The Israeli-Arab Conflict: A Spiritual Perspective

The Origins of the Conflict

In recent weeks, we have witnessed historic peace agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, with talk of more accords on the way with additional countries. At the very same time, expressions of radical Islamism are becoming more extreme, and the poison of Islamic terrorism spreads unchecked across Europe and the Middle East, frequently targeting Jewish victims. Analyzing the spiritual roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict can give us profound insights into both the breakthrough successes and ongoing threats. 

The peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are known as the Abraham Accords, since our conflict began with Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. A close reading of the Biblical verses describing the lives of Isaac and Ishmael highlights many fascinating parallels. Both of them were named directly by God. “And the angel of God said to her [Hagar], ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because God has heard your affliction” (Genesis 16:11). “And God said: ‘But Sarah your wife shall bear you a son; and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen. 17:19). This in itself indicates that they were both righteous people, as our Sages explain, “Four were named prior to their birth: Isaac and Ishmael, Josiah and Solomon… this is so for the righteous, but for the wicked, ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb’” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 11b).

Akedat Yitzhak is one of the founding narratives of the Jewish tradition but there is a parallel story of “Akedat” Yishmael, when he was banished to the desert. The Torah uses similar expressions in both of these stories (1). Both begin with the word “Va-yashkem, And Abraham arose up early in the morning.” In both stories, the young lad faces life-endangering situations, and an angel appears to Hagar and Abraham at the most critical moment. The turning point in both stories occurs when the parents’ eyes are opened and they see what was previously hidden: “And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Gen. 21:19); “And Abraham lifted up his eyes… and there was a ram, [and] after [that] it was caught in the thicket by its horns” (Gen. 22:13). Both Abraham and Hagar named the place after the miraculous vision they experienced there: “Be’er la-hai ro’i” (Gen. 16:14);”Adonai Yir’eh” (Gen, 22:14). Finally, as a reward for passing their respective tests, they each receive a promise of multiple offspring (Gen. 16:10; 22:17).

More interesting parallels can be found in the Biblical texts. The Jewish nation is comprised of twelve tribes, but God promised Abraham that the Ishmaelites will receive the very same blessing, “And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 17:20). Moreover, the two great nations designated to sprout from Isaac and Ishmael are the only nations in our tradition that carry the name of God. “Balaam said: Of the seventy nations that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not put His name on any one of them except on Israel; and the Holy One, blessed be He, made the name of Ishmael similar to the name of Israel” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30). 

It is important to recognize that Ishmael is not necessarily the “wild man,” as we tend to characterize him, based on classic commentaries (2). Other commentators did not see the trait of “pere adam” as an inherently negative characteristic: “The word pere describes a wild donkey, saying that… he will be like a wild donkey by making the desert his home… and he will be adam, a trait that he will inherit from Abraham, as the Rabbis said that Ishmael became a penitent” (Seforno, Gen. 16:12) (3). Furthermore, in the midrashim and commentaries, Ishmael is regarded as a righteous person. We saw above that Ishmael was regarded a tzaddik since he was named before his birth. Even his death is portrayed as the death of a righteous person, as Rashi explains: “And he expired (vayigva). [The term] is mentioned only regarding the righteous” (Rashi to Gen. 25:17 citing Bava Batra 16b). Ishmael was a ba’al teshuva. He absorbed the values of the house of Abraham and this set the course of his life and inspired the Rabbis to regard him as a tzaddik. The similarities between the narratives of Isaac and Ishmael are a clear indication of Ishmael’s spiritual role. 

Brit Mila and the Land of Israel

In order to analyze the spiritual roles of Isaac and Ishmael as the roots of the relationship between these two nations, I wish to focus on the special mitzva that both nations observe to this very day – Brit Mila. In the covenant of circumcision that God offers to Abraham, He depicts a direct connection between Mila and the inheritance of the Land of Canaan. “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages… I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God… As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant…every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:7-10). The observance of Brit Mila is what guarantees our return to the Land of Israel after the exile, as the Sages said: “If your children observe Brit Mila, they shall enter the Land (of Israel), and if not – they will not enter the Land” (Gen. Rabba 46:9). A surface reading of these verses in no way indicates that this part of the covenant, namely the right to settle in the Land of Canaan, excludes Ishmael. 

This was the understanding of the Zohar in the following astounding prediction of the future: “How tragic was the time when Ishmael was born to the world and performed Mila. What did God do? God prevented the children of Ishmael from the ultimate closeness to God but gave them instead a portion in the Holy Land, for they had undergone Mila. And the children of Ishmael will rule the Holy Land for a long while, as long as it is empty from all other inhabitant… And the children of Ishmael shall delay the children of Israel from returning to their place until they [the Ishmaelites] will complete their rightful sovereignty period.” According to the Zohar, circumcision is what gave the Ishmaelites right to rule in the Land of Israel, at least temporarily, and this right lies at the very foundation of the Israeli-Arab conflict, that erupted when the Jewish people made its first attempts to reclaim its national homeland. 

Why does the specific mitzva of circumcision grant entitlement to the Land of Israel more than any other commandment? There is a “code word” in the Torah which can help us to unlock the biblical text and resolve this question: the word “kol” (everything). According to the Rabbis, kol was the special blessing given to the patriarchs. “Our Rabbis taught: There were three to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, gave already in this world a foretaste of the World-to-Come: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham [we know] because it is written of him, [God blessed Abraham] with everything (ba-kol), Isaac, because it is written, [And I have eaten] from everything (mi-kol), Jacob, because it is written, [For I have] everything (kol)” (Bava Batra 16b).

