The Peace Process Is Bankrupt Without Religious Leadership

It is especially during times of darkness like this that it is important for Jewish and Muslim clerics to take the reins and lead us to a peaceful solution.

Peter, Paul and Mary - Light One Candle

There's a Peter, Paul and Mary Hanukkah song, "Light One Candle," that starts:

"Light one candle for the Maccabees' children,
With thanks that their light didn't die,
Light one candle for the pain they endured,
When their right to exist was denied."

The song’s themes are universal, about keeping the flames of justice and peace alive. Yet, these noble ideals have little to do with Hanukkah, which represents the victory of certain traditional, Jewish values over Hellenistic values. So why does this song move us and speak to us on this holiday? Maybe because it has to.

Last month, I deliberately moved out of my comfort zone to attend two peace conferences – Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace, in Tel Aviv, and the Future of Interreligious Dialogue in Israel, in Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews in Israel don’t usually attend peace conferences. Indeed, as I looked around the crowd of several thousand in Tel Aviv for kippot, I couldn't find enough to form a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men).

Nonetheless, with violence prevailing in Israel for over two months now, I felt the need to do something that challenged me, so as to refuse to give in to the feeling of powerlessness.

I was searching for inspiration and found it in the personage of Rabbi Michael Melchior, who spoke at both events. His message was clear; repeatedly attempting to impose a political solution for peace is a bankrupt process that's doomed to fail, unless religious leaders are a part of it.

In a Jewish-Muslim workshop at the Jerusalem conference led by Rabbi Melchior and Abu Ghosh Mayor Salim Jaber, Melchior said, “We need new rules of engagement for Jewish-Muslim dialogue, much like we have achieved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, to allow both parties to envision a better future."

Melchior argued that the accepted political wisdom has been to push off discussion of difficult existential issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem and the right of return, until after decisions have been reached on less contentious matters. The religious perspective is to embrace and engage with these issues from the get-go.

Instead of excluding factions seen as extremist, Melchior said, recognize them all and welcome them to dialogue under the Tent of Abraham and Sarah. Acknowledge that both Muslim and Jewish radicals who embrace violence are "the visible tips of the icebergs," while the peace-seekers are mostly silent majorities; "massive icebergs under the surface of the water.”

Religious leaders need to make explicit the shared values of the Torah and the Koran. In both religious texts can be found the imperative, "Don’t do unto the other what is detestable to you."

In both Islam and Judaism there is judicial precedent for making religious peace. The mishnah at the beginning of Tractate Bava Metzia states that two litigants holding onto one garment come before the court; each claim ownership of the entire garment. The court has each swear that no less than half the garment is his and they then divide the garment or its value between them. Similarly, Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Muhammad Ibn Habib al-Mawardi, an accepted 11th-century Muslim jurist, established principles by which peace could be made with non-Muslims based on a precedent from the Prophet.

We can focus on the contradictory narratives of the Torah and the Koran describing when Abraham brought up his son (Isaac or Ishmael) for the Akeida, as a potential sacrifice. Or we can focus on, as Rabbi Melchior pointed out, that the conclusion of both faith traditions is that we don’t sacrifice our children.

Aaron, Moses’ brother, was invested with the priesthood for himself and his descendents by G-d. Aaron is described in the Torah as an ohev shalom verodef shalom, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace. The Maccabees were from the Hasmonean family. They were Kohanim, priests, the religious leadership of the time. Even though they waged war, their victory over the Seleucids (Greeks) ensured peace in Israel for over 100 years until Rome established Israel as a client-state.

I know it is really difficult with what is happening around us, but please indulge and dream with me for a moment. Imagine that now, during this wave of violence that is washing over us, religious leaders from the peace-seeking silent majorities of Jews and Muslims step forward and make their voices so loud that they drown out the noise of the raucous minority that has been fueling the fire, to help guide us through these turbulent times.

Then, imagine that the next time the usual consortium of world powers pressure Israel and the Palestinians to sit down for peace talks, instead of Bibi’s representatives and Abbas’ representatives, it’s the religious leadership who are chosen, maybe Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheik Raed Badir, head of the southern branch of the Islamic movement, a proponent for dialogue and peace. They invite all factions, men and women, to be represented and to be heard, to share a meal, to make a just peace under Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent.

It seems an impossible dream, but so was the Hanukkah miracle.

"Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice,
Justice and freedom demand,
But light one candle for the wisdom to know,
When the peacemaker's time is at hand."

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.