Organized Jewish life strives for greater unity amongst Jews and more passionate engagement. But can passion and unity coexist? Or do these goals collide? While technology has created the global village, producing a virtual ingathering from the four corners of the earth, the global Jewish shtetl seems crowded with the raised and conflicting voices of the most passionately engaged.
Some argue that unity stems from compromise, and that passion negates compromise. But that assumes a very pale version of unity. The drive for togetherness that we call ahavat Yisrael and the enthusiastic engagement with Judaism that we call ahavat Torah can certainly coexist. In praising the harmony between the ideologically divided schools of Shammai and Hillel, the Talmud1 cites the words of Zechariah,2 “Ha’emet vehashalom ehavu,” “Love (both) truth and peace.”
We can have both unity and engagement if we love both truth and peace.
But we will also need a commitment to nuance. And that is increasingly hard to come by.
A striking characteristic of our current social climate is its apparent polarization. Politically, morally and religiously, extremes dominate the stage. And while any number of formal studies and empirical observations demonstrate the presence of an overwhelming silent majority between those poles, the decibel level emanating from the extremes has generated a sense of instability and alienation for many.
Those powerful extremes have also succeeded in shutting down serious, open and nuanced discussion. On the heels of the powerful protest movement that followed the police killing of George Floyd, a group of 153 prominent artists and intellectuals from across the political spectrum joined in an open letter decrying “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty . . . . Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”3
Our tradition guides us away from such extremes.
The Need for Balance
In the vernacular of our Sages, the exercise of judgment is referred to as shikul hada’at—literally “weighing of the mind,”—implying that true judgment looks at all sides of an issue and accords them each their proper weight.4
Wisdom requires balance, an awareness of all the factors, pro and con. Indeed, the Talmud5 lists this ability to “see the other side” of what would seem to be self-evident truths, as a critical requirement for membership in the Sanhedrin, our highest court. As Maharal6 taught, this is because in our complex world nothing is so simple as to be reduced to black and white.
Recognition of the complexity and multidimensionality of societal issues is key to fostering communal cohesion. Polarization results from the exclusion of other perspectives, ultimately alienating those who hold those perspectives. Here again it was Maharal7 who taught that the Talmudic homily8 praising the Jewish people as a tri-partite nation observing a tri-partite Torah advances the notion that unity in this world is accomplished by the presence of a mediating third prong that values, balances and bridges the extremes. It was thus only Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs, who was the first to keep all his sons unified and part of the eternal Jewish people.9 Stated simply, extremes exclude.
Despite the importance of recognizing the nuances of any given situation, there are possible weaknesses inherent in such an approach, both ideological and practical. Ideologically speaking, focusing on the complexities of an issue can potentially result in a lack of moral clarity.10 Practically speaking, it often leads to confusion and inaction.
Consider the Talmud’s disparagement of the “humility of Rav Zechariah ben Avkulas,” that left him paralyzed with indecision at a critical moment, resulting ultimately in the destruction of the Second Temple.11 Chassidic thought characterizes Amalek—the personification of evil—as a doubter,12 cooling passions by harboring questions in the face of clear and self-evident truths. And in a classic Talmudic agaddah,13 when Jacob’s burial was delayed by a debate with Esau over burial rights in the Cave of the Patriarchs, it was Chushim ben Dan—a grandson of Jacob whose deafness did not allow him to hear the debate—who acted decisively to resolve the matter. This story has rightfully become an example of how discussion of the complexities of an issue can at times obscure its utter simplicity.
So how do we embrace complexity and nuance while retaining clarity and direction?
Ultimately, we must exercise decisiveness, the capacity to choose between competing considerations. We act with wisdom when we decisively chart a path that continues to recognize and even incorporate the significant countervailing considerations.
This is precisely what granted credibility to the legal decisions of Beit Hillel, who merited enduring halachic authority because of their agreeable and forgiving manner, and because when they taught the halachah, they would teach both sides of the argument, even prioritizing the statements of Beit Shammai to their own.14 Their healthy humility enabled them to consider the views of others but did not impede their ultimate responsibility to decide.
