Does Judaism Con­done Vio­lence? Holi­ness and Ethics in the Jew­ish Tradition

Alan L. Mittleman

December 18, 2018

We live in an age beset by reli­gious­ly inspired vio­lence. Terms such as holy war” are the stock-in-trade of the evening news. But what is the rela­tion­ship between holi­ness and vio­lence? Can acts such as mur­der ever tru­ly be described as holy? In Does Judaism Con­done Vio­lence?, Alan Mit­tle­man offers a search­ing philo­soph­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of such ques­tions in the Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Jew­ish texts fea­ture episodes of divine­ly inspired vio­lence, and the posi­tion of the Jews as God’s cho­sen peo­ple has been invoked to jus­ti­fy vio­lent acts today. Are these jus­ti­fi­ca­tions valid? Or does our under­stand­ing of the holy entail an eth­ic that argues against violence?

Recon­struct­ing the con­cept of the holy through a philo­soph­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of bib­li­cal texts, Mit­tle­man finds that the holy and the good are inex­tri­ca­bly linked, and that our expe­ri­ence of holi­ness is authen­ti­cat­ed through its moral con­se­quences. Our under­stand­ing of the holy devel­ops through reflec­tion on God’s cre­ation of the nat­ur­al world, and our val­ues emerge through our rela­tions with that world. Ulti­mate­ly, Mit­tle­man con­cludes, reli­gious jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for vio­lence can­not be sustained.

Lucid and inci­sive, Does Judaism Con­done Vio­lence? is a pow­er­ful coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to those who claim that the holy is irra­tional and amoral. With philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions that extend far beyond the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, this book should be read by any­one con­cerned about the trou­bling con­nec­tion between holi­ness and violence.

Discussion Questions

In an age in which we are often con­found­ed by the ter­ri­ble vio­lence moti­vat­ed by reli­gious fer­vor, Alan L. Mit­tle­man presents a sharp and sophis­ti­cat­ed cri­tique of such a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for vio­lence. In his book, Does Judaism Con­done Vio­lence?, Mit­tle­man offers a pow­er­ful analy­sis of the con­cept of holi­ness and a rich philo­soph­i­cal explo­ration of some of the most chal­leng­ing bib­li­cal texts involv­ing acts of vio­lence, per­pe­trat­ed by God and in the name of God. He chal­lenges the read­er to join him in explor­ing the roots of holi­ness and moral­i­ty in Judaism as well as those of bib­li­cal vio­lence, and in so doing, to decou­ple the con­nec­tion so often made between reli­gious ideals and acts of vio­lence. This book was select­ed as a win­ner of the Mod­ern Jew­ish Thought and Expe­ri­ence Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award because of Mittleman’s excep­tion­al abil­i­ty to blend an intel­lec­tu­al­ly rig­or­ous analy­sis of bib­li­cal texts and philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts with acces­si­ble lan­guage and imagery. He suc­ceeds in pre­sent­ing a com­pli­cat­ed and often mis­un­der­stood top­ic in a way that is engag­ing to a wide range of read­ers who may them­selves be search­ing for a deep­er under­stand­ing of holi­ness and moral­i­ty, and who strug­gle with the reli­gious vio­lence we see all too often in our world today.