Bezalel Smotrich and the National Conversation of the Jewish People
Yesterday, when I read the Facebook post of Bezalel Smotrich, I was quite overcome with emotion. Those words are very much worth repeating here.
“I know myself, the house I grew up in, the values I bring with me from that home, from that environment I grew up in, from the Torah I studied. I know how much light and goodness and justice and morality and love of man and people there is from all of this, and I don’t recognize the benighted figure that often stares back at me in the media mirror… And if there is a huge gap between who I am and how I am perceived ‘on the other side,’ which led to me being accused of calling for the murder of women and children, who knows what gap there is between how I often perceive other people or the statements of parties on the other side and who and what they really are?! Could it be that I’ve made the same mistake? We don’t talk enough, we don’t listen enough, and we don’t learn enough from each other,”
Until now, I’ve been perplexed: how can someone who apparently holds the same basic values as me regularly use such disgusting and divisive language, expressing his thoughts and his ideas, supposedly Torah-originated thoughts and Torah-originated ideas, in a way which seems barely distinguishable from many other extremist politicians among the sadly increasing number of nations we see tilting these days towards autocracy and oppression?
How can someone who represents a coalition bearing the underlying righteousness of many causes — Jewish return to the Land, reawakening of the Jewish soul, reconnection of the Jewish people with Torah and mitzvot, remedying the Mizrachi/Ashkenazi divide and other forms of institutionalised inequality — be driving forward his political agenda in a way that divides and oppresses, not unifies and heals, besmirching these righteous causes with the grubbiness of a thinly-veiled power grab?
With these words, perhaps, b’ezrat Hashem, a true leader of the Jewish people emerges. (I am praying with all my heart they were not, G-d forbid, just something casual put out by ‘his people’ to extricate him from the dangerous place he has put himself, perhaps with the specific goal to obtain a US visa for his forthcoming trip, but rather a truly heartfelt reflection which understands the gravity of the situation and the fallacies of this coalition’s imposing aggressive unilateralism.)
Indeed, these are the actions — reflection, talking, learning, listening — required from all our politicians on all sides of this huge national schism without any further delay. We all need a pause, we all need to stop, we need to build a process for allowing reflection, talking, listening and learning to happen.
Please surprise us, Bezalel, and be the leader that stands up at this perilous moment in Jewish history and brings us to a halt on this dangerous course. Please surprise us, Bezalel, and be the leader at this opportune moment in Jewish history that reframes our national conversation as an ‘argument for the sake of Heaven’.
How is this moment opportune? How can our national conversation become an ‘argument for the sake of Heaven’?
It may not seem like it at first look, but based on the limited understanding I have developed so far, I have come to see the essence and purpose of Judaism, its cosmic role if you like, to be the fusion and ultimately the unification of apparent opposites toward a final revelation of underlying unity, ‘ein od milvado’, ‘on that day Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One’: heaven with earth, physicality with spirituality, rationalism with mysticism, transcendence with immanence, finite with infinite, east with west, sun with moon, body with soul, male with female, individual with collective, free will with determinism, kindness with truth, righteousness with peace, Yosef with Yehuda, priest with prophet, law with ethics, bottom up with top down, duties to Hashem with duties to mankind, remembering the Exodus with not despising the Egyptian, the angels ascending the ladder with the angels descending the ladder, filling and subduing with serving and guarding, word with deed, logic with faith, freedom with rules, rights with obligations, acceptance with rebuke, deference with defiance.
Hence, to choose one topical example, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on this week’s parsha, describes how the machatzit hashekel (half a shekel), the item chosen by Hashem as a representation of the Jewish people in lieu of a headcount, ‘an atonement for our souls’, which per Midrash was shown by Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu in the form of a fiery coin, represents the fusion of the coarsest material quarried from the depths of the earth with the flames of fire striving ever upwards towards heaven.
Hence, to choose another topical example, it has been taught that Purim may in some sense be considered holier than Yom Kippur (‘Yom HaKippurim’ = literally, a day that is like Purim). On Yom Kippur, Jews take on and subsume spirituality, the day of the second giving of the Torah when G-d’s presence was fully revealed; on Purim, Jews take on and subsume physicality, the day that the Jewish people freely consented to accept the Torah when G-d’s presence was completely hidden. Yom Kippur and Purim are days of extremes – respectively of spirituality and physicality – but it is clear that both become subsumed within Judaism and are carried forward in fusion into the rest of our year. Thus, on the night after Yom Kippur goes out, its intense spirituality is immediately subsumed with the physicality of building our sukkahs, and soon after Purim finishes, its intense physicality is subsumed with the spirituality of purging leavened goods from our property in the build up to Pesach.
