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    Violence & religion – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. How can it be right to perpetrate violence in the name of religion?

    Entry of the Crusades into Constantinople, by Gustave Dore

    A. Violence, no new invention, is the scourge of our generation, a monster which, once unleashed, knows no master. But there are two types of violence, destructive and constructive. In the first, violence is an end in itself, and this was never condoned by Judaism. The second is sometimes legitimate in order to promote an end which is unattainable otherwise. Thus instances of violence are attributed to God, aiming at preventing or controlling a greater evil.

    Violence in the form of war is allowed in certain circumstances, particularly in defence of lives or ideals. Since one is not permitted to remain silent in the face of evil, taking up arms is reluctantly conceded if peaceful means have totally failed. But even for a morally desirable end it must be used sparingly. Summary justice is disapproved of. Even capital punishment, which the Bible explicitly sanctions, is almost legislated out of existence by the rabbis. In one’s personal life, anger and violence are almost as sinful as idolatry, though unlike Christianity, Judaism does not turn the other cheek.

    Violence is at best an interim ethic; non-violence is higher. We must learn to control violence and work towards eliminating it altogether. The ideal is that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3). This ideal requires effort on every level, not least in the microcosm of our personal lives. Avoid anger and violence in small things and it will become easier to eradicate it on the national and international level.

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