What is the significance of the word kol? According to Ramban, kol is a special attribute that Abraham received from God. It symbolizes the ability to have a broad perspective on reality. Furthermore, it represents his ability to find the spiritual essence of the World-to-Come in the material world (as explained by the midrash cited above). A fascinating example of the use of the word kol in that context can be found in the dialogue between Jacob and Esau, when Jacob wanted to appease his brother with gifts. “But Esau said, ‘I have plenty (rav), my brother; let what you have remain yours. And Jacob said: ‘Please no!… take my gift… for God has favored me, and because I have everything (kol)” (Gen. 33:9, 11) Apparently kol (everything) is more than rav (plenty), but how can Jacob claim that he has more than Esau? Sefat Emet points out that Jacob is not referring to the quantity of property that he owns, but rather the spiritual quality of his assets, “For whoever is devoted to the spiritual essence [of life], all his possessions obtain the quality of kol” (Sefat Emet, VaYishlach 5631). Although Esau had plentiful possessions, his achievements were merely material. Conversely, Jacob had the ability to inject spiritual meaning into all of his material assets and hence he “has everything.”

Apparently, the word kol is associated with two concepts we have discussed above – circumcision and the Land of Israel. According to the Kabbala, the word kol symbolizes the kabbalistic Sefira (emanation) of Yesod, which is associated with circumcision. As we saw above, the word kol symbolizes the harmony between Heaven and Earth, a harmony which is fulfilled by performing a holy mitzva on the most physical part of the body. This is also the spiritual quality of the Land of Israel, a land that harmonizes physicality with spiritually: “A land the Lord your God looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deut.11:12). This special quality of the land is epitomized in the word kol: “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land… a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will not lack anything (kol) in it” (Deut. 8:7-9) The grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, elaborates on the appearance of the word kol: “There is no lack in the Land of Israel, because the Land has the attribute of kol, which is the secret of the Divine presence” (Degel Mahane EphraimToldot).

The Uniqueness and Strength of Islam

Up to this point, we have discussed the benefit of kol as a quality that was granted to our forefathers, but apparently Ishmael also enjoyed that benefit, as appears in God’s promise to Hagar, “He shall be a wild man: his hand will be upon all (ba-kol), and everyone’s (kol) hand upon him” (Gen. 16:10). Sefat Emet explains that this is why Ishmael is regarded as a righteous man, “His hand will be  ‘ba-kol’ means that Ishmael had a portion in this attribute of Abraham” (Hayyei Sara 5651) This is the source of Ishmael’s spiritual power, which draws from the wellsprings of Abraham. This word is also utilized by the Zohar (above) to portray the ruling period of Ishmael, “And the children of Ishmael will rule the Holy Land for a long while, as long as it is empty of everything (kol).” 

Theologically, Islam is the closest religion to Judaism. There is no Avoda Zara in Islam, and in theory it is permissible to pray in a mosque. The name of God (El) appears in the name Ishmael, and the Brit Mila that Moslems perform is an indication of their closeness to God, as the Zohar asserted. Like our own nation, Ishmael shares the role of revealing and spreading God’s name in the world, as Rambam says, “And all the doings of Jesus the Nazarene and that of that Ishmaelite who came after him are nothing but to pave the way for the King Messiah and prepare the entire world to worship God together, as it says: ‘For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent’” (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:11). 

Despite the terrible destruction and suffering that Christianity and Islam have inflicted on us throughout history, this is part of God’s plan to bring the world to a monotheistic faith. A similar idea was expressed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “Every religion that follows Judaism transforms to be like it, though seemingly it strays away from it. These religions are therefore only preparation and introduction to the long-awaited Messiah, who is the fruit, and at the end of the days in their acknowledgment of him (the Messiah)… the whole tree will become one” (Kuzari 4:23). 

Netziv of Volozhin wrote a similar commentary on the prophecy of Balaam regarding the Messiah, “‘A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all children of Seth’ (Numbers 24:17). It is known who the enemies and opponents of the religion of Edom (Christendom) have always been. It is the faith of Ishmael (Islam). And the Messiah will not fight against these two religions… since they acknowledge God and then they will get closer to God [in the days of Messiah]” (Ha’amek DavarNumbers 24:18).

The role of Ishmael, similar to the role of the Jewish people, is to bring God’s revelation to the world. They can be our best allies or our worst enemies in that mission. For this reason, one of the roots of the conflict is the mountain where, according to our tradition, God will reveal Himself to the world, Har HaMoria, the mountain of vision, “And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it. And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mount, to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths,’ for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3). 

A fascinating midrash, composed during the 8th century, shortly after the Dome of the Rock shrine was built on the Temple Mount, draws a direct link between the shrine and the Beit HaMikdash, “Rabbi Ishmael said: In the future, the children of Ishmael will do fifteen things in the land [of Israel]… they will rebuild the desolated cities and sweep the ways; and they will plant gardens and parks, and fence in the broken walls of the Temple; and they will build a building in the Holy Place” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30). At the end of the process, the epicenter of the conflict between Ishmael and Israel will be the site of the Temple, the place that is supposed to serve as a house of prayer for all peoples.

