Sacrificing for a dignified life on Earth: Israel, justice and human redemption

We may learn from the legend of the Lamed-Vov, not only that empathy is essential, but also that too much empathy can be beyond human endurance.

The Torah (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Torah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seeing requires distance. For Jihadist fighters - ISIS, Hamas, it makes little actual difference - terrorism represents a thoroughly sacred form of sacrifice. By their unhidden calculations, the ultimate purpose of such predatory Islamist murder is plain. It is to slake the compelling blood-lust of certain presumptively divine expectations, and to nurture each "martyr's" voracious hunger for immortality with the profaned blood of "unbelievers."
We must look at such perplexing issues at their “molecular” level. At its core, Jihadi terror represents maximally faithful "submission" to doctrinally mandated cruelty. "Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead," instructs the Koran, "for they are living by their Lord." Relentlessly, Jihadi terror serves to clear a determinedly barbarous but holy path to both personal survival and collective redemption.
In all world politics, there is no greater power, than power over death. It is precisely such unmatchable power that is promised to the Jihadist faithful, especially for their willfully diligent applications of wanton terror. While the Jihadi terrorist claims to "love death," exactly the opposite is actually true.
It is rather his, or her, exceptional terror of death that leads directly to sacrificial suicide terror.
By such conspicuously murderous "suicides," Jihadis hope to attain an eternal life in Paradise. The dualistic nature of terror/suicide - the sacrifice of the "unbeliever," and the reciprocal sacrifice of the "martyr" - is plainly codified in the Charter of Hamas: "The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise...."I swear by that (sic) who holds in His hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill."
For Hamas, which US President Barack Obama insistently differentiates from ISIS (because he still welcomes a Hamas/Fatah Palestinian state), it is by killing Jews, and subsequently being killed by Jews, that true freedom from personal death can be achieved. This same crudely medieval mantra holds substantial sway with more "moderate" Fatah.
For our Jihadist enemies - ISIS, Hamas, Fatah, it makes little difference - the ritualistically violent sacrifice of certain subordinated "others," and religious blessedness, are one and the same.
Interestingly, this starkly polarizing Islamist view of the world, one fully redolent of disharmony, disintegration, and homicide, represents the conceptual opposite of classic Jewish tradition. According to certain ancient Jewish narratives, soul-searching perspectives that many Talmudists trace back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon thirty-six just men - the Lamed-Vov. For these "chosen" individuals, Jews who must forever remain unknown, even to themselves, the immutably grotesque spectacle of the visible world is utterly unbearable. Indeed, inconsolable in the face of vast oceans of suffering, and simultaneously immobilized by a seemingly limitless range of human woe, the Lamed-Vov can never expect even a solitary moment of joy or tranquility.
So, at least, goes this singularly prophetic Hasidic tale.
There is more. God is merciful, it continues. From time to time, in an expansively sympathetic gesture designed to open their souls to Paradise, He sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment.
Always, exactly one minute.
There are several discernible meanings to this relevant Jewish tradition of mercy, all of which stand in conspicuously stark contrast to Islamist/Jihadist concepts of sacrifice. One of these Jewish meanings may even offer some authentically redemptive hope in relieving the world's increasing nearness to irremediable global catastrophe. Soon, we may require a whole world of just men (and women). Soon, we could have to create the special conditions under which each and every one of us is able to feel the excruciating anguish and dreadful portents experienced by the Lamed-Vov.
Then, and perhaps only then, would we be able to take the necessary steps back toward survival, from enduring lascivious terrorist defilements of human life and dignity, to far-reaching courage and sanctification.
Yet, tragically, the remedy itself would be unsustainable. How, we must unavoidably inquire, could we ever hope to endure, both as individuals and as nations, if we were also to feel, with the very same palpable pain and sorrow we direct toward our families and close friends, the distress of all others?
Jewish tradition sometimes identifies expansive empathy with all others as a sanctified way to redemption. Arguably, a meaningfully empathic redemption is the core expectation of most dignified societies here on earth. The Swiss psychologist, Carl G. Jung, once even remarked that “Society is the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption."
In Jewish tradition, there exist certain injunctions to warn against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although Jews are doctrinally obligated to feel some such suffering - to learn from, and also be elevated by, such torment (Toras Avraham) - they must also guard against too much empathy; that is, against taking on those too-strong feelings of caring that could occasion their own personal destruction.
We may still learn, therefore, from the legend of the Lamed-Vov, not only that empathy is essential, but also that too much empathy can be beyond human endurance.
It is a troubling lesson.
In the fashion of his thoughtful Swiss colleague, Carl G. Jung, Sigmund Freud spoke frequently of “souls." However “unscientific,” he also understood that a well-placed mystery of eternity hovers meaningfully above and beyond the temporal world. The very deepest reality of human love and empathy, he already knew, can never be explained through science alone.
Empathy and justice can sometime bring forth a vast healing; moreover, such feeling, commented Rabbi Avraham Kook, who was not a part of the classical stream of Jewish philosophy, must "flow directly from the holy depth of the wisdom of the Divine soul." Rabbi Kook's thinking does not stand in any stark or self-conscious opposition to rational and scientific investigation, nor does it intend to oppose pure feeling to raw intellect. It identifies instead a usefully creative tension, one between a too-abstract and too-formal intellectualism, and a promising practical form of reason. Influenced and informed by Buddhism, Rabbi Kook envisioned humankind as possessing a natural evolutionary inclination toward advancement and self-perfection. The course of this expansive human evolution, he had surmised, must be directed toward a progressively increased spirituality. In the final analysis, he understood the Torah as a concrete manifestation of Divine Will here on earth.
At some point, at least according to Kook, the people and State of Israel must willingly play a cosmic and redemptive role in saving us all. To be sure, this ambitious expectation stands far outside the more “normal” boundaries of justice, law, and power politics.
Significantly, however, this unifying view represents the precise opposite of what we hear daily from ISIS, Hamas, and every other Jihadi group. Sadly, it is also a view that remains starkly alien to the current president of the United States.
Although still unrecognized by President Barack Obama, for Jihadist enemies of human civilization, terror-violence is an expressed form of religious sacrifice, sacred and necessary. Always.
For Israel and the Jewish People, terror-violence represents an expression of primal criminality, behavior that must be anticipated, and then resolutely opposed. Looking ahead, with this idea in mind, Jihadist terror, if left insufficiently challenged, could ultimately escalate to critical levels involving chemical, biological, or (ultimately) even nuclear weapons. In this connection, President Obama and his successor should understand that it makes no real sense to oppose Jihadist terrorism that is launched by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and at the same time intervene on behalf of what would quickly become another murderous Jihadist government in "Palestine."
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of ten major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. Some of his most recent academic publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; and Oxford University Press. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of the War, the only son of Viennese Jewish survivors. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003).
Professor Beres is a frequent contributor to
The Jerusalem Post.