Review: The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism

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Professor Robert Eisen of George Washington University has produced a work that not only does not inform, but also makes the uninformed more confused on the nature of the perspective of the sacred Jewish texts regarding war and peace. Oddly enough, that is the thrust of his argument- and his contribution to the understanding of Jewish literature regarding the topic at hand; that in reality we can not understand the texts because they are ambiguous to the extent (he claims) that there is no basic point of unification.

Thank G-d, I did not buy the book: I only paid a nominal fee for an interlibrary loan to read it. After reading it cover to cover – I found only two positive points of contribution, and one of them was inadvertent. The first being that the author puts Hector Avalos in his place by exposing his facade as an objective scholar that Avalos claims himself to be. Secondly, while not trying to achieve this as a goal, the author fortified my perception that many in academia are incapable of producing assessments of the Jewish texts in a through and consistent fashion. Eisen mistakes his inability to understand the texts as a sign of its supposed “ambiguity.”

In the majority of the book, he does not do an analysis of the topic at hand using inside sources. Instead, he relies on a select group of people to do that for him – all contemporary scholars of course. He basically treats the sources in question tangentially, and then makes a collage out of the writings of others to fortify his thesis that there is no conceivable way to make two seemly contradictory texts both be applicable.

One who is schooled in the traditional writings can cite a plethora of examples where texts that seem to contradict are reconciled based on a broad knowledge of texts being applied logically to different circumstances. The claim that the Jewish texts are in conflict beyond resolution stems not from familiarity of the texts; but rather a sublime lack of knowledge of what is out there, and the intellectual laziness to pursue it!
Another issue I had is his acceptance of “who is on the playing field” on determining who gets to present what the sources teach us. For example, he lists some of the adherents of “The Kabbalah center” as people qualified to have a legitimate position in Jewish scholarship of Kabbalah (a shandah!). He brings in Meir Kahana as an example of mainstream religious Zionist thought. I myself am not a Zionist, but ouch! And the list goes on; as long as their views fit one of the two extremes the author lays out as positions in Jewish scholarship they are contenders. After all, why should acceptance in mainstream circles of Jewish scholarship be a prerequisite to speaking for those communities when there is an agenda at stake?

In his preface, Eisen says he decided to come down from his ivory tower in academia after 9/11. The truth is, after reading his book … I feel that he would have done a better service to the Jewish people by regulating his crippled methodology of Jewish textual study to the halls of the university. Instead he decided to inflict those of the less privileged in knowledge of Jewish textual study with his “revelation” of the ambiguity of Jewish sources. If you are looking for a balanced and educated treatment of traditional Jewish texts on issues of war and peace I suggest looking elsewhere.

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