The war here in Israel is only beginning to unfold. As I write these lines, we are deeply grieving, and we are still reeling from the shock of 1,400 brutally murdered and over 200 of our brothers and sisters abducted by a savage enemy. The Ground Offensive hasn’t commenced and we are sitting tensely wondering whether a full war will break out on our Northern border.
Though a thorough accounting regarding our political and military leadership will surely wait for the end of hostilities, people are quite naturally turning their minds and hearts to the spiritual lessons to be learned from this turbulent year. I want to share two such thoughtful pieces, published this weekend [20 Oct, 2023] by leading voices in the Religious-Zionist community. I want to share them because I believe them to be insightful, and I feel that their thinking captures a moment in time – we will see whether this approach gains traction in wider circles. Interestingly, their views are significantly aligned.
Both pieces quite clearly draw a connecting line between two events: First, the national divisions that have rocked the country this year over the government’s legal reforms, the deep factionalization of the country that ensued, and the type of hard-nosed leadership that persistently drove the legislation often fanning the flames of national discord. Second, the blindness that plagued our national leadership and the military establishment, leading them to overlook the warning signs from Gaza, leaving the Gazan border and its communities dreadfully under-protected. Both thinkers see an overlap and a connection between the two phenomena.
The first piece is by Rav Yuval Cherlow. Rav Cherlow serves as Rosh Yeshiva of the Orot Shaul Yeshiva in South Tel Aviv, he is a leading voice in the moderate Religious-Zionist camp, has served on public ethics committees and is a teacher and author.
He quotes a famous piyut, depicting God – העוז והענווה לחיי העולמים – as exhibiting both “strength and humility”, a paradoxical combination. Now this intriguing hybrid is well rooted in our tradition: “Wherever you find His greatness, there you find His humility”(Megilla 31a). But Rabbi Cherlow wants human beings to ask ourselves how we might emulate these divine attributes and internalise these twin traits:
“As to the importance of strength at this time, there is no need to expand … we will fight with courage and bravery … “And we will not turn back until we have destroyed them”(Psalms 18:38).
But it is critically important to speak about humility at this time, precisely now as we begin to analyse how we reached this painful, humiliating, baffling situation that we are in. …
From a spiritual perspective we might say that an integral part of it came from our self perception as those who knew it all. How might we characterise the person who knows it all? There are many outward signs. One of them is a person who doesn’t listen, who ridicules other perspectives that are offered to him; a person so self-convinced that he doesn’t allow any doubt to raise questions; he who builds a concept, a model, and remains captive in that mindset; a person who divides the world instinctively to those who support him and those who oppose him, who asks “Are you on our side or on the opposing side?” This is true in politics, in the military; it is relevant for our social-media networks, and for each of us, in our heart of hearts.”
Rav Cherlow returns to the amalgam of “strength and humility, applying it in particular to our national leadership:
“Humility does not stand in opposition to strength. In fact these two qualities complement one another.
…The leadership we need to choose is one that embodies strength and humility. On the one hand, the conviction to lead and make difficult decisions and to execute those decisions. But also, at the same moment, the capacity to listen to alternative perspectives and to welcome views that are divergent from one’s own.
…The language of humility generates unity because it makes space for many opinions, and it doesn’t create a binary of the “sons of light and the sons of darkness”. …it speaks the language of honesty and truth, admits its mistakes, tries to accept the good in every sector of society, and responds to a range of warnings, remaining alert to the darkness in every place in which someone sheds light upon possible failings.”
Rav Cherlow is insinuating that a culture has developed in our national leadership which sees only a single viewpoint as legitimate and seeks to invalidate alternative viewpoints. He is suggesting that dissenting views and criticisms are brushed aside, and that an identity politics has developed that sees views emerging from an opposing camp as unworthy of consideration. He advocates both humility and truth, honesty and a capacity for listening as essential qualities for a leadership of strength.
The second figure, the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva, Rav Benni Kalmanson, is a master educator, especially in the areas of Hassidut, spirituality, and Holocaust education. On that dreadful Simchat Torah, on Oct 7, his son Elchanan z”l, aged 42, who served in an elite army unit, received an early call to respond to the Hamas incursion. He grabbed his gun and made his way to the Gaza border, commandeering an armoured vehicle, and entering Beeri to save as many residents as he could. He was killed in a gunfight with the terrorists. But not before he had rescued the lives of tens of residents of Kibbutz Beeri.
Rav Kalmanson has just got up from Shiva, and in a broad interview in this week’s “Mekor Rishon” newspaper, he was asked how he perceives, from a spiritual and national perspective, what led to the attack on Simchat Torah. The interviewer posed the question: “What happened to us?” He responded:
“I have always felt a distaste for arrogant army officers, individuals who feel they know it all, and nobody is in their league. I think that this approach, that attitude that caused our failures in the Yom Kippur War, has made a return, and it characterised our attitude to Hamas.
Beyond that, it is clear that our enemies smelled our weakness due to the events of the past year. This is far from the entire story, but it contributed a significant part. Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with national debate and disagreement. But the problem is when an argument is transformed to polarisation, deafness, and demonization, rather than dialogue… Argument and debate is a creative force of personal criticism and contemplation, and mutual cross-fertilization – it assists you in understanding the roots of your own position. Polarisation is the opposite; it is a disregard for the other side. Our enemies identified this.
Rav Kalmanson reflects on the attitudes that he would like to see within Israeli society.
The State of Israel needs to cultivate complex people – Left-Right-wingers or religious-secularists – people who contain all those worlds, people who can generate debate and for whom the debate is happening within, inside themselves. We need to cease the polarisation and the disconnect…
Polarisation is like a virus. Just as it is manifest in broader society it has shown its face in the Religious Zionist world – Rabbis of a given school of thought label rabbis who adopt a different stance as illegitimate and heretical! I pray that at least now, in the wake of the war, many figures in society will become people of dialogue. Then I will know that my son, and hundreds of men and women, children and elderly, will have made the greatest contribution to the State of Israel.
Beyond that, there was the damage to solidarity… I allow myself to say that the threats of refusal to serve on the part of Reservists (who opposed the government legal reforms) was an illegitimate act, crossing a red-line.
The debate of this past year was not about fears regarding democracy but rather about fears of demography… Since the religious population doubles itself every thirty years, it was about … fears of a religious regime. Most of my life I have learned and taught Torah, but looking at the way that the religious population looks, I also wouldn’t want to live under a regime of the religious …One of the features of the religious-secular divide is the talk of [the religious as] a full wagon, and [the secular as] an empty wagon. I do not believe in empty wagons. Every wagon has content. …Where is the respect for the other? Where is the culture of debate?”
Rav Kalmanson speaks more at the societal level and Rav Cherlow seems focused more upon the leadership, but they have something in common. For both of them, the upheaval of the legal reform, and the Gaza massacre have common roots. They identify a deafness to the other and to alternative opinions, an oppositional culture, a hubris, a conceited self-assurance and superiority, with its corollary – a dismissal of other groups and sectors – and all this at leadership and societal level.
These wise and sensitive perspectives have resonated with me, maybe because I am one of those people who, in Rav Kalmanson’s words, has these opposing worlds and worldviews raging within me. Over the past few weeks, I have found it difficult to listen to many radio and TV stations, not so much because of the harsh news, but I find it difficult to hear people passing themselves as experts, talking with absolute certainty, instead of humbly saying, “We all got it wrong. Maybe I don’t know. What do you think?”
And I am fearful for the day after. When we put down our weapons, and the blame-game will begin, (and there is much blame to go around), are we going to tear each other apart, each blaming the other, or are we going to recall these moments of “strength and humility”, when we all felt together as we experienced our collective vulnerability? Will we know how to listen and accept that in fact each group in our wonderfully diverse society has its strength? Will we know how to elect honest, listening leaders? Because if we appreciate one another, if we accept the good in each and every segment of our nation, even those not like me, then our humility will indeed be our strength.