Rabbi Everett Gendler teaches Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret’s Torah of Nonviolence

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

A powerful take away for rabbis attending the fabulous Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting emerged during a text study with the venerable Rabbi Everett Gendler, who introduced us to the important work of Rabbi Samuel Tamaret (1869 – 1903). As we listened to our elder teach, we realized our deep connection to previous rabbinic generations who also regarded militarism and nationalism as antithetical to Torah.

Rabbi Gendler, a life long proponent of nonviolent direct action, was introduced to Tamaret by Dr. Gerson Cohen, a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary when R. Gendler was a student.  According to Rabbi Gendler:

We had a warm personal relationship beset by substantial differences of political outlook! One day Dr. Cohen sees me in the hallway near the library.  “Gendler,” he says, feigning the stance of a summons officer, Come in, I’ve got something for you.” He picks a thin volume off the shelf in his office, hands it to me with just a touch of disapproval, and says, “You’re an Iowa Quaker…this will appeal to you!”

How right he was! “The Community of Israel and Wars Among the Nations” was my introduction to the quite revolutionary writings of “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis,” – pen name of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret.

The exchange between Gendler and Cohen is a beautiful testimony to rabbinic cooperation across the spectrum of opinion for the sake of knowledge.

Rabbi Tamaret, was a teacher of nonviolence as a core principle of Jewish life. He first supported and then opposed what he regarded as Zionism’s overweening nationalism after attending the fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900. The following excerpts are from Rabbi Tamaret’s Shabbat Hagadol sermon during Passover 1906, translated by Rabbi Gendler. In the essay, Tamaret distinguishes two types of violence. He describes “natural violence” as direct violence arising from the inability to control human passions, and a second type of unnatural violence constructed from sophisticated falsehoods meant to persuade “whole populations to band together publicly in organized assaults upon weaker nations.”

Rabbi Tamaret regarded Zionism in the later category, as did significant numbers of rabbis in his generation:

Fradulent evil, that is, evil justified by the mind, or political evil, has become the greatest destroyer on the face of the earth. It is the source of the worst catastrophes which have befallen men since the beginning of the “improvement” of the intellect. For what have we seen? A steady reduction of private, natural crimes of individual violence, but an enormous increase in fraudulent murders…hypocrisy has united whole nations and entire societies in the pursuit of weaker ones. This is the secret of all the wars, conscriptions and organized slaughters which have occurred in the world at large…

It was in order to clear away these two corruptions: violence due to uncontrolled passion directed at immediate wants, and the unnatural ones resulting from misrepresentations of the intellect (systemic violence) that the Holy One manifested in the world through the giving of the Torah, preceded by the exile to and redemption from Mitzrayim (Egypt).  Servitude, the condition of one having dominion over the person of another, falls under the second category of evil, that evil which pretends to some justification.

We have no assurance that the unnatural evil of man’s falsifying intellect will not snatch the Torah, toss it into its valise, and make of it another weapon for destruction and murder. For this is the standard method of the evil-minded murderer: to take the fruits of enlightenment and intelligence, intended to enhance life on this earth, and turn them into their opposites, tools for the angel of death.

Rabbi Tamaret also offered the following Talmudic commentary to illustrate what he regarded as the greatest provider of authentic security and the true meaning of Torah:

A man should concern himself more that he not injure others than that he not be injured…. The Children of Israel must derive this lesson from the events of Passover eve: not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the god of truth and justice, for this will serve to defend them everywhere against those who would dominate by the power of the fist.

May the power of the Torah of nonviolence liberate our hearts and minds this Passover so we can celebrate liberty and freedom for Palestinians and Jews next year.