Dispute and Growth

Translated by Josh Rosenfeld and Alan Brill, published in the blog kavvanah.wordpress.com

Two Wars

I was asked to speak about growth achieved though the trauma of the war. The war in question that the organizers had in mind is certainly the [Second] Lebanon War. However there is no doubt that their intention is also to discuss another very difficult recent event: the Disengagement.

Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote in Duties of the Heart  (Hovot ha-Levavot), quoting the words of the hasid to the returnees from battle: “you have returned from the minor war…, now prepare yourselves for the great war.”[1] The smaller war has run its course, and now a more significant war has begun – the Jewish people’s internal dispute as revealed by the Disengagement. One who connects these two events – the Disengagement and the Lebanon War – is correct. The connection is not simply on the military or political sense, but societal. I wish to discuss this in the framework of faith.

The words of Maimonides in the Laws of Fasts are well known:[2]

It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any difficulty that arises which affects the community, as [Numbers 10:9] states: “[When you go out to war… against] an enemy who attacks you and you sound the trumpets….”

This practice is one of the paths of repentance, for when a difficulty arises, and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that [the difficulty] occurred because of their evil conduct, as [Jeremiah 5:25] states: “Your sins have turned away [the rains and the harvest climate].” This [realization] will cause the removal of this difficulty.

Conversely, should the people fail to cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, and instead say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a cruel conception of things, which causes them to remain attached to their wicked deeds. Thus, this time of distress will lead to further distresses.

This is implied by the Torah’s statement [Leviticus 26:27-28]: “If you remain indifferent to Me, I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance.” The implication of the verse is: When I bring difficulties upon you so that you shall repent and you say it is a chance occurrence, I will add to your [punishment] an expression of vengeance for that indifference [to Divine Providence].

According to Maimonides, we are commanded to emulate God’s actions within history, to study difficult events, delve into them, and thus to understand the Divine message that is being communicated to us. This understanding works for Maimonides on two planes

The first level is the simple understanding of reward and punishment – searching for the mechanical causality between sins of the individual or community and the subsequent punishment.

The second, deeper, level is the understanding of the inner process of history. Maimonides describes this in Moreh Nevukhim as ‘the wisdom of God and his ways’. According to Maimonides, God does not operate in history from afar, rather, He adheres to the internal logic and rules of history. These rules themselves are the Divine providence of this world, giving expression to the inner meaning of reward and punishment![3]

In our scenario – the Lebanon War and the Disengagement – two contradictory messages emerge:

From the perspective of the first level, the simple understanding of reward and punishment, the war was the resulting punishment, as the fate of a number of politicians and military officials in the wake of the Disengagement. There were even public statements to this effect emanating from Haredi society. For example, the Bostoner Rebbe said that the flight of many Haredim from the North during the Second Lebanon War was punishment for Haredi parties’ support of the Disengagement.

However, in my eyes these explanations fall short. This is not because they are necessarily wrong because as believers, we should not be intimidated from speaking in the simple terms of reward and punishment. This is especially so when the causality concerning the events that we speak of cry out, plain to see without too deep an analysis.

However, this is not the deeper perspective that Maimonides gestured to. We must ask: what is this deeper connection – as seen from a societal and historical perspective – between the Disengagement and the Lebanon War? The profounder point where these events intersect is the very kernel of Divine providence.

The second perspective raises challenges and confusion, while the first perspective points an accusatory finger mainly toward the architects of the Disengagement. The second and deeper appreciation of the processes raises a substantial question on its victims, namely: our own National-Religious community. To be sure, from a cultural and spiritual perspective, both the War and the Disengagement revealed deep weaknesses in all of Israeli society. At the same time, they also brought to the fore the inherent paradox’ of the National Religious community, which sees itself as a leading demographic in Israeli society, yet is continuously pushed around by it.

