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On Navigating the Rivers of Ambivalence
I am writing this Drasha as I embark on the longest flight I have ever taken. I have of course traveled to Eretz Yisroel many times. And I have traveled to many countries in Europe to visit the Kevarim of the Gedoilim, dedicate Mikvaois in scenic beach resorts, and collect money from suckers…. errr… donors in exchange for my Peninim, my pearls of wisdom. I even once presented one of my very attractive female donors with a pearl necklace, but that is a Maiseh Shehoya for another day…
Rabboisai, we live in a very complex world. The only people who are completely certain “in their Kishkas” of their basic beliefs, be they religious or political, are those who subscribe to doctrinal foundational philosophies:
-- For some that means a core intellectual belief in a Reboinoisheloilum who is involved in our world, who counts every Bracha, every act – good or bad – and who is responsible for everything that occurs in the world of humanity, which is a component of the broader cosmic reality. In addition to national well-being and personal health and happiness, He is also responsible for whether your wife will wear that French Maid costume from Victoria’s Secret and perform Metzitza BiPeh with the strength of the Hoover Turbo Vacuum 9000.
-- For some that means a complete rejection of the notion of a deity in any form. The thinking goes, “Of course Hakadoshboruchhu did not write the Toirah, which bears many conflicting ideas and multiple authorial fingerprints. Plus how can you believe in an Aimishteh in the knowledge that your grandmother and aunt were stripped naked, forced to lie in a mass pit on layers of the already slaughtered, and then shot by the Nazis? If there is a Reboinoisheloilum, where the Gehennim was He?”
There is similar absolute surety on Israel related political beliefs:
-- For some, there is a Hakadoshboruchhu-given right to Eretz Yisroel. The Aimishteh promised the Land to Avraham Avinu, fulfilled that promise in the time of Yehoishua and the Shoiftim, through Malchus Bais Duvid, and again in the period of Bayis Shaynee. The establishment of the State of Israel, Medinas Yisroel, in the period immediately following the Shoah, is part of a cosmic plan, and represents the dawning of the Messianic era. And to make any compromise, territorial or otherwise, is an act against the Divine plan.
-- For some, the establishment of the State is rooted in the Jewish experience of the Diaspora, and is a twentieth century manifestation of nationalism informed by Jewish culture and history, but will only reach its culmination with an Israel at peace with its neighbors, abiding by the letter of universal morality and ethics, which includes making agreements with individuals or entities with whom there is a century of distrust and violence, even if the person signing the agreement from the other side is wearing a suicide belt.
Similarly, there are rigid beliefs on American politics:
-- For some, President Oibama is an evil Communist and closet Muslim who hates Jews and Israel, and is secretly negotiating away Israel’s and America’s future. In addition, he hates Christians – as judged by his recent reference to comparing ISIS to the Crusaders. But on the bright side, he is hung like Moishe Rabbeinu’s Makkel.
-- For some, President Oibama is well meaning, He seems to be putting his foot in his mouth quite a bit lately, especially on issues related to global affairs and ethnic and religious tensions. But that does not reflect the broader Centrist-Progressive philosophy that he represents, that views the modern world as rooted in a commonality that requires tolerance and mutual understanding. It also requires the wealthy to share with the less affluent. People should either be willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for providing more social services, including access to health care. Or they should voluntarily participate in Adopt-A-Kollel, so that the working class should support a bunch of able bodied men sitting on their asses and learning Toirah all day, while their wives wear three thousand dollar Sheytels, cook, clean, raise the children and work three jobs. Except after they give birth, when they spend two weeks in bed and force their husbands to be Mevatel Toirah. Those lazy bitches.
Rabboisai, I must tell you, I am guilty of violating the Toirah. Because the Toirah tells us not be jealous, and I am FUCKING JEALOUS of everyone who is so 100% certain of their beliefs, to the point where they dismiss the beliefs of others, do not give a fair hearing to arguments from multiple sides, and overall act as if they were on top of Har Sinai with Moishe Rabbeinu and the Aimishteh. In their minds, they are the illustrious grand faithful human witnesses to the giving of the Toirah, Torah SheBichsav and Toirah SheBaal Peh, and should be held in reverence because of their moral certitude.
I too view such people as if they were on Har Sinai with Moishe and the Reboinoisheloilum. But instead of seeing them as “illustrious grand faithful witnesses”, I see them as mountain rats who hid behind a rock and overheard part of the conversation between Moishe and Hakadoshboruchhu while gnawing on Moishe Rabbeinu’s leftover Entenmann’s doughnuts. And when Moishe and the Aimishteh were looking away, the mountain rats made Mei Raglayim or Farkaktah Maisas all over the Luchois HaBris, which resulted in the Luchois slipping out of Moishe’s hands upon his return to Klal Yisroel and his discovery of them worshipping a golden calf and having an orgy at the base of the mountain.
Rabboisai, I recently finished reading a book about Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKoihain Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of all of Mandatory Palestine (he died 13 years before the establishment of the State of Israel). Rav Kook had a classical Lithuanian education, but was also extremely knowledgeable in Kabbalah and Chassidus, and was also self-educated in secular philosophy and poetry and literature, including the nationalist and antinomian (anti-religious practice) literature of his day. He spoke many languages and traveled all over the world, including America, where he was involved in Zionist advocacy and fundraising, as well as in working as an extra in silent Charlie Chaplin movies. (Rav Kook would take banana custard pies in the face, but always made sure to make a SheHakol.)
One of the keys themes of Rav Kook’s life was his enormous ambivalence (in its literal meaning of the world -- being pulled in multiple directions) in the face of the rapidly changing world in which he lived. The Jews were abandoning tradition in droves, rejecting the hegemony of the rabbinical establishment, and embracing secular teachings of all sorts; traditional borders and political leadership structures were being upended by the rise of nationalism across Europe; the working masses were beginning to rise, rejecting the near feudal hierarchy that defined the relationship between owners and workers even into the industrial revolution; and mankind discovered its capacity for mass murder, committing atrocities of all sorts in a world war that reshaped the global political map forever, and included mass instances of genocide, including one million Armenians murdered by the Turks.
In pre-state Israel, there was a gradual shift from the “Old Yishuv”, the Ultra Orthodox focused on maintaining independence and hegemony and rejecting the influx of largely secular Jewish immigrants from around the world, and the “New Yishuv”, which ultimately evolved into the polarized political movements in Israel that we have today (the Workers/ Left vs. the Revisionists/ Right), as well as the National Religious Movement, which largely moved from Center to Right after 1967, more than 30 years after Rav Kook’s death. There were also Arab movements inclined towards working with the Zionist leadership (for example, Abdullah I, King of Transjordan) and Arab movements who viewed any Zionist or Jewish presence as an affront to the post-Ottoman concept of a Pan-Arab Nation (such as the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin Al Husseini).
And let’s, of course, not forget cosmic struggles of that era between the Yankees and the Red Sox, between Laurel and Hardy, and between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
How did Rav Kook deal with such conflicting ideas? He struggled with them, seeking compromise positions, both at the practical level and at the cosmic/ theological level. He engaged regularly with the secular immigrants, many of whose leaders had been Lithuanian Yeshiva students or Chassidic followers who rejected traditional faith practice, but manifested their ties to their Jewish identities through Jewish culture, literature, commitment to the Land, and institutional nation building. And at the same time he developed Kabbalistic ideas that embraced the role of the secular as key contributors to the emergence of a new Jewish ideal. And he also viewed the Jewish People as part of a larger humanity, not divorced from the broader whole. And, like President Oibama, he was also hung like Moishe Rabbeinu’s Makkel.
When Rav Kook would walk the streets of Jerusalem, he was often jeered by the Ultra-Orthodox and attacked in the Pashkevalim, the poster placards that line the walls of the Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem to this day. But he was also supported by many in the Orthodox, even Ultra Orthdox, circles. Amongst his inner circle was Rabbi Issur Zalman Meltzer, the father in law of Rav Aharon Kutler – the man who would found the Bais Medrish Gevoha in Lakewood, and also invent marijuana gummy bears.
So Rav Kook was internally conflicted and both lauded and condemned in his society. However, his middle-of-the-road approach defined him, and his willingness to seek compromise made him stand out as a key foundational figure still studied and lauded to this day.
And what is the key lesson of Rav Kook’s life? That the world is not simple. Reality is not simple. The nature of the Divine is not simple. Politics is not simple. Humanity is not simple. And if there are Absolute Truths, they are far from obvious, can likely never be attained, but must always be pursued, even by Menuvals like you.
Rabboisai, as I read the news headlines of the day, nothing makes sense: The American negotiations with Iran; the Republican invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress issued in a way that circumvented political norms and scheduled for two weeks prior to the Israeli election; the latest struggles in the Middle East with ISIS – which hates Israel – battling the Syrians, Iran and the Hezbollah, who hate Israel; the struggle of Jordan – a key ally of Israel – against ISIS; the Egyptian army – also an ally of Israel -- firing on Gaza; Jews being attacked in France, the country that houses the third largest Jewish population in the world; the Argentinian President possibly involved in a political assassination designed to cover up Iranian fingerprints on the bombing of the Argentinian Jewish Center twenty years ago, and so on. I no longer know what to believe or what to think.
When I look at the growing Palestinian population, restive in its national, somewhat self-inflicted purgatory, but, yet a population that is not going anywhere and is fated to live alongside Israel, the Democratic Jewish State, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.
When I look at President Oibama tiptoeing around the global rise of radical Islam, likely well-intentioned but lacking the gravitas required of the leader of the free world, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.
When I look at the corruption of the Israeli body politic, and the failure of so much of Jewish communal leadership around the world – political and religious -- to manage its own house, including numerous scandals and coverups, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.
So I am jealous. I am jealous of all of those who believe that they have the answers, grounded in their own self-assurance. My own conscience and consciousness tells me that the world is far too complex for any human being to understand.
And so I arrive at the same conclusion: The world is not simple. Reality is not simple. The nature of the Divine is not simple. Politics is not simple. Humanity is not simple. And if there are Absolute Truths, they are far from obvious, can likely never be attained, but must always be pursued, even by Menuvals like you.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Menuval
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess