War Is Not “Hell” It’s “Sin”: Jews and Muslims Hunger Strike Against Violence

Photo credit: flickr user

Five things happened to our ancestors of the 17th of Tammuz and five things happened on the 9th day of Av. On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets of the law were broken, the daily temple sacrifice was abolished, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached, the Torah was burned, and an idol was erected on the Temple grounds…

– from a mishna (early rabbinic legal code) tractate about fast days (Ta’anit 4:6)

This year the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar, falls in the middle of Ramadan, when Muslims the world over fast during the day to commemorate the month of Mohammad’s prophecy. It also falls at a time when Israel and Hamas are exchanging bombs and rockets aimed at killing the other side.

In response, Jews and Muslims have taken the coincidence of the two fasts to establish a “Hunger Strike against Violence.”

While Jewish public fast days are generally established for two reasons: either as a day of repentance and atonement such as Yom Kippur, or as a response to collective tragedy, the great legal codifier Moses Maimonides states in his medieval Code of Law (Mishneh Torah) that the very act of fasting, for whatever reason (and here he may have been influenced by Sufi doctrine), is really about repentance.

The Hunger Strike against Violence is not a fast intended to commemorate past Jewish disasters. It is not a fast in response to collective violence against the Jews. It is a fast of protest. And in that sense it is a fast of repentance.

There are two kinds of war in Jewish war theory: commanded war and non-obligatory war. Many rabbinic authorities claim that a commanded war is only a war that is sanctioned by a prophet. All other wars, even those that must be fought, fall under the category of non-obligatory wars. I want to suggest that non-obligatory war (which is every war fought today) is, by definition, an act of sin, even if it sometimes must be fought.

That is, the act of war is an act of violence, even when it is self-defense, and is destructive, even for the victor. War creates orphans, widows, and destroys families. Given that war is a sin, it must be accompanied by repentance, optimally in the very act of war itself. Therefore, “Hunger Strike against Violence” is not only a fast in protest against war. It can also be an act of repentance in response to war itself.

In Israel’s early years when it was fighting for its very survival there was popular phrase called, in Hebrew, “yorim u bochim” (shooting and crying). That is, in the very act of “shooting”—the very act of killing in defense of the Jewish homeland—the solider would also be crying because he had to shoot. It is a very moving idea, one that exemplifies the acknowledgement that war, even defensive war (in most wars each side views itself as acting defensively), is a sin that requires immediate repentance.

Sadly, the idea of “shooting and crying” does not appear to have survived to the present. Crying is now replaced by anger, indignation, self-righteousness—in short, the never-ending hasbara industry that seeks to justify every Israeli action, even those that create widows and orphans. The same is true of Hamas. Islam also has a venerable tradition of just war. Traditional Islam’s value for human life also includes an understanding of the inevitable consequences of war. But Hamas has lost that tradition. It no longer views its actions as sinful. It justifies terror (targeting civilians) as a religious right. There is no contrition or act of repentance in Hamas’s theory of war.

In some respect, both sides have abandoned their tradition of repentance in order to justify killing the other while feeling self-righteous and justified. This is precisely why the “Hunger against Violence” this year is so important. It speaks to the Maimonidean position that all fasts are about repentance. As a fast of protest, “Hunger against Violence” is resistance against the sin that is war. It is an act of repentance in the very act of war. If we shoot without crying, if we kill without recognizing that war is a sin, if the face of the other is erased, nothing will be achieved for either side. War is not “hell,” it is “sin.”

On the 17th of Tammuz Jews traditionally fast for five things. Perhaps Jews need to add a sixth, fasting to repent for the violence we perpetrate against another people. And the Muslim world equally has to recognize its own tradition of just war, its own ethos of conflict, and remember that Ramadan, being the month of Mohammad’s prophecy, has the potential, if it is to have any lasting value, of bringing an end to conflict and strife.

If Islam is no longer a religion that struggles for peace, it is no longer the religion of the prophet. If Jews cannot see that fasting is not only about what others do to Jews but also about what Jews do to others, it is no longer the religion of the Hebrew prophets. Let Jews and Muslims fast together, in the name of Allah, in the name of Hashem, in the name of humanity.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. His most recent book is American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society.

  • Smknws

    There will never be peace any where in the world until we remember ..WE are ALL made in the image of The ONE and only GOD who has many names and his wish is for Peace for the world

    There is a NEW world waiting, it
    is for “all”, you will not separate by wall,
    Or draw a line upon the sand
    denying anyone the land.
    It will be full of love so that
    can’t be, it is your love that sets you free.
    No more hunger no more pain
    no more wars fought in my name.
    This world will never be the
    same. It will be perfect.

