Stop Being So Triggered. This Yom Kippur, Commit To Ending The Outrage
There are, in our world, forces of light and forces of darkness. We want to stand with one and against the other. But is that where we want to be standing on Yom Kippur?
It is a perennial question, but more cutting today. Many of us took the post-Cold War liberal consensus, in which most any dispute has a reasonable middle and politics is not a zero-sum game, as basic truth; yet today it is fractured, likely gone, and turns out to have been a comforting, but cruel, illusion. Jews, left and right, are on the ideological barricades, going at each other with greater ferocity than most of us can remember.
It’s a hell of a way to go into Yom Kippur.
Yet Yom Kippur is the day of truth, and forgiveness and brotherhood mean nothing if you can’t pray for them looking your enemies in the face.
History, the saying goes, doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Jews have savaged one another before, and not too long ago.
So blinding is the unifying power of the the trauma of the Holocaust, and the ups and downs of Israel, that we lose sight of the Jewish civil wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The dual Jewish collapse, of religious commitment from within and communal identity from without, coupled with terrifying new kinds of violence and dizzying new ideas and technologies scrambled familiar categories, yielding Orthodoxy, Assimilationism, the Reform Movement, Socialism, Liberalism, Nationalism, and of course Zionism mixing and matching and with them all.
Jewish ideological struggles were bitter and fierce (just read through the digital newspaper collection of the National Library in Jerusalem, and you’ll get an idea) and sometimes downright violent.
Different Jewish thinkers tried to think through their times, in ways that would point beyond their moment while making sense of the present. One of the most remarkable and consequential was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Born in 1865, dying in 1935, he’s best-known as founder of the Chief Rabbinate and the essential thinker of Religious Zionism, though in many ways those are the least interesting things about him.
Coming on Aliyah from Eastern Europe in 1904, he found himself at the center of ideological conflicts, and tried, with vast learning, theological daring and a commitment to conciliation, to find a way to forge some kind of peace while honoring the integrity of genuine disagreement.
In a mix of insight and empathy, astounding for a major halakhist and pillar of Rabbinic tradition, he saw that modern Jewish chaos wasn’t just a catastrophe imposed by gentiles or depraved rebellions by sinners; it was the birth of new answers, however incomplete, to genuine moral and spiritual problems, answers whose bearers were the varied, warring parties of his time. And he threw himself into a massive work of reconciliation.
Versed in philosophy, steeped in the Kabbalah he was deeply aware of God’s presence in every human being. No relativist or conventional liberal, Rav Kook believed that there is such a thing as The Truth, but that it is multi-faceted and practically beyond human comprehension. All the various factions, parties and ideologies express God’s own complexity in this fragmented world. That recognition makes for the humility that brakes the inherent violence of ultimate conviction.
In a famous essay, he wrote, arrestingly, that three forces are at work within all people: “the holy, the nation, humanity.” The revolutionary changes of modern times have torn them apart, yielding, among Jews, three different, regularly antagonistic currents — nationalism, liberalism and Orthodoxy.
All three have truth on their side, and must try to appreciate one another — not by wishing away disagreement but recognizing the integrity of each other’s positions: Nationalism’s rootedness in real love of one’s community, Orthodoxy’s rootedness in a flaming desire for God, liberalism’s rootedness in an ultimately divine perspective on all humanity as created in God’s image.
Synthesizing all three — religious commitment, national identity and ethical universalism — is, Kook continues, a sacred energy deriving from and driven by God, Whose truths are larger than us all.
Deeply inspiring as these teachings are, they are from a different time. Rav Kook died in 1935, before the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and the unprecedented condition of American Jewry. Before TV, let alone Facebook and Twitter. He was not only idealist and optimist, but frankly Messianist, with faith that the seething conflicts he saw were brought by God to the surface so as to bring them to sacred resolution.
But some of his teachings are fresh as ever — including those about anger. It was a topic about which he knew a thing or two, since his dual embrace of tradition and revolution made him the target of bitter, often vicious personal attack. As Rav kook wrote in a typical passage from Shemonah Qevatzim,
We must hate anger with all the depth of our being, with great anger, but moderate, and settled, we must hate the spiritual anger, that jumbles the mind, and cancels all the advantages of being human, individual and collective. When we see any group always expressing itself in anger, it’s a sign that it has no understanding, no content with which to fill its emptiness, that in truth it’s angry with itself, but that egoism (sic) comes and forces it to deposit the venom of its anger on others. The higher sages, who have reached the height of justice and kindness, are full of will, and kindness and truth garland them all the days.
One thing we can all agree on — left and right, and if we’re honest with ourselves — is that anger is the defining passion of our day, weaponized, with bottomless cynicism, for political gain, financial greed and sheer malevolent fun.
What’s more, the ideological combatants for whom Rav Kook wrote were all, each in their way in those tortured decades, passionately committed to Jewish survival, physical and cultural, willing to live out their commitments and live with the consequences. Today’s anger is cheap and easy even as its consequences are poison.
Rav Kook understood that anger for anger’s sake, anger untethered to a positive vision of the good, in which my opponent has no options beside submission and humiliation, has nothing to do with goodness; it is all about me and my ego, and is open rebellion against God. To let anger run free is to join the Forces of Darkness.
That is a teaching to whose judgment we all, whatever our politics, can submit ourselves, on Yom Kippur.
Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press). He tweets @YehudahMirsky.