I know I am supposed to love all of God’s creatures and more specifically, every Jew. Ahavat Yisrael, it is called. Every day of my life I am troubled by this paradox that I do not! Yet I manage to live with it. Some people seem to have it in abundance. Why can’t I? Was it my education, being brought up outside the community by an independent minded father? I was taught to read the rational, empirical philosophers who questioned and challenged the norms of society and demanded ethical standards of behavior of all.
I was encouraged to read and learn to recite the works of the great Israelite prophets with their constant calls to pursue justice, to decry corruption, to criticize failure, to plea for the weak and the disadvantaged, and to demand change. When I am asked why the heck I criticize other people for their failings, I always think of the Biblical prophets. They were rarely loved and usually hounded out of society. I am not privileged to share their but I do share their sense of alienation and dislocation.
I live according to Jewish Law. I love the intensity and contradictions of Torah. I pray and meditate with the Almighty daily. Yet I find myself alienated from so many of my Orthodox coreligionists. It has got so bad that I even to try to avoid gatherings because I know I am not going to enjoy the opinions I will hear expressed, whether political or theological. And if I feel disconnected amongst the religious it is even worse with those who have no sympathy for a religious way of life which is so central to mine. What is more, I am uncomfortable ideologically with secular Zionism; its attempt to replace Judaism has never got off the ground, and dehumanizing one's enemies, let alone those one disagrees with politically, is not a human feature I respect. And the excessive materialism that has now has infiltrated every sector of Jewish life is so unattractive I shrink from it too. It is so hard to find people I agree with.
This past weekend, Avrum Burg (son of post-Independence minister and former Head of the Jewish Agency), whom I knew many years ago, liked, and thought was a sort of soul mate, once again went into print to decry the state of Israel’s current moral and political malaise. Although there was nothing he said that I didn’t agree with, I felt sad that he felt the need to publish it in the New York Times, which gnaws away at Israel’s failings like a rat on a bone while juicer fare nearer by seems less attractive. And I always recoil when I see any one sided position that seems to ignore the shared responsibility that the other side has for the present impasse.
Suddenly I realize what my Ahavat Yisrael consists of. It is the love that defies logic. If I can criticize my co-religionists, why I don’t go further in condemning Israeli mistreatment of its own and others. Am I a coward? The answer is that I love Judaism and I love Israel with such a passion; I admit my bias. I am bound by an inexplicable mystical umbilical cord. But here’s my point. The prophets said what they said to the Israelites, to their own community, and they hammered away at them. That’s what Moses taught them to do, and so did their holy books. But they did not go bleating to the New York Times or The Guardian or Le Soir or anyone else who simply has no emotional involvement in the fate of the Jews. That’s where Burg and I part company.
I can read blogs that are highly critical of Israel, such as the Magnes Zionist; unlike Burg, he does address the internal audience, not the external one. And I can recognize I am too deeply ambivalent to express the full measure of my reservations. In part it is because I see the huge array of those who at best do not care and at worst seek our elimination. Just as I love my family, right or wrong, so being Jewish means having a family that, regardless of sibling rivalries, even hatreds, is still family; like any mother who sees her child attacked or found guilty but still loves and cares, so do I. Just as I suffer company I do not find congenial in silence, so too I suffer political failings of our people in partial silence.
We need families, but we also need nations. We are all still citizens of one universe and we must protect that too. No one I know has said it better in Judaism than the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, in his poem Harmony in Four Parts, Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444:
There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul.
There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.
There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.
And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.
And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.
The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.