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Is Turning the Other Cheek a Jewish Value?

Is Turning the Other Cheek a Jewish Value?

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Dear Rabbi,

I have been under the impression that “turning the other cheek” to your enemies is not a Jewish approach. But recently a friend pointed out the verse in Lamentations (3:30), “Let him offer his cheek to his smiter; let him be filled with reproach.”

So now I’m confused:

  1. Is it or is it not a Jewish value?
  2. If it is, how does that jibe with the Talmudic dictum, “If someone is coming to kill you, kill him first?”

Answer:

Don’t Turn The Cheek!

It is clear that “turning the other cheek” to a violent aggressor is not the Jewish way.

King Solomon, wisest of all men, proclaimed:

There is a time to kill and a time to heal… a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.1

There is no doubt that there are times when it is necessary to battle adversaries.

In fact, throughout the Biblical account of history, the Jewish people were commanded to strike at their enemies, sometimes even preemptively.2 As you pointed out correctly, our sages instruct, “If someone comes to kill you, you should rise up and kill him first.”3

See The Jew's Double Standard.

The Context Counts!

As often happens, the original phrase in the context of the surrounding passage has a completely different connotation than it has on its own. In fact, there is nothing in that passage about an enemy, or being under attack. And if it were not for the word “smiter,” we would not even know that there was another person involved, since the rest of the passage clearly attributes the afflictions to the hand of G‑d.

Let’s examine the prophecy in its context. The Prophecy refers to a crucial point in history when the Holy Temple lies in ruins and the Jewish nation has been exiled. Morale is at an all-time low, and fighting back is not logistically possible. So Jeremiah does not lecture about the importance of self-defense. That would be futile. Instead, he offers hope, comfort and perspective to sustain the Jewish people in exile4.

After lamenting at considerable length about his suffering and despair, Jeremiah, turns to hope saying:

This I reply to my heart; therefore I have hope. Verily, the kindnesses of the L‑rd never cease! Indeed, His mercies never fail! “The L‑rd is my portion,” says my soul; “therefore I will hope in Him...5

He then elaborates on that hope, expressing faith in G‑d’s mercy:

It is good for a man that he bear a yoke in his youth. Let him sit solitary and wait, for He has laid [it] upon him. Let him put his mouth into the dust; there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to his smiter; let him be filled with reproach. For the L‑rd will not cast [him] off forever. Though he cause grief, He will yet have compassion according to the abundance of His kindness. For He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of man…6

Toward the end of the chapter, lest one think that he was absolving the perpetrators of what they have done, Jeremiah calls on G‑d to punish and destroy them:

My enemies have hunted me like a bird, without cause… I called on Your name, O L‑rd, from the depths of the pit… You did draw near when I called on You; You did say, “Do not fear.” …Requite them, O Lord, according to the work of their hands. Give them a weakness of heart; may Your curse be upon them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the L‑rd.7

It becomes clear that the remark about “offering the cheek” is not said in relation to confrontation with an adversary. Rather, the remark is made within the context of hope and consolation.

A True Lesson from This Verse

According to Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508–1593), the verse, “It is good for a man that he bear a yoke in his youth,” means that when a person is afflicted with tragedies in the physical world, the person should remember that G‑d is all-merciful and good. The purpose of one’s suffering may very well be in order that she or he will receive a greater reward at a future time, in this world or the next.8

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides, explains that mild suffering in this World can save one from severe judgment in the Coming World.9

And Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi compares the physical-world spiritual-world parallel to the sun and its shadow. Anytime the sun moves, shadows on earth are altered. To us, thousands of miles below, the change may be so slight and gradual that we hardly notice. But something big is going on in the galaxy – the sun is in orbit. In the same way, the goings on in our world are a reflection and result of the goings on Above. 10

So the instruction, “Let him offer his cheek to his smiter; let him be filled with reproach,” is a guideline for attitude in the face of adversary. We are expected to receive our afflictions with the knowledge and belief that all G‑d does is ultimately for the good, even if the purpose is not apparent.

According to Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, when we adopt this attitude towards our suffering, we will merit to not actually suffer at the hands of those enemies.11

See Anger Management 101.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Ecclesiastes 3:1,8.

