Israel judicial reform: Balancing religious devotion and compassion - opinion

We haven’t returned to Israel to construct a pure democracy but to rebuild our people and restructure ourselves as a large family of Jews. Families are built upon compassion.

 Compassion stretches our imagination sideways (photo credit: Matt Collamer/Unsplash)
Compassion stretches our imagination sideways
(photo credit: Matt Collamer/Unsplash)

A well-known American author asserted: “Argue for your limitations and they become yours.” We trap ourselves in narrow self-defined profiles, convincing ourselves that once we possess certain character traits, we can’t also possess contradictory ones. 

Great people prove this formula wrong, demonstrating that traits that appear to be incongruous can be synchronized within one personality. Greatness is not achieved by conforming to established stereotypes but by forging an original personality, which merges varied and seemingly dissimilar traits. 

To many, the traits of compassion and passion appear to be mutually exclusive. Through our passion for great ideas, we transcend our small world and our mundane routine. It is inspiring to witness passionate people dedicating their lives to lofty ideals or to long-term goals, often at the cost of personal comfort and luxury. Passion fills us with excitement and gives our lives deeper meanings. 

Alternatively, through our compassion, we feel mercy and empathy for the suffering of those around us. Many people are born naturally compassionate, while others acquire this trait by associating with people who behave compassionately. Just as passion lifts us above our own small world, similarly, through compassion, we transcend our own small selves and our own petty interests. Compassion softens us, focusing our attention on others, their needs, and their welfare. 

Passion stretches our imagination upward toward ideals and values that are larger than life. Compassion stretches our imagination sideways to the lives and struggles of the people in our life.

 An aerial view shows the massive protest on Monday in Jerusalem. A compromise is only possible the moment both sides want it. (credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS) An aerial view shows the massive protest on Monday in Jerusalem. A compromise is only possible the moment both sides want it. (credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)

Passionate people aren’t always compassionate to others. Big ideas dominate their agenda, and everything and everyone else around them feels minor and insignificant. Passion about the long term dulls their interest in the more immediate needs of the people surrounding them. 

Ambitiously driven to large and long-lasting achievements, passionate people often have little interest in the “here and now.” It just feels too small and too inconsequential, given their broad panoramic interests. 

When religious devotion blinds one to compassion

In particular, religious people, in their pursuit of religious devotion, are often blinded to compassion. Religious passion runs to the core of our identity, and often the quest for an other-worldly relationship with God makes the common needs of people, especially people less religious, seem trivial. Religion contemplates eternity, and against this backdrop, human beings and their fleeting needs can feel inconsequential. 

The Torah constantly checks against this imbalance by threading its list of ritual commandments with commandments to act with kindness and to perform charitable deeds. Additionally, the Torah endorses a balance between compassion and passion in its description of Moses’s prayers in the aftermath of the golden calf debacle. 

After we worshiped a golden calf, Moses seeks to pacify God’s anger, and fervently prays in two separate 40-day shifts, each without food or water. He is completely lost in his dedication to his beloved people, and everything around him disappears. Nothing stands in the way of his passion for his Jewish nation – not food, not sleep, nor any personal comfort. It is a stunning display of religious passion. 

Finally, at the end of the second 40-day shift, Moses is granted a private audience with God. While he hides under a boulder, he is educated about the 13 attributes of divine mercy. Moses’s passionate commitment to his people is insufficient to achieve atonement, unless and until he studies the merciful divine traits and becomes compassionate like God. Along with his considerable passion, Moses must also internalize the trait of compassion. 

Religion, Israeli politics and judicial reform

ISRAEL IS currently experiencing a political upheaval. There are several political issues to consider surrounding the current legal reforms. Proponents of these reforms hope to bring the judiciary system more in line with their values and their culture. Believing that the judicial system in the past discriminated against religious, national and conservative values, they see these reforms as reversing that trend and restoring judicial balance. 

These reforms, though, are being adopted unilaterally, without broad public approval. Perhaps these policies reflect the interests of the majority of the electorate, but even then, only by a slim margin. Unilateral imposition of unpopular policies can backfire in the long run. For policies to endure, they must be viewed as a national consensus rather than coerced legislation. 

Additionally, one-sided legislation can fray our national unity. Fortunately, Israeli society still enjoys a unifying narrative that unites most of its citizens, regardless of religious, ethnic and socio-demographic background. Most Israelis believe they are living a shared story: We have returned after 2,000 years of wandering to resettle our ancient homeland. We face broad and hostile opposition but share a common belief in our rights to our homeland and to our peoplehood. 

As our politics become more fractious, this narrative is in danger of unraveling. Many Western countries have suffered rapid cultural and social decline precisely because they have lost a common narrative. The great 20th-century battles against nazism and communism provided a common narrative for the West; but once these threats were neutralized, Western civilization lost its narrative and is still struggling to regain it. 

To make matters worse, multiculturalism has scrubbed cultural, racial and religious identities, and without these rallying points, humanity feels lost. Without a unifying narrative, we suffer a crisis of identity. We live alone and don’t belong to any larger community. We live in the loneliness of “unbelonging.”

Radical politics polarizes society, imperiling this national narrative. Sadly, many Israelis are becoming disenfranchised with our shared historical project. In the long run, national unity is our greatest military, social and economic asset. There are many purely political reasons to question the wisdom of this political blitzkrieg. 

FOR RELIGIOUS Jews, however, aside from purely political considerations, there is an additional factor to consider when launching one-sided reforms. Unilaterally imposed legislation is politics without compassion. Too much passion and not enough compassion is unhealthy even in the political arena.

Religious people are very passionate about their state. Orthodox Jews care about their religious environment, kashrut, marriage, Shabbat observance and Torah education. Additionally, many religious Jews are concerned about the religious spirit and tone of the public domain: religious life in the army, public Shabbat recognition, hametz regulation on Passover, and conversion protocols, to name a few. We harbor grand religious expectations and passionate hopes for our long-awaited state. 

However, our passion to religiously shape our state through unilateral legislation is alienating large segments of our population. Forcefully imposing policies that elicit such harsh opposition isn’t compassionate politics. 

Many would argue that a pure democracy should not be driven by compassion but by hard and emotionless policy decisions. Emotions and compassion have no place in political democracies. But that is exactly the point: Israel is not meant to be a pure and unfeeling democracy but an ingathering of our people to their homeland, framed upon the principles of democracy. 

We haven’t returned to Israel to construct a pure democracy but to rebuild our people and restructure ourselves as a large family of Jews. Families are built upon compassion for every member and not just for those who agree with the views of the head of the household. It is unfortunate and ironic that religious Jews are quickly losing sight of this sense of family and aren’t conducting the politics of compassion. 

In our modern family-state called Israel, compassion for all members of the family must be evaluated alongside our passion for a state infused with religious values. Passion and compassion must walk hand in hand in the modern State of Israel. ■

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as an MA in English literature from the City University of New York.