Thursday, August 19, 2010

Peace in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Peace is a word with which we are familiar from ancient times. In the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) it is one of the most frequently used words. However, the biblical meaning of the word was not limited to our notion of the opposite of “war,” but the older and deeper meaning of the word was more general, implying wholeness and safety. The Hebrew word for peace is Shalomשלום , derived from Shalemשלם , which means “complete” “unblemished” “whole” as opposed to broken, dysfunctional or troubled. The root sh’l’m’ ש'ל'מ' in Hebrew is also the source of the idea of paying, paying up, making up what is due. One type of the sacrifices ordained in the Hebrew Bible is Zevah Shelaminזבח שלמים , a voluntary sacrifice made to pay up a vow or make a donation to the priests. Several post-biblical rabbinic sages made the connection, stating, for instance, that whoever makes a zevah shelamim is like one who brings peace into the world. One modern rendition of the term in English is “peace offering,” bringing to mind a gesture made to the enemy in the pursuit of peace in the sense of absence of war. With the emergence of Christianity, the dominant meaning of Shalomשלום  in Hebrew was the absence of war, and the Christian Scriptures (aka New Testament) followed in the same tradition; see Mat. 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” In practice, neither the Jews nor the Christians have abstained from war or violence to pursue peace. Hebrew Bible is replete with internal and external wars, and Christianity, as soon as it reached a position of dominance in the ancient world, had no inhibition of using the sword alongside the cross. The same happened with the emergence of Islam, claiming to be the legitimate heir of both Judaism and Christianity. The very name of Islam comes from the Semitic root of Shalom/slm/Salam/Islam. The very term “Islam represents the notion of an inner peace that comes from submission to God. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, holds the other meaning of Salam – peace as opposed to war – as an important value. The idea of Jihad, one of the five pillars of Islam, indeed means “holy war,” but not only physical war against a physical enemy: the highest form of Jihad is the internal struggle – the effort to become whole, complete – while physical war is the lowest form, subject to strict conditions such as defending Islam against attack.  But again, like Judaism and Christianity, the prominence of the value of peace in Islam did not stand in its immense military, cultural and religious conquest of most of the world.

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