2.

For example, in the story of teh holiday of Purim the Jews preemptively killed those who planned in killing them (Scroll of Esther, Ch. 9).

3.

Talmud Brachot 58b, 62b, Sanhedrin 72a based on Exodus 22:1.

4.

There is a debate between the sages whether the book of Lamentations was written before or after the destruction of the Holy Temple (See Midrash Aicha Rabah 1:1). According to the view that it was written before the actual destruction (which seems to be the prevailing opinion), Jeremiah first dictated to his student, Baruch ben Neirah, a dire prophecy that would befall the Jewish nation. This prophecy contained what are today chapters 1, 2 and 4 of the book of Lamentations, and were written in advance of the actual event in the hope that it would arouse the Jews to repent. However, when it was read before the king, he cut up the scroll containing the prophecy and threw it into the fire. Later, G‑d told Jeremiah to rewrite these prophecies adding chapters 3 (the chapter under discussion) and 5 , as it is recounted in the book of Jeremiah ch. 36 . According to the view that the book of Lamentations was written after the destruction, the book of Lamentations that we have is not the same scroll that was thrown into the fire. For more on this see When was the Book of Lamentation Written?

But, regardless of when it was actually written, the book in general, and particularly chapter 3, address the time after the destruction of the holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish nation.

5.

Lamentations 3:21-22,24.

6.

ibid 3:27-33.

7.

ibid 3:52,55,57,64-66.

8.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich in Devarim Nechumim on Lamentations ibid.

9.

In his introduction to his commentary on the book of Job.

10.

Tanya, Iggeret Hateshuvah ch. 12.

11.

Likutei Torah of the Arizal on Eichah 3:30; see also the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem 5710 p. 184.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (6)
June 8, 2012
Reproach of a smite
I see "turn the other cheek" as a lesson in taking one's medicine when one has transgressed. Reproach or shame is the reaction of one who has done wrong, not one who is attacked without just cause. The prophets warned of punishment if their warnings were ignored, but the smite was indeed cruel and excessive, and the curse was justified.
William Akin
San Jose, Ca
April 2, 2012
Two words can sometimes end attacks.
"STOP IT !" I never said that before. I always tried to talk to people when they attacked me verbally. I reasoned with them, tried to communicate rationally, and couldn't understand why it didn't work. In fact, I used the suggested, "When you do this, ....happens and I feel....". Most of the time, people said, "I don't care!" So, saying STOP IT is good.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
April 1, 2012
Turning the Other Cheek
I NEVER recommend turning the other cheek, because problems don't solve themselves.

You have to put your foot down and make the effort - even if it means getting hurt from time to time.
Lisa
Providence, RI
March 30, 2012
Also
Consider the 19th section of the Amidah.
Katherine Almquist
Salisbury, PA
March 29, 2012
What I love about our Jewish people
Is that we are very flexible, and able to handle two opposite notions with acceptance, rather than agonizing over them. We accept both life and death, happiness and sadness, times and stages of life, and tragedy without completely being destroyed. Other than the statement " Though he cause grief, He will yet have compassion according to the abundance of His kindness.", where I disagree that it is G-d who causes the grief is interpreted as He causes tragedies and things like cancer and heart attacks, floods and tornadoes, I agree with all the rest. In fact, if I look at that statement as a positive, it can be translated as "Although he lets us have emotions such as grief and causes us to have appropriate feelings at appropriate times", all else I believe. In fact, people who are unable to feel grief are psychologically sick. It is called a lack of affect. So, instead of thinking of it as G-d creating the situation, we can think of it as Go-d creating our feelings.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
March 29, 2012
turning the other cheek
"the turning of the other cheek" mean't not to bear a grudge, not to let 'the sun go down on your anger'.

It has nothing to do with lex talionis or otherwise. Self defence is encouraged in both Jewish and 'Christian' writings

Neither does the Torah tell one to walk tall but carry a big stick. The exhortation in the Book of Lamentations quite adequately corroborates the truthfullness not only of the statement to 'turn the other cheek', but the one who spoke it.
anon
Toronto, Canada