The Jewish people have always had an unfortunate tendency to divide. It has cost us both our previous commonwealths. From where I sit, G-d forbid, it looks like it might yet cost us our third. And what’s more perplexing, very few among Israel’s reckless political or religious leadership actually seem to care. We know they cannot be blind to the tragic history of our exile. Or to what, G-d forbid, would await us again. Some have even experienced a sense of this hardship in person. Survivors of Farhud and Holocaust still walk among us. So what’s going on?
Perhaps if we can better understand what causes us to split, it may help us find a way to unite.
The roots of Jewish divisiveness lie in the realm of ideas. Therefore, we have to detour into the realm of ideas before we can bring it back to the practical. Please bear with this.
Based on the limited understanding I have developed so far, I have come to see the essence and purpose of Judaism, its cosmic role if you like, the end result of all the many myriad mitzvahs we perform across all aspects of our lives, to be the fusion and ultimately the unification of apparent opposites toward a final revelation of underlying unity: ‘Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad’ (Deuteronomy 6:4), ‘ein od milvado’ (Deuteronomy 4:35), ‘on that day Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One’ (Zechariah 14:9).
Look carefully within Torah and you will see a whole range of opposites across which Judaism stands as a bridge.
This, I believe, is an underlying reason for the chosen-ness of the Land of Israel – the meeting point of the three continents known to the ancient world: where east encounters west; where cultivated land meets the wilderness; where Mount Ebal faces Mount Gerizim; where the very much alive Kinneret stands adjacent to the Dead Sea.
Look closer still and see how many opposites are fused within the Jewish religious totality: heaven with earth, finite with infinite, transcendence with immanence, physicality with spirituality, hidden with revealed, rationalism with mysticism, sun with moon, body with soul, male with female, infertility with fruitfulness, free will with determinism, chessed with gevurah, Rachel with Leah, Yaakov with Yisrael, Yosef with Yehuda, Issachar with Zevulun, Aaron with Moshe, kindness with truth, righteousness with peace, priest with prophet, king with court, justice with mercy, brit avot with brit sinai, first tablets with second tablets, duties to Hashem with duties to mankind, written with oral, halakhah with aggadah, Hillel with Shammai, remembering the Exodus with not despising the Egyptian, the angels ascending the ladder with the angels descending the ladder, the goat to Hashem with the goat to Azazel, filling and subduing with serving and guarding, the pauper with the princes, the barren women of the house with the happy mother of children, emunah with hishtadlut, punishment with teshuvah, redistribution with wealth, individual with collective, word with deed, war with peace, slavery with freedom, rights with obligations, work with rest, blessing with curse, prayer with sacrifice, observe with remember, greatness with humility, acceptance with rebuke, deference with defiance.
Here is how this all crystallizes into reality.
There is a well-known teaching that the holiness of Purim is equated with Yom Kippur. The Torah calls Yom Kippur, ‘Yom HaKippurim’, literally, a day that is like Purim.
What links the two?
On Yom Kippur, Jews take on and subsume spirituality through 25 hours of fasting along with the four other afflictions and a day full of intense prayer and repentance on this holy day of the second giving of the Torah when G-d’s presence was fully revealed.
On Purim, Jews take on and subsume physicality through a day full of feasting, partying and gift-giving on the day the sages teach that the Jewish people finally consented freely to accept the Torah when G-d’s presence was completely hidden (the name Esther itself means ‘hidden’).
Yom Kippur and Purim are days of extremes – respectively of spirituality and physicality. However it is clear that both become subsumed within Judaism and are carried forward in fusion into the rest of our year.
Thus, on the night after Yom Kippur goes out, its intense spirituality is immediately fused with the physicality of building and decorating our sukkahs.
And soon after Purim finishes, its intense physicality is fused with the spirituality of purging chametz (leavened goods) – representing materialism – from our property in the build up to Pesach.
With this context in mind, why do the Jewish people become divided? And why is our unification so important?
The Yom Kippur-Purim linkage is an archetype. It represents a four-stage process by which the Jewish people come to unify the opposites identified above: first to take on those opposites (Yom Kippur-style spirituality, Purim-style physicality), second to subsume them, third to fuse them, and fourthly to project this holy fusion out to the world as part of our sacred mission ‘so that My Salvation shall be to the Ends of the Earth’ (Isaiah 49).
This, I believe, is the role for which we, the Jewish people, are considered ‘chosen’, the kind of ‘light’ we are expected to shine. As Paul Johnson, the prominent Catholic historian notes, to the Jews “..we owe.. the basic moral furniture of the human mind”, and it all starts with the seemingly small but infinitely precious actions we call mitzvahs.
The first phase of this fusion process is for Jews to take on the opposites. This is where the danger of schism emerges.
For the holiest among us, with character attributes finely attuned to the cosmic balance Judaism is designed to create, the fusing of opposites is intuitive. The same Avraham Avinu that hastened in obedience to offer up his child to G-d on Mount Moriah could defy the All-Powerful One that commanded him such with the immortalised cry, ‘Far be it from You to do such a thing! Shall the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?’ (Genesis 18:25) And the same Moshe Rabbeinu, about whom G-d Himself attests to being ‘faithful throughout my House’ (Numbers 12:7), could shatter G-d’s holy tablets at the foot of the mountain and issue an ultimatum to the Almighty ‘… forgive this people their sin, but if not, erase me from Your book which You have written (Exodus 32:32).