The Lebanon War improved the political standing of the Right, yet it did not change the fundamental positions of Israeli society’s relationship to Religious Zionism. This is despite the wide participation of the National Religious community in the war, and the profound revelations of its heroism. To my distress, this is true because in the eyes of many, Religious Zionism (or depressingly, the militancy within certain settler factions) is perceived as cut from the same cloth as the fanatics of Hezbollah. We can say what we want about the organizers of the Disengagement, finding them guilty of corruption (and there is truth to these accusations), but we cannot escape the fact that most of Israeli society did not oppose the illegitimate Disengagement, including many present and former members of the so-called Nationalist Camp. The reason for this is clear: there are deep apprehensions regarding the combination of religious and national fundamentalism. To our dismay, many observers here and abroad draw a direct connection Gush Emunim and Radical Islam, seeing both groups as obstacles to peace with the potential to inflame the whole region. This is another connection between these two events that we must not ignore: The destruction of Gush Katif, which received wide support in Israel, and the Second Lebanon War, which received widespread legitimacy in the world, were both aimed at the same threat – the connection between religious and nationalistic political extremism.

I will try to illustrate the contradiction in the lessons of the war through a discussion regarding who is our enemy.

The Lebanon War was waged against a religious enemy Nasrallah, the Radical Islamic fundamentalist. In this regard, at least externally, we would agree that religious extremism endangers us, being that the secular Arab governments of Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with us.

Yet, conceptualizing the enemy in this way presents a challenge for us, because, as we’ve mentioned above, in the eyes of many secular people, our religious community, at the very least, parts of it, suffers from the same religious extremism. They hold that the resolution to the conflict lies in a movement of secularization that may allow for tolerance and openness, two prerequisites for peace. In truth, those secular pockets of the Arab world are perceived as more moderate and open to the concept of peace. From this perspective, the connection between the Disengagement and the Lebanon War is the open and inner struggle against secular Israel, which enjoys the support of the secular west in their perceptions of religious extremism.

Yet, it is not so simple to get the full picture here. To wit, for Nasrallah, the state of Israel does not represent a rival religion, but rather the supremely hated secular, colonialist West. As religious people, where do we locate ourselves in all this? Do we not identify somewhat with Nasrallah’s critiques?

If true, perhaps our enemy is actually secularism? If this is so, the connection between the Disengagement and the war is different. The war is the punishment for the Disengagement. We may rightly ask here if it was not a kind of secular extremism that employed its systems of power against the settlers of Gush Katif and their faith? We may relate to the perpetrators of the Disengagement as agents of a foreign culture ourselves. For many of us, they evince the feeling of “…and we have been exiled from our land and distanced from its [holy] ground”[4] – whether from a practical (the Disengagement) or metaphysical perspective (secularism).

Surely these mixed feelings are quite confusing, and a crucial question that stands before us now is whether the real battle is external – Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, or internal – the struggle against the secular left, and those on the right who have been ensnared in its positions. It is possible that this question stands behind the dispute between the statists (mamlachti’im), who say that we should continue to draft without question and are opposed to disobeying military orders, and those objectors (=sarvanim) who refuse to forget what has happened and for whom joining the army in defense of the state is not automatic.[5]

I think that specifically from this great paradox that a tremendous religious blooming may sprout forth. This contradictory situation is such that on one side Nasrallah depicts a negative, cruel, and perverted religious vision, and yet on the other we stand before a totalizing globalization lacking roots and identity (this too yields tragic results, even if they are generally hidden, and in many ways no less cruel than the fruits of radical religious extremism). This situation must lead us to a third way, a combination of both messages. We must understand both the failings of secular Israeli culture and the failings of one-dimensional religious fundamentalism that has flourished in our world as well. This will bring us to the ability to transmit a new religious message.

In order to cultivate this message, it is incumbent upon us to break down the dichotomy of choice between warmongering religious extremism and westernizing peace-seeking which is built upon forfeiture of identity and roots. Religious must redeem the message of peace. A new kind of religiosity must develop. On the one hand, rooted in values and on the other hand, prepared to achieve real peace.

To me, it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that at the end we will indeed achieve a ‘religious peace’. This is because the left does not found peace upon deep respect for the religious other, but rather upon a total discount of religion, with the claim that it is the source of the war. The paradox here is that in doing so, the left actually intensifies the conflict. It is specifically here that the Muslim feels threatened, because the peaceniks approach him from the perspective of liberalism and globalization. [The Muslim] senses in this a sophisticated attempt to subjugate his values with western values, including the hegemony of their representative in the region – the State of Israel.

Conversely, if the State of Israel were to transmit a message of peace from a truly and deeply Jewish-religious standpoint, it would rearrange the systems of power in our region. It would also change the attitude of the secular world to religion (for now, a negative attitude that stems from a perception of us as warmongers without responsibility), and would create a sea change in religious interactions with the Muslims in our region, who themselves identify ‘peace’ with unstable secularism and loss of identity.

