Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence

Mark Johnson

As we celebrated Passover with a Seder in the Community of Living Traditions at the Stony Point Center on Monday evening I felt I was in the presence once again of co-founder of the community, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. This review of her new book will appear in a shorter version in a forthcoming issue of FOR’s Fellowship magazine, but the work reads today like an afikomen for Passover.

Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Earth of Hope Publishing, France, 2013.

When I was five years old, growing up in Rochester, New York, I would accompany my father into the basement on Saturday mornings to help him shovel coal into the furnace of our small apartment building. Our landlord who lived on the first floor kept the Sabbath and if we were to have heat on Saturday it was a necessity that we stoke the fire. And yet the landlord treated it as an act of generosity on our part and rewarded us with meats from the delicatessen he owned. We were the Sabbath goyim and this was my introduction to Judaism as a child.

Rochester had a significant Jewish population. Dr. Moser made house calls when I had a fever and set my broken arm in a cast when I was in first grade. Dr. Abe Hollander was the Principal of our high school and took special care as I negotiated the principles of nonviolence that led to my becoming a conscientious objector. For me Jews have always pointed the way toward peace.

But then, in college, I made my first journey to the Middle East to study at the American University of Beirut. Over the past 40 years I have visited the area more than a dozen times and lived there for the better part of seven years, including most of the month of January of this year. I have become increasingly conflicted about the commitment of Jews to the path of peace. The occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the oppression of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel would seem to be irreconcilable with the principles of Judaism. To negotiate my own confusion I have taken on a guide over the past decade.

When one takes a journey it is helpful to engage a guide, even when venturing into somewhat familiar territory, someone still more invested in the field of inquiry can be a welcome companion. Though pilgrimage does not appear in the title, we know Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb’s life has been of a piece with that practice and that even for her, the journey is unfinished. Therefore the notion of a Trail Guide is well chosen as a way of approaching and working through the Torah of Nonviolence. Though written most explicitly for Jewish explorers, anyone curious about or committed to understanding and practicing nonviolence will find the work enriched with Rabbi Gottlieb as their guide. Those who have seen a performance of Lilith or simply sat in a circle of dialogue with Rabbi Gottlieb, her voice will be immediately recognizable and many of the stories familiar, but here they are brought together in a wonderful and useful way.

The Trail Guide is a truly magnificent tool of teaching and learning. Is traces the path of Rabbi Lynn’s own education in the rabbinate as one of the earliest women to become a Rabbi in America. It explains the opening of her heart to all suffering peoples and the construction of her life as a response to that condition with special, concluding emphasis on the Palestinian people. It describes in detail and with great creativity the principles and adoption of a nonviolent life by joining an order of Jewish practice she and her co-creators call Shomer Shalom, the Torah of Nonviolence.

Embedded, even foundational to practices of nonviolence, Rabbi Lynn identifies textual roots and historiographic evidence of the key elements of nonviolence: hospitality, the pursuit of peace and justice, civilian resistance, and solidarity. The four core chapters ground endless examples of developing a discipline of peacemaking in deep scholarship as she examines Hitorrarut, Hakhnsasat Shalom, Shomer Lashon, and Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.  As an inveterate story teller the teachings are brought to life with dozens and dozens of story. Those who have known Rabbi Lynn will have heard many of them before; those meeting her here for the first time will recognize her immediately when they finally meet her in person, her voice is perfectly captured in them. And as a true pilgrim, lives are always crossing her path. As a co-creator of the interfaith peace walk (with Imam Abdur’ Rauf Campos-Marquetti), frequent leader of delegations to the Middle East, convener of youth gatherings across the United States, witness to the pursuit of peace globally, many paths have already and many more yet will cross with hers. The trail guide is an excellent preparation for that next encounter.

As I finished my first reading of the Trail Guide over the course of my recent visit to Palestine and Israel, and with many await the next proposal for a reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis, the last chapter, on The Question of Palestine, is a baffling catalogue of the many, many ways in which the awakening to injustice is stirred by experience, the opportunity for and responsibility of hospitality is met, the language of peace is learned, and restorative justice is sought through active nonviolence. If it ended with this catalogue all would have been for naught, but there is an Epilogue as well in which Rabbi Lynn’s self-caricature as “A Fool for Peace” could describe a homecoming for us all. While written for the Jewish community, the Trail Guide has much to teach the Sabbath goy (*).

*see the Glossary, it’s a helpful addition.