The Torah of Nonviolence

An interview with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is no stranger to controversy.  Dubbed the “Radical Rabbi” by some who view her peace work with Iran and Palestine to be anti-Israel, she most recently made headlines in the Jewish community when President Obama included her on his six hundred-strong list of rabbis who had signed on to support his campaign.

As one of the first ten women to become a rabbi and the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal Movement, she has long been an advocate for Jewish feminism. In 1974 she founded a Jewish feminist theater troupe called Bat Kol (literally, “daughter of a voice”), and in 1995 authored the book She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism.

Rabbi Lynn is a committed peace activist who grounds her life in nonviolence. Her nonviolence, however, is anything but passive. Rabbi Lynn’s beliefs in interfaith and inter-nation dialogue run so deep that she led a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iran in 2008. She serves on the advisory board and rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace, and founded the Jewish order Shomer Shalom, a peace-walking order whose disciples, like Rabbi Lynn, are committed to living a life of nonviolence.

Last week we shared with you an interview with Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who is co-leading a “Peace in the Middle East” silent Peace Walk in New York this Saturday that calls special attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a representative of both Jewish and nonviolent activism, Rabbi Lynn is the perfect voice to illustrate the interfaith spirit running through the walk. Below, she speaks with Tricycle’s Emma Varvaloucas about what she calls the “Torah of nonviolence,” her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what leading a life of nonviolence really means.

 

Rabbi LynnYou have a long history of peace walking all over the country for various issues, even eventually founding a Jewish order, Shomer Shalom, based on peace walking. How did you get your start? I’ve been a nonviolent activist all of my life, since the age of 21. But my teacher in peace walking specifically is the Myohoji Buddhist order, led by Nichidatsu Fuji. They are very involved in walks that give witness to the impact of the nuclear industry on Japan. Other teachers of mine are Rabbi Everett Gendler, who walked and sat in jail with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Michael Robinson, who was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The first peace walk I participated in was the million-person march in New York City in 1981, when the United Nations was holding a conference on disarmament.

Shomer Shalom itself was born out of 9/11. Although we had existed before that as more of a communal expression, when 9/11 happened we started looking for a way to be more active and public. Inspired by the Myohoji order, I co-created with Abdul Rauf Campos-Marquetti a Jewish-Muslim peace walk in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in April 2002 we officially initiated Shomer Shalom as a peace walk order grounded in nonviolence.

You were one of the first ten women to become a rabbi. What was that process like for you? Was that difficult? It was a very humbling and very wonderful experience, full of challenges that really shaped the way that I understand spiritual life. Because of that role I was thrust into areas of need that I perhaps wasn't prepared for. All different kinds of people came to me with their needs and I had to learn how to respond to them—I did my best to try to understand a human way of being in relationship with people. Oftentimes this meant that I discovered that the more conventional responses were not always meeting their needs. So that really shaped my approach to being a leader in Jewish life.

How would you define or summarize your approach now? I think it hasn't changed much, actually, in that as I continue to walk this journey it becomes clearer and clearer to me that I come from my commitment to nonviolence as a way of life. That commitment profoundly shapes my interactions. I believe that traditions can promote peace and they can promote violence. There are shadows in humanity, and therefore there are shadows in our traditions. One has to stand with one's shadows and one's traditions, which is difficult to do, and learn to use the values of compassion, restorative justice, and reconciliation as pathways toward healing. And when I say "nonviolence" I don't mean passivity. I mean active engagement with the structures of violence that we live in. So this means figuring out how we might either knowingly or unknowingly be promoting a violent status quo. Because a lot of the time, structural violence can be invisible to us.

I'll give you an example. Let’s say we want to buy a strawberry. We find it in the fruit aisle, and then we buy it, and then we put it on our table. But how did it really get to our table? Whose land was it grown on? What are the conditions of the workers? Were pesticides used? What about the transportation systems? And so forth and so on—a lot of that is invisible to us. Usually we just unconsciously eat the strawberry. But if we have awareness of everything that went into bringing that strawberry to our table, then we begin to uncover structural violence.

So that has been for me an application to the relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I've had to look at all of the elements that bind us in relationship and try to look at what is maintaining a violent status quo and what actually promotes peace. It's not always obvious and it's not always intuitive. And many people think that they're doing a good thing when in fact they may actually be sustaining a very negative status quo. Without addressing the roots of the violence, you may actually be just putting a bandage on a bleeding wound. You have to look at the wound itself and listen to the voices of those who receive the brunt of the violence.

I think there's a lack of understanding about what nonviolence is in some quarters because people who have never been on the front lines don't really understand what's at stake. Life and death is at stake. And nonviolence means that you are standing in solidarity—and when you do that you stand in solidarity with both sides.

What do you think is needed to start dismantling the structures of violence between Israel and Palestine? Well, first you have to figure out where you are in relationship to the conflict. Are you on the front line? Is your house being destroyed? Are your crops being destroyed? Do you have to go through checkpoints? Are you displaced? In Palestine, this is what it would mean to be on the front line.

If you are not on the front line, listening to people who are is very important. If we don't do that, we can't even begin to address the issues. So the second question is: what are the variety of voices on the front line saying? What are they telling us to do? Are people on the front line asking for a peace walk? Is that what they want us to do?

What people on the front line of this struggle are asking us right now is to use selective divestment and boycotts as methods of exerting pressure to do a number of things to reduce the checkpoints, to stop demolishing homes, to let people out of prison, to stop arresting children. So anything that we do has to address those concerns. Because if we walk for peace without addressing those concerns, then we are silencing those voices once again, and those voices are almost always silenced.

You frequently speak of the “Torah of nonviolence” online. What is the Torah of nonviolence? Because as far as I know there is quite a lot of violence in the Torah! No kidding! [Laughs.] All of our traditions have aspects within them that could be used to promote violence and aspects that could be used to promote peace. The Torah says about itself, "Before you, life and death; a blessing and a curse. Choose life and presumably a blessing, so you and your children can live." So the Torah of nonviolence starts with that—life—and what it means to choose life. For me, that means to choose nonviolence.

The text also says of itself that the Torah was given for the sake of peace, and that the rest of it is left up to our interpretation. For instance, somebody once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah standing on one foot. And Hillel said, "Don't do to others that which is hateful to you. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go study." Well, if that's the entire Torah, that's a nonviolent Torah.

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