War and peace and 360 degrees of Jewish perspectives

What’s the Jewish take on violence? Is there such a thing as combat commanded by God? And how has Judaism’s perspective on the concept of “holy war” changed throughout the centuries?

These heady questions will be on the table Oct. 28 when Lehrhaus Judaica hosts “War and Peace: Jewish Perspectives,” a daylong conference at the JCC of San Francisco featuring 17 speakers from different disciplines. The conference is part of the Lehrhaus 360 series that takes on topics in Jewish discourse, often connecting current events with history.

Keynote speaker Rabbi Reuven Firestone, an author, professor and director of the Graduate School of Judaic Studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, will discuss his most recent book, “Holy War in Judaism.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone

In it, Firestone traces the rise and fall and resurgence of the concept of a “just war,” or a war commanded by God, using the Bible and other rabbinic texts as primary sources.

Firestone said the book is a culmination of 12 years of research, inspired after he published a book on the concept of holy war in Islam. In an interview last week, he said he wanted to use parallel, objective research methods to study Judaism, even though “the idea of sanctified violence isn’t part of our common liberal Jewish narrative.

“We think, ‘We don’t do those things. Other people do those sorts of things — Muslims do those things, Christians do those things,’ ” he added. “But the Hebrew Bible has a lot of violence in it.”

Following defeats such as the Great Revolt against Rome in the first century C.E., Talmudic scholars consciously began removing the idea of holy war from Jewish discourse, Firestone said. The concept only reappeared and gained traction with the rise of Zionism in the late 1940s — when, according to Firestone, it was politically useful to the emerging State of Israel.

“What we see throughout Judaism is that when violence was considered a constructive mechanism for the Jewish people, it was evoked,” Firestone said. “And when it was counterproductive or destructive, then the rabbis of the Talmud tried to prevent the idea of holy war from being [applied].

“After the Holocaust,” he continued, “a number of Jews revived the tradition of Jewish militancy because they felt it was justified and beneficial for the Jewish community. That’s not politics — it’s just kind of the phenomenology of violence in religion.”

His keynote speech will be one of more than a dozen workshops open to attendees. Titles include “Going Head-to-Head: Yael and Judith, Ancient Women Warriors” (led by Rachel Brodie of the JCCSF), “Fighting Against Radical Evil: Jewish Partisans in the Forests of Eastern Europe, 1941-44” (led by Fred Rosenbaum, founding dir-ector of Lehrhaus Judaica) and “The Jewish Soldier and Other Exercises in Absurdity: From Mendele to Woody Allen” (led by Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theo-logical Union in Berkeley).

Rachel Biale, director of Lehrhaus 360 and the lead organizer of the six-hour event, said she expects at least 200 people to attend. She figures the current tension between Israel and Iran will get a lot of focus, along with topics such as peacemaking and reconciliation in the Middle East.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with the Lehrhaus 360 series — take topics we feel are key issues in Jewish discourse and explore them from historical, cultural, theological perspectives,” she said “I think we’re going to have some great discussions.”

“War and Peace: Jewish Perspectives” will take place 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $20-$35; pre-registration encouraged. www.lehrhaus.org or (510) 845-6420.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.