Banishing the Jewish Binary

Jozef Israels Joodse bruiloft
Canva Creative Commons
Jozef Israels Joodse bruiloft Canva Creative Commons

Throughout Jewish history, there has always been a rift, some divide within the Jewish community that has stemmed from either a religious or a philosophical debate. These divisions date back to Egypt when a lot of Jews (the Talmud says up to 80%) did not leave Egypt at all! Then in the desert, many rebelled against God in various episodes of the cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, and forgiveness. This continued into the Rabbinic period with numerous examples including the formation of the separate Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, and the ever-famous debates between Hillel and Shammai, and Rav and Shmuel. Finally, some famous people were actually on the fringe of Jewish society, like Mordechai, who was looked at as the person who was going to doom the Jews, and the Maccabees, who were seen as extremists. 

From all these trends, it is easy to recognize that there have always been divisions within the Jewish people throughout history; notable researchers like Yossi Klein Halevi have been looking into these modern trends to understand what is causing them. Yossi Klein Halevi argues that the most important rift within the Jewish people is between those who are particularists, being more focused on the insular good of the Jews, and those who are universalists, being more focused on worldwide issues. Halevi goes into specifics with the ideas of Purim Jews vs Passover Jews, a proxy of the particularism vs universalism debate in his article “Pesach Jews vs Purim Jews: The Agony of our Dilemma”. The highlighted difference in this article is that the Purim Jew remembers what Amalek did to us and vows never to let it happen again, while the Passover Jews recognize that we aren’t the only people to leave Egypt because many people get out of slavery and death; therefore our plight is not unique. 

While both viewpoints have their merits, Halevi goes on to talk about how either extreme can end up detrimental to our people, where an extreme Purim Jew like Bibi Netanyahu is collecting power and an extreme Pesach Jew like Bernie Sanders is generally seen as betraying our people. In both situations, people were negatively impacted by these extreme views – leading Halevi to conclude that the best, and most sustainable solution is to live as a mix between the two perspectives, calling upon aspects of either side depending on the nature of a given problem. 

Many political developments since Halevi’s 2019 publication have strengthened his idea. The 2023 Judicial Reform attempt in Israel is an example of a non-democratic development based on extreme particularism; the protesters combatted it with an appeal to universalism. Still, some developments challenge this idea. Israel’s reaction to Hamas’s attacks shows universalism geopolitically — combatting Hamas not just for themselves, but because of Israel’s increasing participation in global politics within the Middle Eastern Cold War against Iran and its proxies. It also shows particularism because of the rise of anti-Palestinian sentiment and the escalation in Gaza, despite international outrage. This leaves the question of if both sides of the spectrum support the same actions (in this case, combating Hamas/Iran), how can there be a wide range of opinions on this topic?

To answer this question, I want to make a subtle distinction between the dualities of Purim vs Passover Jews and particularism vs universalism. In the case of the current war, the Purim mindset remains with particularists, but the Passover perspective diverges from the universalists. The plight of the Palestinians can be compared to the Hebrews trapped in Egypt, and their sufferings can be compared with the bitter slavery that the Jews faced. To the Passover Jews, the major geopolitical issue that is at stake does not necessarily justify the violence done to those who don’t deserve it. This trend could mark the first shift in years of the dynamic of the Jew’s division, as the conflict between Israel and Palestine is being spotlit on an extreme level. Thus, this war is uniting the Jewish community in a manner not seen since the Yom Kippur War but is creating divisions in new ways, where Jews who sympathize with Palestinians are seen as traitors to Israel and the Jewish people. 

These seemingly insurmountable differences usually get resolved or die down; however, when that happens, a different issue takes its stead. There will never be a solution of full unity for the people who have the common saying: “two Jews, three opinions.” The remaining solution then is not to rid strife within the Jewish Community but to change the way that it happens. Historically, there have been many reactions to disagreement, including banishment (his soul shall be cut off…), betrayal (the burning of the temple), and even a statewide fracture of unity (Kingdoms of Israel and Judah). Such methods have led to the original disagreements spiraling, with consequences changing the course of history. Thus, a solution needs to be found. A Talmudic-era notion called L’Shem Shamayim, “for the sake of heaven” comes into play to help solve this problem.

A classic example is the arguments between Hillel and Shammai, who disagree about everything, but still eat in each other’s homes. However, as soon as people get power hungry and stop fighting precisely for their community’s sustainability or the world’s improvement, the disagreements will go from inevitable to harmful and preventable. Ultimately, no matter what label one uses, respectful discourse is needed, like the ones in the Talmudic Era. When Hillel and Shammai argue, as they often do, it is still said that they would eat at each other’s homes, showing a great deal of respect despite the series of rivaling opinions. Even though Hillel often won out, it is generally accepted that both were correct in different ways; in the times of the Messiah, the judgments will switch in favor of Shammai. Most importantly, the arguments between them remained civil, and both of them were able to influence the future of Judaism. If Yossi Klein Halevi’s Pesach Jews and the Passover Jews argue their positions in such a way as seen between these great scholars, a solution satisfying both viewpoints can emerge.

About the Author
Golan Altman-Shafer (17) is a rising Senior from Milwaukee, WI. He is an avid member of his robotics team, FRC, and enjoys learning about the world around him. When not volunteering for the Jewish community, you can find him working on his next big assignment at his favorite local coffee house, with a seasonal Latte and a computer.
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