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I was and remain impressed, for I do believe that an essential aspect of the Jewish experience is living with the competing claims of the particular and the universal, accepting the tension between them as an inspiring given. Indeed, exactly that may be our most solemn and enduring purpose.
But Rabbi Sacks spoke at Harvard again just last week, and there’s now a curdling at the edges of his argument: “There has to be a divine society somewhere,” he said, “in order for God to be accessible everywhere. That is what the Jews tried to do during the Biblical era, and that I think what our greatest aspiration for the State of Israel is.”
I have no idea what the first sentence means, and the second sentence strikes me as dangerous: In light of everything now happening in Israel, to aspire that Israel become in any meaningful sense a “divine society” promotes just the kind of flaccid messianism that is bound to mess with our minds. More, does not the suggestion that Israel ought aspire to be “home base” for the divine end up tilting the enterprise in the direction of particularism? Sacks wants us to demonstrate that “particularism need not lead to a sense of superiority.” No, it need not — but as the mounting data remind us these days, it all too often does. Rabbi Sacks and I most likely agree, in large part, on what “divine” means. But obviously, it means something very, very different, something quite malign, to an important swath of Israeli Jews. These days, I tremble when people invoke the divine as the source of their beliefs and actions.
Can we not settle instead on a more modest aspirational agenda, homey virtues such as an effort to be more just and decent, to ensure everyone a bit of dignity and a loaf of bread, to exalt kindness and internalize humility? Such an agenda is healing, authentic, challenging — and, for now, sufficient.