In January, the Hannaton Educational Center was honored to receive the Flegg Award for Understanding and Acceptance within the Jewish World. This prestigious award, given by the Rector of the Hebrew University, was established to recognize outstanding achievements by individuals or organizations in the study or promotion of understanding between different factions within Judaism.
Center staff were joined by family, friends, mechina participants and alumni and staff of the Hebrew University for a beautiful reception and ceremony. What follows is Rabbi Yoav Ende’s speech at the ceremony.
These and these are all the words of the living God: On pluralism as the ideal in the Beit Midrash and as a threat in the Israeli society
Rabbi Yoav Ende
In the state of Israel in 2017 everyone is a pluralist – the ultra-orthodox, the secular and the religious Zionists. Certainly the liberal religious movements, all the denominations and factions are all pluralistic.
After all, why not? Everyone lives as he wants, just let me live my life. Everyone wants “to not be disturbed.” So, not only is everyone a pluralist, when you speak with people, you will notice that each claims to be the most pluralist.
However what happens when striving to live and let live, but also to live “together”? “Together” meaning designing a shared identity together. In other words, an identity that demands from me to give space, legitimacy, recognition and influence to the other? And maybe, God forbid, even change myself… and then the picture, of course, begins to change…
The reality of “live and let live” is a reality that basically says – do not change anything, do not intervene with me, certainly do not attempt to shape a different reality for me. The problem is that whether we want to or not, we live together and form the same society and state and the same Judaism.
In light of this insight, how do we shape the character of our society today?
As a traditional/Conservative Rabbi, sometimes people who I would call good neighbors, friends and partners (in certain sectors) – are Orthodox rabbis who are not willing to sit with me at the same “panel” at the same table of public learning, or public discourse. While at the same time they have no problem sitting with a Christian priest, a Muslim imam and a secular person.
The common and open conversation, at the same table states that we all belong to the same rule, all holding and trying to design the same rule which we are a part of. And it turns out that pluralism is amongst many other things, the ability to partner with entities that do not contradict my opinion or do not represent a position that holds a certain threat to my perception.
So now pluralism ends, but in fact never actually existed.
‘love you as a person but does not give room for your opinions’ – that is what “ahavat israel” (love of israel) is called in some places.
“I like all Jews” some people say, and I ask what you like about each Jew? What do you like if you see him as a threat, if you do not accept his views, and are not willing to give him space in our public life. Do you like the fact that there are more Jews in Israel’s demographics? What is man if not his views and values?
It turns out that when talking about pluralism we are not only talking about it as a description of the existing situation that reflects our differences, but also as the goal that we need to strive towards, or then the word becomes dangerous, a word that brings up analysis of the lost identity and path, a word that represents reality without an anchor of values. A word that is negative and even dangerous.
From such a dangerous situation, we do not recognize pluralism, in the different voices and the people behind these voices – and for that there are quite a few examples, such as:
A mixed city of Jews and Arabs who refuses to define itself as a mixed city. Or a community of religious and secular Jews who refuse to define themselves as a mixed community.
With a country that refuses to recognize its diversity – why? Because it threatens us, and if we carefully examine it, we can say it’s threatening to our own identity.
“And the whole land had one language and the same things” is written in the story of the Tower of Babel – is that our ideal, to have one language and the same things? Maybe for some of us… in my eyes this is a threat, a major threat and is dangerous. Everyone thinks the same thing and says the same thing – that is not a democracy but a dictatorship… and what does God chose to do to dismantle this society? He gives them different languages so the people will not know how to speak to one another. If there is no room for diverse voices, we will end up speaking different languages, and different languages dismantle society – thus the danger. If there is a Jewish language and an Israeli language, if Judaism is separated into different languages, if Hebrew and Arabic do not meet etc. – that is a recipe ‘from the Torah’ for the dissolution of society and it’s our responsibility to minimize the significance of this danger.
What is pluralism? What is the meaning of it? Why is everyone holding on to it while distorting it at the same time?
Pluralism in its basic definition is the holding of multiple views – but pluralism is much more than that. In a Mishna in Pirkei Avot (ethics of the fathers) it is stated…. “Who is wise? The one who can learn from every man”. If I can learn from any man I understand that I am missing something, and that I have something to learn from others. In other words, I let myself learn from someone who has different opinions than mine, and this maybe even change my mind…
This does not mean that I do not have any direction and that I have no faith in my way, and that there is no need to strive for truth and aim for, but at the same time I have to know that there is more for me to learn, and that there may be other ways that are not less just or right than my way.
Maybe there are even different correct ways for various correct covenants?
Anyway, what is important here is the common process to create the true “togetherness”. This does not happen without communication, without a common discourse, without giving assessment that lets us learn from each other, without sincerity and without a commitment not only to the idea but also to the person in front of you.
