As the Israelites journeyed toward the Promised Land, the Ark of the Covenant led the way, guiding them through the uncharted desert (Num. 10:33). According to an ancient midrash cited by Rashi (Sifrei B’midbar 82), the tablets that the ark contained were not the whole ones. They were the broken tablets that Moses had shattered.
In an uncanny way, that midrash speaks of our contemporary struggles in an era of uncertainty. What is the modern world if not an unmarked landscape that we must traverse with only partial, fragmentary truths to guide us? Before modernity, our truths were absolute in that we felt no need to validate the points of view of those outside our own community. In that respect, our faith was whole. But as citizens of the modern world, we feel called upon to empathize with those unlike ourselves, to honor principles that differ from our own. Hence our truths today are partial truths. Our tablets are fragmentary. That is a defining fact of our time.
Moreover, the midrash suggests that it ought to be that way, that we should not try to undo that fact. The shattered tablets, which remind us of the golden calf, warn of the danger of idolatry. They teach implicitly that, when we travel on unmarked terrain, spiritual humility is of the essence. In times of doubt, it is always tempting to retreat to a false certainty, to claim to know more than we do. But that is the way of arrogance, of idol worship. At such times, we must resist the urge to force the fragments back together.
Most of us embrace that value. We cherish openness even at the cost of certainty. We would not renounce modernity even if we could. At least until the Messiah comes, we do not want the tablets to be whole. In fact we have devised a political system, liberal democracy, whose purpose is to keep the tablets broken, to keep truth from becoming unitary. Liberal democracy is structured to insure that no one faction can impose its point of view on everyone else. It uses checks and balances to guarantee that political battles over who is right and wrong will never be fully settled, and that no one election will become the final word.
On three Saturday nights this past May, my wife and I (both American rabbis) joined the protesters on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv who are fighting to preserve the separation of power in Israeli politics. In demanding that the courts retain their independence and capacity to check the government, they are defending the divided structure that makes pluralism possible. They are struggling to keep the tablets fragmentary.
To a great extent, the protests are push-back by secular Israel against religious Israel. Given how faith functions in Israeli politics (and not only there), how could it be otherwise? Religious passion and hostility to pluralism overlap to an unfortunate degree in Israel today. So, inevitably, the rhetoric of the protesters has an anti-religious edge.
For the most part, the protesters are generous enough not to attack faith itself, but only its extreme expressions. They condemn theocracy and messianism, not belief per se. But in the heat of polarization, that distinction can be hard to sustain. Anger at religious extremism is bound to bleed over into anger at religion itself. Indeed there are moments in the protests when the former seems to cross the line into the latter.
And who can blame the protesters even for that? After all, if the most fervent forms of faith today are also the most anti-democratic – which is hard to deny – is it not fair to ask if that correlation tells us something about faith in general? If the most bitter fruits of the tree are poisonous to pluralism, does that not say something about the tree itself? Perhaps there is something inherent in religion that chafes against uncertainty, that pushes us toward unitary answers, that yearns to make the tablets whole again. If so, then there is an inherent tension between faith and liberal democracy, which those of us who cherish both can hope to finesse but can never entirely escape. Perhaps there really is an either-or that we resist confronting. That possibility is troubling. But when we see how the most pious people tend to act in the real world, it is hard to avoid asking the question.
That is why the midrash is so crucial. It reminds us that spiritual humility, the awareness that our truths are partial truths, is a religious value. It is not an alien import, which we must attempt to reconcile with faith, but part of faith itself. We can stand with the protestors, not in spite of our faith but because of it. We can oppose the tyranny of Torah in the name of Torah. The message of the midrash is that, in uncertain times like these, the tablets that we ought to turn to – as religious people –are the shattered ones. It is the awareness of our fallibility, the knowledge that our truths are incomplete, that keeps us on an honest path. To navigate an unmarked wilderness without retreating to idolatry, we must place our trust in doubt itself. Faith itself commands that.
Liberal democracy, whose purpose is to keep the tablets broken, is a modern invention. When the protesters on Kaplan Street call for “democratia,” it is a reminder that there is no Hebrew word for the political system that they are defending. Yet spiritual humility, the deeper value at the heart of liberal democracy, is an ancient value, native to our tradition. To defend that value, we need not step outside our faith. We can and should defend it from within the heart of Torah.