Religious conviction and compromise don’t mix well. Religion is about Truth, while compromise is all about deviating from what is pure to find a pragmatic “middle ground.” In religion compromise is a sign of weak conviction, but when politics is at its best, compromise is the engine of success.
This is why peace makers don’t like to include religious leaders in negotiations. For negotiations to succeed each side must give up some of its beliefs about what right in order to come toward its opponent. Invoking religion creates rigidity and absolutizes the disagreement, usually making agreement in some middle ground impure and impossible.
Such has been the destructive dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Religious leaders on both sides have fanned the flames of conflict, each insisting that any territorial compromise would be an act against God and the divine plan. Three decades ago I heard a leading rabbi of Gush Emunim announce that dividing Eretz Yisrael is like “cutting up God’s body.” And if Allah granted authority over all Dar al Islam (the region of Islam) to the great Muslim Uma (nation), how can a religious Muslim agree to Israeli sovereignty on any part of that region, however small? A leading Palestinian Christian religious leader wrote a book about the conflict called, “Justice and Only Justice,” demanding the disappearance of the Jewish State.
No, peacemaking is better left to pragmatic politicians without ultimate convictions.
Surprisingly, Parashat Lech Lechah defies this logic. Soon after Abraham arrives in the land of Canaan (Genesis, chapter 12), God grants him and his descendants absolute rights to that land. It is Abraham’s and his children’s inheritance forever—though it was then occupied by Canaanite and Perizite tribes. Later after trekking back there from a short sojourn in Egypt (chapter 13), Abraham’s shepherds quarrel with the shepherds of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. The Torah does not tell us the root of the dispute, but Rashi cites the rabbinic tradition that identifies what the quarrel was about. Lot had lost his ethical integrity while living in materialist Egyptian culture and now believes there is no problem with seizing the land from the residing Canaanite tribes so he could graze his flocks. Because Abraham held firm to his values against theft, he realized that the gulf between Lot and him was too great to bridge. The schism was only secondarily about land; on its deepest level it was over moral principal. Abraham offers to divide the very land that God promised him and that he knows is indisputably his. For the sake of peace Abraham declares to Lot: “Let there be no strife between you and me…If you go to the north, I will go south; and if you go to the south, I will go north.” (13:8-9)
Two important principles emerge from this narrative. Stealing from others—even idolators—was unthinkable to our patriarch Abraham. His understanding of the covenant with God precluded violating the moral prohibition against theft, since he is bidden to teach “tzedakah u’mishpat”—compassionate righteousness and justice (chapter 18). ‘Gezel akum’ (stealing from a non-Jew) was neither a legal nor a covenantal option for him. So important is this principle that Abraham is willing to split up his family in order to maintain it.
Second, though God had already bequeathed the Land to Abraham and all his children forever, Abraham is willing to compromise on full control of the covenantal Land for the sake of peace. As the founding father of our people and the paradigm for correct religious behavior, Abraham saw territorial division not as sin, but a religious desideratum. His belief in God’s Torah was no impediment to compromise on the Land that God promised to him and to us, Abraham’s descendants.
Does not the Torah challenge us to walk in the footsteps of our patriarch Abraham—both his physical and moral footsteps? If so, strong Jewish belief need not absolutize the conflict with the Palestinians. Compromise is legitimate religiously if it leads to real and enduring peace. In truth, Abraham never understood his agreement with Lot as compromise at all, but as the proper way to live out his covenant with God. Abraham “loved not the Land less, but peace more.” As the later Talmudic rabbis, who are the genealogical and spiritual descendants of Abraham, taught us, “The entire Torah was given for the sake of peace.”
Eugene Korn is academic director for the Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (Jerusalem). He received ordination from the Israeli rabbinate and holds a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.