In essence, then, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not demographic or territorial but spiritual and religious. It is a competition about which nation will reveal the name of God in this world. That is why we believe that Ishmael also carries the name of God – Yishma-El. This may also explain the extreme cruelty that we see manifested in the way that some descendants of Ishmael handle the conflict. Netziv of Volozhin suggests, “There are many nations who conquer other countries to expand their empires. And they only wish to kill the king and leaders of the conquered people, not the masses. But this is not so when they wage war for religious reasons – then they fight and wish to destroy all those who don’t believe in God in the way that they do” (Ha’amek DavarNumbers 24:23). 

Today’s Jihadi terrorists target civilians, Jews and non-Jews alike, without distinction and without mercy. Nevertheless, according to the Sages, there is a spiritual explanation for the horrific terror that they inflict on the Jewish people. “And why is his name called Ishmael? For God (El) will hear (Yishma) the groaning of the [Jewish] people from what the children of Ishmael will do to them at the end of the days” (Yalkut Shimoni 45). 

The spiritual purpose of our conflict with the Arab world is to awaken us when we forget our destiny, to spur us to cry out to God, and to remind us why we have returned to the Land of Israel. The goal of the Jewish nation is not only to build a state in which we can live as free people in our land. It must also aspire to be a country that serves as the model for morality, spirituality, and divinity for all peoples.

A Roadmap for Peace

The Abraham Accords, together with further peace deals that will hopefully be signed with Arab nations in the coming years, are an integral part of the Messianic vision of world peace. However, we should not forget that only moderate Arab countries currently want to make peace with Israel. The major challenge that remains is making peace with the more radical Islamists.

Our tradition can assist us in setting out a roadmap to face that challenge. One of the difficulties facing Western leaders is the language barrier, and I don’t mean the different languages that we speak. In Israel and the West, we speak with a Western mindset of pragmatism and practicality, while radical Islamists speak in religious and spiritual language. It is no coincidence that the heart of our conflict is focused on the location of the Temple Mount, the place where both faiths believe that God will be revealed to the world. 

I believe that our struggle revolves around the concept of kol – our ability to discover and actualize the Divine in this world. I suspect that for as long as we try to resolve the conflict pragmatically, utilizing Western thought patterns, we will not be successful in finding common ground with the more extreme Islamic groups. Our conflict did not begin with the rise of modern Zionism 130 years ago; it began thousands of years ago, and its solution requires a different kind of discourse. If this assumption is correct, is there any chance for peace?

The Malbim shares a vision that corresponds with what we have discussed so far. “In those days, ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zech. 8:23) “Now I will inform you about a different matter that will occur in the end of days, when the nations will recognize the belief of the Jewish people and their Torah… The Ishmaelites will recognize the truth of Judaism; then they will go to Jerusalem to seek God. Only the Ishmaelites will inquire about the real faith of the Jewish people and recognize that God is with the Jewish people.” (Malbim) The Islamists might seem like our worst enemies, but according to the Malbim they could also become our best allies in our mission to bring the world to believe in God.

If the root of our struggle is spiritual, then maybe the core solution should be based on shared theological and spiritual interests. I believe that a long-term solution to the conflict could be achieved through profound and courageous interfaith dialogue and negotiation. It is not unreasonable to assume that, sooner or later, the State of Israel will be back at the negotiating table with the Palestinians. When that happens, I would love to see official negotiations between rabbis and imams, sitting around a table to discuss theological issues together. There have been some privately funded organizations that planned interfaith conferences, but this would be an opportunity to make such discussions an official part of the peace process

It is a longshot. In the beginning, there will be a lot of suspicion around the table. There will be a need to build trust slowly but surely. It would be helpful to start by discussing the many ideas that are significant to both religions, such as the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, the Covenant between the Pieces, circumcision, Jerusalem, Messiah, and obviously God, exchanging notes and trying to understand the viewpoint of the other. Down the road, and this will probably be a long process, once there is a greater trust between the parties, faith leaders could move on to discuss options for spiritual cooperation and even work together to actualize them. Eventually, that might pave the path to start a more complex dialogue about ways to achieve a profound and long-lasting peace, based on the spiritual understandings that we share. Let us not forget that, after the death of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael lived peacefully together, and Isaac even moved to live near the home of Hagar and Ishmael, “Now it came to pass after Abraham’s death that God blessed his son Isaac, and Isaac dwelt near Be’er la-hai ro’i” (Gen. 25:11).

This idea may seem counterintuitive and naive, since our common perception is that religion is the root of wars in the world. However, just as we prepare a vaccine from the same virus that causes the disease we want to neutralize, perhaps the idea of officially involving religious leaders in the peace process could help to break the deadlock. In light of the breakthrough in the pragmatic peace process, and regardless of our political views, the idea of faith leaders sitting together could be part of our Messianic vision, to worship God together and to bring all the nations to pray to God in Jerusalem, as it says: “I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

  1. This parallel, and the phrase AkedatYishmaelwas already observed and coined by Prof. Uriel Simon, among others.
  2. See Abarbanel, Ramban, Maharal, and the Netziv of Volozhin.
  3. Other positive approaches to the term pere adam can be found in the commentaries of  Rashi, Ibn Ezra, HaKtav vehaKabbala, and R. D.Z. Hoffmann.

