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Shalom: My Religion’s Solution for World Peace

(Prepared for the Women’s Annual Interfaith Symposium: World Peace, How Religion Helps November 29, 2014)

Shalom! I think it’s the first Hebrew word I ever learned. In kindergarten my Hebrew teacher would welcome us with shalom yeladim/welcome children. On Shabbat/the sabbath we greet each other with Shabbat shalom/a peaceful sabbath. We say shalom aleichem/peace be upon you when we wish people well. We sing a song of the same name, Shalom Aleichem ,to the angels of peace as we welcome in the Sabbath. When we ask someone how they are we say ma shlomeich? It really means, how is your peace? We talk about shalom bayit/peace in the home. Jerusalem is loosely translated as city of peace.

In Hebrew, shalom is a ubiquitous word. Shalom means hello, goodbye and … peace. It also means well being and prosperity. A variation of shalom using the same Hebrew letters but with different vowels is the word shaleim. Shaleim means whole. Shleimut means wholeness/completeness/perfection. Shalom, shaleim - for there to be peace/well being/prosperity, there must also be wholeness/perfection. The significance of shalom isn’t limited to the political domain - to the absence of war and enmity - or to the social - to the absence of quarrel and strife. It ranges over several different spheres, and refers to bounteous physical conditions, a moral value and ultimately to a cosmic principle and divine attribute.

The word shalom appears 135 times in the Jewish Bible/the Old Testament. And that’s without counting any of the cognates which would increase that number to almost 300. There is even a Biblical King named peaceful/complete/whole - Solomon/Shlomo. The concept of peace/perfection/societal harmony appears in Judaism’s holy books and commentaries in many different forms using many different words.

In Judaism, peace isn’t only the opposite of war such as in Ecclesiastes 3:8 “a time of war, and a time for peace”; it’s an ideal state of affairs. In this sense, peace/perfection won’t be totally achieved until the messianic era. In Isaiah 2:4 the prophet Isaiah tells us that when the Messiah comes “nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war”. This will be part of a general societal harmony and perfection as we see in Zechariah 8:16 where the prophet says “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates”. Here the Hebrew word shalom is translated as perfect. We also see it in Malachi 2:6 where, in God’s name, the prophet says “Proper rulings were in his mouth, and nothing perverse was on his lips; He served Me with complete loyalty and held the many back from iniquity”. Here shalom is translated as complete.

In the Bible, the word shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, of well-being, of circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace. When inquiring about the peace of one’s fellow, it is asking about a state of blessed harmony on several levels, physical and spiritual.

The fact that true peace is an eschatological dream doesn’t mean that it isn’t a Jewish value in the here and now. In the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, peace is one of the most esteemed values. It is an ethical category that denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war. While shalom is still depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, in many sayings it appears in a normative context: the pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures.

The majority of passages on the subject of peace in rabbinic texts are concerned with family or communal life, that is, with internal peace among the Jewish people, and only a minority are concerned with external relations between Israel and other peoples, between nations and states. Nevertheless, the two realms aren’t always differentiated from each other and at times appear to be continuous. For example, we read in the Midrash, a body of literature in which the rabbis seek to fill in the “gaps” found in the Torah, “He who establishes peace between man and his fellow, between husband and wife, between two cities, two nations, two families or two governments … no harm should come to him (Mekhilta Bachodesh 12).

According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, a Talmudic sage, three things preserve the world: truth/emet, justice/law/din, and peace/shalom (Avot 1:18). Peace seems to take precedence over the truth, as the Talmud permits deviation from truth to establish peace. Additionally, there is a whole category of rabbinic ordinances established mipnei darkhei shalom, in the interest of peace. For example, the Talmud says that Jews are to provide sustenance for non-Jewish poor people mipnei darkhei shalom. Thus we see that the series of regulations the Sages ordained in the interest of peace were also meant to affect relations both among the Jews themselves and between the Jews and the Gentiles.

The Sages went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta-value, the summit of all other values, with the possible exception of justice. There is even a sense that peace is more important than loyalty to God. In response to the prophet Hosea 4:17 (“Ephraim is addicted to images - let him be.”), the Midrash, says “even if Israel is tied to idols, leave him, as long as peace prevails within it” (Genesis Rabbah 38:6). Elsewhere the Talmud says “if in order to establish peace between husband and wife, the name of God, which was written in holiness, may be blotted out, how much more so to bring about peace for the world as a whole.”

Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah: “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace” we read in another midrashic text (Tanhuma Shofetim 18). It is the essence of the prophetic tiding - “The prophets have planted in the mouth of all people naught so much as peace (Bamidbar Rabbah Naso 11:7) and of redemption, “God announceth to Jerusalem that they [Israel] will be redeemed only through peace” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15).

Perhaps nothings exhibits the important of peace as much as the fact that almost every major Jewish prayer concludes with an appeal for peace.

In the Amidah, the standing silent prayer we recite three times a day ends with: Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisrael, v’imru amen. May the One who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and for all Israel (and in Jewish Renewal we have added the words v’al kol yoshvei teivel (and for all those who inhabit the world), amen.

The Kaddish, the prayer of sanctification of God which is recited on many occasions, including as a bridge between different parts of a service, and by mourners, ends with the same phrase. The Birkat HaMazon, the prayer of thanksgiving we recite after eating also includes the same phrase. The Priestly Blessing, which is recited by the prayer leader when the Amidah is repeated out loud and which is taken directly from Bamidbar/Numbers 6:24-26, contains a particularly beautiful formulation: ye’varecheha Adonai ve’yishmerecha, may God bless you and protect you, ya’er Adonai panav eilecha vi’yechuneka, may God make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, yisa Adonai panav eilicha ve’yaseim lecha shalom, may God turn His face toward you, and grant you peace.

But the matter doesn’t end with what Judaism has to say about peace. Judaism has much to say about tikkun olam, healing or repairing or perfecting the world. Tikkun olam suggests humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. It consists of an infinite number of acts of lovingkindness. Whether an infinite number of acts of lovingkindness adds up to a world intact is up to us.

The concept of tikkun olam originated in the early rabbinic period and was later given new meaning in the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, that first appeared in the medieval period. It has come to possess further connotations in modern Judaism as the responsibility of Jewish people to work towards a better world. In the 1970s and 1980s in particular the phrase tikkun olam began to gain more traction and has come to mean everything from direct service to general philanthropy. For some Jews, tikkun olam means that Jews are not only responsible for creating a model society among themselves, but also are responsible for the welfare of the society at large, that Jews have an obligation to engage in social and ethical action.

Does Judaism have a solution for world peace? Yes, theoretically. Many, in fact, not just one. However, they all are dependent upon human action in combination with divine grace. Neither alone will suffice. And none of us humans can do it alone. To quote my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, the founder of Jewish Renewal, the only way to get it together is … together.


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