Alon Goshen-Gottstein - "Everything is cast into question, as a result of recent events."

Alon Goshen-Gotstein

Source: Alon Goshen-Gottstein, The Times of Israel

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.

Repairing the breach: An invitation to reflection

The Challenge

It is part of human nature to account for events and to make sense of them. We cannot remain without reason. Perhaps it would be better to postpone all attempts at making sense of the horror of these days till we have some distance, till the dead are buried, till the war is over. But the fact is that all around us “explanations” spring up, often in the form of blame of the other. If we do not seek some higher meaning, then baser interpretations of the moment will fill the vacuum.

With great trepidation I offer what I think is the first attempt to open up what should be an ongoing conversation regarding the religious meaning and response to the horrors we are experiencing. I do so not because I have the answers, but because I am willing to think through some tough questions, based on my theological formation and my own reading of the possible meaning of the moment. I’d like to open up a conversation meant (only) for people who share similar faith foundations.

Two Common Explanations

Two prominent theories are in circulation. Both are valid in their own way, but neither is fully adequate and they fall short of the kind of religious response and theological reflection that the moment calls for. Both relate the horrendous events Israel has experienced to the past 9 months. The one focuses on government, its integrity and functionality. A corrupt and self-serving leadership will be blind to the consequences of its actions. Such blindness has brought about Israel’s present suffering. Cause and effect are direct and do not require metaphysical explanations. The problem, of course, is that this explanation relies on the views of one side within divided Israel. Even if there is truth to it, it cannot provide a framework for broader reflection for society at large.

The second theory also draws on the events of past months, but seeks to gain a point of neutrality from which to see them. It is hatred and division among ourselves that have brought the onslaught of the enemy, that has sensed our weakness. This is the ruling paradigm among secular and religious voices, and it is accompanied by a call to unity. Again, there may be truth in this interpretation. It is framed within a narrow period of time and suggests some direct connection between cause and effect, even if the causality is less clear than that of the previous explanation. (Why should our internal divisions have brought upon us a horror of such magnitude, and why did so many things go wrong, making it possible?).

Developing a Religious Response

Without minimizing the serious lessons suggested above, I’d like to take a different approach, more consciously religious, drawing on classical paradigms and seeking a way to speak religiously in the face of the horror. IN addition to being explicitly religious it has the advantage of relating to long-term processes, much like the attack of the enemy, rather than being seen exclusively through the lens of the present government. Two introductions are necessary, one on theological thinking, the other on the reading of the moment.

Jewish theological thinking is grounded in the biblical paradigm of reward and punishment. It informs the Bible, our liturgy, our entire religious orientation. If something goes wrong, we must discover our sins and repent. Punishment, and the suffering it engenders, is not a goal in and of itself. It is part of a broader process of transformation that the individual and the collective undergo as a result of punishment and suffering. We cannot get away from this paradigm, but it is increasingly hard to apply it in its original biblical sense. The problem is one of justice and speaks to the nature of God. Since the holocaust it has become harder, if not impossible, to account for suffering, immense suffering, in terms of sin and punishment. One cannot see God’s justice when the righteous die and when evil is manifest to such an extreme degree. Similarly, it is very hard, even callous, to suggest that there is some direct sense of sin that is visited upon us in recent events. Why these people? What did they do wrong? And what sins would justify such brutal and inhuman deaths? The struggle for maintaining some sense of causality between our actions, our painful history and God’s providence remains one of the biggest challenges of present-day Jewish theology. Our moment is no exception and what follows is but one possible approach to finding a religious language by means of which we may continue to address the horror and suffering in our lives.

The second introduction is, again, religious, but specifically as it relates to a reading of the events of Black Simchat Torah. The two common theories spelled out above do not require God to make sense of the events. They assume or project a causality that is within the human field. Yet, my own understanding of a religious response assumes God is always in the picture. Can we really account for circumstances purely as a series of human errors? The failure of intelligence, combined with the thinning out of army presence, combined with ignoring warnings, combined with an ongoing mass party, combined with other factors – these are not accidental. There are too many points along the way where we would expect the reality to have been different. And if despite these expectations all these factors conspired to bring about the greatest massacre since the holocaust, then we cannot see it as an accident. This too must be seen as something intentional, willed or allowed by God. That, of course, makes the question of religious response all the more urgent. If God was in the picture, then what does this mean for us?

The Shoah and the State

As President Herzog has said, we have not experienced such a moment since the Shoah. The loss of life, massacre and cruelty bring us back to days before the foundation of the State. They also call into question the functioning of the state and its ultimate purpose. If, after 75 years, we face a mini-holocaust on Israeli ground, what does it say about Israel, its success, its vision and its future? Everything is cast into question, as a result of recent events. These require us to look at everything, in our lives, in the State and in the reality that unfolded on that dark Saturday, and to ask what is it telling us, how is it challenging us, what is our response.

