Aryeh Ben David
Aryeh Ben David

Reflections on the Jewish critics of Israel inspired by the writings of Rav Kook

Disclaimer #1: I have shown this piece to several people whose opinions I greatly value. No one really liked or agreed with the ideas presented below. I admit that I myself am conflicted over what I wrote. Nevertheless, I cannot enter Shavuot with anger or resentment in my heart toward another Jew. Shavuot commemorates the Jewish People standing at Mount Sinai as “one people with one heart”. This piece reflects my working very arduously to transform these feelings and take a small step toward greater oneness of the Jewish People. 

In my eyes, whether there is merit in the ideas or not is actually less important than the struggle to reframe dissension, to stretching ourselves to judge each other favorably, to resisting the temptation for self-validation (and self-righteousness), and to removing the obstacles from loving in our hearts. 

Disclaimer #2: A friend strongly rebuked me for these ideas below. Saying: “Aryeh — isn’t there a place to detest the people who express such strong negative opinions about Israel? Don’t we have a responsibility to despise them?” I responded with a simple question: “What if ‘those people’ were your children? Would you despise them?” The silence of his reply said everything. 

Nevertheless, what is written below should not in any way be construed to say that we have to approve of all other opinions. We will continue to be a contentious people – debating and trying to persuade the other – forever. Nevertheless, arguing will only be productive when it emerges from a place of love, not antagonism. 

In the midst of these often volatile interactions, I wanted to express my attempt to recognize a spark of truth and holiness in the other side. At the end of the day, our relationship is greater than any specific point or issue. 

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There are Jews who love Israel so much that they seek to justify whatever Israel does and defend it to the world.

And there are Jews who love Israel even more, who seek Israel to be perfect. Jews who cannot tolerate even the slightest transgression or expression of imperfection. Jews who, despite the behavior of our neighboring hostile populations and the moral complexity of the situation, demand us to live faultlessly. Jews who refuse to tolerate even the slightest lapse or oversight. Jews who want us to live as God’s people, perfect in every way. They often express themselves through rebuke, anger, rage, and even disgust. Their comments are often riddled with unbridled criticism and occasionally malicious defamation of the actions of Israel: 

“Israel is not (and has not been for too long) acting honorably and Jewishly.”

“I think as educators the best thing we can do is speak out against the crimes that Israel commits.”

We should not let our eyes and ears deceive us – there is overt disgust and concealed love within these reactions. We witness only the external surface layer of their intentions. Internally, consciously or not, they want the Jewish people to be the reflection of God in this world, to be perfect. They dream for us to live on the highest level, the level of perfection. 

It is too easy and shallow to dismiss these critics of Israel as misguided, betrayers, or self-hating Jews. 

It is too easy to become reactive and defensive. 

It is too easy to dismiss them as ignorant or unaware of the difficulties of living in Israel. 

It is too easy to start quoting history and facts and present the other side of the issue. 

What if your children or parents expressed these opinions which initially appear to be so odious?

We need to listen to the spark of light and holiness hidden deep with their words. 

Rav Kook wrote of those who intentionally transgressed Torah that their souls came from a very high and exalted place. They rebelled against the tradition he loved because they yearned for more, they strove to break the status quo. His reframing of their actions enabled him to let go of any anger he might have felt toward their behavior, see the hidden spark in their rebelling, and move to loving them. For Rav Kook, being the defender of the Jewish People was sometimes tortuous work, but essential to living a loving and holy life. 

Likewise today, we should not be swayed by the harshness of the words, actions, and remonstrations of those who perpetually deride Israel. We should not let ourselves be manipulated by their external behavior. 

Consciously or not, these people are acting from a very holy place: from the place of God’s perfection, from the place of God wanting the Jewish people to be completely holy and perfect.

They are messengers from God, sent to us not to exasperate us but to remind us of aspiring to the ideal and unfulfillable quest of living perfection. They are God’s messengers to us, even if they are not aware of their mission.

There have never been human beings in history who have perfectly controlled and directed their power for the good. There has never been a country in the history of the world that has perfectly controlled itself and always directed its power, 100% of the time, for the good. Human beings are too complicated; life is too complicated. 

An incident comes to mind:

In the middle of a riot and you see a 14-year-old boy holding something small and round in his hand. You have three seconds to decide: is it a tennis ball or a hand grenade. If you are wrong, innocent people will die. You have three seconds to decide. Do you make the right decision? And if faced with this dilemma 10 times, would you always make the right decision? And if over the course of generations you faced this dilemma or similar ones hundreds of times, would you always make the right decision?

Of course not. It is not humanly possible to always make the right decision. Life is layered and complex. We are not perfect. And yet this is what these harsh critics of Israel demand of us: perfection. 

We need to be inspired by their hope and aspiration. We need to never let go of the aspiration that we Jews can approach perfection; we need to forever seek to live in the Image of God. 

We cannot let them instill in us anger, reactivity, or (God forbid) hatred toward another Jew. 

And though, of course, they summon us to an aspiration which is impossible to fulfill, we need to be continually reminded of this hope. If we are going to live as God‘s chosen people, to bring spiritual oneness to the world, then we cannot settle, we cannot lower our expectations of ourselves in light of the complicated realities of this world. We can never acquiesce to the exigencies of life; we need to strive for perfection.

There needs to be a voice in our society which hearkens us to live and strive and hope and yearn for an impossible aspiration. Yes, we will never be perfect. Yes, we will never live a perfect day. Yet, we cannot compromise our dream and settle for being just what we are, for just doing the best we can be. Being the best we can be in a complicated world is pretty praiseworthy. But we have to always remind ourselves that it is not enough, not for us. Not if we are to claim and dream to be God‘s chosen people.

The message of these harsh, often hateful critics of Israel is painful and heart-breaking to hear. Those who critique Israel while missiles are falling, terror reigning, and hospital emergency wards filling up seem to be callous and insensitive to our plight. Nevertheless, though their actions may seem to express contempt and repulsion for Israel, we need to penetrate deeper and realize that this is only their external behavior. Internally, secretly, in the mystical vastness of their souls, there is a hidden love for Israel. A yearning for us to be God’s expression of perfection in this world.

Perhaps Rav Kook would say also about these people that their souls are holy and come from a very high place.

Let us remember to staunchly love and defend our brothers and sisters, the Jewish people. 

And let us love and listen to the voice impelling us to always take steps to become perfect, to yearn to be worthy of God‘s blessing, and never to be satisfied with just who we are. Let us never forget our dream of becoming God’s messenger in the world. Let us not settle or be at peace with whatever our present level may be.

Let us love the Jewish people for what they are doing and let us also love those who are unsatisfied with our actions and demand more of us.

Shavuot is the time when the Jewish People stood “As one person, with one heart”. Only then did we merit receiving God’s revelation and blessing. Now is the time to once again do the hard work to love every Jew. 

God is always sending us messengers to remind us of our vision of being a blessing for all the families of the Earth. Sometimes these critics are distressing to hear, sometimes we question their accusations and intentions. But they are also a blessing. They also are deserving of our saying to their words: Amen.

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals in bringing Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and to our lives. He lives in Efrat with his wife Sandra and their 6 children.
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