Judaism, Women and Peace
I was a guest speaker, along with several other women, representing the Sikh, Christian, Muslim, and Aboriginal Peoples, at the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community’s Women’s World Peace Conference today in Surrey, British Columbia.
The Conference was a huge island of hope for World Peace, with 400 women gathered together, childcare provided so they could attend, and a huge amount of speaking and listening from the heart. I was asked to present Judaism’s teachings about Peace. The following is my presentation:
Judaism’s Teachings about Peace
My name is Susan Katz, and I am here to present to you some of Judaism’s teachings about Peace.
Peace is a big topic! In preparing for this Conference, I needed to ask myself, “What can I choose to speak about that will create a memorable learning for the women who attend the Conference?”
Here’s what I decided:
The word *Shalom*
How many of you here have heard this word, Shalom?
Okay, so many of you! And what does it mean…?
Let’s talk about Shalom together now, because in the root of this word lies so many key concepts as to who we are as Jewish people, and how we hope to share our teachings about Peace with all of you.
I’ll begin with the root of this word. Like most Hebrew words, Shalom has three Hebrew letters; in Shalom the three letters are shin ש, lamed ל, and mem מם. If you look for the root שלם in a Hebrew and English lexicon, you will find these meanings for shin, lamed, and mem:
The Biblical Hebrew meanings include: Completeness, soundness, welfare, peace; Phoenician roots are: complete, requisite; the Arabic roots: be safe, secure, free from fault, resign or submit especially to God; Aramaic: be complete, safe and peaceful,
Modern Hebrew meanings include: all of the above, plus: wellbeing, reparations, or recompense.
Hang onto these meanings, as I add more information about this most important of words–Shalom:
According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner[*], The first letter, shin ש, which looks like a three-crowned tooth, shows us the idea of the shattering, or shevirat, of primeval vessels that hold captive, scattered sparks of the Divine. Releasing those captive sparks connects us with the Holy, and with Peace. The discord and confusion in breaking the vessels is actually the beginning of a return to wholeness; a tikkun or repair, or a refuah sheleimah as we say to one who is ill, and a return–to Peace.
The second letter, lamed ל, is tall and elegantly poised, much like a palm frond, waving up just so high, seeing ahead what may be coming.
This looking ahead helps us learn our boundaries, it is the beginning of defining who we are, and seeing others as who they are. In this way, we help create awareness and sensitivity to others–and Peace.
The final letter, the mem ם, is very special, because it is a mem sofit: that is, a final mem that closes the word. The regular mem is shaped like a teakettle מ, with an opening at the top near where the spout might be. Mem begins words like mayim, or water, the basic element that we cannot live without; midbar, or the wilderness we often find ourselves in, when we are growing and learning; mal’acha, or the work that sustains us; and menucha, the time of rest, when we stop work. Thus mem tells us what is essential, where our true work is, and when to rest. It tells us how to create Peace in our lives.
The final mem ם, is a closed box; therefore we see completeness and wholeness in our word for Peace, of Shalom.
So, that is the word for Peace, Shalom. Shin, lamed, mem sofit: completeness, recompense, Peace שלום.
Now, how do we create Peace?
For this part of my presentation, I’m going to shift away from the concept and construction of the Jewish word for Peace, and into another dimension of Judaism: our sacred theodicy of Peace, as taught by the 16th century Rabbi Moses Cordovero, as interpreted by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan[†]:
The teaching is based upon the tradition of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, and the question I believe we are asking ourselves when we speak of peace is, why does God allow people to do evil? Why doesn’t God just smite all of those evildoers, and let the rest of us just enjoy–Peace?
Here’s part of the answer: in our understanding, God does not want to smite anyone.
Rather, God would like everyone to pay attention to what they are doing, and if we do transgress, God welcomes our self-acceptance and repentance, and especially our desire to return again to God’s instructions to us for how to live. We find these ways to live in our Torah, the Five Books of Moses.
Thank God for that!
How many times have you made a mistake, and found that by the grace of God, you were able to rethink your mistake and have another chance?
Rabbi Cordovero teaches us that is what God prefers; that we learn and grow. And God gives us many, many chances.
How do we keep on track and increase the abundance of goodness in our lives?
How do we attract the flow of God’s energy, or shefa, into our lives and maintain the wholeness of peace?
Here’s the model for how this works, according to Jewish Kabbalah:
In the most infinite state, God dwells in an upper realm of spiritual being, and we dwell here on earth in our manifest state of being. Remember the letter shin ש, and how shattering of vessels releases sparks of Divine Energy?
To keep the connection of God’s spiritual abundance moving downward toward us, we release those trapped sparks of Divine energy upward. We do this by following God’s commandments for us, by studying Torah, doing acts of lovingkindness, and with prayer.
Or, as one Pastor at an African American Gospel Church I attended in New York City says: “When the prayers go up, the blessings come down!”
Simple, simple, simple. This is simple stuff! Yet, we all know deep inside that it is not so simple. We must work hard at keeping that God-connectedness close.
As it says in the book of Deuteronomy (11:17-21)[‡]:
“you must concentrate on keeping God ever present in your life.
One way that you can do this is by keeping that God-connection close,
close to your heart and to your eyes,
so that you experience the world from a place of holiness.
Put symbols of holiness on your hands, in order to remember
that your hands do good work, that is God’s work.
See God reflected in all the doings and beings of your life.
See God reflected in your children and teach them this way of living.
As women, as mothers, as sisters, we have the most power to do this last teaching: see God reflected in your children, and teach them this way of living, the importance of doing good in the world, and knowing it is never too late to fix a mistake.
We have those first intimate relationships with our children; we have the power to grow Peace as we raise our children.
Yes, We have the power to grow Peace as we raise our children.
So, in closing, I want to thank you all for coming, for having the desire to learn together, to want to create Peace by valuing what so many important traditions have to teach us about Peace.
We don’t have to search far, or start from scratch–we have the teachings already here to guide us.
May we all learn and grow in self-acceptance, strive for wholeness for ourselves and for others, and create Peace for the world. Amein.
[*] The Book of Letters: a Mystical Alef-bait. Harper & Row, New York 1975
[†]‘A Theodicy of Peace: The Mystical Nonviolence of Rabbi Moses Cordovero, in The Acorn: Journal of the Ghandi-King Society UNCC Spring Summer 2004 pp. 53-57
[‡] English interpretation by Rabbi Dina Hasida Mercy http://www.rabbi-mercy.com/04VhayaEemShamoa.htm