With this context in mind, why do the Jewish people become divided? And why is our unification so important?
It is because, the process of fusing and ultimately unifying the opposites identified above requires the Jewish people first to take on those opposites, then to subsume and fuse them, and finally to project this holy fusion out to the world as part of our historic mission ‘so that My Salvation shall be to the Ends of the Earth’ (Isaiah 49). This, I believe, is the role for which we, the Jewish people, are considered ‘chosen’, the kind of ‘light’ we are expected to shine.
Therefore, there has always been high potential for schism within the Jewish people as different camps within the Jewish people lean to one side more than the other as they take on those opposites – prophets and kings, sadducees and pharisees, rationalists and mystics, halakhists and aggadists, and so forth.
This inherent potential for schism is why – politicians take note – Jewish unity has always been a value so important that even punishment for idolatry, one of the three cardinal sins, may be withheld. (‘Ephraim is united in idolatry: let him alone’ (Hosea 4). On a similar theme, we are taught that King David’s army lost battles despite their piety because they were divided by strife and gossip, whereas the army of the idolatrous and murderous King Ahab never lost a battle because they were united and fraternal.
Today, the great global divide shaping our times is between universalism and particularity. The universalists are in the camp of Lapid, Biden, Lula, Obrador, Macron (and many others), the so-called ‘centre’ and ‘left’, the particularists are in the camp of Netanyahu, Trump, Bolsanaro, Modi, Orban (and many others), the so-called ‘right’. To be clear, left and right, right and left, is not about good and evil, notwithstanding the ferocious partisanship involved. Rather, it is about differing conceptions of identity and obligation within the totality of human experience.
Both the universalist and the particular dimensions of human experience also feature prominently in Tenakh. They are both legitimate, indeed essential components of the totality of Jewish experience, no less than they are of human experience overall.
There is a well-known saying that Jews are just like other people, only more so. The division of the Jewish people, very approximately into the ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Israel today, is the taking on the extremes of both camps. Just like Yom Kippur is extreme spirituality and Purim is extreme physicality, our universalists are extremely universal, and our particularists are extremely particular. To give a crude, not strictly accurate, and probably quite offensive generalization, our hi-tech entrepreneurs are developing new health, security and agricultural technologies that save countless lives around the world but may not be ceasing this important work as much as they should to observe the Sabbath, while our talmidei chachamim are elucidating incredible hiddushim in their Torah learning that are increasing holiness and light in the higher heavens but may be using too many non-biodegradable plastics that are harming the environment down here on earth.
In Israel, and in many places around the world, the social fabric is tearing. As the Jewish people here in Israel, we need to take the incredible energies of our hi-tech entrepreneurs and our talmidei chachamim, our universalists and particularists, our so-called ‘right’ and our so-called ‘left’, and find a way to subsume universalism within particularity, and to subsume particularity within universalism, so we may fuse them within the fabric of our Judaism, our Israel, and project the resulting fusion as a model that can heal the tearing social fabric of the world. This I believe is our role.
And it requires Bezalel Smotrich, perhaps more than anyone else at this moment in time, to understand and internalise this, to call off this aggressive unilateralism right away, and to reframe the national conversation into one not for the sake of victory, which is what the sages call ‘not for the sake of Heaven’, but rather into one which is for the sake of truth, which is what the sages call ‘for the sake of heaven’.
A final thought: I believe religious people in Israel have a lot to be grateful for – ultimately and always to Hashem, but also to all our fellow citizens, secular, traditional and religious alike. Together, as the Jewish people, we have fought for and built this country, BH. As a result, today, more Torah study, more mitzvot, and more chesed take place in Eretz Yisrael than arguably at any other time in the history of the Jewish people, BH. Not only this. By moving to, staying and fighting for this country against all odds, by paying higher taxes, by giving more charity, and by doing more voluntary work than almost every other country of the world, while no one is perfect, and while many of us very far from it, the near-75 years of this third Jewish Commonwealth proves what the Talmud already told us twice more than 1,500 years ago, that even the empty ones among us are as full of merit as the seeds of a pomegranate.
Therefore, if the people, all the righteous people, can be brought together as part of a genuine national conversation, we should not lazily dismiss this as a cover for the secular left to cling onto power against the electoral mandate of the right, nor should we dismiss it as a cover for the nationalist and religious right to impose their will under the guise of a deliberated outcome, but rather let us talk through our issues with the genuine intent to build a new social contract and constitutional outcome, for the sake of heaven.