Listening to Multiple Voices

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Much of the recent thrusting and parrying regarding Shmitah in these pages has brought home once again the importance of listening to other voices, especially the ones with which you do not agree. Two items last week exposed additional facets of the issue, one theoretical, and one a practical object lesson.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was in characteristically impeccable form in his weekly essay. I cite here only a few paragraphs, but cite them in their entirely:

To put it at its simplest: we believe that the God of Israel is the God of all humanity, but the religion of Israel is not the religion of all humanity. You do not have to be Jewish to have a share in the world to come. The universality of the Jewish God stands in counterpoint to the particularity of Jewish life. No other religion of revelation embodies this tension. It explains our relative smallness and our reluctance to proselytise. It also explains why Jews have had an influence on the world out of all proportion to our numbers. Despite our particularity, our message the human person as the image of God, the story of the exodus, and the idea of a covenantal society has often been felt to hold universal significance.

Yet it is just here that we confront the surpassing irony of Jewish history in the modern world. Beginning in the 19th century, a fateful rift opened up within Jewry. I refer not to the obvious divisions between Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, Zionist and Diasporist, Ashkenazi and Sefardi. I mean the distinction between the universalists and the particularists. The universalists focused on saving the world, even at the cost of losing their Jewish identity. The particularists concentrated on saving Jewish life, even at the cost of disengaging from the world.

What giants the universalists were: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Mahler, Kafka, 39 per cent of Nobel prize winners in economics, 10 winners of the Nobel prize for literature. The list is huge. Collectively they were shapers of the modern mind, yet their connection with Judaism was at best minimal, at worst hostile.

The particularists, too, were heroes. They include the great heads of yeshivot and leaders of Chassidic sects. Collectively they have rebuilt the citadels of Jewish life, ravaged by the Holocaust. Sixty years ago they seemed headed for extinction. Today they are the most rapidly growing sector of Jewish life, in Israel and outside. Yet their success has been predicated on disengagement from the wider world. There are notable exceptions, but that is the norm.

Yet the split is deeply un-Jewish. To be sure, there were always Jews (in biblical times the priests, today the Charedim) who lived holy lives in isolation from the world, and this has an honourable place within our tradition. But the Jewish mainstream was both universalist and particularist. The two cannot be separated without losing what is most distinctive about Jewish life, making Judaism different from Christianity and Islam on the one hand, and tribal or nationalistic cultures on the other. Not only is it un-Jewish. It risks compromising the single greatest contribution Judaism has to make to humanity as a whole in the 21st century.

For what the world faces today is an epic clash between the universal and the particular, in the form of the global economy on the one hand, and resurgent ethnicity on the other. Rarely if ever before have we needed more urgently the classic Jewish imperative: to be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

This is how the Torah tells the story of Abraham. He fights a war for the sake of his neighbours. He pleads with God on their behalf. Yet he does not adopt their way of life. He is in, but not of, his time and place. His faith is singular, his moral concern universal. That is what makes his contemporaries say of him, You are a prince of God in our midst.

Contemporary Jews, according to Rabbi Sacks, have an opportunity to directly and profoundly impact upon a world that is open to Jewish input for the first time in millennia. We can only accomplish that if we listen to the multiple voices within our tradition that demand the particularism of steadfast observance of our mitzvos while understanding the universality of major parts of the Torah’s message. Rabbi Sacks speaks from experience. Polls show that he is one of the most listened-to people in England – among non-Jews! At the same time, he has found the rifts and animosities within the Jewish population to be an intractable problem. Many of our readers have pointed out the disturbing reality that there are many in all camps who simply dismiss the viewpoint of all others.

No one really expects him to heal those rifts. However, at least listening to people with other points of view – even consulting with them – remains not only advisable, but essential to functioning in a complex world. Here is a case in point.

Months ago, an Israeli marketing firm introduced an English language viral commercial aimed at Western audiences. Part of a new strategy to brand Israel as an exciting destination for young Westeners, it mixed biblical themes with more modern sensibilities.

Well, maybe only one biblical theme, and an unfortunate one at that. The commercial displayed (no, I am not going to link to it or even make it easy to find) a number of females trying to emulate Eve before the Sin, at least in basic manner of dress. Their habitat was a sun-drenched Israeli beach, not the Garden of Eden. Some very masculine types, clearly post-Sin and very much infected with the venom of the primordial Serpent, express their admiration for the scenery, at least the two-legged kind. Their language of expression was basic Anglo-Saxon, mostly (between swallowing their saliva) things like “Holy F—!“, and “Holy Mother of G-d!”

The latter phrase, in particular, did not please committed Christians, who saw sacrilege in the Holy Land, which they assumed was the work of the government of the Jewish State. It evoked some strong comments from individuals who are usually very friendly to Israel. These comments, in turn, provoked nasty countercharges, and very mainstream sites like Israpundit and NRO got involved.

I started making phone calls to friends in Israeli diplomatic circles. They made phone calls to the Ministry of Tourism. It did not take long for me to learn that the Israeli government did not commission, vet, or approve the ad. The Ministry of Tourism never used the ad, which achieved a life of its own on the internet after being left there like a foundling by the marketing firm that had created the ad to demonstrate new ways in which Israel could sell itself. Maybe, in this case, sell itself short. The Government officials I spoke to reacted – unequivocally and univocally – with regret, embarrassment and consternation.

The ad is offensive to Christians, Jews, women and common decency. All the more so at a time in which there is a full-court press on friendly church groups to reconsider and repent for the sin of supporting Israel. This is not what we needed.

Now, some will not and did not see it that way. One consular official showed the commercial to a nominally Christian staff-member, whose reaction was notable: “I don’t see anything wrong with it. Do you care what some right-wingers are going to say?”

Yes, actually, if your business is diplomacy, or even common decency. Someone out there who saw the commercial in the last months should have paused after admiring it and said, “As a religiously secular person, I think this is clever. But it strikes me as something that others might see differently. Perhaps we ought to have someone with a different perspective look at it.” Israel could have avoided another blot on its image – one that in this case turned out to be undeserved.

Listening to, even seeking out the opinions of others is not only a good way to keep one’s own viewpoints balance and honest, it can also be a survival technique in a complex world.

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15 Responses

  1. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Michoel: 1) I certainly agree with you that the Chareidi dayan in question is an individual of great stature; 2) I certainly did not intend to imply that the Dayan himself leakd the letter; as you say his office leaked it; 3) I did not say that the leak caused a chillul ha-Shem, but said that it served to embarras Rabbi Sacks, as it, of course, was intended to do; 4) Rabbi Sacks himself admits that his letter was a misstep. Here, I presume he was referring to his assumption that the letter would remain private, which, in retrospect, he no doubt realizes was a piece of touching, but ill affordable, naivete on his part.

    Interestingly enough, though I have often criticized what I see as excesive particularism of both the Chareidi and MO communities, I think that Rabbi Sacks, in what admittedly is a difficult balancing act, does on occasion tend to come down a bit too much on the universalist side.

  2. Michoel says:

    Lawrence Kaplan,
    While I can hear Rabbi Adlerstein’s point about being supportive (especially when judging from a distance) we don’t need to go overboard in impugning the motives of those that object to some of his positions. The “charedi dayan” that you mention was arguably one of the g’dolei Hador, a refugee of Europe and a person of colassal achievments. The letter which was “of course” promplty leaked by the office of the “charedi dayan” caused a great Chillul Hashem. You hold that it was the leak that cuased said chillul H’ but certainly it could be argued that the seeming duplicity of the writer is what caused the chilul H’. So if we want to support him or provide a safety net, let us not do it by implicitly disparaging the charedi dayan. Is that unreasonable?

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    JosephW –

    If you read with just the smallest amount of generosity, I don’t think you will find anything in R Sacks’ piece that implies that those universalists are his (or mine!) heroes. That they made “great” contributions to Western thought is undeniable; whether some of them were correct is a matter of debate even outside Torah circles. You are quite right that they are not our heroes, although I don’t see anything wrong with aknowledging in the case of some of them, heroic efforts to search for truth, and in the case of other contributors to Western knowledge, enough wisdom that halacha would have us make a berachah upon meeting them.

