Can’t we all just get along? Jewish lessons in peacemaking

There’s no shortage of violent confrontation in the Bible. The story of Passover, for one, would be radically different if the Egyptians and the Hebrew slaves had decided everybody should just try to get along.

But according to Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus at Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, the Torah also is overflowing with a seemingly contradictory idea: that reconciliation, or peacemaking, is central to Judaism itself.

In “Torah of Reconciliation,” Lewis has compiled an impressive array of scriptural and rabbinical texts that both give instructions for and emphasize the importance of making peace — with one’s family, friends, community, country and beyond.

Lewis will be on hand to discuss his book on Sunday, Oct. 28 at Lehrhaus Judaica’s “War and Peace” conference at the JCC of San Francisco.

Following the cycle of the Torah, Lewis expands on each verse he tackles with thoughtful, often personal reflections on the nature of conflict and options for resolution.

“I think many of these themes have been at the center of my own personal passions my entire life, but I really started having a vision of this book right after 9/11,” explains Lewis, who says he also was influenced by what he saw serving as an Army chaplain during the Vietnam War.

“I wanted to demonstrate that the messages about peacemaking and reconciliation are really pervasive in the Jewish tradition … in part because I’ve found that when the subject of peacemaking comes up it’s like a wellspring — there are so many teachings about it.”

Though the book contains passages related to international conflict, “so much of the Torah’s wisdom here applies to interpersonal relationships — husbands and wives, friends and neighbors,” Lewis continues. “I think a wide range of people could use [the book] as a resource.” He expects a good number of the book’s fans to be Torah scholars, which helps explain its textbook-like format.

His Oct. 28 workshop is titled “Beyond War: Transforming an Enemy into a Friend in Rabbinic Texts.”

“What I’ve found through my research is that having enemies is very uncomfortable in Judaism,” says the rabbi with a laugh. “We’ve had plenty of them, as you know, and while confronting enemies and standing up for ourselves is part of Jewish tradition, there’s also a huge emphasis on doing everything possible to overcome those relationships, to transform them, to not let hatred or anger fester.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis

“Knowing our history and the awful situations our people have been in over time, this is why we work to not let those bitter experiences shape the way we live as Jews today … part of the transformation is moving forward and being proactive,” he says.

Lewis also will be part of the Lehrhaus conference’s closing conversation with keynote speaker Rabbi Reuven Firestone, whose most recent book explores the concept of “holy war” in Judaism and the re-emergence of sanctified violence in Orthodox thought.

“I think [Firestone] is wonderful, and I think he testifies accurately about what’s happening in some areas of thought,” Lewis says. “But I don’t think that’s at all representative of where modern Judaism is today, or where Jews are today, whether they’re in the Bay Area or in Israel.”

Lewis retired from Kol Emeth in 2006 after serving the congregation for 33 years. He remains active as a rabbi in Palo Alto and throughout the Bay Area, co-chairing the Northern California Board of Rabbis’ task force on the Year of Civil Discourse, an initiative designed to engage Jews across the political spectrum in respectful conversation about controversial issues.

“Torah of Reconciliation” by Sheldon Lewis (350 pages, Gefen Publishing House, $24.95)

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis will talk about his book at 12:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F.; 7 p.m. Nov. 1, Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto; 10:30 a.m. Nov. 4, Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1315 University Ave., Berkeley; and 3 p.m. Nov. 11, Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.