“I live with uncertainty and doubt. But what I have learned is that doubt may be the most civilizing force we have available to us, for it is doubt that protects us from the arrogance of utter rightness, from the barbarism of blind loyalties, all of which threaten the human possibility.”
I recall these words often. They were spoken decades ago by my childhood Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman (z’l). I think of them (and him) especially when confronted with the rigid absolutism of others, be they followers of Donald Trump or religious and political extremists amongst my own people.
I thought of them this past Sunday morning when I learned that a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews carried panels into the pluralist egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall of Jerusalem under Robinson’s Arch for the purpose of taking control of the space and disrupting a Conservative movement minyan on Tisha B’Av.
This prayer space, just south of the traditional Kotel plaza, was designated in 2016 after three years of negotiation that included all concerned parties for use by Reform and Conservative Jews, “Women of the Wall,” and any Jewish group of women and men wishing to pray together without interference by the ultra-Orthodox. To its great credit, the new Israeli government (with Reform Rabbi and Member of Knesset Gilad Kariv advocating for a reinstitution of the Kotel agreement) has agreed to build the plaza as intended in the 2016 agreement. It was cancelled in 2017 by former Prime Minister Netanyahu when he got political blow-back from his coalition including ultra-Orthodox political parties.
Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Jews chant from the Book of Lamentations, pray, and try and make sense of contemporary Jewish identity and faith in the context of three millennia of Jewish history and experience. For Jews in Jerusalem, there is no more significant place to commemorate this holiday than the Western Wall, the retaining wall left standing by Rome after it destroyed the central institution of Judaism in the ancient world, the Temple.
But on Saturday evening, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews decided not to allow a non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish group to pray anywhere in the vicinity of this site. They brought panels and set up a mechizah in the egalitarian prayer space, and when the Conservative movement participants began chanting Lamentations and praying, these ultra-Orthodox extremists drowned out the davening by screaming obscenities and vulgar insults.
On the first of every Hebrew month for more than thirty years the “Women of the Wall” have gathered to pray quietly at the back of the Women’s section in the traditional Kotel Plaza. Most months hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men protested angrily. They threw chairs and coffee grounds onto the women despoiling their prayer shawls. They yanked Torah scrolls out of women’s arms. They insulted, cursed, condemned, and judged non-ultra-Orthodox Jews and Judaism.
I attended twice these prayer gatherings on Rosh Chodesh and in all my years I never witnessed an uglier and more disheartening scene in Jewish communal life. All the while, the women maintained their dignity and continued praying despite the deafening noise, crass insults, and attacks.
The irony of Saturday evening’s ultra-Orthodox calumny was poignant, but I wonder if these ultra-Orthodox Jews connected the dots. The rabbis of the Talmud explained that the reason the 2nd Temple was destroyed by Rome was sinat chinam, groundless hatred between Jews. That lesson ought to have been learned over the last two millennia by every Jew. But, these Jews committed the same sin that tradition explains resulted in the destruction of the ancient Jewish community in the Land of Israel.
Anne Applebaum, a journalist, historian, and author of Twilight of Democracy and the Seductive War of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020) wrote about the damaging authoritarian attitude that gives rise to political, ideological, racist, cultural, antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynist fanaticism:
“Authoritarianism appeals to the people who cannot tolerate complexity. There’s nothing intrinsically left-wing or right-wing about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debate. Whether those who have it ultimately derive from their politics, from Marxism or naturalism, is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.”
I add to Applebaum’s thesis this – those who give themselves over to authoritarianism by nature lack curiosity and the willingness to learn from others and through their own mistakes. They refuse to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. They are closed to logic and imagination, to science and art, to an appreciation of the inter-connectedness of all things and phenomena. They are resistant to doubt and abhor risk. They choose not to recognize the legitimacy in the other’s narrative. They are presumptuous, arrogant, and often they claim to possess ultimate Truth. Out of fear and intimidation, many are all too willing to hand over responsibility to their illiberal and threatening leaders who speak on their behalf and act without reason or moral restraint. They tolerate the suffering of others, and they self-righteously justify themselves in their rectitude. They are illiberal, fiercely partisan, and passionately tribal. They worry not at all about the harm they cause to those outside their tribal camp. They are, in their minds, always right, never wrong. To them life is a simple choice between black and white. There are no grays in their world, only their way or the highway.
In our uncertain age in which so many feel unsafe, unsure, and afraid as a consequence of Covid, climate change, terrorism, war, economic distress, social unrest, immigration, multi-culturalism, disinformation, and conspiracy theories – it ought not to be a surprise that events such as what happened at the Kotel on Saturday evening, at the nation’s Capitol on January 6, in the increasing rate of gun violence, police brutality, racism, and antisemitism, that the gravitational pull towards authoritarianism should be growing in so many places in the world.
Thankfully – and this is important to remember too – there are millions of people everywhere who are resisting authoritarianism, who cherish living in a pluralistic, liberal, and democratic society and culture, who care about the well-being of others, who have not given in to despair, who maintain hope and act according to their better angels without giving in. We’ve seen this spirit of hope, compassion, and concern over and over again in recent years despite the growth of an authoritarian culture in America and elsewhere. We can’t forget that this too is a reaction to crisis and that so many of us do resist the demise of culture and society that authoritarianism seeks to exploit, dominate, and crush under its boots.
Living with uncertainty and doubt is an important virtue because it opens the heart, keeps us humble and curious, and fortifies us as we seek (and sometimes fail) to embody higher values and virtues.