    I can’t think of anyone who walks the tightrope between universalism and particularism as well as Rabbi Sacks. When you don’t have the luxury of coming down, and traverse the rope again and again, you are bound to make a misstep from time to time.

    If anyone else would care to walk the rope with him, I’m sure his or her contribution would be appreciated.

    As for the rest of us, I surmise that we would be more useful acting as his safety net. We certainly ought to avoid (without implying that Joseph’s very respectful question was an instance of this) taking potshots at him in mid-journey

  4. joel rich says:

    Certainly, laws concerning mode of dress and food remind us to keep our philosophical and sometimes physical distance,
    ===========================================
    How could Avraham delegate finding a wife for his son to eliezer? Why did he take the naarim(medrash-eliezer and yishmael) part way to the akeidah? In the latter case R’YBS points out that we do have common cause to a point with our non-Jewish fellow travellers.

    KT

  5. JosephW says:

    [The folowing is a comment about R. Sack’s words, not affecting R. Adlersten’s point.]
    “What giants the universalists were: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Mahler, Kafka, 39 per cent of Nobel prize winners in economics, 10 winners of the Nobel prize for literature. The list is huge. Collectively they were shapers of the modern mind, yet their connection with Judaism was at best minimal, at worst hostile.

    The particularists, too, were heroes. They include the great heads of yeshivot …”

    Implied: the great jewish universalists had a minimal, and sometimes hostile, connection to Judaism, yet were heroes; as were the particularists…

    Rabbi Adlerstien: It is hard for me to believe that you agree with R. Sacks that these “universalists” (some of whom can be said clearly about them “ein lahem cheilek l’olam habo”) should be refered to as heroes. Do we accept the heroes of the secular world as heroes, even though the torah would brand them as reshaim? This itself reminds us that while God wants us Jews to make the Torah message heard in the world, he does not want us to blindly accept the anti-torah messages put forth by the world. This crucial distinction is what we’d like to see a little more of in Rabbi Sack’s (universalistic) writings.

  6. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “We will always have nazirim, tziddukim, and, I daresay, our own version of monks, but the isolationist and literalist trend seems to be more prevalent than ever” (Comment by Ari — October 31, 2007 @ 10:33 pm).

    So what are the “isolationists and literalists” (I’m not sure what the latter term represents), “nezirim”, “tzidukim” or monks?

  7. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    L Oberstein: Rabbi Sacks did NOT attend (Liberal) Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s funeral. He attended an inter-faith gathering in his memory a while later. He was criticized for this by the English Haredi community (what a surprise!) and wrote a private, rather self-abasing, letter to a Haredi Dayan, explainig how no on was more anti-Reform than he, Rabbi Sacks. The letter was, of course, promptly leaked, embarrassing Rabbi Sacks, as the leak was, of course, intended to do.
    In his recent talk in Montreal Rabbi Sacks alluded to this incident when he spoke of some “missteps” he took early on in his Chief Rabbinate in this sensitive area. He concluded by saying that despite “a few falls” he has finally learned to “ride the bike.”

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    Or a related note, what would you teach if you were addressing a mixed (Jewish and gentile) crowd?

    Comment by Ori Pomerantz

    What an interesting question !

    I think some Christians could relate to the story of Abraham in the sense that we are called to be universalists which means being in the world and using the skills and gifts G-d has given us to the best of our ability to honor the Creator and society in general. OTOH we are also called to be particularists in that while we are “in the world” we are NOT to be “of the world” – meaning adopt the values of the world that do not glorify or honor G-d. I am not saying we get this right by any means but it is a standard to which we strive with G-d’s help.

  9. tzippi says:

    “the isolationist…trend seems to be more prevalent than ever. I am not certain that this is a wholesome development.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by literalist but as for the isolationists: haven’t most Chassidim historically been isolationist? Is there more isolationism now than 50 years ago, when Square Town was founded? (And b”H, think of the sheer population growth. The ultimate revenge against Hitler and co.!)