Dispute and Growth

In my estimation, it is from these battles and contradictions themselves that development and growth may arise. We may learn this from the torah of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, who personally experienced many disputes. As his student, Rebbe Natan wrote:

Once, our people were complaining to him about how they could no longer handle the suffering born of all the disputes and ostracization… He answer them as follows: believe me, I could make peace with the entire world, so much so there would no one who argued with me, but what can I do, as there are many realms and levels impossible to achieve if not for dispute… just as a tree will grow more when water is splashed all around it…[6]

Rebbe Nahman uses a metaphor of watering and growing in connection to dispute to indicate that dispute engenders growth.

“[but] I need there to continually be disputes about me, because I am constantly going from one level to another… If I could know that I am standing now just as I was the previous moment, I would not want to be in this world at all”.[7]

Thus, dispute is the water which allows for growth and flourishing. In order to understand his contention, we must first understand what we mean by growth.

First, and foremost, we are not discussing a growth in number, but rather a qualitative change in development. As the tree grows, it is able to absorb and combine many different raw materials and to turn them into a part of itself. A human being is similar to this. Growth means my ability to encounter places where I have not yet been. For faith and religion to flourish, they must be able to accommodate and integrate points of view that were not traditionally within their purview.

In connection to this, I want to mention the Kabbalistic intentions of the Arizal for the sukkah. According to the Arizal, one should ideally take the lulav in the sukkah itself before hallel prayers, because in Kabbalistic terms, the function of the sukkah is to transform ‘surrounding illumination’ into ‘internal illumination’. ‘Surrounding illumination’ are ideas and understanding that we do not yet possess the cultural and emotional vessels to accept and to live with. We perceive them as something external, but we cannot internalize them. We still lack the ability to transform them into a part of our encompassing faith, our inner identity.

The Arizal explains that the sukkah, called the “canopy of faith” (zela d’mehemnuta) the place where the presence of God dwells and surrounds us. The sukkah immerses us in an unusual world of spiritual illumination. Through the lulav, shaken in all directions toward the heart, we demonstrate our desire to draw these illuminations inward, so that they may become an integral part of who we are. The role of the lulav symbolizes the expansion of our faculties of understanding in such a way that the light of our faith will be more expansive and introspective.[8]

I also believe that this is the main idea of Rav Kook’s teachings, the redemptive Torah  of the Land of Israel. It specifically developed on the backdrop of the controversy regarding secular Zionism, and R. Kook’s own engagement and struggle with it. As religious Zionists, we see in this a flourishing of Torah; a gesture of Torah unleashed which now includes many values that were not traditionally part of it. In essence, this is the great project of R. Kook.

A classic example: R. Kook took the concept of freedom not usually identified as a religious value (as religion was seen to be predicated on commands, the acceptance of a yoke), and located it directly heart of a religious outlook. Despite R. Kook’s battle with the secular world, he drew upon many of its values in a dialectical fashion, incorporating them into the world of faith. In this way, R. Kook enriched and expanded the palace of Torah. [9]

I believe this is what should be occurring in our times. Similar to R. Kook, our spiritual flourishing must develop as a result of the struggle with the secular world of today. However, the contemporary secular world is very different than the one R. Kook faced. In many respects, the encounter with secularism is today much more problematic. Nowadays, we are up against ideas of critique and negation, and not movements like Socialism and Nationalism that still retained elements of religious pathos. Nevertheless, it is up to us to realize that the depth of the dispute intensifies the potential for growth to arise and the possibility to draw down the Divine presence; a chance for a more real encounter with Godliness. This growth is especially possible through contact with the strange world beyond us.

I will quote once again from Rebbe Nahman:

Know, that dispute is an aspect of the creation of the world. The main part of the world’s creation is through the eternal void, for without that void, everything would be only infinite, without room for our created world to exist. Thus, God contracted the [Divine] light to the margins, leaving a void between, and within this void. All of creation exists – time and God’s manifestations – by way of the Divine word: “by the word of God, the world was created” (Ps. 33).

