Reuven Spero

The Abyss

It is hard to write these days, a hundred days into the Hamas war.

Is there anything new to report?  Not so much.  The man who sits in front of me at shul is there every morning, saying kaddish for his son who is not sitting in the row behind, next to me, for he was killed in action during the first weeks of the ground war.  A mother. 76, and her 46 year old son were killed yesterday from a missile fired from Lebanon.  A car ramming in Ranana, presumably a terror attack, wounded 11, one critically.  We daily await the dreaded news on the radio: “the army has released for publication the names of soldiers who were killed in the intense fighting in southern Gaza yesterday….”  

Oh, yes.  And the State of Israel has been dragged before the International Court of Justice on a charge of genocide.  

Even Kafka could not have imagined the woof and warp of this twisted reality.  

Look, I study and teach history, and specifically Jewish history.   I have read accounts of slaughters, from Crusade to Chmielnicki to Hevron.  A good Enlightenment Jew, I believe in progress, both technological and human, yet I know that a mere dozen years before my birth, Jews were still being slaughtered in a way that reflected technological perfection, of a kind.   My cognitive shock on October 7 was how ideologically unprepared I was for the brutality, the joyous brutality of the slaughter.  And the joyous brutality of those of the enlightened West who support the slaughter.

I read a very moving piece in Substack by David Joseph Volodzko. He began his piece by quoting Nietzzsche:

If you gaze long enough into an abyss, observed Friedrich Nietzsche, the abyss also gazes into you. This is often misunderstood as a contemplation on death or the existential void. But this is not the nihilism of full metal Nietzsche. Quite the opposite. He was referring to the human psyche, and that if you probe its depths you find a deeper version of yourself looking back, for you are the abyss and the person gazing in is but your avatar to the world. Still, there is truth in the misreading. If you contemplate the demons of the deep, before long they will slowly turn their eyes to you. Human suffering is an emotional contagion and it extracts a heavy toll.

Towards the end of the essay, he puts a twist onto Nietzsche, suggesting that we need to look into the abyss so that the abyss does *not* look back into us.  I believe he is saying that if we become callous to the suffering we cause, then we become callous beings, we become the Jewish Hamas.  One who can ignore the pictures of suffering Palestinian children loses something of themselves, transforms into the enemy against whom they are fighting.  

At Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the walls were hung with paintings, for the Hall is but a half-basement level of a structure that was an art museum.  The paintings in that room were dark, they were of the European exile.  Two pictures i pointed out especially:  one of a family that had survived a pogrom.  Survived  physically, that is:  the father’s head is bandaged, but the picture shows other wounds that one senses will not heal with time.  the ripped blouse of the young mother suggests rape, but not as much as the thousand yard stare in her eyes, eyes that have surely seen the abyss.  Are seeing the abyss.  And the little girl in front of her, looking out at us: what did those eyes witness?  A grandfather is in the picture, but where is the grandmother?  

Another painting could well be named “Before the Pogrom.”  It shows what I assume is a father and his grown daughter, sitting at a table.  I don’t remember the painting exactly, but the look of anguish and dread in their eyes tells a story of impending painful helplessness.

This, I tell my students, is what the event of May 14, 1948 came to address.  On that day we did more that declare independence. We returned to history.  Not willing to be passive victims of the hatred of others, we grasped the sword of self-reliance and the use of force to protect our families and homes and nation.  This is a foundational mission of a nation.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword, one sharpened edge pointing back at us, because while we are well acquainted with the consequences of not possessing power, we are also well acquainted with how power can corrupt one’s morals, and how self-defense can morph into cruelty for its own sake.  

Every Israeli lives inside this tension.  The specter of the abyss.  But I believe that if one feels the tension, then the abyss has no power over us.

The problem is this: we are confronted with people who simply have no abyss.  There is nothing inside of them that is reflected by a mirror of humanity.  I’m not saying they are not human.  What I am saying is that I am shocked at myself for thinking, for believing with no supporting evidence, that humans like this could not actually exist in our day.  Can one say another human being is soulless without losing one’s own soul?  I think the answer to that is yes – and I believe that is a foundational idea of the Jewish people.

The issue then becomes how one does battle against the soulless.  

The strategy of Hamas is called Mukamawa.  It means long-term low scale asymmetric warfare aimed at the moral attrition of one’s enemy.  It is the “M” of the acronym of the organization called Hamas.  Every time an episode like this erupts, we deal with it, but the cost over time will eventually undermine our country.  I don’t know if that could happen, nor do I know if our country could survive the kind of steps that would need to be taken to distance this threat from our borders, even that led to a better life for both sides.   

But we have to look and we have to see.  We have to see, as David Joseph Volodzko said, the cost of taking up arms to fight against this expression of inhumanity, a fight we neither asked for nor desire, but one from which we are adjured to press.  We have to see that suffering Palestinian child and know she is suffering because her leaders see her more precious as dead than alive.   And we can’t let that image stop us, weaken us, from fighting this war relentlessly, without quarter, because that is the only response I can reasonably take when I see the images of butchered, maimed, slaughtered, and burnt of October 7.  When I think of the hostages still held by the soulless.  

For the past 100 days.

About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.