    The question might be the disengagement on the part of non-Chassidism. Most people wouldn’t quibble over the statement that the media is much more toxic than a generation or two ago, and some limitations (no or heavily screened TV, e.g). Provided of course we can find things to say yes to to fill the void of the noes. At one point do we cross the threshold from “healthily protective/ more so than we grew up with” to “disengagment”? Or does Rabbi Sacks know it when he sees it?

    And I am more than a bit uncomfortable with Rabbi Sacks’s wording. “The particularists too were heroes.” While he clearly says that “the shapers of the modern mind” had at best a minimal connection to Judaism, etc., perhaps he could have, or should have made a sharper delineation between the examples he gives of each group.

  10. LOberstein says:

    A few years ago Rabbi Sacks was in “hot water” because he attended the funeral of a holocaust survivor who was a non orthodox rabbi but highly respected in England. He had to apologize for attending. I know for a fact that some of my mentors attended non orthodox funerals even a few in a non orthodox synagogue for specific people. Today people in the same positions cannot show the same respect for fear of condemnation . I think the particularists are often too extreme and the moderates too afraid.
    The counter point to what I am saying is also noted by Rabbi Sacks “Sixty years ago they seemed headed for extinction. Today they are the most rapidly growing sector of Jewish life, in Israel and outside.”
    Does success make them right? Maybe we moderates are headed for extinction.

  11. Ari says:

    No truer words spoken than by R. Sacks. It is a privilege to be an ambassador of our faith to others in the outside world, following in the tradition of engagement with the outside world practiced by Avrohom, Yaakov, Yosef, Avrohom, Moshe and countless others.

    Certainly, laws concerning mode of dress and food remind us to keep our philosophical and sometimes physical distance, but I question anyone that justifies, with perhaps false modesty, their cloistered lifestyle by claiming not to have the moral strength to engage with the outside world and remain pure.

    We will always have nazirim, tziddukim, and, I daresay, our own version of monks, but the isolationist and literalist trend seems to be more prevalent than ever. I am not certain that this is a wholesome development.

  12. Michael Atlas says:

    Great piece by R. Sacks and comments by R. Adlerstein, but I’m not sure what R. Sacks meant by:

    “I mean the distinction between the universalists and the particularists. The universalists focused on saving the world, even at the cost of losing their Jewish identity. The particularists concentrated on saving Jewish life, even at the cost of disengaging from the world.”

    and then listed

    “Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Mahler, Kafka”

    Why if one is not a particularist does it make him a Universalist? Maybe I should be dan l’kaf zechus but take Freud for example were his motives to save the world or was he just interested in neurology and psychology?

    My point is that R. Sacks seems to equate the two (“The particularists, too, were heroes”)as if they are both on the extremes and there is a middle ground. I understand his point and I agree that life is more complex than “my hashkafah is correct and the rest of the world is krum” but in the example he gave one is a viable option and the other is not. Don’t confuse actions (nobel prize winners , politicians, entrepreneurs and psychologists) with motives (universalism).

    He makes great observations but sometimes I think he should qualify his points.

  13. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Re Rabbi Sacks: In a recent talk in Montreal he mentioned that when someone once asked him why should we bother to establish ties with evangelical Christians who support Israel, he replied, “I’m relieved to learn that Israel has so many friends that we can afford to write off some 67 milion potential supporters!”

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I mean the distinction between the universalists and the particularists. The universalists focused on saving the world, even at the cost of losing their Jewish identity. The particularists concentrated on saving Jewish life, even at the cost of disengaging from the world.

    Ori: This is a critical insight. Does anybody know where I can read the complete article?

    Or a related note, what would you teach if you were addressing a mixed (Jewish and gentile) crowd?

  15. michoel halberstam says:

    a very good rule in life to help us remember to listen, is that we internalize the notion that while we have the right, and sometimes the duty to express our view, we should give up the idea of “capturing the Jewish future.” How our faith will develop will be influenced by numerous factors, historical and geographical, social, and many others. Most important of all is that the Torah is developing according to the plan of The Ribbono Shel Olam. THEREFORE, ONE SHOULD NEVER TRY AND SHOUT DOWN THE OPPOSITION, OR TRY AND REMOVE THEM FROM HISTORY BY CENSORING THEIR WORDS. Divrei Chachomim benachas nishmoim.