Complexity and decisiveness need not contradict each other. Rather we are charged to act both thoughtfully and resolutely, choosing a path that results from proper consideration of the many and competing relevant factors. We begin by identifying, then weighing and ultimately deciding between the relevant and important values. In recognizing those values—indeed in championing them—all voices should be heard. In the final decision, even as a single path is chosen,15 when all relevant values have a place, they may be brought together to generate a more holistic and textured religious worldview.
A Case in Point
For illustrative purposes, we may explore the values at play in the social strife that has so deeply affected the United States. The police killing of George Floyd and others generated massive protests, leading in turn to movements for social change. The tragedy, the protests and the movements have all engendered passionate and polarizing debate in this country and community, to an extent that has created an environment seen as stifling the expression of opposing views.
What is our reaction? What about these events stirs our passions? The killing of a Black individual, or the destructive looting rampage that followed? The millions of people—white, brown and Black—who took to the streets to protest the killing or those who used the opportunity to express anti-Semitism? The appeals for reform and improvement or the beheading of statues and calls for defunding police departments?
Are these indeed either/or questions? Is it not the case that all the above should stir our passions? Do we have to choose between the extremes: either an uncritical embrace or a wholesale rejection of the protests and the movement energized by the tragedy?
Here is a quick review from the perspective of Jewish values of some of the many issues at play. These complexities indicate the inappropriateness of adopting either of the two extremes listed above.
The Tragedy: The death of George Floyd in police custody must strengthen our commitment to appreciating the inherent value of every human being. As our Sages taught, “Man is precious, as he is created in God’s image.”16 Torah Judaism demands an absolute rejection of racism, maintaining that the Divine image within every person implies unlimited potential and the human capacity for exquisite spiritual sensitivity. Our Sages17 further taught that the Creator had all mankind descend from one man to foster universal peace and equality. On the other hand, “The Jewish people are precious, as they are referred to as God’s children.”18 As observant Jews, we have a strong sense of our own chosenness and believe in the Divinity of the Torah, God’s word to which only we have access.19 Jewish law has even established social separation practices to prevent intermarriage,20 and to limit our exposure to other cultures.21
Our embrace of all these seemingly conflicting values will result in a Jewish community whose members are wholly committed to seeing the worth of every human being regardless of skin color, while recognizing chosenness as both a privilege and a profoundly humbling responsibility to benefit God, Israel and all humanity.
The Protests: Silence in the face of injustice is clearly unacceptable.22 And while destructive acts are inexcusable,23 angry verbal reactions by the aggrieved are tolerable.24 We must also recall that truth matters. The existence of bad cops does not mean that all police are bad, just as the protesters who exploit moments of social unrest to vandalize or to express their hatred of the Jewish people should not characterize the millions who took to the streets in peaceful and legitimate protest.25 We must be careful in employing terms such as “pogrom” and recognize that free speech advocates opposing anti-BDS legislation, opponents of annexation and those making the case that Black lives matter are not, by definition, anti-Semites. At the same time, these activists need to distance themselves from anti-Semitism and one-sided positions on the State of Israel and call out leaders and participants in these movements who are blatantly anti-Semitic.
Once again, all these values must be embraced together to produce a complete Jewish response to a genuine grievance, one that is proportionate, nuanced and responsible. We must be understanding of the aggrieved and we cannot be silent in the face of an injustice. But at the same time, we must not turn a blind eye to an unjust pursuit of justice.26
The Movement: Should we behead statues of our imperfect past leaders? Should we radically defund or deconstruct police departments? “Do not reject the Egyptian entirely, for you were a stranger in his land.”27 On this verse, Rashi explains: “Even though they threw your male children into the sea, remember that they provided you with a home at your time of need.”28 Evidently even horrible wrongs do not erase a debt of gratitude. The Talmudic mandate, “One must always demonstrate respect for the government”29 was applied both to the brutal Egyptian King Pharaoh and the wicked and immoral Jewish King Ahab. Apparently, the Sages were anti-anarchy, even where the ruling government was brutal or immoral.
Yet there is room for reform, as authority must be informed by compassion. “The man administering the punishment should be heavily endowed with knowledge and minimally endowed with physical power.”30 Rav Yitzchak Hutner31 elegantly explained that the value of superior knowledge was to provide the policeman using the lash with the essential perspective that punishment is driven by a primary motivation to provide benefit.
These values reflect a holistic Jewish attitude but also a critically practical one. The sense of safety that our community feels is built on both the stability of our country and its character as a malchut shel chesed, a benevolent government.
The above observations are simply illustrations of the complexity of these issues. When it comes to evaluating many of the societal issues at hand, we may find ourselves having to contend with competing values, and we will be required to make decisions as to which values should determine the course of action. But the recognition of the complexity of the issues will hopefully produce a more nuanced and complete response that will inform our attitudes and actions, allowing us to bring our passion for both truth and peace to whatever the current struggle.
A Closing Thought
Rambam was known as a champion of the golden mean, the middle path between the extremes. He saw this as the derech Hashem, the way of God that Avraham taught his descendants, balancing charity and justice, benevolence and principle.32 It is a difficult balance, a unity perhaps only truly attainable by the One God, Whose unity is His essence.
We humans are often unable to meld balance with true commitment. In our vernacular, the term “middling” is a synonym for mediocrity, or—as the Kotzker reportedly opined—“The middle of the road is for the horses.”
Yet we must pursue that balance. We must move beyond one-sided positions to a sincere and informed pursuit of a more complete perspective. Wholeness—of our Torah observance and values, of our religious character and of our communal cohesion—requires it.
There is a tradition of the Sages33 that the Hebrew word for Heaven, shamayim, is a combination of the words for fire and water, aish u’mayim, for in Heaven even the polar opposites of fire and water are brought together to form a unified whole. We thus conclude every prayer and every recitation of Kaddish by pleading that He Who made peace on high shall do the same for us.
Driven by our passion for Jewish unity and engagement, we can pray and hope that God grant us His blessing of peace and wholeness, shalom ushleimut, soon in our day, Amen.
1. Yevamot 14b
2. Zechariah 8:19
3. “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine. The letter was promptly responded to by more than 150 signers of “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
4. Note that the matching term for arriving at a decision is hachra’ah, used as well to describe the tipping of the scales.
5. Sanhedrin 17a
6. Be’er Hagolah 1:5
7. Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 11
8. Shabbat 88a
9. Zohar II 175b
10. See Rambam’s discussion in Moreh Nevuchim, ch. 2.
11. Gittin 58a
12. See Shem MiShmuel for Parashat Zachor 5679, who notes that Amalek has the same gematria, Hebrew numerical value, as the word for “doubt,” safek.
13. Sotah 13a
14. Eruvin 13b. Note that the Talmud there informs us of this quality of Beit Hillel immediately after speaking of a distinguished student who would offer multiple arguments in favor of the purity of the clearly impure sheretz.
15. Note Eduyot 1-6.
16. Pirkei Avot 3:18. This basic truism applies to all mankind and is to inform our respect and concern for the lives and well-being of others, expressed in both deeds (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 10:12) and prayers (Pirkei Avot 3:2, as explained by Rashi and Rabbeinu Yonah), to benefit all members of society.
17. Sanhedrin 37a
18. Pirkei Avot 3:18; see Rashi to Devarim 6:7 who sees children in this context as students, referring to our being the only nation given the Torah.
19. Tehillim 147:20: “He has done this for no other nation; such laws they do not know.”
20. Shabbat 17b
21. Eruvin 62a, Bava Metzia 71a.
22. Gittin 56a: “Bar Kamtza said, ‘Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, they were apparently in agreement with his behavior.’”
23. Shabbat 105b
24. Pirkei Avot 4:23: “Do not try to placate your friend in his hour of anger, nor to comfort him while his dead lies before him.” Note as well that Ramban (Bamidbar 20:1) notes that God only reacted negatively to the Jewish people when we asked for something inappropriate. When—on the other hand—we had a legitimate need such as hunger or thirst, even when we expressed ourselves in the most unreasonable, disrespectful and angry manner, God remained patient and loving in His response, saving guidance for a later, calmer time.
25. Bamidbar 16:22: “If one man sins, will You be angry with the entire community?”
26. Note the classic interpretation of Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa to the mandate, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” suggesting that one must pursue justice with means that are themselves just (see Sefat Emet on Parashat Shoftim, par. 2).
27. Devarim 23:8
28. Rashi ad loc.
29. Zevachim 102a
30. Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 16:9, based on Makkot 23a.
31. Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah 4:6-9.
32. Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 1:7, based on Bereishit 18:19.
33. Chagigah 12a
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union