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These and These in Wartime

Here are some things I believe:

Hamas unleashed an unspeakably cruel, wicked genocidal attack against Israel.

Israel’s aggressive response has killed far too many Palestinian civilians and has created widespread hunger and misery.

My heart breaks for my many Israeli friends, family, and acquaintances cursed by this cruel war, some of whom were murdered, some are still in the army. It’s impossible not to be profoundly moved by ubiquitous scenes of starving, weeping children in Gaza.

I unconditionally support Zionism and its goals and respect its democracy. I have my whole life. I despise Israel’s current government, which alienates its most important international friend, and rejects an alliance with Saudi Arabia because it can’t even mutter the words “Two State Solution,” and which contains a messianic element dedicated to erasing basic civil rights for non-Jews.

I fear and oppose the numerous pro-Palestinian criticisms of Israel in America, which have morphed easily into antisemitism. I’m convinced that much of current Israeli policy deserves criticism. Some of it is the trigger for more antisemitism.

On the surface, these seem like contradictory beliefs. But I would guess that they’re all held by the majority of American Jews. They only come across as contradictory because of the nature of our current partisan discourse which quickly divides us into teams. And of course, wartime emotions urge us to choose a side and then support it unconditionally. So our American Jewish institutions, tied to Israel through bonds of family and fate, promote the Israel narrative and ignore the Palestinians, and pro-Palestinian organizations, which include some dissident Jewish groups, ignore Israeli suffering and fear. The challenge then, for all of us, is to hold seemingly contradictory beliefs in our hearts at the same time.

This shouldn’t be difficult for Jews steeped in traditional Jewish learning. Most Mishnahs, after all, preserve two or more opposing opinions. And even when the Talmud tries to harmonize conflicting approaches, it’s often forced to let disputes stand. The most famous Talmudic passage about simultaneously holding contradictory opinions is the story of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai and the Bat Kol. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue for three years. We know from other parts of the Talmud that they not only disagree about points of Jewish ritual (how to light the Hanukkah candles), but they also differ on the deepest philosophical issues, like should the world have been created. They clearly represent two mindsets, two philosophic sensibilities. A Bat Kol (literally “daughter of the voice”) interrupts their arguing and proclaims, “These and these are the words of the living God.”

In other words, the true Jewish approach is to open our minds to conflicting approaches. The only authentically Jewish mindset is the open mindset. But how is this possible? We may have open minds, but ultimately, we have to act in this world. So the Bat Kol continues. “Nevertheless the Law is according to Beit Hillel.” Why Hillel, if both are right? Not because he had all the facts on his side, or built the most politically skilled organization, or because he argued most effectively, with the exact right amount of confidence and charisma. Hillel wins, according to the Bat Kol, because he was humble and intellectually curious – always opening his mind to conflicting solutions. Hillel, in other words, internalized the spirit of the Bat Kol: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

One of David Ben Gurion’s most famous quotes is, “We shall fight in the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, but we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war.” Faced with two conflicting imperatives, he refused to choose. These and these. One can imagine a similar cry today: we will fight Hamas as if there were no Messianic threat to Israel’s democracy, and fight that threat as if there were no Hamas.

But American Jews, with few exceptions, aren’t doing any actual fighting. For us, it’s the despairing confusion of binding ourselves to an Israeli government whose policies conflict with some of our deepest values. The horrors of war on both sides muddle our thoughts, force us into rationalizations, and we lose our moral clarity. But even in through the fog of wartime, a Bat Kol rings out, not a full voice, but still the daughter of a voice. Hold on to your deepest truths even if they seem to conflict. These and these are the words of the living God.

About the Author
Rabbi Philip Graubart is the author of RABBIS AND GANGSTERS, SILWAN, WOMEN AND GOD, and several other novels. His new mystery HERE THERE IS NO WHY will be published this summer. He served as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla for fifteen years and before that as senior rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. He also worked in leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the San Diego Jewish Academy. He's taught widely on Israel and Zionism, to teenagers, college students and adults.
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