grant him peace and quiet during his period. He will build a House dedicated to My Name..’ ”

    War-making was not unknown in ancient Israel; and, at times, it was mandatory.
    Yet, even the Biblical perspective was that the violence of war was incompatible with undertaking major sacred tasks.

    God’s will for Israel and the human family was to transcend war.

    Only then would human spiritual capacity be released and flower. War and violence and their attendant emotions narrow the ability of a human being to dream and to soar. Peace is the proper matrix for giant steps forward.

  9. Interceding To Promote Reconciliation

    September 23, 2012 by Shelly

    While I was in Seattle recently, I was approached by a man who shared this story. His family had been very close, always joining together at holidays and other milestones. His two nephews, brothers, were very close. Something occurred which caused estrangement between them. Being very pained by the sudden distance between them, he asked me if he should intercede.

    I suggested that he give them some space to work this out by themselves. However, if there would be no progress, I urged him to follow his own inclination to help. In Jewish tradition, “hava-at shalom beyn adam l’chavero”, bringing peace between one person and his fellow, is a treasured value. It is found with some frequency in rabbinic literature. It is even part of the daily liturgy (based on Talmud, Shabbat 127a). Aaron, Moses’ brother, was known to be an irrepressible mediator. So often did he engage in mediation successfully between husband and wife, that three thousand children born into those healed marriages were named after him!!

    It is not uncommon that tensions within families and between friends in community harden over time. At times the cause of separation is almost forgotten, With the passage of time, it becomes more difficult for either party to approach the other. The assistance of a third caring person can be the catalyst for a new look at a relationship. The High Holy Day season in Jewish tradition is the ideal time for rebooting a troubled relationship.

    ֵאלּוּ ְדָבִרים ֶשֵׁאין ָלֵהם ִשיעור וְֵאֽלוּ ֵהן: ִכּבּוּד אָב וֵָאם, וּגְִּמילוּת ֲחָסִדים, וְַהְשָׁכַּמת ֵבּית ַהִמְּדָרשׁ ַשֲׁחִרית וְַעְרִבית, וְַהְכנַָסת אוְֹרִחים, וִּבקּוּר חוִֹלים, וְַהְכנַָסת ַכָּלּה, וְּלוָיַת ַהֵמּת, וְִעיוּן ְתִּפָלּה, וֲַהָבאַת ָשׁלוֹם ֵבּין אָָדם ַלֲחֵברוֹ, וְַתְלמוּד תּוָֹרה ְכּנֶֽגֶד ֻכָּלּם.

    Weekday morning service. Based on Shabbat 127a

  10. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Ben Eliyahu on Reconciliation

    September 6, 2012 by Shelly

    Dear Friends,

    Ever since completing my book, I have continued to find new and rich sources in Jewish tradition that speak to the theme of reconciliation. I knew that would be the case. No Book is big enough to contain all the teachings on peacemaking and reconciliation!  The blog is a perfect place for me to share these sources with you. I would also welcome learning from you similar sources that inspire you.

    In an early rabbinic teaching in the name of Rabbi Eleazar who taught in the name of Rabbi Chanina:  “Students of the sages (Talmidei Chachamim) add peace to the world.” (Talmud Brachot 64a)

    Rabbi Yosef Chaim Ben Eliyahu in the 19th Century comments in his work Ben Yehoyada:

    “As long as there is humility among the sages in which every one sees oneself as a “student” vis a vis one’s fellows , there will not be conflict and argument between them; rather there will be peace. This would  not be  true when everyone sees himself  as “master” (“rav”) over against others. Then there would surely be argument, and each one would contradict the other. They would not then learn Torah for its own sake. For this reason we find (Rabbi Eleazar teaching) “students of the sages” meaning those that see themselves always as “students” even though they are great sages. These add peace in the world in that there would be no argument among them.” (Ben Yehoyada, Volume I, comment on Berachot 64a)

    I don’t think Rabbi Yosef means that there would not be differences of opinion, even passionate differences. Debate is the stuff of rabbinic discourse. Rather I believe he is pointing to an attitude of the interlocutors as  continual students in which one is always open to hear the views of others and even to change one’s perspective as a result.  Even as a seasoned, lifelong learner and sage, one can still learn from others! Imagine if we treated our differences in this mutually respectful way!