  • weylguy

    God, or the Creator, or the Great Intelligence, or Nature, or the Whatever, unfortunately endowed humans with the unconscious desire to go on populating beyond sustainability. The Earth, boundless yet bounded, cannot continue to support our vast, unrelenting numbers. Humans refuse to accept this, thinking that unlimited growth is somehow their God-given or biological right or destiny. We’ve been fooling ourselves. Palestinians and Israelis alike think that they can go on growing in number without consequence. They’re all wrong. They, and the rest of us, are all screwed.

  • Susan Russell

    Praying and fasting in solidarity at All Saints Church in Pasadena today. https://www.facebook.com/events/531111623684302/

  • Isis

    Agree. But He/She/It/Whatever also endowed us with brains and free will. It’s our national and cultural egos and a sense that each group has a Right to more than the other, or to obtain/steal/take by force another’s property that has us in the untenable mess this planet is in. We’re headed for a planetary cleansing.

  • Jim Reed

    That unconscious desire to populate beyond sustainability is the same for every species. Usually when a species grows big enough, some other species will start eating them. That might be why we split into two groups, 1% and others, so one group can eat the other until things are back in balance.

  • Jim Reed

    A few people are now volunteering to be a part of the group that moves to Mars.

  • Deist1737

    “There are two kinds of war in Jewish war theory: commanded war and non-obligatory war. Many rabbinic authorities claim that a commanded war is only a war that is sanctioned by a prophet.”

    What hogwash. No wonder the “holy land” is the most violent place on Earth. The religious violence of both the Jews and Muslims (and the Christians and Mormons when they can get away with it), screams to the world that Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Mormonism have nothing to offer the world. They are all based on religious violence and then hypocritically claim they are for peace. All of their so-called “holy books” have many calls to religious violence. A great example comes from a genocidal maniac who is looked at as a prophet of God by all four of the Abrahamic “revealed”/hearsay religions, Moses. Numbers 31:17-18 which teaches that after the Israelite army defeated a neighbor and returned with their women and children captives Moses was very angry that they did not kill them all except for the virgin “women children.” Moses ordered the Israelite army to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Pretending garbage like this is the word of God can only bring about religious violence as we see today. It’s time to show The Supreme Intelligence/God some respect and admit that God has nothing to do with any of these “holy books.” God gave us reason and not religion.

    Progress! Bob Johnson
    http://www.deism.com

  • NelsonRobison

    This article is most informative and instructive. It shows that there are thinking people among the Jewish people, a people who have squandered the goodwill of the world’s 1st tier nations.
    These nations gave the land of Palestine to the Jews who having been harmed during WWII in a most horrific way, the world felt that they deserved to have their own homeland.

    Now though that same people who were brutally and horrifically injured by a fascist state, are now committing the very same offense to a lesser and weaker people. Now the Israelis are the offenders of conscience. They have committed war crimes on a scale that beggars belief, and once though they were worthy of the world’s good will, the Israelis are offending the world’s senses and integrity.

    Now that both sides have again started hostilities, now that they both have committed the worst offences to pound their “enemies” into submission and are again working to commit genocide, this fast, this call to repentance of both militaries, so that they both can remember and call to mind their Holy Books injunction against murdering innocents especially children. It is an ongoing problem, a situation that will not resolve itself through peace talks because both sides are done probing “the other” for either weakness or the possibility of a wavering of will, so that they both seek peace.

    What peace may come, is going to happen because the mothers on both sides of the conflict are tired, are weary of the toll it is taking on their children. The only way for this conflict to end is to get mothers together and help them seek peace through dialogue, dialogue that the men in power won’t let happen. The women of the Irish Catholic-Protestant war in Northern Ireland, got together and formed their own peace movement. Many hours, days, weeks months and years were spent in forming relationships, relationships built on trust and common ground. Community based peace is the only lasting peace in this world, if relationships and community isn’t formed, then there are zero, zilch, nada, zip, no possible chance of founding a lasting peace.

  • Whiskyjack

    And in all likelihood, we will screw Mars up as well.

  • Jim Reed

    I know, and all the rest of the solar system too. But we have to try.

  • Michael

    Genocide? If they’ve been trying to commit genocide, they’ve been doing a really bad job of it.

  • KM

    Please read http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-menachem-creditor/im-done-apologizing-for-i_b_5606650.html The writer identifies himself as ” a progressive American rabbi who leans left pretty hard,” devoted to “reform gun laws, extend LGBT rights around the world, grant refuge to illegal immigrants, protect women’s reproductive choice, and more.” Given that, he knows he is expected to follow the party line on Israel and blame it for the violence. He refuses to do so. Read his reasons.

  • km