Judaism’s liquidoxy rejects extremes, Right and Left

Imagine some truly dangerous people who should be kept away from key institutions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, January 30, 2020 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, January 30, 2020
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Did I get this right? Iranian mullahs threaten to nuke us. Palestinian terrorists threaten to bomb us. The UN and international courts threaten to delegitimize us. And various drugs threaten to numb our kids – including marijuana; please don’t kid yourselves. Yet Tel Aviv’s anti-religious Deputy Mayor Reuven Ladiansky targeted the real enemy – Jews inviting fellow Jews to hang black boxes on their foreheads while strapping their arms with another black box.
Tel Aviv totalitarians, fearing “manipulation,” are keeping stands that offer people opportunities to put on tefillin – phylacteries – or pray – 100 meters away from any “institution that primarily serves minors,” especially schools.
Imagine some truly dangerous people who should be kept away from key institutions.
Keep Bibi Netanyahu away from mikvaot – he’ll use the ritual bath to declare himself totally innocent, then launch another pointless electoral bid for a majority, while denying he ever bathed. Distance Vladimir Putin from voting booths – he has this mystical power to manipulate elections. Block Bernie Sanders from banks – he might nationalize them. And bar Tel Aviv’s totalitarians from the Knesset – they don’t respect free speech, free thought, or freedom of religion, and intolerance is contagious.
Yet I envy this Ladiansky bully; he fits the spirit of our age. I’m hopelessly unhip – a moderate who believes in respecting people even when we disagree, because their rights are more important than whether they’re right or wrong. Religiously, I cringe when tefillin stands are banned near schools, and when women wearing tallitot are banned near walls, specifically that Western one we cherish. I also stand by my recent column challenging those left-wing rabbinical students and teachers who bully Zionists, but I regret that some Orthodox readers hijacked my attempt to be a loving critic from within to advance their centuries-long crusade to delegitimize “Reformim.”
Politically, I stew as Bibi campaigns so demagogically and Benny Gantz so passively, as right-wing hooligans in Israel vandalize Arab cars, while left-wing totalitarians worldwide slur Israel and Zionism. I abhor Donald Trump’s vulgarity, while cheering his pro-Israel record. I abhor the far Left’s anti-Zionism, while sharing their anti-Trump sentiments.
Is that so hard? Are things so black-and-white for everyone? Does everything really line up so neatly? Why should hating Trump require Jews to love Linda Sarsour, or loving Israel require Zionists to excuse Trump’s loutishness, or appreciating Bibi’s diplomacy require Likudniks to cheer his lies?
Good ideas pushed to extremes become half-truths. So many arguments begin today in the noble desire to defend yourself, your home, your people – while others begin in the equally noble desire to look out for neighbors, for strangers, for humanity. Before you know it, Bible-quoting rabbis justify reprehensible, undemocratic, criminal “price-tag” attacks on Arabs because “a balance of fear in our favor keeps our kids safe”; or respectable-looking professors rationalize the reprehensible autocratic Palestinian Authority and Hamas regimes by empathizing with sincere Palestinian frustrations.
Fighting half-truths is hard, the great sage Rabbi Yitz Greenberg warns. Defenders emphasize the half part that’s true – overlooking the half that’s not. The resulting shouting match becomes all-or-nothing, brittle, simplistic. Democracies need supple debaters balancing complex, even contradictory, ideas.
True, Election Day involves choosing imperfect packages. But too many voters confuse the democratic act of voting with autocratic oaths of total loyalty to the supreme leader. To doubt your party or leader a bit is healthier than to offer the zealous devotion or disdain of today’s pro-Trumpers vs never-Trumpers, and today’s “Bibi-king-of-Israel-ers” and “Bibi-go-homers.”
SADLY, OUR religious debates turn even more vicious. In that realm everyone seeks The Truth. That makes raising thoughtful, open-minded religious kids extra-challenging. After all, how can you be Orthodox – note the word – without embracing certain truths? And, as Tel Aviv demonstrated, some counter religious Orthodoxy with equally orthodox intolerance, worrying that kids might pray, God forbid!
Such all-too-fashionable all-or-nothing rigidity is anathema to Judaism – and Jewish survival. Neither my-way-or-the-highway fanatics nor self-hating heretics kept Judaism alive. Zealots kept trying to freeze the religion in their particular era. Had they triumphed, Judaism would have become outdated, and today we’d study Judaism as a relic from their times. The heretics risked “updating” Judaism beyond recognition – or their kids simply drifted away.
Wrapping eternal truths, a shared sense of mission and actions – rituals – in complexity and contradictions help Judaism grow, not stagnate. Some prefer to call complexity “multidimensionality,” and contradictions, “healthy tensions.”
The traditional metaphor for change, the etz haim (tree of life), captures this beautifully. Trees are deeply rooted, yet they vary dramatically, adapt to different environments impressively, and grow gradually, imperceptibly. Our texts and traditions offer much liquidity, lots of latitude, but solid boundaries, too. “Shema Yisrael – God is one” remains our baseline.
Many of today’s most intense Jewish arguments concern how to change, how much to change, and who decides. Traditionalists fear we’ve gone too far. Reformers insist: Not far enough. Historians can simply note how remarkable it is that we’re still arguing together after 4,000 years.
Judaism’s liquidoxy – fluid yet solid, changing just enough so as not to change too much – requires passionate commitment, a literate creativity balanced by a creative traditionalism, and a flair for humane open-mindedness.
The Ono Academic College’s student union showed such flair by defiantly opening a tefillin stand on its campus, demonstrating what the student leader Elchanan Felhimar called “Live and let live – action and talk.”
That’s the spirit required to calm our religious wars, lessen our political polarization, and soothe our souls.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.