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:
- Is it or is it not a Jewish value?
- If it is, how does that jibe with the Talmudic dictum, “If someone is coming to kill you, kill him first?”
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.
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. As you pointed out correctly, our sages instruct, “If someone comes to kill you, you should rise up and kill him first.”
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 exile.
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...”
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…
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.”
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.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides, explains that mild suffering in this World can save one from severe judgment in the Coming World.
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.
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.
See Anger Management 101.