Using an Old-new Formula in the Search for Peace

New Pardes program combines Judaic, conflict studies

For Rabbi Daniel Roth, a U.S.-born Talmud instructor, the ancient wisdom of Judaism provides an ideal complement to contemporary conflict resolution theories. "We [Jews] have so many incredible traditions and lots of them have been forgotten and are not always tapped into in our culture," says Roth, who last year created Israel's first academic track that analyzes peace and conflict issues from a religious point of view at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

"We train people to bring together Jewish tradition with the best Western civilization right now has to offer in terms of how to handle conflict," Roth said recently in Jerusalem, where the director of the institute's advanced Talmud program lives with his wife and four children in the Baka neighborhood.

"My program assists students into becoming a Jewish peacemaker, or 'rodef shalom,'" the Syracuse, New York, native explained, referring to an ancient Jewish concept that literally means "pursuer of peace." Mostly Americans in their 20s and 30s, the 30-odd students in the classroom usually cover the entire spectrum of religious and political convictions, says Roth, who is also a doctoral candidate at Bar-Ilan University.

The course, now in its second year, aims "to train people with skills that they can use when they go back to their homes, communities, societies and [try to mediate] in conflicts." Roth this year will begin giving students a "Rodef Shalom certificate" upon completion of the course.

Roth, 35, says he is well aware of the argument that religions not only recommend the proverbial turning the other cheek, but often instruct followers to inflict war and destruction on other people. After all, God admonished King Saul for not slaughtering the Amalekites' very last sheep. Even Moses' brother Aaron - known as a "pursuer of peace" - specialized on the Israelites' personal relations and less on ending wars with other nations. Indeed, Roth feels it's important modern peacemakers know the sources of their tradition that "require hate in certain contexts," such as the Torah passages commanding the complete annihilation of the people of Amalek.

"Part of the responsibility of engaging religion for the sake of conflict resolution and peace work is also not to hide the darker side of anyone's tradition. It's important that the students empower themselves with all those angles," he said. Some of these discussions are difficult to swallow for the students, he continued, for example the analysis of Amalek's narrative as a victim. "That creates some kind of dissonance - oh my God, we only always see them [Amalek] as the epitome of evil. But wait, try to understand what is Amalek, that according to certain interpretations they were threatened by the fact that these Israelites were coming to take their land and they wanted to preempt us. What does that mean, and how do we read that into society today?"

While religions speak about creating a peaceful society for their followers, today's challenge lies in finding interpretations that allow us to expand the boundaries of the group, explains Roth, who is also a court-certified conflict mediator. “Not erasing the particularism but being aware that every tradition has a side of putting up boundaries − that’s exactly one of the elements we need to push in the interpretation of our texts,” Roth says.

“And even if we’re not going to take down every single textual barrier, saying everyone is the same, [we seek] to lower it a little bit and allow for a lot more openness toward the other.” After all, religion will always be a key element of human existence, whether one likes the idea or not, adds Roth, who immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 15. “Religion is... for many people the reason why they want to wake up and how they find meaning in their world.”

Issues discussed in the classroom deal with Jewish approaches to conflict resolution from the Bible over the German-Jewish reconciliation after World War II to the Goldstone Report. Students are confronted with a wide range of ideas, including ethics of warfare, the limits of forgiveness, bending the truth for the sake of peace, restorative justice and many others.

One session tries to interpret the intentions of the enemy. Students first read the relevant classical rabbinic literature, followed by an academic article about how Americans are interpreting the intentions of North Korea. “We may bring in an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, who would talk about what happened in that handshake between [Yasser] Arafat and [Yitzchak] Rabin,” Roth explains. “What we’ll do then is to cross from text into life, and try to practice those skills.”

Attendance at interfaith meetings, demonstrations and several other field trips is mandatory, he adds. “Jerusalem is our lab, as there are lots of conflicts here. It’s good for business, there’s no shortage of topics here for us to deal with.”