Chapter 3 from Covenantal Imperatives: Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought and Community

Essay excerpt by Walter S. Wurzburger,
edited by Eliezer L. Jacobs and Shalom Carmy

Covenantal Imperatives

Darkhei Shalom1 (on account of the ways of peace) represents a maxim which is frequently invoked in Talmudic literature as justification for a variety of rabbinic ordinances designed to supplement or modify biblical legislation. The range of subjects where the application of this rule has exerted a pronounced impact is rather extensive. But for fairly obvious reasons, it was primarily in areas where the utilization of this principle has affected relationships to the non-Jewish world that the analysis of its meaning and significance has evoked the greatest interest.

The basic question that must be faced is whether the enactments prompted by concern for darkhei shalom should be regarded as expediency measures dictated by the enlightened self-interest of the Jewish community or whether we are dealing in these cases with a supreme ethical principle which transcends purely pragmatic considerations.

Historically, divergent views have been presented on this question. On the one hand, Christian writers, bent as they are on demonstrating the alleged superiority of Christian universalism over Jewish particularism, tend to relegate darkhei shalom to the level of a purely prudential device aiming at facilitating coexistence with the non-Jewish world.

In what appears to be an overreaction precipitated by apologetic fervor, an array of prominent scholars such as Professors Hoffman, Lazarus, and

Lauterbach categorically reject any suggestion that darkhei shalom was intended solely as a device to protect the stability and security of the Jewish community. The ordinances promulgated to advance the “ways of peace,” they argue, were inspired not by purely pragmatic considerations of enlightened self-interest, but rather by lofty ethical principles.

One of the most crucial arguments advanced in support of the thesis that the “ways of peace” represent an overriding ethical principle, and do not merely reflect considerations of expediency, is based upon a Talmudic passage.2

The Babylonian Talmud states that the entire Torah reflects “the ways of peace,” as it is written, “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”3It has been argued, that if, “the ways of peace” represent an all pervasive distinguishing feature of the entire Torah, how could such a prominent characteristic be relegated to the purely pragmatic level. What is overlooked in this argument is a rather significant point. There is no indication whatsoever in the Talmudic passage cited, that “the ways of peace” represent the ultimate aim and overall objective of the Torah. The texts in question really emphasize that “the ways of peace” represent one of the numerous features characterizing the precepts of the Torah. There is no evidence whatsoever that these characteristics constitute any more than merely pragmatically useful consequences which ensue in the wake of living in accordance with the precepts of the Torah. The text, however, does not provide any support for the contention that the very purpose of the Torah is to bring about conditions of peace and pleasantness.4

Another frequently advanced argument in support of the ethical thesis is equally unconvincing. It has been maintained that the term darkhei shalom conveys much more than merely the intent to prevent animosity between individuals. If darkhei shalom merely amounted to an effort to reduce or prevent friction or strife, then, so it is claimed, the appropriate term would have been devar ha-shalom 5 or mi-pnei evah (prevention of animosity). The very usage of the term darkhei shalom (the ways of peace) is construed as evidence that what the Talmudic sages had in mind was a far more general and sublime ethical goal than merely the attainment of a stable social order.

The only trouble with this kind of argument is that it is not borne out by the facts. Many Tannaitic ordinances that are similar to the type of enactments justified in the Mishnah on the grounds that they are vital because of darkhei shalom are in the Gemara explained on the grounds they were prompted by the attempt to prevent evah (hatred). This clearly shows that insofar as the Talmud is concerned, there is really no conceptual difference between the positive formulation (“the ways of peace”) and the negative formulation mi-pnei evah (prevention of hatred).

As a matter of fact, it seems that, disregarding one or possibly two exceptions, the term evah is not at all employed by the Tannaim either in the Mishnah or in the Tosefta.6 On the other hand, when the Amoraim explained the reasons for certain enactments previously decreed by the Tannaim, they have recourse to the term evah. But since the Amoraim employ the term evah to explain Tannaitic enactments that are similar to those justified in the Mishnah explicitly by reference to darkhei shalom, it follows that insofar as the Amoraim were concerned, “the ways of peace” were the equivalent of the prevention of evah.

To be sure, nothing we have established so far can be construed as evidence against the “moral” thesis. There is no reason whatsoever that the prevention of evah should be regarded as a purely pragmatic objective. After all, in the Jewish religious code, the mandate to pursue peace plays a very important role. Among the religious acts that qualify for reward, both in this world and in the World to Come, are included the measures designed to promote peace between man and his fellow man.

But even if we recognize that efforts to eliminate friction are endowed with enormous religious and ethical significance, we are still left with a major question. We have not yet resolved whether darkhei shalom or evah, when applied to relationships with the non-Jewish community, represent an intrinsic or an instrumental value. It might well be argued that ultimately our concern for “the ways of peace” in our relationship with the non-Jewish world stems ultimately from Jewish self-interest. Obviously, the well-being of the Jewish community would be adversely affected by inviting friction with the non-Jewish community. Thus, it would be only the moral and religious imperative to insure the stability and security of the Jewish community that would serve as the matrix for the enactment of regulations aiming to remove grounds for friction with the non-Jewish community. With such an approach to darkhei shalom there would be totally absent from the Jewish value structure any intrinsic concern for the well-being of those outside of the Jewish covenantal community. We would be left only with counsels for enlightened self-interest.

In contrast with this ethnocentric conception one might with the same degree of plausibility advance the thesis that “the ways of peace” and, for that matter, considerations of evah reflect an overriding universal moral principle. Accordingly, darkhei shalom would provide the matrix for binding moral obligations extending the range and scope of legalistic requirements. In this conception, darkhei shalom supplements legalistic formulations and adds a moral dimension of universal significance.

Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the two respective interpretations of the rabbinic maxim are perfectly compatible with the source material. Significantly, rabbinic authorities in the Middle Ages already held divergent views with respect to the nature and scope of the concept. On the one hand, some scholars operated within a purely ethnocentric framework and maintained that regulations rooted in “the ways of peace” or evah were in effect only when the Jewish society in some sense depended upon the goodwill of the non-Jewish world. But in situations where Jews had no ground to fear the reaction of the non-Jewish world, no allowances had to me made for “the ways of peace.”7

Other scholars categorically rejected this position and insisted upon the unconditional applicability of the precept, irrespective of any considerations as to whether or not an action in question would enhance the welfare of the Jewish community per se. Maimonides, for example, makes it abundantly clear that concern for the welfare of a non-Jew transcends consideration of enlightened self-interest and reflects the religious mandate to imitate the ethical attitudes of God. It is for this reason, that when Maimonides8 discusses the obligation to give alms to non-Jews, he cites the verse “God is good to everyone and His mercy encompasses all His creatures,”9 before quoting the passage from Proverbs which the Talmud invokes as justification for “the ways of peace.” Apparently, Maimonides went out of his way to guard against any attempt to look upon moral actions towards non-Jews as grounded exclusively in purely pragmatic considerations calculated to secure the peace of the Jewish community. By linking the pursuit of “the ways of peace” with the divine attribute of compassion, Maimonides suggests that what is involved in “the ways of peace” is an overriding religious imperative. Significantly, the verse “God’s mercy extends to all His creatures” is also cited by Maimonides10 as evidence that the cultivation of compassion constitutes one of the ways in which we comply with the mandate to emulate divine attributes of ethical perfection.

What emerges from the Maimonidean formulation of “the ways of peace” is an emphasis of what might be termed “agent-morality.” Accordingly, even in situations where for a variety of reasons certain provisions of “act-morality” may not be applicable, considerations of agent-morality form the matrix of additional obligations. To give a specific example, the Biblical commandment prescribing alms-giving does not include an obligation to support non-Jewish poor. Yet considerations of agent-morality (the precept mandating the cultivation of moral disposition patterning itself after the divine model) dictate that we display compassion to all individuals regardless of their religious or ethnic background. Thus, while Jewish act-morality might contain features that differentiate between obligations toward Jews and those who are outside of the covenantal community, agent-morality, relating as it does to the dispositions of the agent, eliminates all such differences. Insensitivity to the needs of others is no less reprehensible a trait when it is exhibited in behavior toward non-Jews than it would be towards fellow Jews. It should also be noted that in the context of Maimonides’s philosophy, the expression “the ways of peace” is especially appropriate to convey a moral thrust. Characteristically, for Maimonides, the entire system of law governing interpersonal relationships can be subsumed under the overall principle of altruism. And it is through altruistic behavior that, in the Maimonidean view, one helps create the kind of social order which is conducive both to general welfare and personal happiness. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because ethical acts have such beneficial consequences, that they create their own reward, in this world, apart from the spiritual reward that can be expected in the World to Come.

To be sure, Maimonides is by no means alone in the contention that concern for peace is integrally related to various other ethical norms. According to an opinion expressed by Tosafot, “the ways of peace” are so broadly defined as to include features which not even by the widest stretch of the imagination could possibly be regarded as constituent elements of domestic peace. Tosafot contends that the proviso that one may deviate from the truth on account of considerations of humility or modesty is part and parcel of the general rule that considerations of “the ways of peace” warrant the telling of white lies.11 It is noteworthy that Tosafot does not adopt the approach of many other commentators who regard concern for various moral virtues as a completely independent category justifying deviation from the truth, without, in any way, being reducible to the right to deviate from the truth on account of the interests of peace. Tosafot’s broad definition of “the ways of peace” is obviously totally incompatible with the thesis that the notion amounts merely to a counsel of prudence devoid of any intrinsic moral significance.

It might, of course, be argued that the expression darkhei shalom possesses a variety of meanings ranging from mere consideration of expediency to the loftiest moral maxims. There certainly is no conclusive proof that the expression must have the same meaning in the various contexts in which it has been employed. One, therefore, might contend that while for Tosafot, darkhei shalom in certain cases represents an ultimate religious moral ideal, in other cases, for example, in the relationship to the non-Jewish community, it amounts merely to the counsel of enlightened self-interest.

While such a position is indeed logically tenable, it appears that the burden of proof rests upon those who insist that “the ways of peace” hold an entirely different meaning when applied to relationships with the non-Jewish world. At any rate, it can be seen from our preceding analysis that at least for Maimonides and possibly for many other Jewish authorities, “the ways of peace” are treated as the ethical religious norm and not merely as a pragmatic device to safeguard Jewish self-interest.

1 Gesher 6, RIETS, (1978): 80–86.

2 BT Gittin 59b.

3 Proverbs 3:17.

4 We need but recall the well-known comment of the Tur in Choshen Mishpat 1. Accordingly, truth, war, and peace are treated as necessary conditions for the existence of the world, but not as the raison d’être or ultimate purpose.

5 This term is employed in BT Yevamot 67b.

6 There are, of course, two exceptions to this rule. The Mishnah in Kiddushin 63a, and according to some versions, the Tosefta in Betzah 4:10 also employ this term.

7 Tosafot Yeshanim on BT Shabbat 19b; Rashba on BT Bava Metzia 32b.

8 Hilchot Melakhim 10:12.

9 Psalms 119:9.

10 Avadim 9:8.

11 Tosafot, Bava Metzia 23b. It should be observed that Tosafot, unlike Maimonides, does not differentiate between darkhei shalom and devar ha-shalom.


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