Israel and the Countervoice
A teacher of mine once taught told me the job of a Rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’ve been wrestling with this wonderful charge particularly this year, because I want to talk about Israel.
And it seems there are two ways to talk about Israel.
You can talk about that terrible organisation Hamas and its desire to destroy the one nation of our people merely 70 years after the end of the Holocaust. You can talk about the sole desire of Israel being the defence of itself and its citizens. You can talk about the disproportionate coverage of Israel in the media, and you can talk about the mealy mouthed connivance of so many in this country, of Jews even, who criticise and accuse a State whose realities they do not understand and whose destiny they fail to take sufficiently seriously. You can talk about Israel from the perspective of someone who cares pre-eminently about its physical security – the welfare of its body.
And then you can talk about Israel in a different way. You can talk about the disproportionate loss of innocent life in Gaza and insufficient justification for the destruction of entire neighbourhoods. You can talk about the failure to strengthen moderate Palestinian peace partners and ‘land grabs’ that make peace ever harder to achieve. You can talk about a country whose connection to its Jewish heritage means it is obliged to do more than simply strike back harder any time someone strikes it. You can hold Israel to a higher standard than Syria or Russia because you believe Jews should aspire to a higher standard. You can talk about Israel from the perspective of someone who cares pre-eminently about its ethical security – the welfare of its soul.
And here’s where the piece about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable comes into sharp focus.
When you talk about Israel from the physical security perspective you comfort those who are pre-eminently concerned with physical security and at the very same time you afflict those who are pre-eminently concerned with ethical security.
When you talk about Israel from the ethical security perspective you comfort those who are pre-eminently concerned with spiritual security and at the very same time you afflict those who are pre-eminently concerned with physical security.
And the temptation, very quickly, becomes the temptation simply not to wander into that particular lions’ den. Not to talk about Israel at all. To talk about Israel is increasingly to drive a wedge between Jew and Jew. Oy.
A Rabbinic colleague told me that they couldn’t remember the last time she had had a genuine conversation about Israel. Instead, she reported, she finds herself continually engaging in ‘allegiance confirmations’. Surely she agrees that such and such, or surely she has no time for this and that. I’ve felt similar tensions here. Israel has become less that which unites us and more the prism through which we test whether other people are acceptable, it depends on whether they agree with what we already know to be the case. We are retreating into silos, surrounding ourselves increasingly only with the voices that confirm what we wish to hear. And that’s not good.
The greatest gift of Judaism has always been our ability to suffer our intense disagreement with our fellow Yiddim. The greatest Rabbis of the Talmud are traditionally listed in pairs because where one finds in one direction, the other finds in the opposite direction in the very same moment; and not about trivial matters either. Rabbinic Judaism thrives on difference. Rabbinic Judaism is about the ability to drive back the desire we all have to surround ourselves with one opinion, the opinion that I am right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.
Two examples, one from the first text traditionally taught in the Yeshivah, the second virtually the last words in the last major work of our founding Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, on this the 50th year of our foundation.
“Two disputants come before the Bet Din,” the Mishnah in the tractate Baba Metzia begins, “both holding onto the same cloth. Both claiming that they found it first and it’s all theirs.”
The very opening salvo of Rabbinic Judaism involves disputants seeking to claim ‘all,’ eviscerating entirely the claim of the other. You will not be surprised that the Rabbinic solution to this impasse results not in a fistfight, but a compromise. Both sides get heard, both sides get valued.
The other example comes from the end of Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the last significant work of our founding Rabbi. Following a typical tour de force encapsulating a two thousand year chain of tradition Louis remarks, ‘I have tried to show that when Jewish thinkers speak of normative Judaism they tend to affix the label to those aspects of the tradition to which they are personally attracted.’ In other words we call what we agree with true and we claim that which we disagree with untrue. The only problem is … truth doesn’t work that way. When it comes to the will of God we can’t know, we don’t know. A little more humility, a little less certainty is called for. And not just when it comes to matters of the State of Israel.
The great marker of Jewish difference, for thousands of years, was always that we stuck at it, even in our disagreements and our bickering and our Broiguses. We find a way to hold close and fight back at the same time. We love our differences. There’s a truth behind the suggestion that the difference between an antisemite and a Jew is that an antisemite hates Jews, but Mr Cohen who lives next door is OK. The Jew on the other hand, loves all Jews, but Mr Cohen next door is a real …
You can disagree with the other, but you can’t walk away. You have to love even as you disagree. Not only does Judaism desperately need disagreeing Jews to stick together, but Jews need disagreeing Jews to stick together. You and I need those who differ from us around us. That’s the purpose of community. It’s not to surround ourselves with people just like us, it’s to surround ourselves with those who take opposite opinions, who force us to see things from perspectives we don’t find immediately attractive or ever will. We need the other to remind us that we can’t have things all our own way. The other is a walking provoking reminder of the insufficiency of a totalitarianisng position – the sort of position in which we comfortably consider our own position entirely right. The tradition of Rabbinic difference, the value placed on difference, the necessity of living and even loving in the difference; this is the essence of what it is to be a Jew, certainly what it means to be a Jew in a community like New London.