(Published at Tradition Online | December 7, 2020)

Changing the Culture of Dispute

Recently, our society has experienced growing levels of divisiveness and hatred. Public discourse has become very disrespectful and often violent, filled with contempt and incitement. Many people have lost the patience to listen and tend to attack anyone who disagrees with their views. Social media fights can transform an ideological argument into a bitter and personal war over people’s political differences.

The enormous levels of stress, pressure, anxiety and insecurity that many have experienced since the outbreak of COVID-19 have brought our society to new heights of hatred and divisiveness. Emotions are being channeled into anger, riots and violent demonstrations.

The days of mourning at the beginning of the month of Av are intended not just to remember the past but also to learn from our mistakes and try to fix them. According to our Sages, the destruction of the Second Temple that caused our nation’s 2000-year exile was an outcome of irrational baseless hatred – Sinat Chinam.

The remedy for the whole of society must begin with our personal actions, so I wish to suggest a road map to conduct what our Sages define as ‘machloket le’shem shamayim’ (dispute for the sake of Heaven). If we can implement these principles in every conversation, argument and conflict in our lives, between families and friends, in the workplace and in the political arena, and especially on social media, it will bring our society to a much healthier place. These principles are discussed at length in my new book “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge.”

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) teaches us the following: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not endure.”

Usually, in any dispute, each side claims that their intentions are “for the sake of Heaven,” so how can one determine whose argument is for the sake of Heaven and who is destructive and dangerous?  What are the determining factors? Does it depend on the opinions of the disputants?  The topic of the dispute? Why is it expressed as a good thing that such a dispute will endure? Surely we do not want disputes to endure, but rather to be peacefully resolved!

I wish to suggest three central criteria that allow us to distinguish between constructive and destructive conflicts.

 (a)   The purpose of the dispute.

The purpose of the dispute must be to clarify the truth, even if this means admitting to one’s own error. If the disputants’ purpose is to win at all costs, the dispute becomes entangled with their personal interests, because each side wants to prove that they are superior and correct. If, however, the disputants’ purpose is to clarify the truth, then it doesn’t matter which of us is correct, because our goal is to reach the truth. The Chatam Sofer explains this idea:

“The intention of the disputants should not be . . . to convince the other of his opinion, for what do I care if he agrees with me or not? Rather, the debate should be in order to establish my opinion based on my understanding. By way of what my friend claims against me, I will see if what he claims is correct and I will retract my opinion, yet if I am not convinced, I will maintain my opinion…But those who want their fellow to agree to them and [hence] their intention is to convince them, stray from the path of truth toward rhetoric, and thus, the conclusion becomes warped.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 208) 

One who argues only in order to sway their opponent is so convinced that they know the truth that they are unable to hear any criticism and to discern where they may have gone wrong.

(b)   The manner of the dispute.

In an argument for the sake of Heaven, each party displays respect for their opponent. This does not need to diminish the argument’s intensity; indeed, each side needs to defend their own opinion and fight valiantly for it. However, this must be done respectfully, based on the belief and understanding that the intentions and motivations of one’s opponent are also pure. Accusing the other side of having a hidden agenda and of intentionally skewing evidence in their favor, strays beyond the bounds of a dispute for the sake of Heaven. Personal, ad hominem attacks and accusations are a clear violation of the standards of legitimate debate. Rabbi Kook, who himself was the target of many personal attacks for his courageous leadership, offers the proper framing:

“Every argument between a person and their fellow, or between one group and another, also builds worlds, and since it is all part of improvement and building there is no reason to speak bitterly, but only to announce the magnitude of what each side is doing, that together they are building an eternal structure and repairing the world. Then, in accordance with the broadening of this understanding [that every argument builds the world], love will increase in proportion with the increase of hatred, and the bond will increase in proportion with the magnitude of the separation.”(Orot Yisrael 4:6)

If our goal is to entirely separate ideological arguments from personal disputes, and if we can judge each person favorably while disagreeing with the greatest intensity, then we are on the right path. Anger, accusations, resentment, vitriol – all of these factors turn the heat of a debate into a “foreign fire,” even among the holiest and most ideological people.

(c)   The relationship between the disputants.

While civil, respectful discourse is important, it truly is not sufficient. The most profound indication of a true dispute for the sake of Heaven is when the two parties are not only respectful to one another, but can also maintain a friendly relationship despite the intensity of their argument. Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, who himself suffered from false accusations made against him, explains the Mishnah in that vein:

“This is how one can know: if the parties who are arguing, aside from the matter they are disputing, love each other completely, with heart and soul, this is a sign that their argument is for the sake of Heaven. But if they are enemies and harbor hatred toward one another because of their dispute, this is not for the sake of Heaven and Satan stands there amongst them.” (Ye’arot Devash 2:8)

Changing the Culture

The only way to truly engage in a dispute for the sake of Heaven is if every party strives to find the truth in their opponent’s position, based on the understanding that they do not have a monopoly on truth. The secret to true unity lies in the understanding that there is room for a variety of different opinions. While we can and must disagree passionately, it is forbidden to denigrate or demonize other people. One may attack their opposing position, but it is forbidden to attack them in a personal way. There is no need to fear dissenting opinions. Just the opposite: one should understand that debate allows each side to strengthen and sharpen their position and world view.

Dispute that is truly for the sake of Heaven is a respectful argument within a context of mutual respect, love and appreciation for the importance of every opinion. This can build bridges between individuals and groups, and hopefully, re-establish that which we long ago destroyed through Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.

If Not Now, When?

COVID-19, this tiny virus that has become the joint enemy of all of humanity, should bring some proportion to our lives. It should inspire us all to let go of divisive arguments, and to realize how much we are all dependent on each other. The global crisis is not ending anytime soon, and we are still very far away from getting back to our normal routines. That is why, as we approach Tisha B’Av, it is imperative to pay attention to these lessons. Together we can pave the path to forming a better society, with more compassion, empathy and mutual respect, despite the different opinions which we will obviously retain.

We have been practicing social distancing for months, since it has proven to be the most effective way to battle the pandemic. Yet, the pandemic of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) from which we have been suffering for thousands of years should be battled with the exact opposite weapon – social closeness, not physical closeness rather emotional closeness despite all disputes and disagreements as Rav Kook beautifully writes:

“If we were destroyed, and the world was destroyed with us, on account of gratuitous hatred, then we will be rebuilt, and the world with us, through gratuitous love.” (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 324)

political correctness

Gone with the Winds of Political Correctness

The world is being washed over by waves of political correctness amid protests over the brutal death of George Floyd. Classical movies such as “Gone with the Wind” are being pulled from a film library and using the word “women” instead of “people who menstruate” has become controversial and illegitimate.

Discrimination is always wrong, and oppression is a terrible crime. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists in our society, and racism did not disappear from the world. Sensitivity, empathy, and compassion toward victimized minorities are essential. However, excessive and perhaps obsessive political correctness is not the remedy for any discrimination.

In my new book, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age, I deal at length with the dangers of erasing the differences between people. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook addressed this challenge in one of his famous homilies on the blessing “Blessed is He Who discerns secrets”, which is recited when seeing a gathering of 600,000 Jews. The Gemara says:

One who sees a crowd of Jews says, ‘Blessed is He Who discerns secrets,’ for their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other.” (Berakhot 58b)

Rav Kook explains that people have different attributes and opinions, a diversity which is the result of both their inborn nature and the influence of their environment. These traits also affect a person’s outward appearance, color, and face. Every person contains the secret of their creation – their role and mission in the world. G-d, the “Knower of Secrets”, has a divine purpose for all of the various opinions and disputes that circulate the world. Because of the differences between people, everyone will ultimately unite toward one goal and create a single, harmonious picture together, through every individual contributing their own unique gifts and talents. The remarkable constitution of humankind requires the existence of differences, for without it no one would be able to discover their unique qualities, and thus no one would fulfill their unique mission.

Rav Kook wrote:

“And if people would know of their inner congruence, each person would not pull toward their [specific] group and individuality would disappear, and there would be no material to build the community.” (Olat Re’ayah, 1:389)

If people thought they were the same, they would not struggle to prove their uniqueness, and the world would not develop as it should. Disparities between groups create a dynamic that catalyzes the world’s progress, as the Talmudic Sages said: “Authors’ jealousy increases wisdom.” (Bava Batra 21a). When everyone is forced to think in the same way, and when it becomes illegitimate to use words which express divergence, individuality is erased, ambition is squashed, progress ceases, and society stagnates. As Rav Kook’s says:

“If one’s opinions were as close to the understandings of his fellow as he feels close to himself, his attachment to his own uniqueness would weaken, causing the perfection of his own uniqueness to be deficient, which would result in a deficiency of the entire community.” (Ibid.)

A homogenous society will shrivel up. Only a multiplicity of opinions leads to healthy competition and mutual enrichment. If striving for tolerance and peace between individuals is achieved by erasing differences, we will damage humanity’s composition and the world’s progress. World peace is a unity that does not stem from uniformity, but rather from a peaceful and constructive diversity.

An example of how to achieve that peace and harmony could be learned from the peacemaker of our tradition, Aharon HaKohen, who “loved peace and pursued peace, loved all people and brought them closer to Torah.” Parshat Beha’alotcha begins with the commandment to Aharon to light the Menorah. According to Rashi’s famous commentary, Aharon is being praised for precisely following the commandment of G-d: “And Aharon did so; This is stated to tell the praise of Aaron — that he did not deviate.” Why should Aharon be praised for not deviating?

According to Rav Kook, this symbolizes his unique trait of peace-making:

The various lights (of the Menorah) seem to be separate, and indeed they must be distinct so that the uniqueness of each of them would be noticeable…And sometimes distinctions result in disputes and arguments…Nevertheless, the more each of the lights struggles to highlight its unique traits, the more perfection it brings to the world” (Olat Re’ayah, 1: 435)

The lights of the Menorah symbolize the differences between people who shine in certain lights and colors. Aharon’s role was to elevate these lights, i.e., to nurture the differences between people and to embrace their uniqueness. And yet, Aharon managed to unite all these lights to point toward the central-western light. This is why Aharon is praised for managing to facilitate peace and harmony without “deviating”, i.e. without changing their personalities and without declining their differences.

It is quite easy to attain peace by demanding “one size for all” and by forcing people to erase all differences, but that harmony is not sustainable and might cause more damage and bring about more violence. Being politically correct is not necessarily correct, and we must not go from one extreme to the other, but rather find the Golden Mean by following in the ways of Aharon HaKohen.

Pretending that something never happened in the past will not help us learn to live with it, to recognize the mistakes in our past, and to prevent similar mistakes in the future. We must find ways to fix our society, but without erasing our differences.

coming home to Israel

It’s Time to Consider Coming Home to Israel

An abridged version of this article appeared here on JTA on June 1, 2020

On Purim this year, I was celebrating with friends in Boro Park. The streets were filled with people wearing costumes and Purim masks, celebrating and rejoicing. No one had the slightest clue that N-95 masks would soon take the place of Purim masks, and that instead of celebrating together, the community would start to face a horrific daily death toll.

