Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Polycrisis — In the Parasha and at the Protests (18)

Head of Medusa, Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617-18, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikiart.

This is my eighteenth consecutive post connecting the parasha with Israel’s pro-democracy protests. 

If you read the Financial Times or Chartbook, the newsletter of historian and FT guest columnist Adam Tooze (author of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy), you’ll be familiar with the concept of polycrisis. A polycrisis is the interaction of unconnected crises – for example, Covid-19 and its aftermath, the war in Ukraine, and the energy, cost of living and climate crises – to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The idea of polycrisis is illuminating regarding the second of this week’s double parasha, Behar-Behukkotai. Behukkotai opens with a list of all the good things that will happen if Israel follows God’s laws and faithfully keeps his commandments (Lev 26:3). God will grant Israel rain at the right times, agricultural abundance, peace with its enemies, and an enduring relationship with him. All these good things will be in place at once. They won’t accumulate slowly over time as Israel continues to keep the laws and commandments.

What follows is quite a different matter. If Israel disobeys God and rejects his laws and commandments, God will unleash the onset of series of catastrophes.

Right away, the people will be sick, and their enemies will reap what the Israelites sow (Lev 26:16).

If they continue to disobey, the rains will cease, and the land will be barren (Lev 26:19, 20).

If they remain hostile to God, wild animals will destroy their livestock and make the roads unsafe (Lev 26:22).

If that doesn’t work, God will send plague, famine, and enemy invasion (Lev 26:25,26)

If even then they are disobedient, they’ll become cannibals, eating their own children. God will destroy their centers of idol worship while at the same time refusing to accept their valid sacrifices to him. He’ll make the land desolate and drive them into exile (Lev 26:29-33).

It’s easy to see why polycrisis fits the bill for Leviticus. Although in this case the crises share a single source, God, they are separate and distinct: sickness, climate issues, wild animals, famine, perversion, plague, enemy invasion, exile. But at the same time, the separate crises interact with and exacerbate each other. Physical sickness is harder to handle in conjunction with chronic food shortages. Unstable agricultural conditions are harder to manage during plagues and wars. Weakness and hunger make populations more vulnerable to enemy invasion. The plagues in Egypt are another biblical example of a polycrisis.

Traditionally, we are inclined to call these bad things punishments, but that doesn’t quite fit the bill. For one thing, they’re all for the same crime. For another, punishment doesn’t account for the emphasis on discipline. If Israel remains obstinate, God will ‘discipline’ them ‘sevenfold’ (Lev 26:18); ‘And if these things fail to discipline you … (Lev 26:23).

Perhaps they’re more like sanctions, escalating as needed to discipline Israel into becoming obedient. Or perhaps, since Leviticus is entirely future oriented, they are simply warnings. These are the crises that God will unleash – that you will bring upon yourselves – if you  are disobedient and continue to disobey.

In 2016, Britain held a referendum about the European Union. EU membership had been contentious since the day Britain joined it, but this referendum was motivated to save the career of a single politician whose name will be forever linked with it – and nothing else. By 51% versus 48%, Britons voted to leave the EU.

Before and after the referendum, there were massive protests in favor of remaining. Dire warnings were issued about the disasters that what became known as Brexit would bring: economic collapse, chronic labor shortages, a mass exodus of EU employers and employees, interrupted food supplies, rising tensions between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, reduced opportunities for travel and work in Europe, academic research hampered by ineligibility for EU grants, a smaller role for Britain on the global stage, and more.

The warnings were ignored. A very small majority asserted its will over the rest of the country, as it was entitled, if unwise, to do; they had after all voted explicitly on staying in or leaving Europe. And now, exacerbated by Covid, the war in Ukraine, an unexpectedly cold winter in North Africa (a polycrisis), Britain is suffering from the very disasters of which they were warned. Meanwhile, the promised benefits have not materialized. Money saved on EU-related expenses was not, as pledged, used to restore the NHS to its former glory. The NHS is on the brink of collapse.

There are major differences between Israel today and pre-Brexit Britain. Israel’s last election was not a referendum about legal reform. Indeed, many people who voted for the coalition government vehemently oppose the reforms.

What’s similar is that Israel’s present government won by a small majority (in terms of voters, it was barely a majority at all: 49.47% versus 48.97%, discounting votes for parties that didn’t cross threshold); that one politician clinging to power played a disproportionate role; that Israel is extremely vulnerable to a polycrisis, involving the Occupation, Gaza, conflicts in the Middle East, dependence on foreign aid, and climate; and – my main point here – that warnings have been issued from all corners of the globe about the economic, political, and social devastation that legal reform will unleash.

A central task of Israel’s massive pro-democracy protest movement is to make sure the Government heeds these warnings, which are the subject of many protest speeches and study sessions. It’s tempting to think that the Government has got the message by now. And indeed, the demonstrations have had an impact, for example on the Haredi parties, who reversed their position on the reforms when they saw popular opposition. But to slacken off on demonstrating is to risk bringing upon ourselves a polycrisis, a medusa head of intertwining disasters that are all the more appalling for having been known in advance and wholly avoidable.

It’s not too late to join the demonstrations or to find another way to support them, for example by donating to Shomrim al ha’bayit, organizers of the Jerusalem protest movement, here (in Hebrew).

Preserve the shared home.
About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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