The concept of dispute is similar, because if all Torah scholars were in unified agreement, there would also not be room for creation. Only through their many disputes, and the divisions between them, each one pulling to their ‘side’ is a kind of void, an empty space created between them – an aspect of the Divine contraction, which the world was created by (Divine) speech…[10]

According to the Arizal, God contracted Himself in order for a world apart from Him to be created. Prior to creation, the Divine light filled every possible space, illuminating all of existence. Rebbe Nahman utilizes and expands upon this as a metaphor for dispute between sages.

It is possible to explain this further through an insight drawn from the philosophy of Leibniz.[11] In general, we perceive the void as a space within which entities are contained. In distinction, Leibniz contends that the void is the space between those entities. That is, the distance between them creates that space, and that space is not the container that preceded those entities, but rather the distance between them itself. This is why we would never be able to describe a space completely devoid of anything. The void is instead actually the result of the entities, which give it structure. If there were ever an absolutely empty space, it would not exist.

Rebbe Nahman explains the concept of dispute in a similar fashion, transforming dispute into a metaphysical concept, which created the world. Dispute is what enables the void in which our world took form. From this perspective, homogeneity is not something positive, because it shrinks the space of existence. So long as there is a multiplicity of divergent opinions, the plane of existence is broad, and in turn, the world makes room for it.

Some have sanctified war because of this view. In war, they saw the possibility for the development and progression of culture. In their opinion, a harmonistic worldview that strives for universal peace ignores the singular, unique, and exceptional qualities possessed by each nation or way of life. Peace whitewashes all of these with a broad brush, delimiting the possibility of for diversity. Even if such a harmony preserves the individual and the details, it is still under the rubric of a totalizing and encompassing philosophy. According to Rebbe Nahman, the ability to maintain diversity is specifically located within dispute, struggle, and argument.[12]

Even R. Kook himself affirmed this in his essay “On War”.[13]  For him, “wars serve to amplify the unique values of every nation, until their form stands out and all the deep details of [their values] find practical expression… the national nature of ecclesia Israel is revealed…”   This is essentially the same idea we saw from Rebbe Nahman: flourishing in this regard is a product of opposition. Only dispute and struggle create that wider space wherein every perspective can expand and develop.

[1] See Hovot ha-Levavot, Gate 5, ch. 5

[2]Mishnah Torah, Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.

[3] See Moreh Nevukhim, 3:32, and R. Shagar’s essay “History and Messianism According to Maimonides”, Nehalekh be-Regesh, pp. 75-90

[4] From the Festival liturgy.

[5] See R. Shagar’s essay in Nehalekh b’Regesh on לא נשכח ולא נסלח

[6]Hayyei MoHaRaN, 402. See now Likkutei MoHaRaN, 1:161 – “dispute raises and uplifts a person, because ‘man is a tree of the field’ (Deut. 20), and when a tree on the ground cannot raise itself up unless water is poured all over it, it is the water which raises and uplifts the tree, and dispute (=mahloket) is called water, as it is written: “They came round about me like water all the day; They compassed me about together” (Ps. 88:18);

Rebbe Nahman could have picked a much more obvious verse, cited in the Talmudic sugyah about compromise in judgement (b. Sanhedrin 6b): “The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water; Therefore leave off contention, before the quarrel break out” (Prov. 17:14), however may have opted for a different prooftext because of the more negative valence of dispute in the latter verse, which actually argues for ‘stopping up’ the dispute before it boils over. [JR]

[7]Hayyei MoHaRaN, 401

[8] See R. Hayyim Vital, Peri Etz Hayyim, the gate of lulav no. 2. See further R. Shagar’s discourse on “the hug of the sukkah” in be-Tzel ha-Emunah, pp. 93-94 and “I, too, have praised joy”, ad loc., pp. 139-144.

[9] That is, in the Hegelian understanding, made up of negation, assimilation, and elevation.

[10]Likkutei MoHaRaN, 1:64(4).

[11] See A. Weinrib, From Rationalism to Empiricism: Trends in Philosophy of the 17th and 18th Centuries [Heb.] (Tel Aviv, 1990), pp. 164-170.

[12] See “Peace and Covenant” in R. Shagar’s A Time for Freedom [Heb.], pp. 57-61. There, too, R. Shagar deals with tension between religious faith and peace. See further “A Dispute for the Sake of Heaven”, in The Shadow of Faith [Heb.], pp. 209-225.

[13] See Orot (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), pp. 13-18, esp. p. 15, and see Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossd Harav Kook, 1985), vol. 1, p. 15.

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