For weeks, I have been following the news in Israel and in America and comparing the collective responses. I had planned to stay in New York until Pesach and then to return to New York in May to launch my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge”. But the day after Purim, I felt that a big catastrophe was imminent and decided to return home on the first available flight back to Israel.

It wasn’t a prophecy to recognize that Israel would be a much safer place, observing the differences between the decisive leadership of the Israeli government issuing clear and consistent messages and the confusing messages which came out of the White House, issuing conflicting statements, seeking who to blame instead of taking responsibility and often issuing puzzling statements, such as using bleach or disinfectants. While Israel was already closing its skies and requiring two-week quarantine for anyone entering the county, flights from Italy and France were still landing in America. Israelis quickly started practicing social distancing, while in New York people were freely using public transportation and everything was still open.

Returning to Israel, I found it quite shocking to encounter a cultural shift. Normally, compliance with rules is counter-intuitive to Israeli culture. Often, rules are seen as recommendations! By contrast, American culture is usually characterized by obedience and discipline. But I discovered that things had flipped. The vast majority of Israelis were strictly following the guidelines and restrictions, while American society was still way behind.

Israel’s ability to overcome COVID-19 in a relatively effective way was mainly due to civil obedience, perhaps because Israelis are used to coping with emergency situations. But I believe there is also something deeper going on here. ‘Kol Israel arevin zeh la’zeh’ means that ‘All Jews are responsible for one another’. The level of solidarity and mutual responsibility shown in Israel has reached new heights. Young people, who did not consider themselves at risk, fully obeyed the rules and wore masks in order to protect the elderly. Many of them volunteered to deliver food to those who were stuck at home. Although the Haredi community woke up to the virus late and suffered the highest concentration of infections, most have been cooperating with the authorities and we have seen unprecedented cooperation of non-religious soldiers working together with the Haredi community in Bnei Brak in love and harmony. This is in sharp contrast to the experience of some Haredi communities in America, who have felt abandoned or betrayed by the authorities. There was indeed a strong sense and display of solidarity within the American Jewish community, however, that was not the overall experience of the general American society. A demonstration against wearing masks or social distancing would have been inconceivable in Israel where, in times of crisis, popular solidarity usually wins over individualism.

However, this unique solidarity and sense of collective responsibility should have gone beyond Israel’s borders. Tragically, current estimations show that the Jewish community in America has suffered more than 1,000 casualties, and other Jewish communities around the world have also been badly affected. It is clear that Israel has not done enough for world Jewry. Most Israelis are not aware of the scale of the catastrophe that European and American Jews have been facing. I personally think that, especially during this time of crisis, the borders of Israel should have been opened to any Jew wishing to find a temporary shelter here, as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles”.

There is also a fundamental lesson that Israeli society can learn from the Jewish American community. America’s rabbinic leadership has also risen to the challenge. Several weeks before Israeli shuls were closed, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County realized that it was not enough to comply with government instructions; they were proactive in closing down shuls and preventing social gatherings in order to reduce the risk of infection. Most communities in the U.S. immediately followed their example. As a relatively new member of the Rabbinical Council of America, I have been very inspired by the courageous and sensitive Halakhic leadership of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, providing almost daily responses to new unprecedented communal challenges. The endless support that North American rabbis have provided to their communities, working day and night under difficult conditions, has been truly inspiring. In Israel, that communal layer, the bridge between the authorities and the individuals, was missing. While there was a broad sense of solidarity, most individuals do not have communities, communal leaders, or rabbis to relate to. The absence of direct communal support and pastoral care during these challenging times has been strongly felt by many.

There is an enormous level of uncertainty about what will happen on the day after Corona, and specifically about the future of American Jewry. Traditionally, America has been the safest place for Jews, economically, politically and socially, a safe ground that became very shaky nowadays. It is impossible to estimate the ripple effects of the pandemic, but it is reasonable to assume that the financial crisis and the unprecedented levels of unemployment will hugely affect the Jewish community. Many businesses within the Jewish community have already been badly hit. Schools, shuls and federations – supported mostly by tuition, membership dues and donations – are already starting to face these challenges. The cost of living, education, health insurance and other expenses may become too heavy burden for many Jewish families to bear. Growing antisemitism may also severely affect the sense of safety of American Jewry.

Perhaps now is the time to return home, recognizing that our safest home is Israel. Experts estimate that the Israeli economy, which as the start-up nation has more flexibility and resilience, will recover faster. Jewish education is almost free here, and health insurance is very inexpensive. While serving for 8 years as a rabbi of an American community in Ra’anana, I realized how much dynamism Olim bring to Israeli society, including the important culture of community, which we are lacking in Israel. If we can now build dozens of American communities across Israel, with experienced communal leaders and rabbis, we will undoubtedly bring a significant change to Israeli society. American Olim, who are usually very professional and talented in fields such as science, education, economy, industry, trade and more, have the potential to make a substantial contribution to the success of Israel.

At the very same time, the Israel government must see the developments and prepare the ground to absorb the potential waves of Aliyah. It is not enough to call people to immigrate to Israel; we need to help them to integrate into the workforce. While serving as a Rabbi in Ra’anana, I’ve seen the most talented professionals, doctors, lawyers, therapists and more that were unable to work in Israel due to dreadful bureaucracy which made it an impossible mission having their qualifications recognized in Israel. This attitude must change promptly and drastically. Utilizing the vast experience of Nefesh B’Nefesh, I have no doubt that there will be ways to improve the Aliyah experience, if the new government would be open to seeing that as a major priority.

I have lived for a couple of years in New York, and I hope to spend more in America for my rabbinical work. I understand how challenging it can be to relocate to Israel, after supporting hundreds of families of Olim as their community rabbi. Indeed, I know that Aliyah is not practical for everyone and that many people have jobs and businesses which are not easily replaceable. I’m talking here about conveying a vision about the future mainly to our children and grandchildren, considering inexpensive higher education in Israel, instead of incurring debt in a struggling economy. By giving Jews around the world a clear message that Israel is their home and their future, and encouraging them to move while they are still young and more adaptable, we can plant the seeds for a positive change. 

I wish to conclude with a true story. In Poland in the early 1930s, lived a man called Yitzchak who constantly talked about Israel and the need to leave Europe and come to Palestine before it was too late. He used to tell everyone that there was no future for Judaism in Europe. People thought he was crazy. Back then, Israel was still full of swamps and camels, while the communities in Poland were at their peak.

Yitzchak lived in Błonie, not far from Warsaw, and belonged to one of the town’s wealthy families. Rabbi Meir Shapiro came to town to promote his great vision – the central yeshiva for European Jewry – Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin. Yitzchak was furious and told everyone: “How can you invest money in a yeshiva that will be set up in Poland? You must send your donations to Eretz Yisrael!” Of course, no one listened to him and he became unpopular. Finally, he decided to take action to realize his vision. His wife Yocheved refused to leave Błonie and their business, so he took his eldest son and immigrated to Israel without her knowledge. When he arrived, he sent her a telegram saying: “If you want to join me in Eretz Yisrael with our other three children, please come. If not, I will send you a divorce bill (gett) and you can stay in Poland.” Yocheved joined him in Israel with the children, and they were one of the only families from that town who survived the Shoah.

Yitzhak Betzeig was my great-grandfather, and the daughter who came over with her mother was my grandmother, who passed away just seven years ago. Thanks to his tremendous vision and courage, I was born and raised in Israel, proudly serving as an officer in the Israeli Navy for six years and building a family and a future here.

We cannot in any way compare the tragedy of the Holocaust with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to open our eyes and ears to new challenges and opportunities in the days following Corona. As Ishay Ribo says in his beautiful song, “LaShuv HaBayta”:

“The time has come to wake up; to leave everything, to overcome;
To return home, not to search for any other place.

The time has come to change; even if we’ve missed a few stops;
You can get off, there’s a train going back to the neighborhood.

Everything is possible but where there’s a will, the searcher always finds;
Even if he finds himself somewhere at the far end.”

It is time for Israel to make a drastic change of attitude to the world Jewry and make a paradigm shift regarding Olim, considering the potential waves of Aliyah. Indeed, it is time for all of us to consider coming back home to Israel, the safest place for Jews in our day.

Emerging United from the Global Crisis

Over the past couple of years, both Israeli and American society have experienced growing levels of divisiveness and hatred. Public discourse has become disrespectful and violent, filled with contempt and incitement. People have lost the patience to listen, and instead tend to attack anyone who disagrees with their views. Through social media fights and wars, what began as ideological arguments often ended in bitterness, sometimes even resulting in cutting ties with friends because of political differences.

COVID-19, this tiny virus that has become the joint enemy of all humanity, has brought a sense of proportion back to our lives and forced us to let go of these divisive elements, by demonstrating how much we are all dependent on one another. Despite, or perhaps because of, the intense experience of quarantine and isolation, people have experienced a tremendous degree of unity, camaraderie, and tolerance. Today we see less pushing and honking, yelling or cursing. In Israel, demonstrations of solidarity have crossed the boundaries between all sectors and denominations. Israel’s new united government, finally formed after three very ugly election campaigns, brings hopes for healing the deep wounds of divisiveness and polarization in our society.

As we begin to emerge from the global crisis, out of lockdown and returning slowly to some sort of routine and normalcy, it is imperative to pay attention to the lessons we have learned. If we can internalize them, we can pave the path to form a better society, with more compassion, empathy and mutual respect, despite the different opinions which will obviously remain.

Managing Disputes

In that vein, I wish to suggest a road map toward conducting what our Sages define as ‘machloket le’shem shamayim’  – dispute for the sake of Heaven. These principles could and should be implemented in any conversation, argument or conflict, within families and friends, workplaces and in the political arena, and – most importantly – on social media. These principles are discussed at length in my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge – A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age.”

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) teaches us the following: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not endure. What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And one that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation.”

Usually, in any dispute, each side claims that their intentions are “for the sake of Heaven,” so how can one determine who has the right motivation and who is destructive and dangerous?  This mishnah offers an example of a positive dispute between Hillel and Shammai but does not explain the parameters that define it as such. What are the determining factors? Is it the topic of the dispute? And why did they say it was a ‘blessing’ that such a dispute will endure? Don’t we prefer that disputes are resolved?

I wish to point out three central criteria that will allow us to distinguish between constructive and destructive disputes.

 (a)   The purpose of the dispute

The purpose of the dispute must be to clarify the truth, even if this means admitting to one’s own error. If the disputants’ purpose is to win at all costs, the dispute becomes entangled with personal interests whereby each side wants to prove that they are superior and correct. If, however, the disputants’ purpose is to clarify the truth, then it doesn’t matter which side is correct, as the Chatam Sofer explains:

“The intention of the disputants should not be . . . to convince the other of his opinion, for what do I care if he agrees with me or not? Rather, the debate should be in order to establish my opinion on the basis of my understanding. By way of what my friend claims against me, I will see if what he claims is correct and I will retract my opinion, yet if I am not convinced, I will maintain my opinion. But I have no concern whether he agrees with me because my intention is not to sway his opinion to agree with me, and so too should my colleague’s intention be to establish his opinion for himself; after the debate the decision will be made by majority rule. But those who want their fellow to agree with them, and [hence] their intention is to convince them, stray from the path of truth toward rhetoric, and thus their conclusion becomes warped.” (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 208) 

According to the Chatam Sofer, each side should be seeking to be convinced, and if they fail to be convinced by the other’s argument, their own opinion will be reinforced. One who debates in order to convince others loses the legitimacy of disputing “for the sake of Heaven”, even if the topic of the debate is exceedingly important. One who argues only in order to sway his partner is so convinced that the truth is entirely in his possession that he is unable to hear any criticism and to discern where he may have gone wrong.

(b)   The manner of the dispute

In an argument for the sake of Heaven each party displays respect for his opponent. This does not need to reduce the argument’s intensity. Indeed, each side needs to defend its own opinion and fight valiantly for it, but this must be done in a respectful way, based on the belief and understanding that the intentions and motivations of one’s opponent are also pure. Accusing the other side of having a hidden agenda, and  intentionally skewing evidence in their favor, breaches the rules of a dispute for the sake of Heaven. Personal ad hominem attacks and accusations are a clear violation of the standards of legitimate debate. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who himself was the target of many personal attacks against his courageous leadership, suggests the proper framing:

“Every argument between a person and their fellow, or between one group and another, also builds worlds. Since it is all part of improvement and building, there is no reason to speak bitterly, but only to announce the magnitude of what each side is doing, that together they are building an eternal structure and repairing the world. Then, in accordance with the broadening of this understanding [that every argument builds the world], love will increase commensurate to the increase of disagreement, and the bond will increase commensurate to the magnitude of the separation.”(Orot Yisrael 4:6)

If our goal is to entirely separate an ideological argument from a personal one, and if we can judge each person favorably, while still disagreeing with the greatest intensity with their opinion and acknowledging our ideological differences, then we are on the right path. Anger, accusations, resentment, vitriol – all of these turn the heat of a debate into a destructive force, even for the holiest and most ideological people. In a dispute for the sake of Heaven, the disputants should remain friends. When friendship is missing then positive, constructive dispute cannot take place.

(c)    The relationship between the disputants

While civil, respectful discourse is important, it truly is not sufficient. The most profound indication of a true dispute for the sake of Heaven is when the two parties are able not only to be respectful, but also to maintain a friendly relationship despite the intensity of their argument. What determines the nature of a dispute is not the topic or the opinions of the disputants, but their personal relationship. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, although they disagreed about nearly everything, respected one another and love prevailed between them. Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, who himself suffered a great deal from  false accusations, explains the mishnah in that vein:

“This is how one can know: if the parties arguing, aside from the matter they are disputing, love each other completely, with heart and soul, this is a sign that their argument is for the sake of Heaven. But if they are enemies and harbor hatred toward one another because of their dispute, this is not for the sake of Heaven and Satan stands there amongst them. This is the sign that the Sages of the Mishnah gave us, ‘What is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven?’ – because in every argument it is claimed that it is for the sake of Heaven. [The Sages] answered, ‘like the dispute of Shammai and Hillel’ who loved and respected each other, this is the sign that the argument is for the sake of Heaven. But if it is an argument like that of Korach and his followers who festered resentment and hatred, and almost stoned Moshe, this is not for the sake of Heaven.” (Ye’arot Devash 2:8)

While we can and must disagree passionately, it is forbidden to denigrate or demonize. One may attack the opposing position, but it is forbidden to attack the other side in a personal way, or to claim they are motivated by external factors or by populism, because this approach turns debate from a constructive to a destructive force.

The only way to truly engage in a dispute for the sake of Heaven is if every party strives to find the truth in their opponent’s position, based on the understanding that truth does not reside exclusively in their own camp. The reason that unity often seems to be an impossible aspiration is because people mistakenly believe that unity will only be achieved when everyone agrees; therefore, they must convince the other side to change their position. In fact, just the opposite is true. The secret to real unity lies in the understanding that there is room for a variety of different opinions. There is no need to fear dissenting opinions. Instead, one should understand that it is debate that allows each side to strengthen and sharpen their positions and worldviews.

Dispute that is truly for the sake of Heaven is responsible debate that occurs in a context of mutual respect, love and appreciation for the importance of every opinion. This can build bridges and re-establish that which we long ago destroyed through irrational hatred.

The Jewish community will soon start to recover from a period of horrendous devastation and destruction. Rabbi Kook’s words can guide us as to how to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and rebuild community unity and solidarity:

“If we were destroyed and the world was destroyed with us on account of irrational hatred, then we will be rebuilt and the world with us with irrational love.” (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 324)