However, for us ordinary Jews, it is not so simple. Different camps within the Jewish people lean to one side more than the other – prophets and kings, hellenists and maccabees, sadducees and pharisees, rationalists and mystics, chassidim and mitnagdim, traditionalists and progressives, and so forth.
This inherent potential for schism is why – Israeli politicians take note – Jewish unity has always been a value so important that even punishment for idolatry, one of the three cardinal sins, may be withheld. (‘Ephraim is united in idolatry: let him alone’ (Hosea 4).
On a similar theme, we are taught that King David’s army lost battles despite their piety because they were divided by strife and gossip, whereas the army of the idolatrous and murderous King Ahab never lost a battle because they were united and fraternal.
It is for this reason that the sages were careful to distinguish between arguments for the sake of heaven and arguments not for the sake of heaven (Pirkei Avot 5:17). It is also why, per the Talmud, a voice from heaven (‘bat kol’) could describe two opposing positions, as ‘these and these are words of the Living G-d’ (Eruvin 13b).
Today, the great global divide shaping our times is between universalism and particularity.
The universalists are in the camp of Lapid, Biden, Lula, Obrador, Macron (and many others), the so-called ‘left’, the particularists are in the camp of Netanyahu, Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Bolsanaro, Orban (and many others), the so-called ‘right’.
To be clear, left and right, right and left, is not about good and evil, notwithstanding the ferocious partisanship involved. Rather, it is about differing conceptions of identity and obligation within the totality of human experience.
Like all the other opposites across which Judaism stands as a bridge, Torah calls for both universalism and particularity – ‘btzelem Elokim’ and ‘am kadosh’ (as per this week’s parsha). To be clear, not only are both universalism and particularity legitimate expressions of Judaism, the Torah’s intent is their fusion together within the totality of Jewish religious experience and their projection out into the world as part of the light that we shine.
There is a well-known saying that Jews are just like other people, only more so.
The division of the Jewish people, very approximately into the ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Israel today, is the taking on the extremes of both camps. Just like Yom Kippur is extreme spirituality and Purim is extreme physicality, our universalists tend to be extremely universal, and our particularists tend to be extremely particular.
To give a crude, not strictly accurate, and probably quite offensive generalisation, our hi-tech entrepreneurs may be developing some of the world’s best new health, security, agricultural and environmental technologies that save countless lives. However they may have few qualms to conduct that ‘essential fundraising event’ on Shabbat. On the other side, our talmidei chachamim are elucidating incredible chiddushim in their Torah learning that are increasing holiness and light in the higher heavens. However they may be using too many non-biodegradable plastics that are harming the environment down here on earth.
In Israel, like in many places around the world, the social fabric is tearing.
As the Jewish people here in Israel, we need to harness the incredible energies of both our talmidei chachamim and our hi-tech entrepreneurs, our universalists and particularists, our so-called ‘right’ and our so-called ‘left’, and find a way to subsume universalism within particularity, and to subsume particularity within universalism, so we may fuse them within the fabric of our Judaism, our Israel, and project the resulting fusion as a model that can heal the tearing social fabric around the world.
This I believe is our role. What do we need to do?
I believe it is simple. For those looking to the minutiae of constitutional politics, you will laugh.
Hi-tech entrepreneurs (and secular Jews more generally) – please set aside time to learn Torah from our talmidei chachamim, take on more mitzvot, and go out openly into the world as the proud Jews that you are.
Talmidei chachamim – please set aside time to teach Torah to our hi-tech entrepreneurs (among other secular Jews), and support, recognise and invoke their work as the kiddush Hashem that it is.
In a nutshell, what we need is a national Torah-learning program, attuned to the needs of secular Jews, delivered by our talmidei chachamim. It is taking to another level the basic act of kindness by those charedim that welcomed protesters to Bnei Barak with cholent and cold drinks.
How will this help?
On the level of ideas, it will create the cosmic fusion between particularism and universality that Judaism is intended to project, a model to the world that blends modernity with tradition, innovation with authenticity, advancement with ‘rootfulness’ (to coin a phrase), global thinking with local action – another piece of humanity’s evolving ‘moral furniture’.
On a practical level, it will allow us to talk, to empathise, to understand, to heal. Israel is becoming more religious, more traditional. It scares people – secular and religious alike. When I became a baal teshuva, it scared me. We are all scared, in a profound way that shakes our bones far more than any incitement, war or terrorism has ever achieved or will ever achieve. As Rabbi Sacks once said, “the only people that can destroy the Jewish people are the Jewish people”.
Secular Jews can only truly understand religious Jews through Torah, can only truly understand that being part of a religious community is like being continually embraced in a big hug. And religious Jews, especially those that have never experienced the non-religious world, can learn what Rabbi Sacks (again) advised Yair Lapid: “the only people who believe that secular Israeli Jews are actually secular are secular Israeli Jews”, to which I might humbly add, “and some religious Israeli Jews as well.”