Sermon: The Chimpanzee Warrior- Ekev 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 August 2010

If your life expectancy is forty five years, is it worth dying over fig trees?  In the Kibale national park in Uganda large groups of males strike out in silent single file patrols to expand the number of fig trees under their control.  Between 1999 and 2008 eighteen were killed in violent attacks during these patrols.  Most of the victims were teens and children and mothers were beaten as the raiders snatched and killed their offspring.  No one on either side was starving – but the raiders managed to increase their lands in the fig tree containing area by more than a fifth.

You might ask how could human beings be so cruel as to fight like this over a luxury?    The answer – in this case they are not.  The single file patrols, the raiders, the killers and the victims are all chimpanzees.  The study which witnessed this violent behaviour was conducted by John Mitani of the University of Michigan over a decade and what he found might tell us more about ourselves than we find comfortable. {[1]}

Hunter gatherer societies among humans are the most violent in the world, not city societies.  According to Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard , if you live as a hunter-gatherer in Papua New Guinea today then you have a more than one in six chance of dying at the hands of another man, as disputes erupt over territories.    Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary – from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two World Wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare. {[2]}

The Ngogo group of Chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park are even more violent than Hunter-Gatherers.  A chimpanzee is even more likely to die in violence between chimp and chimp.

Does the Chimpanzee society tell us that for humans to be violent is just a natural drive?    There is another key finding of the University of Michigan study – that is that Chimpanzees do not fight alone.  Like the tribes of Israel about whom we heard in our Torah portion today they maintain “complex, collaborative social networks – suggesting that only by bonding within groups can chimps engage in violence between such groups.”

John Mitani suggests that it may be that our ability to bond with strangers was forged originally by the demands of war – of fighting to defend or extend our territory.  He also suggests that the “human tendency to coalesce around abstract concepts such as religion or nation, which underpins civilisation, may well be an evolutionary legacy of a violent past.  After all this is what brings chimpanzees together and somehow to be able to communicate with each other enough to go on patrol and expand their territories with respect to other chimpanzee groups.

In evolutionary terms the line leading to chimpanzees or to humans split 5 million years ago.   Humans have continued to bond with strangers – look at us here.  Humans have also continued to come together for a purpose – consider Judaism.

How did we leave the violent impulse behind?  Indeed have we?  In this week’s Sedra of Ekev Nicky started his portion with these chilling words beginning with the same Shema Yisrael that starts the prayer on the lips of every observant Jew twice a day:

“Hear, O Israel; You are to pass over the Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, A people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard say, Who can stand before the sons of Anak!  Understand therefore this day, that the Lord your God is he who goes over before you; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them, and he shall bring them down before your face; so shall you drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has said to you. ” {[3]}

These passages and others like them which we will hear in the coming weeks from the Book of Deuteronomy are not the direction which Judaism took in the millennia which followed.  Whilst our founding ethos in the Torah is undoubtedly one of a people struggling like the Ngogo chimps to establish its territory with all the means at its disposal.  Judaism developed away from this ethos.  The Prophet Isaiah, whose words we hear today and for most of the Haftarot until Rosh Hashanah, told us that the Jewish dream was not of becoming great warriors but rather of peace – of a day when “swords shall be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.”   When “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” . {[4]}

Peace not strength became the greatest blessing.   As Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai said  “Great is peace for all blessings and prayers Great is peace, for all benedictions and prayers conclude with [an invocation for] peace. In the case of the reading of Shema’, the prayers in that section of the service end  with: “We praise You, O God, may your sheltering peace descend’; in the case of the Tefillah, the final prayer in that section of the service is , “We praise You, O God, the source of peace”; in the case of the Priestly Benediction, one concludes, “May God reach out to You in tenderness, and give you peace (Num. 6:26).” {[5]}

The wars  commanded in the Torah – the fighting against the Jebusites, the Perrizites, Hitites and others were categorized by our Rabbis in the Mishnah {[6]} – 2000 years ago as something entirely exceptional – milchemet Mitzvah.  Uniquely commanded wars- not to be repeated.    As Rabbi Reuven Firestone writes, these Rabbis were suffering from the results of those who had started war in the Jewish revolt of 66ce and the Hadrianic revolt of 135CE, saying that they were doing so for a holy cause,  both of which had devastating consequences for Jews and Judaism. But there is a small section of the Jewish people who are trying to revive the idea that there can be a war for a Jews which is a religious obligation.

The war–and it may now be accurately called a war between Israel and the Palestinians–is defined by many religiously observant settlers and their supporters as a divine obligation to reclaim the whole of the Land of Israel as either a prelude to or as actually part of the messianic awakening, basing themselves on a statement of Nachmanides from the 12th Century. {FN:in his gloss on Maimonides’ Book of Commandments (positive commandment 4), who teaches that the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel lies in the category of obligatory war (milhemet mitzvah). “It is a positive commandment for all generations obligating every individual, even during the period of exile.”}

When they do this Jewish warmongers are on the level of the Chimpanzees of the Ugandan National Park with disastrous consequences for the society around them – making it impossible for Israel to find the just and secure peace that we all need.

Today’s Jews in the Diaspora and Israel need to pursue that essential direction of Judaism towards peace – and away from violence.  How should we do so?  Rabbi Tony Bayfield in this month’s edition of Manna {[8]} writes :  that there are six points to pursuing peace in Israel for we Disapora Jews.  We must love Israel no less than those who would have her be a war mongering state.  We should state that our commitment to Israel is to a just and secure peace based on two states – not some apparent biblical claim which our Rabbis told us was finishedd two thousand years ago.  We must share with Israel proudly the value of the Diaspora perspective – because “the future of the Jewish people worldwide is bound up both ethically and physically with the future of the Jewish people in Israel” so we must contribute to Israel and pass on the understanding of how people outside Israel see the situation she is in.  We must engage in the important work of building alliances and partnerships with everyone working in Israel and the middle east so that we can get through challenges together when they occur. If we work with those with a different perspective then we can get our perspective across – when the Methodist Church worked on projects to alleviate poverty among Middle Eastern Christians they did so without the perspective of the prosperity that Israel could bring to the region. Finally we must urge Israel to enshrine in law and practice the pursuit of justice and the principle of equality for all peoples.

We must raise ourselves and help to raise Israel so that in her peace we too will have peace.  And we must not be scared to call those who try to build Israel through caring nothing for the needs of her non-Jewish citizens and neighbours effectively anti-Zionist. For their version of Zionism will just send us the way of the violent chimpanzees