How can it be right to perpetrate violence in the name of religion?

April 19, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. How can it be right to perpetrate violence in the name of religion?

A. Violence, no new invention, is the scourge of our generation, a monster which, once unleashed, knows no master.

But there are two types of violence, destructive and constructive.

In the first, violence is an end in itself, and this was never condoned by Judaism.

The second is sometimes legitimate in order to promote an end which is unattainable otherwise. Thus instances of violence are attributed to God, aiming at preventing or controlling a greater evil.

Violence in the form of war is allowed in certain circumstances, particularly in defence of lives or ideals. Since one is not permitted to remain silent in the face of evil, taking up arms is reluctantly conceded if peaceful means have totally failed. But even for a morally desirable end,

it must be used sparingly.

Summary justice is disapproved of. Even capital punishment, which the Bible explicitly sanctions, is almost legislated out of existence by the rabbis.

In one’s personal life, anger and violence are almost as sinful as idolatry, though unlike Christianity, Judaism does not turn the other cheek.

Violence is at best an interim ethic; non-violence is higher. We must learn to control violence and work towards eliminating it altogether. The ideal is that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3).

This ideal requires effort on every level, not least in the microcosm of our personal lives. Avoid anger and violence in small things and it will become easier to eradicate it on the national and international level.


Q. My rabbi gets upset when people come to Synagogue for Yahrzeits but are never seen at other times. Is he right?

A. I don’t think so.

I went through something similar as a young rabbi when a shule member who never came on Shabbat because his business was open that day still came every morning to say Kaddish when one of his parents died.

With youthful wisdom I decided it wasn’t right to let him conduct the service; now with the greater wisdom of an old-timer I have decided I was wrong.

Honouring your parents is one of the Ten Commandments and if a person comes to shule for this purpose who am I to deny him or her the opportunity to do a mitzvah?

A person has to make a beginning somewhere, and why not with Yahrzeit?


Q. The Torah says that the counting of the Omer is for 50 days (Lev. 23:16), so why do we in actual fact only count 49 days?

A. The technical explanation is that the 49 days bring us to Shavu’ot, and that is the 50th day.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, adds another dimension. He says that though the 49 days of counting bring us closer and closer to ultimate spirituality, the final goal eludes us.

We elevate ourselves further and further every day of the Omer, but the experience of complete revelation and understanding will always be beyond us.

That realisation must nevertheless not prevent us from trying the experience of elevation. We might not get there, but only if we make the effort do we give ourselves the chance of succeeding.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “How can it be right to perpetrate violence in the name of religion?”
  1. Lynne newington says:

    In the first, violence is an end in itself, and this was never condoned by Judaism.

    No but you certainly have had your [un]fair share.

    After the Holocaust you still had to deal with the Argentine dictatorship, not with-standing Nostra Aetate scarcely a decade later.

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