A deep, creative and true world like this is found in the Beit Midrash.
When a person walks through the gates of the Beit Midrash, one of the first words he will encounter is the word Machloket – dispute. All our learning is coming from the gap between the biblical and the theoretical, between the idea, the ideals, and our values to expressions in the real world. All this requires interpretation – what is written there, what does it mean how to understand it? This says that and that means something else, what is correct to do and what is false and so on.
While we are all created in the image of God, we are different creatures with different views, understanding and conclusions – this is the essence of life and this is the essence of learning and creativity.
In learning we indicate pairings of intelligent individuals as “couples” (Chavruta) who were friends and shared with each other. Here we are talking about generations and generations of a tradition, of course the most famous pair being Hillel and Shammai, who said, “These are the words of the living God.” But this is not a statement specifically relevant to a certain period or certain people, but the way of the Torah.
When there is no dispute, the Torah is not properly understood. When there is no dispute there is no creation – the Torah is a Torah of life.
In the Mishnah it says “Hillel and Menachem did not differ in opinions, so Menachem came out andin came Shamai!” You cannot create and require correct Torah when everyone thinks the same, or are afraid to think differently.
It is important to understand that disagreement in the Beit Midrash is not acceptance of the existing situation and does not result from compromise because that is human nature, but here we are talking about the ideal, and when this ideal does not exist we have a problem.
The Disagreement, says Rav Nagan, is not a failure of transferring your devotion, but an expression of fulfilling the devotion.
And so the Disagreement, Machloket, is not a disadvantage, it’s not acceptance of existing disagreement between different people, but an ideal through which studying Torah lives! We strive towards disagreement in the Beit Midrash, not to every kind of disagreement, but to disagreement for the heavens, altruistic disagreement. Machloket for the heavens is a disagreement for establishing the truth, a disagreement where “will” won’t be erased but created! And in the reverse it can be said that if the Machloket is not for altruistic reasons but for the ego, for the glorification of the self, for power struggles etc. it will not last long.
A Machloket starts from the motive that creates it, but its continuation, the way it’s conducted will eventually determine if the Machloket is altruistic or not. A Machloket about human honor and freedom can also tread on people and trample their dignity – so is this Machloket in the name of the Heavens? In a Machloket about peace one can murder and divert – is this Machloket in the name of the Heavens? In a Machloket about our identity as a Jewish and democratic society you can also rule out whole sections of the society, silence them, demonize and slander them, in a Machloket on the accessibility of society for disabled people it’s possible to humiliate people and trample on their dignity and so on.
Today’s Israeli society faces complex and serious disputes, all of which have worthy purposes. So how do we manage the disputes, do we all agree on the way? On the method? On the boundaries? This is not a simple question, however what is certain is that the “path” is in many ways the essence itself. And if on the “path” on which the disputes we deal with are managed, let us return to the Beit Midrash, to one of the foundations through learning. In every Beit Midrash that you will enter, any kind, type and shape one can find the fundamental Chavruta – the shared learning that is a gift to all life.
A Chavruta is serious when it sharpens your thinking, when you create, learn and rise through it, as we study the text and ourselves and change on the way. A Chavruta must be built on differences (and there are no two people who think exactly alike), Chavruta is a place for a Machloket of love, a place of learning where we will not stop when we leave the Beit Midrash, and includes an element of eternity.
Through debate, dialect of opposites, we will reach a common understanding and as we share the desired action, we will know that the “togetherness” is bigger than the specific act. I want to say that the method holds us together even when I disagree on the subject and the solution that we get to in the end. Sometimes the solution is to my liking and sometimes it’s not, but you still get there together.
I want to be careful and refrain from turning the Beit Midrash into an ideal from the fairytales – there too we have conflicts, boycotts, disagreements that eliminate people, that dislike and more. In short, people stay people, within the Beit Midrash and outside of it – even Hillel and Shamai who are the biggest symbol of altruistic disagreements (despite the difficult Machlokets) had students who were married, and then killed one another… hence in every social setting when you see something promising –, the human being can make it into the highest or most destructive framework.
And I would like to aim high and target our highest potential, because it can certainly influence and characterize our reality.
When I studied here (Hebrew University) for my Masters Degree (in the Department of Conflict Management) a well-known saying was that when conflicting groups meet in one room, they are each entitled to their own dreams that are inherently different from the dreams of the others, and this is accepted, and that is known and this is in our consciousness, but now in this room we will talk and attempt to respect and listen to one another – after a number of years on working in the field I believe that the effectiveness of this method is limited to the boundaries of the room where the meeting is taking place – If we do not keep dreaming a common dream for the same society we will also not build the same society, to the extent that the change needs to be so big that the dream itself changes.
