When the Flames of War Subside, Can Israelis Remain United?

During Operation Protective Edge, Jews from the political left and right, and from secular to ultra-Orthodox united in acts of loving kindness. Must it take war with our enemies to find peace within our people?

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Thousands attend Max Steinberg's funeral.
Thousands attend Max Steinberg's funeral.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As Israelis, just surviving the pressure cooker of the Gaza war over the Three Weeks leading to Tisha B’Av and in time that has passed since has been tough. Despite, or perhaps because of, the unrelenting, mostly unjustified criticism Israel has been subjected to from the foreign media and the world, we have pulled together as a nation in an inspiring display of unity.

When predominantly secular Tel Aviv and almost exclusively religious Bnei Brak were both subjected to rocket attacks, the personalization of the war experience and galvanization of our communal will was complete; politically, from the left to the right of the spectrum, and religiously, from secular to ultra-Orthodox.

In religious communities, you could not walk into a synagogue or study hall during this war without hearing chapters of Psalms being recited and supplications made for the safety of our soldiers. Accepting now what the national religious camp has held for previous wars - that this conflict had the status of a Milkhemet Mitzvah, obligatory for the protection of the Land of Israel - hundreds of ultra-Orthodox young men appeared, ready to enlist at recruiting offices across the country, joining their secular and National Religious brothers who had already been called up to reserve duty, and those men already serving in their regular duty.

Acts of pure, loving kindness also proliferated across all segments of Israeli society. Religious and secular Israelis collected and delivered care packages of underwear, socks and sweets for our soldiers. We fed the hungry and housed the homeless. When 30,000 people attended the funeral of a lone soldier in the sweltering heat on Har Herzl in Jerusalem, Am Yisrael stood together in mourning, unified in our grief and belief in the justness of our cause.

When the flames of war subside, how will we be able to build on the overwhelming unity across Israeli society that the events of the last two months inspired, and not slip back into old patterns of divisiveness and baseless hatred?

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, raised this issue in a conversation we had last week about the uniqueness of our present unity and our potential to maintain it. “This war brought out the vulnerable side of Israeli society. We pulled together through a need to support and be there for each other,” he said. “The question is whether we Israelis can hold on to this loving, sustaining aspect of vulnerability or whether we will descend into destructive, established patterns of self-protection and preservation of narrow self-interest.”

Perhaps the path to maintaining unity lies in sacrificing our competing values for the sake of the greater good.

In Midrash Rabbah (Bereshit 8:5), Rabbi Simon said:

“When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Man, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, 'Let him not be created,’ whilst others urged, ‘Let him be created.' Thus it is written, 'Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other" (Psalm 85:11). Love said, 'Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love;’ Truth said, Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood;‘ Righteousness said, 'Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds;‘ Peace said, Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.’ What did God do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.

On this midrash, teacher and Torah commentator, Rabbi Ari Kahn writes, "The act of creation required an admission that man could not exist, nor should he be expected to exist, according to the level of absolute, Divine Truth, which exists in Heaven. When God flung Truth to the earth, He effectively relinquished control upon truth; moreover, here on earth, there is a different level of truth, which is at least partially based upon human understanding."

In other words, human truth, with a small t, is shaped by the subjective. Our truth is a partial perspective. At best, we make our particular contribution to Divine Truth. At worst, our version, to the exclusion of others, leads to baseless hatred. And baseless hatred is identified as the root cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and why, because of its persistence, we haven’t merited its rebuilding.

If you encounter a person involved in a heated argument, he/she will often defend his/her position based on its Truth, to the exclusion of the other side. That person would hardly accept it as baseless hatred. Truthfully, at essence, it’s mostly just petty when compared to what is lost in the process: peace.

It is well known that Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Co-founder and Co-Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion, used to say, “There is a new halakha (Jewish law). If we want to survive in Eretz Yisrael, we have to figure out how to get along with each other.”

At a recent talk on Tish B’Av, Rabbi Kahn provided this insight:

"Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik taught in the name of his father that perhaps peace and truth, each independently, thought man should not be created, but the real objection was the knowledge that these two elements just could not be reconciled in man. Man can be a man of peace, or a man of truth but not both. That is a secret the Messiah will need to teach us."

In the meantime, let us not lose the precious opportunity that our current unity gives us. As need be, let us suspend our particular truths; preserving, building upon, and continuing to choose, even when we are not at war with those who desire our destruction, peace among ourselves.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

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