Violence

the waning of warIn 1929, after 133 Jews were killed by rioting Arabs in Jerusalem and Hebron, Rav Kook, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, issued the following statement:

I know for certain that the Arab nation as a whole and the majority of the Arabs of the Land of Israel itself are full of sorrow and shame at the evil deeds of a minority, through the fault of their inciters. And we hope that the tradition of peace and mutuality, to build together with all the inhabitants of the Land of Israel this beloved and forsaken land…will vanquish all the lying and cheating plots, the impurity and malice, which warmongers and the bloody-minded seek to spread. (Mirsky 2014 p201)

In the wake of yesterday’s attack in Jerusalem, one hopes that the same could be said today. That the majority of Palestinians are full of sorrow and shame. I am certainly full of sorrow and shame when innocent Palestinians are needlessly killed by Jews.

A poll published in June 2014 showed that while a clear majority of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza supported maintaining a cease-fire, it was only in Gaza (and not in the West Bank) where a majority of those polled supported a new Palestinian government that would renounce violent resistance.

One hopes that Rav Kook’s “tradition of peace” will vanquish the “impurity and malice,” but for many that hope isn’t as strong as it once was.

Rav Kook is one of the most inspirational Jewish figures of the 20th century, perhaps because of his ability to hope for better times, even when the world looked bleak. He died in 1935, and students of his teachings wonder if he would have had the same optimism had he died a decade later.

Terrorists in Jerusalem, school shootings, police brutality, we live in times that perhaps seem increasingly violent.

My book club just finished Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian, a book which  Harold Bloom, the Michael Jordan of literature professors, calls “the authentic American apocalyptic novel.” Set in the American Southwest and Mexico in the mid-19th century, The book is a beautifully written masterpiece about one of the bloodiest groups of men to walk the earth. The men who scalp the scalpers. A gang of (mostly) white guys who find, kill and scalp native Americans/Mexicans for cash. They rape and pillage a fair amount along the way, too.

Their leader is the judge, who’s either violence incarnate or just the devil. When the gang gets on the subject of what the Bible says about war, the judge offers his opinion:

It makes no difference what men think of war…. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other.

We see why Bloom called this novel apocalyptic. Not much hope in the words of the judge, who may be war’s ultimate practitioner.

Our discussion of the book became a discussion of the history of violence. Some of the characters–including the judge–are based on historical figures, so perhaps, contra Bloom, McCarthy is depicting a past that no longer is. If Bloom is correct and the book is apocalyptic, do we agree that the future holds for humanity an ever-increasing tendency toward violence? Or is there room for the type of hope Rav Kook speaks of?

After our book group met, I started a book called The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, the Kobe Bryant of psychology professors. What Pinker argues is so difficult to believe that it takes over 800 pages to convince his readers. Violence is on the decline, and this has been the case for as far back as we can measure this sort of thing. Murder rates, the percentage of people who die in war, domestic abuse, all of this is on the decline. Which is incredible. And despite yesterday’s murders, and despite apocalyptic novelists and filmmakers, there’s reason to think like Rav Kook. To be hopeful.

Pinker begins with an explanation for why people, when asked, generally think that humanity is becoming more violent. “If it bleeds, it leads.” We pay attention to the news that shows us the worst of humanity. The charts and statistics of gang violence on the decline is much less interesting to most readers/viewers. To paraphrase King, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward non-violence.

So in the aftermath of the murder of four rabbis in the middle of their prayers and the Druze police officer who died trying to protect them, I’m inclined to offer one of my favorite Rav Kook quotes, in the form of a prayer that light, justice, faith and wisdom will vanquish all violence:

Do not complain of the dark, but increase the light;

Do not complain of evil, but increase justice;

Do not complain of heresy, but increase faith;

Do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom.