Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics, by Alick Isaacs

Reviewed by Paul L. Saal

What do Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, and Joseph Soloveitchik have in common? They are all Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. They were each academics and philosophers of sorts. Buber, Heschel, and Soloveitchik were all religious, the latter two were rabbis, the first two mystics. Wittgenstein and Derrida were an agnostic and an atheist who both wrote about prayer. Along with Buber they were existentialists who focused on linguistics. Buber, Heschel and Wittgenstein all escaped Nazism and the ensuing holocaust. Finally, all were Zionists, or at the least sympathetic to a Jewish homeland. Derrida’s emphasis was political, Herschel and Soloveitchik’s perspective was religious, and Buber’s Zionism was principally social, seeking the highest good. Perhaps the one common thread in all these luminaries’ writings might be the deep desire to see the development of a lasting language of peace, though defined differently by each.

This ambitious pursuit is explored in the seminal writing of Alick Isaacs in A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion and Politics.1 Isaacs is a research fellow at the Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and a teacher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Melton Center for Jewish Education and Rothberg School for Overseas Students. He is also a combat veteran of Israel’s second Lebanon War. It is from this experience that he writes, challenging many tightly held convictions concerning Judaism, Zionism, war and peace. He does so by drawing upon the rich thinking of these five scholars and many others, Jewish, Christian, and not religiously affiliated, while weaving an absorbing narrative that compels the reader to rethink the intellectual ground they might have already occupied and presumed to be settled territory.

Isaacs had me one page into the introduction. His recounting of the last few days of the war were eye opening. He conveys how combat units burned trees and orchards that obstructed the Israelis’ capacity to see the “enemy”, and carefully contemplated a decision to break Shabbat to commence a sneak attack. This blatant honesty drew me into the harsh realities of war, realities that set aside both commandment and conviction, to protect against the overwhelming sense of fear. Isaacs expresses his unique sensation of the nearness of God while patrolling Ras-Bayada, a town in southern Lebanon, a sensation he experienced as hands resting on his shoulders.

I imagined that I should feel safer while they were there. But I did not. I could not. I imagined that I should feel somehow more pious, more devout. But I did not. Typically, the sensation of hands resting on my shoulders is a reassuring one. When my father rested his floppy hands on my shoulders—especially in public—I felt like the safest child in the world. When my wife rests hers on me, I feel loved. But these hands just sat there. My fears, worries, and uncertainties were untouched. The hands had no message for me. They offered no comfort and promised no safe return home. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. I muttered these words in Hebrew, but they did not fit. I tried them in English, but they still would not fit. I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I fear evil, and thou art with me. Amen.2

The end of the war begins Isaacs’ pursuit to clearly understand his own participation. The account of his arduous journey back from Lebanon and eventual arrival in Israel communicates the author’s inner confusion.

When the war was over, I felt again how arbitrary the participation of an individual in a war is. We all pulled out as mechanically as we had pushed in. With nothing resolved and nothing accomplished, the decision to bring us home was welcome, but not satisfying. We carried no trophies of the great victory and no new hopes of peace. All the same when we reached the Israeli side of the border we began to rejoice. Our fear was lifted. Our minds were free to make plans.3

There are so many pundits who offer simple, easy solutions to the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. It is refreshing to follow a journey that recognizes the complexity of the history and circumstance and the need to articulate the correct questions and the methodology for understanding these questions. Alick Isaacs neither dismisses the possibility for peace, nor does he offer hackneyed solutions. Rather he essentially asks, “What do we mean by peace, and how will we approach the challenge?”

Dismayed by his own experience of the arbitrary nature of war, Isaacs considers entering the fray through political protest. He had felt entitled to do so. Most of the men he had served with felt abandoned by the government and it was apparent that the war had been handled poorly, supplies were not delivered properly, and orders were contradictory and confusing. So, Isaacs examines the weight of political solutions against the anti-political prophetic voice. He finds a mediating voice in religion as he engages Soloveitchik, Heschel, and Kant. By creating a dialectic between Jewish and Christian scholars, Isaacs successfully argues against the erroneous portrayal of Judaism as a bellicose religion, a portrait deeply embedded in historical anti-Semitic thinking.

I find it fascinating that Alick Isaacs’ pursuit of peace lands in a conversation about messianism. He examines both minimalist and maximalist views of messianism as expressions of ultimate peace. He does so by first visiting the prophetic voice and the various ways it has been deconstructed. He examines the narratives of Hanukkah and Purim and questions the implicit and explicit language of war perpetuated in these narrative constructs. All of these questions are wrapped up in Professor Isaacs’ own story, his pursuit of understanding, a seeking of clarity through the heavy fog of life experience.

I found this approach honest and refreshing, yet at times challenging and scary. Isaacs’ journey begins in a positivistic place where politics and theology are conflated. For the Messianic Jewish community this is not only our starting ground but our raison d’etre. In many ways the modern Messianic Jewish movement was birthed out of a confluence of Jewish pride and historical pre-millennialism. It was often understood that the establishment of the Jewish State, emboldened by the “miraculous” deliverance of 1967, was a sign of the imminent return of Yeshua and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. I am not questioning the eventuality of Scriptures’ promises to the Jewish people, but I confess a certain agnosticism concerning the timing, the scope, the means by which contemporary Jews are to cooperate with these divine plans, and how and when these plans might actualize. It also cannot be ignored that the sign of that day will be the abolition of the implements of war and violence.

