Pale Blue Dot
The recent controversy surrounding a lecture delivered by Rabbi Joseph Dweck has wreaked havoc on the London Jewish community. For nearly three weeks now, articles have been published in the local papers, rival petitions have been created and signed by thousands of people, letters of condemnation have been written, and response shiurim have been given. The negative energy surrounding this issue is almost palpable, and it would be no exaggeration to say that it threatens to rend the Modern Orthodox community in London.
The question remains — what do we do? What can we do? Beyond the ad hominem detractions, beyond even the legitimate concerns which have been raised, beyond the halakhic disputes — what can be done to try and help the London community repair? Each day that passes, each day that this wound is allowed to fester, untreated, is a day in which — rightly or wrongly — faith in the rabbinate falters, a day in which trenches are dug yet deeper, supporters on both sides readying themselves for the long and divisive struggle ahead.
As the battle for London Jewry rages on, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question — what is our goal here? Is our goal to be right, at any cost? To say that we are the victors, that our position is the correct one, whilst the other’s is deeply flawed? To be recognised as the victors? This type of argument never results in lasting change, for it is not interested in Truth. Each side needs to be right, not true.
What’s often ignored in these types of melees, be they between parent and child, communities, countries, or religions, is that they leave a path of destruction in their wake. Those who are damaged by these divisive fights, who limp away with real or figurative wounds, are often in no position to accept the other side. In a zero-sum game, there are no victors. We all lose. In our zealousness for being right, we often cause more destruction than we ever intended. As the wise woman tells Yoav in Shemuel II: “I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?”
If what we care about is real meaningful change, on either side, we need to first be kind, caring, compassionate, and loving. When one’s defences are up, nothing gets in – beneficial or otherwise. We’ve come to an impasse where all beneficial conversation has broken down.
I would like to offer my perspective on healing, on coming together, on repairing a rift that can be allowed to spread no further.
Part of the beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it has thought long and deeply about such issues, and for any challenge we face in our lives, inspiration can be found in the words of our writings, both Divine and human.
Megillat Rut offers us such a parallel, an example we can look to for guidance. Rut takes place in the transition between Shoftim and Shemuel, between the period of “every man did what was right in his eyes” and the period of the malkhut, the kingship. In Rut we find that interpersonal relationship has broken down. The people are mean and cynical when Naomi returns with Rut to Bet Lechem, and don’t falter in reminding her that she is “Rut the Moabite”. In this context, Boaz institutes something that seen by the Sages as an extreme action. He insists that each person greet the other with God’s name: “God is with you,” and respond in kind, “You should be blessed by God”. The Sages explain that this was extreme (in that it was taking God’s name in vain) but warranted – the breakdown between people could only be bridged by the recognition of common ground, of kinship, of common humanity. “We are all sons and daughters of God,” is the message hidden in that greeting of Boaz. Indeed, we see that at the end of the Megillah, the city is more cohesive and welcoming, and eventually the Jews form the malkhut, a collective and unified expression of the will of the people.
Maimonides’ philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, opens and closes his book with an exploration of the same principle – Humanity is created in God’s image. Humans hold within them a spark of the divine, and this commonality is enough to bring even the most divided of people together. Indeed, it is this common humanity that people first try and snuff out when facing an opponent – think to the holocaust, when Jews were labelled as animals, vermin, pests to be eliminated. Their common humanity was robbed from them, and thus there was no impediment to their destruction.
There is a famous story told of soldiers in the First World War who were granted a reprieve from the fighting to bury their dead, the so-called “Christmas Truce.” Soldiers from both front lines laid down their weapons, rose cautiously from their trenches, and began the grisly work. A sudden sense of camaraderie set in, and rival soldiers helped to bury the others’ dead, in some instances even playing impromptu games of football. In the war to end all wars, peace rang out for a few brief moments amid the fighting. The soldiers recognised the common humanity in the other.
The secret to mending this rift is remembering one simple fact – in the eyes of God, we are all His children. We are all carriers of a Divine message, one unique to us and our context, one which only we can deliver. When we can connect to each other on this most basic level, the magnitude of the gulf between us lessens. Suddenly, we are family, we are kin. We are willing to accept another’s idiosyncrasies, differences of opinion, variations of worship, for we are all striving towards a common goal. We understand that the tapestry of humanity is not, nor should not, be made of clones of ourselves, but of the myriad of opinions and people that is the Human race.
There is another way that we can begin to mend this rift. We must get outside of ourselves and our ways of viewing the world. When Moses’ father-in-law leaves and returns to his home country, Moses begs him to stay, saying, “You have been our eyes.” What is Moses saying here? Why use such an expression?
Moses recognised that as connected as he was to the Source, he was still only human, and only able to see things from one perspective. Indeed, we find earlier in the Torah that Moses takes advice from Yitro and changes his method of governance over the Jewish people! Perspective matters, and Moses realised that he needed another’s to fully understand the world around him.
This theme is repeated throughout Tanakh, but is especially poignant in the story of David and BatSheva. David sleeps with BatSheva, ostensibly a married woman (though technically not, avoiding problems of eishet ish), and then has her husband “taken care of” so that he can marry her. Needless to say, God is unhappy. The problem is, how do you communicate unhappiness to a king, an all-powerful ruler of a country, without steamrolling over him in the process? God could, if wanted, simply remove David from his kingship, as he did to Saul. But God was not interested in destroying David; He wanted to rehabilitate him instead. Cleverly, David is not confronted directly with his iniquity, at least not a first. Instead, God sends Natan the prophet to David with a story. In this story, a rich man with many sheep takes the lone sheep of a poor man to make a barbecue. Natan asks David what he thinks – what should be the fate of the greedy rich man? Responding with fury, David demands retribution. Suddenly, it dawns on David that he’s made a terrible error and sinned gravely. David is allowed to change his perspective, and from this new vantage point immediately sees the error of his ways.
It’s important for us to think broadly, and we must avoid tunnel vision at all costs. When serving in the army, one of the first things they teach you when learning to shoot is to raise your head from your scope and look around. In the time that you’re locked into your sights, someone can run into the path of your gun without you noticing. Breaking out of a narrow viewpoint returns context and broadens the picture, avoiding critical mistakes. I lost a man in my unit to one such “training accident”.
In the second chapter of the Guide, Maimonides tells us that since the fall, humanity has lost its ability to be objective. Part of what it means to be human is to be subjective, to see right and wrong instead of Truth and Falsehood. We are within the system, so therefore cannot evaluate the system objectively.
Humans are beings that choose – it’s part of our definition. To choose, to have real choice, we must have options. The broader the vision, the starker the reality on each side, the more well understood the choices are, the more real they become. To begin the mending process, we must learn to see through another’s eyes, to feel through another’s heart. When we care about another’s perspective as we’d like ourselves to be cared about, the vitriol will fall away.
The road forward from here is clear. Firstly, we must recognise the humanity of the other. Secondly, we must broaden our perspective and see from another’s point of view. Thirdly, and most importantly, it would behove us to follow the words of the beraita kinyan Torah: “Torah is obtained through … listening of the ear, preparation of speech, understanding of the heart, intellect of the heart, reverence, awe, humility … lovableness, love of God, love of the creatures…” We don’t know everything, nor can we. We can’t consider all possibilities, nor can we understand fully the plight of another. As Torah scholars and those who care about Truth, it befits us to be humble, caring, and kind, seekers of God. With this humility, and broad perspective, we can meet the other in their full humanity, and begin repairing the damage that we’ve perpetrated in the name of God.