And this is what makes the whole subject of Israel such a microcosm for the work of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah calls us out of our silos and commands us to view just how far short we fall from being all-right. Rosh Hashanah insists we destabilise the narratives we create to make us feel comfortable and secure in our normal lives. In normal life we justify ourselves; we claim our views, our behaviours, our moods and even our slips are all fundamentally fine. In normal life we prove to ourselves that we are correct – not that anyone is listening, not that anyone is going to be particularly impressed.
But on Rosh Hashanah we are called to consider our claims from the position of those who are hurt by our insistence on our right-ness. And even more terrifying we are called to consider our claims from the position of HaMakom – God, the cosmos, infinity; we are called to consider our claims from a perspective we cannot claim to grasp.
We can’t grow, we can’t change if we retreat to silos and surround ourselves only with the voices that tell us we are all-right. We can only grow when we go to the place that challenges us, we need to cherish provocation more than comfort.
I’ve had some problems with my neck this past year. I went to see the osteopath who told me it’s been 20 years a-brewing. The problem, it seems, is that I kept twisting my spine around to avoid putting myself in a painful position. And eventually I ran out of a place to twist. And healing comes from bending back towards the pain. I need to bend back to the source of the provocation to heal. I suspect we all do.
So how can we bend into the pain? Or, and let me make the challenge a little more real – where is the space to encounter otherness without losing our own identity? How do we make space for others without becoming simply a wishy-washy nodding donkey who speaks up for nothing because they are so confused by the multiplicity of everything? Because I’m certainly not advocating we become wishy-washy nodding donkeys.
There were two great Rabbis who hated one another. And a third who was trying to make the peace. The first Rabbi protested against the failings of the second, he accused, he pointed out the inconsistencies, the failings everything. And the third Rabbi listened. Eventually the litany of accusations came to a halt and the third Rabbi asked, ‘Why this need to speak so ferociously?’
‘It’s a Mitzvah’ can the reply, ‘Hoche’ach Tocheach – you shall surely rebuke your fellow,’ he protested. He’s right, there is a verse in the Torah that commands reproach – Lev 19:17. But then comes the response from the peacemaker;
‘If it’s a Mitzvah – a good thing – to speak so ill of your fellow,’ he queried, ‘then your Yetzer Hara, your evil inclination, should want you want to stop doing it.’
I love this story. Here you have the Rabbi who thinks they’ve got it all right, and they think that this gives them the right, nay, they think they are thereby obliged to rebuke and castigate anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They think it’s a Mitzvah to lord it over their fellow. But if it’s a Mitzvah then the powerful voice of the evil inclination should be telling them not to do it.
It’s only good to critique when you can feel the countervoice. Making another suffer can indeed by justified; but the test of the acceptability of any justification is not how right you think you are, but how attuned you are to the countervoice that calls you to stop.
And this goes for those who feel comfortable defending the physical security of Israel. Do we hear the countervoice that worries about blighted Gazans who want only the same peace and tranquillity as so many in Israel?
And this goes for those who feel comfortable calling for Israel to behave with ever greater awareness of its spiritual obligations. Do we hear the countervoice that tells us, enough compromise and surrender already – these people are not our friends, after two thousand years of oppression it’s time to look after number one a bit?
The veteran Israeli commentator, Yossi Kelin Halevi recently quoted a senior colleague whose son had been fighting in Gaza, ‘I have two nightmares about a Palestinian State’ he recalled, ‘That there won’t be one – and that there will be one.’ That’s not wishy-washy nodding donkeyism, that’s listening out for the countervoice; it’s sophisticated, thoughtful and probably entirely fair.
And this listening out of for the countervoice is, of course about more than our relationship with Israel. It’s an important call for those of us with parents, who drive us nuts, or partners who are clearly mistaken, or children or work colleagues, or friends, or strangers with whom we just can’t be bothered to engage because we know they are wrong already.
We should listen a bit more closely, stick with it a bit longer, look for the places where their narrative can become our countervoice.
We need to pay enough attention that we are provoked into facing our discomfort.
We need not to associate what we believe with a truth we cannot truly know.
We need to develop ways to share a contested Tallit recognising competing claims.
We need to find ways to love, even though we disagree – even because we disagree.
We need to be prepared to be afflicted in our comfort if we genuinely want comfort from our afflictions.
That’s my message for this most holy of days; listen out for the countervoice, treasure that which makes us doubt more than we treasure our desire to be ‘right’ all the time. And in so doing we will learn to heal broken relationships, become better members of our families, our community, this human race and, please God, more worthy of the gift of a year of sweetness, health and most of all peace for which we, all of Israel, and I dearly believe, all of humanity, wish.
May it come to us all,