Alon Tal

Moving beyond the pathology of polarization

Polarization has emerged as one of society’s most acute illnesses.  Around the planet, people can be seen barricading themselves in their increasingly angry corners, demonizing the “other side” and generally creating a pathology of intolerance and enmity.  As Yom Kippur emerges it is well to think collectively, together, about cures.

The world is filled with paradoxes and inconsistencies.  Indeed, in most fields, contradictions exist – even within each of us — as individuals.  We all seek renewal and tradition;  Freedom and commitment.  In the economic sphere, there is Winston Churchill’s famous quip: If you aren’t a Socialist before the age of 30—you haven’t got a heart; and if you remain a Socialist after age 30, you haven’t got a brain.”

Judaism has always recognized that the world is filled with polar opposites and called for synthesis, reaching a richer truth through dialectics.  The advice of 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Buni has essentially been accepted by of all streams in Judaism: Everyone should carry a note in each pocket – with the right one reminding them that “the world was created for me” – and the left containing the opposite sentiment: “I am but dust and ashes.”   Totally contradictory – there are times in life when we need each of them.

One could argue that for Jews in particular, such conflicts are literally “built in”. California Rabbi, Mychal Copeland explains that seemingly incompatible identities are built into the very names of the Jewish people.  The affiliations  “Yehudim” and Yisrael” (or “Jews” and “Israel”) are born of entirely different circumstances and reflect opposite ideological approaches.

Yehudah – was the founding father of the tribe of Judah – from whom modern Jews take their name.  He was the fourth son born to Leah, the Bible’s tragic heroine and matriarch. Deeply troubled about her husband’s preference for her sister Rachel, Leah’s underlying anxiety dominated the naming of her first three sons: Reuven – essentially means: See – a son, (inferring that perhaps her husband will now love her);  Shimon – or “God heard me” (so maybe she will enjoy legitimacy); and Levi (referring to the companion she desperately seeks).

But then, son number four Yehudah is born – and her perspective changes.  Rather than focusing on what is missing in her life, Leah expresses gratitude for the gift of a child: Genesis roughly translates Yehudah to mean: “I will praise”. And as soon as she begins this act of appreciation, she is at peace and ceases to need more children.

One could argue that Jewish enthusiasm for prayer and blessings is a natural continuation of this impulse. Nobody ever thought that the Almighty was actually in need of our pitiful human expressions of praise. Rather, blessings offer a reliable framework for ensuring that people stop and apprehend the marvelous world in which we live.  Indeed, the psychological and physiological benefits of “giving thanks” are now literally part of a “science of appreciation” which doctors recommend to cancer and mental patients alike.  Empirical studies confirm that physical and emotional well-being is enhanced by eliciting positive feelings and gratitude.

This standpoint is in total a contrast to that implied by “Yisrael” – the new name the wrestling angle gives Leah’s husband, Jacob, a few chapters later in Genesis.  After a night of struggle, the enigmatic adversary is forced to bless the patriarch, and does so with a new name which he explains to mean “you have striven with God and with people and have prevailed.”

The theology of Yisrael, expects the children of Israel people to continue the fight and not be complacent in the face of injustice and shortcomings.  It is at the heart of the compulsion to pursue Tikun Olam and mend our broken world.  As the Mishnah teaches: though we may not be required to finish the task, we surely are not at liberty to evade it.

In short, our people’s two names were meant to connote two entirely opposite national obsessions: Yehudim – might be called “the thankful ones” while Yisrael a people who are forever wrestling and striving until they prevail.  Presumably Jews who assume only one of these identities have not embraced the full destiny and persona of their idiosyncratic people.

This particular holiday season is dominated by a litany of proclamations about the need for political “unity” — converging to find consensus and a middle ground.  Some people mistakenly see such centrist, moderate views as inherently vapid and vague, so diluted by wishy-washy comprise and least common denominators that there is no substance left to address our very real problems.  But this misapprehension will leave us living in societies that are breaking apart, with a growing inability to recognize the complexity of modern life and the legitimacy of alternative outlooks.

This has never been what a moderate or centrist position was about.  In his Mishnah Torah Maimonides, the 12th century physician and sage called for the proverbial golden mean, where extremism is rejected in favor of a “middle ground”.  People, he argues, should find the balance between indulgence and absence of desire; between excessive generosity and stinginess;  This  requires a certain humility – an ability to see both sides of an issue and recognize legitimate claims and reasoning in seemingly polarized positions.

Indeed the centrist road rejects the prevailing arrogance, which cannot see beyond self-righteousness and our tendency to lock ourselves into sanctimonious opinions. The Rambam essentially agreed with the Talmudic view that arrogant people, simply deny God.  One doesn’t need to agree; debate is critical; convictions still matter very much.  But the process begins by listening.

Political historian Gil Troy has long called for leaders who are muscular moderates,  “leaders with healing, constructive, balanced, big-tent visions, and a politics that is less angry, less vicious and less partisan.”  Such leaders recognize that complex situations produce a range of legitimate views.  Sometimes people — and peoples — can be defined by integrating what might otherwise be seen as contradictions.  As we seek a personal strategy for the coming year, it would be well to  integrate the competing expectations of being a Jew and part of the people of Israel.

Taking stock in Yom Kippur services means at once opening one’s eyes to the incredible miracles of life, the breath-taking beauty and the extraordinary blessings of living in this modern age of comfort and technological capabilities.  But at the same time, we dare not lose sight of the heartbreaking hemorrhaging of species and the terrifying global spin into climate instability and collapse.  Never forget that the unprecedented aggregate affluence we enjoy is accompanied by unimaginable gaps in economic capacity.  As we are ever-more connected to humanity around the world but we are increasingly alienated from our very own neighbors. And to paraphrase from the  29th psalm – that we must still find a way to resolve the essential paradox of security — ensuring strength while pursuing peace.

No matter what cynical and manipulative leaders might try to sell us, there is much more that unites us than divides us.  We will benefit by becoming better listeners and accepting the ramifications of complexity.  Yes – this is broken world, but it remains a breathtakingly beautiful place.  If we are both humble enough to recognize our limitations and bold enough to confront our many challenges, this year will be much better.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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