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

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.