So, I am also convinced that the promises of God are not by the sword. That those called by a crucified Messiah who find their locus of identity among the marginalized people of Israel must learn to abandon the claims of political religion and embrace an ideology of prophetic peace. Isaacs considers,

The history of religion is soaked in the blood of holy warriors and heroes, pilgrims, crusaders, kings, boys, yeomen, and knights—all sacrificed on battlefields. The roads to war were flagged with glorious self-justifications and truths, sacred values worth dying—and killing—for. Lives have been spent on unquestioned premises, unchecked totalities, and unexamined convictions.4

Furthermore, Isaacs arrives at the belief that if Israel is the harbinger of a prophetic peace, then its religious/political orientation should move toward the initiation of that peace. Isaacs acknowledges that his argumentation might lead one to believe that he is appending peace ideology to the liberal readings of the rabbinic tradition that emphasize those passages which elaborate social justice, pluralism, tolerance for the Other, charity for the poor, civil rights and the importance of compromise. However, comparing rabbinic literature to a “huge mansion of variously decorated chambers,” Isaacs recognizes that we cannot find a solution to the puzzle of peace unless we deal with the discarded furnishings.

However, the mansion has other, less pleasing furnishings too. There are service corridors, storerooms, laundry rooms, and basements (maybe even a dungeon or two) in which we have stored the cast-off furniture and dirty linen of days gone by—items for which (some might believe) we have no further use. To wit, we do not know what to do with the disturbing (and apparently obsolete) ideas such as the relentless and unforgiving persecution and annihilation of idolaters; excruciating capital, corporal, and collective punishments; the trial of allegedly treacherous women by humiliating ordeals; animal sacrifice; holy war; patrilineal inheritance; preferential treatment of the first born son; men’s possession of women; slavery; the categorization of homosexuality as abomination; and so on.5

While praising the many benefits and accomplishments of post-Enlightenment ethics, he also bemoans the complex and deleterious effect of post-Enlightenment liberalism on modern Judaism.

Most poignant to our concerns, liberalism has entrenched the conviction among many modern Jews that the living resources of the tradition are only those that have a place on public display in the wings of the mansion that are open to visitors. The problem here emerges when a space in the front rooms and display cabinets is deemed scarce—and when much of what is there can affect the public policies of a Jewish state; the struggle over what Judaism “stands for” has led to a social rift that has come, on occasion, alarmingly close to civil war. Peace depends on making more space in the public light for the mansion’s less fashionable chambers.6

While Isaacs writes principally to Israelis regarding the negotiation of policy in Israel, his concerns with an honest and full engagement of sacred texts and traditions is pertinent to all religious groups. For instance, it is easy to dismiss or even demonize the most misogynist elements of the Koran or sharia law. If we examine both Torah and Mishnah’s treatment of the sotah, a modern reader must reckon with more contemporary concerns of egalitarianism and gender roles. Messianic Judaism cannot ignore this challenge since we accept that we have a prophetic place standing as a bridge in the schism between two historically hostile traditions. We can no more ignore the habitual ritual cursing of Christians, than we can the history of crusades and pogroms. Furthermore, as Jews we must certainly deal with the same apparent aporias that exist between tradition and enlightenment as we ponder the role of rabbinic literature in our theological constructs and practice.

I mentioned that the contemporary Messianic Jewish movement is established upon a Zionist zeal which is grounded in a positivistic view of the immediacy of the land inheritance elucidated in Torah. It is therefore most common for Messianic Jews to gravitate to a more right-leaning view of Zionism such as AIPAC than a more left-leaning Zionism such as J Street. I am not advocating for either here and believe both have perspectives that need to be heard. But it is worth noting that the former is funded by coalitions in Israel that have pandered to the most radically religious movements that have chosen to marginalize and oppress Messianic Jews, with attempts to deny aliyah, threaten deportation, and in some extreme cases justify violence. I am not equating conservative Zionism with violence, rather I am suggesting that the very basis of these persecutions is drawn from old scrapbooks which have been buried in the basements of the aforementioned mansions.

I want to suggest that the answer to this concern might be found in Isaacs’ approach to Middle East conflicts, which is an application of educational philosophy, or as Isaacs refers to it, intellectual philanthropy.7 This approach begins with the acknowledgement that positivistic notions have almost universally been rejected or deconstructed as constructive tools in hermeneutical studies. Instead Jewish texts in this paradigm can be evaluated for not only their “scientific” value, but also for how they can be taught, inculcated, and applied for their practical value. The academic group that Isaacs directs is the Talking Peace Project. The operating premise of this project is that peace can be demonstrated to rabbis and politicians on the Zionist right in a way that can be understood authentically and comfortably within the scope of their own ideological convictions.

The primary objective is not to convert radical proponents away from their core beliefs, rather to build a vocal majority in favor of peace. Unlike most failed processes it does not require someone to develop an empathetic listening skill that helps him or her to see the Other’s point of view; rather it requires all participants to recognize the complexity of the circumstance and conflict in which their ideology contributes. It allows one to engage in conversation without having to compromise one’s most tightly held convictions. In essence this approach imagines a kind of radical coexistence that is possible while allowing the Other to still remain “the enemy,” who can be treated with dignity and kindness. I don’t know whether this can solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict now or soon. But such love of enemies is taught by Yeshua and worthy of those who follow him.

1 Alick Isaacs, A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion and Politics (Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2011).

2 Ibid, xxi.

3 Ibid, 1.

4 Ibid, 32.

5 Ibid, 95.

6 Ibid, 96.

7 Ibid, 157.