Here it should be emphasized that the democratic society needs to contain different groups with different dreams. Not that everyone must have the same dream, but the dreams need to meet. We must create a shared “together”, and for that pluralism must be one of the corner stones in our discourse.
And so the gap between the Beit Midrash, the joint learning and the shared creativity to the life “outside of the walls of the Beit Midrash” cannot be that big. We can continue to learn and teach about lofty things, but reality shows us the enormous gap between the two – when does this gap intensify?
I would like to give some indications:
When power and faith are great and there is humility towards God but not in front of his creatures, one reaches arrogance, which is associated with a dangerous ignorance and there is no cure but learning, dialogue and education.
The walls of the Beit Midrash are, as mentioned, the walls of “grace” – for a moment one can forget the world outside and delve into the life-changing studies, but if the walls of the Beit Midrash are a cave disconnected from the world which creates a different world, so then whoever leaves it will often ask not to reform our common world but to destroy it – should we destroy the world? This is what the pupils asked Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who sent them back to the cave to learn Torah in a different way.
If the walls of the Beit Midrash divides between the outside and inside in such a way that the outside does not enter into the Beit Midrash and the Talmud, to that the Rabbi from Kotzk said: “If in order to learn about our world (the world outside the house of study), a person is required to stop his Torah learning, it’s like that until today he did not study Torah at all.”
The gates of the Beit Midrash – are they are locked such as Rashbag’s method or are they open to the public according to the method of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah? Who can be a partner for creating our future here, our identity and our heritage – and what is the “Beit Midrash” that shapes our consciousness today?
These tensions are old and new alike, and their results could lead to further destruction myths or legends of life – and it is in our hands.
In the fight for our identity as a people and as a society, and on the nature of our holy Torah, when all this is done out of lack of belief, lack of knowledge and appreciation, then we all go into a no-win game, and those who want to lose when the game is a no-win game? … This is not a situation that can be built upon.
In our Beit Midrash in Hanaton we are trying to educate, amongst other things, big ambitions and great commitment to society and the people around us, to our immediate environment and those far from us – so why do we educate regarding the “path” that we wish to learn and teach –
We educate not to look for recognition, but to design the path; and yet not give up even for a moment on the learning and the shared discourse with those who differ from us.
In the era of “simplicity” and “here and now” it is essential to mention the complexity not as an excuse for the lack of deeds, but as an essential for dealing and full of opportunities. The “together” does not come from obscuring the identity, but from designing and strengthening it.
Following some relevant points to the topic;
It is important that my voice is heard, but also important that other voices are heard
It is understandable that I do not hold the monopoly on all truth, and at the same time I need to fight for my truth and not to stop trying to clarify the truth.
One does not have to agree with reality but one must take responsibility for that reality.
In closing I would like to look at the surface and be optimistic that a lot is done by a lot of great and dedicated people.
We look around us and see and understand that the question of identity as a society became a burning and important question to all of us. It exists in politics, in the media and in public discourse, not just for a few crazy people.
It is clear to everyone that this is not a question that is asked when there are no security problems and so on. This is a question that if we do not deal with it, even the strongest army in the world will not help us. Maybe it is worrisome on one hand, but on the other it encourages much more from the relationship of the contempt held for these topics in the past.
After almost 70 years of the existence of the State of Israel, the Israeli society is not only not ruling over its physical boundaries, but also not over the unifying identity framework, and perhaps this is one of the greatest tasks of present generations.
According to the division that was accepted in the past; the matters of religion and Torah study are for the religious, and the secular society was to deal with other things – the Israeli society, etc. – this division is no longer acceptable! This is an approach which is not acceptable in classes today that are expanding and they will only intensify – and that’s a very good and important sign.
The rejection of one owns imperfections rejects- parts of those who reject the legitimacy of the other streams of Judaism see that when they exclude people with other opinions, one day their way will also be invalidated – when the ideal is more stringent this will only increase. Today those that reject appear more and more to be rejecting themselves. Finally, the way is still long, but it is important to see that the fight for religious pluralism in Israel is already relating to more and more people, and starts to cross sectors and identities.
I will end with one last and important point.
It is important to understand that pluralism is not only a matter of religion and state, and is larger than a partition in the Western Wall (as much as it is important and symbols are not unimportant) and it is larger than streams of Judaism, it is not a “niche” amongst the Jewish people, but it touches our identity, our society, and in the core of Judaism from which our country is shaped and formed every day.
Pluralism is a great ideal in the Beit Midrash and I hope it will become a real ideal within our society in all its deep significance – it depends on us and the hard work that lies ahead.