Walter G. Wasser

Navigating Turbulence: Insights on Riots and Hope

The recent outbreaks of violence and protests on university campuses from the East to the West Coast of the United States present a complex and multi-faceted challenge. These events, marked by their intensity and the multifarious reasons behind them, underscore a societal crisis that affects not only the Jewish community but also touches on broader issues of civil discourse and intercultural understanding. As we grapple with these unsettling events, it becomes crucial to delve into our rich historical and religious traditions to find anchors of wisdom that can guide us through these tumultuous times. This essay aims to explore the intersections of historical conflict, the teachings of Jewish scripture, and the enduring hope that sustains communities through periods of strife.

Understanding the Roots of the Riots

To comprehend the full scope of these riots, one must consider the diverse causes propelling them. Among these are profound misunderstandings and ignorance about the geopolitical and historical contexts they purport to address; deeply ingrained antisemitic sentiments that have re-surfaced; and a genuine, albeit misdirected, zeal for social justice. These elements combine to create not only a hazardous atmosphere for Jewish students but also foster a virulent breeding ground for broader societal divisions.

Historical Echoes: Insights from Shir haShirim and Ezra

In seeking understanding and solace, our thoughts turn to the fifth chapter of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), which we read and reflect upon in our religious practices. This scriptural piece is not just a poetic expression of love but also a profound allegory of the Jewish people’s quest for a closer relationship with the Divine amidst adversity. The text recounts the harsh treatment from city guards encountered by Jews seeking spiritual connection, a narrative that resonates deeply with the current plight of Jews facing hostility in supposedly safe spaces of higher education.

This scriptural story is elucidated further in the midrashic interpretations found in Shir haShirim Rabbah, where historical persecutions are reflected through the prism of divine testing and eventual deliverance. The midrash connects these scriptural guards to historical figures such as Tattenai, a Persian official who obstructed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This connection is not merely historical but offers a blueprint of understanding adversarial relationships through a lens of potential divine purpose and transformation.

The Cosmic Role of Adversity

The adversities depicted in Ezra and Shir haShirim serve as more than mere historical recountings. They are emblematic of a broader, cosmic view of Jewish history where conflicts serve to realign the community with its spiritual and national aspirations. Just as the opposition from Tattenai eventually led to the Persian king’s support for the Temple’s reconstruction, modern conflicts may also hold within them the seeds of future reconciliation and mutual respect.

Drawing from these narratives, the riots are seen not solely as crises but as critical moments that can catalyze greater awareness among adversaries about Jewish historical and spiritual identity. This perspective is crucial in transforming conflicts from destructive episodes to opportunities for dialogue and understanding.

Rabbi Akiva’s Optimism: A Beacon of Hope

Central to our narrative is the figure of Rabbi Akiva, whose life and teachings epitomize the resilience and hope inherent in Jewish thought. Rabbi Akiva, who revered Shir haShirim as the holy of holies, saw in every hardship a divine message and a spark of future redemption. His interpretations teach us that every challenge, no matter how daunting, holds the potential for spiritual growth and societal betterment.

Rabbi Akiva’s legacy is particularly poignant in his reaction to seeing foxes roam Mount Zion, a sight that could have evoked despair. Instead, he envisioned a future where prophecies of renewal were fulfilled. His ability to perceive hope in the bleakest circumstances encourages us today to maintain our optimism and commitment to our values, even when faced with profound challenges.

Practical Lessons for Today

In confronting the challenges highlighted by the riots, the Jewish community and broader society must adopt a proactive stance. This involves not retreating into fear or isolation but engaging in educational efforts that clarify misunderstandings and bridge divides. It also entails standing firm in our commitment to safety and justice for all students, advocating for policies that protect these values within academic institutions.

Moreover, these conflicts urge us to revisit and reinvigorate our communal narratives of perseverance and coexistence. By doing so, we not only honor our past but also empower our future, ensuring that the lessons derived from our scriptures and sages inform our actions in the contemporary world.

Conclusion: From Conflict to Coexistence

The riots, while disruptive and fraught with danger, prompt a profound reevaluation of our historical narratives and theological teachings. They challenge us to apply the wisdom of our ancestors—imbued with divine insight and hopeful perseverance—to our current trials. In this light, the tumult of our times is not just a sign of discord but a call to deepen our understanding and strengthen our communal bonds.

Adapted from:Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner. “Then They Build Monuments to You”: Shir haShirim and the Campus Riots. Accessed: April 25, 2024. Available at:

About the Author
The author is a specialist in nephrology and internal medicine and lives with his wife and family in Jerusalem.