I approach the task as follows. I seek clues and pointers in the unfolding story, both of this week’s events and in events that led to them, and I piece them together into a larger view that amounts to an invitation for revisioning and repurposing our collective life here in Israel. To be clear, I do not point an accusing finger, nor do I blame any person or group, even if some of the arguments could be cast in that way. I only look for clues, points of contact, between what has transpired and what might be causes, outcomes or points of reflection, as we seek to imagine a better and more ideal Israel following its hardest moments, ever.

The Breach

The fence was breached. The protective fence that so much went into was breached, not in one but in multiple places, ushering in the greatest massacre since Kishinev. This notion of a breach seems important. It allows me to also address the challenge of how one might talk about the consequences of our actions in relation to the horrors and suffering, while avoiding the straightforward, and somewhat simplistic, model of sin and punishment.

The breach of the physical fence is the pointer to a breach that has occurred on another level. Israel’s existence is miraculous. It defies reason. By all odds, Israel should have been wiped out at many turns, since its foundation. It was not; it was protected. I envision a wall of protection, a spiritual wall of protection, that kept away destructive forces and allowed Israel to grow and flourish. There were wars, there were casualties. Perhaps those too need to be understood in this manner. Yet, there is something unique in the moment, in its horrors and in how it takes back to the holocaust and to our very foundations. In a word, our spiritual protective wall, by means of which God, heaven, the angels, call it what you will, has protected us, has been breached. As in the physical wall, it has been breached at many points, and their accumulation has permitted the horrors. This has allowed the infiltration of the forces of evil, and these have wrought havoc.

As Kabbalists teach us, the real battle is not simply between good actions and bad actions here below, not even between Israel and its enemies. It is ultimately a battle between forces of good and forces of evil (I am not suggesting that all non-Jews are agents of evil). If the unbelievable set of circumstances described above conspired to produce the inconceivable horror, it is because this breach had occurred, and it was allowed to occur. Some may say God did it; I prefer to say God allowed it to happen. The source of the breach, in this view, is something in us, in our being, or in our actions, that led to the removal of divine protection. Karma is useful here. Not the punishment of a God who sits in judgement and decrees death. Rather, a God who allows things to happen, because we have, in some way, created spiritual circumstances and realities that would allow such a breach. God’s protection and watchful eye remain. But they are not a guarantee that no harm will ever befall us. They are the promise that circumstances may lead to such transformation that will usher a better future, in line with God’s deepest hopes for Israel, and ours. The classical view of reward, punishment and repentance is thus transfigured to a view of the accumulative impact of human actions and processes, that ultimately add up to a horrendous present, even as they hold the hope for future realization of Israel’s spiritual mission and goal.

This notion of breaching a our spiritual protective wall allows us to revisit the common explanations of the catastrophe. What these lacked, on the spiritual plane, was the direct causal link between corruption, for the first explanation, and division and hatred for the other, and how these could lead to the catastrophic events of last week. At best, the relationship was psychological. Now we may reconsider these ideas. Spiritual protection is a function of spiritual quality. Losing our spiritual quality could therefore lead to loss of protection. This is particularly so with division and hatred that puncture and sever our protective shield, drawing forth equivalent forces of hatred and destruction.

Smashing our Idols

There are many additional elements in recent events that could point to further causes for the breach. As many have suggested, this is a moment of great humiliation for Israel. Israel has been brought on its knees. It will rise, but that moment of being on our knees in humiliation is an important one. It is contrary to all that is characteristic of Israel. A country that prides itself on strength, military might and an inbuilt sense of superiority is humiliated, humbled. On the one hand, it is what must be overcome as part of our survival strategy. But it also points to one important component, as we query what made possible the breach in our spiritual protection – our hubris. The expressions of collective pride and ego are manifold, extending from leadership to people, from self-understanding to view of other, affirming our superiority in all situations. No longer. For humans to gain a perspective on their reality, to recognize their true size and therefore to learn to rely on God is a key message of the Bible and its faith. The opposite is a form of idolatry. Indeed, there has been an idolatry of the State and its power. An idol has been smashed. (Various dimensions of what idolatry means are explored in the recently published Idolatry: A Contemporary Jewish Conversation and these inform some of my thoughts).

Self-reliance on our power and military might have their insidious consequences on human relations. Certainly, they affect how we treat people of other nations, and how arrogance gives us a false sense of superiority that translates to relations with other peoples. But there are other possible dimensions that enter the puzzle. We talk of holocaust and war; we talk of suffering inflicted upon us in inhumane ways. Yet we must ask: have we been complacent in the infliction of suffering on others? What Israel has to offer to the world is not always wisdom and the world of God. A top military supplier, it has provided much of the military wherewithal that has led to the suffering and small holocausts of other peoples. Consider arms exports to Myanmar and its repressive regime. Consider, more recently, Israel’s role in the suffering that has been wrought upon Armenians, by Israel’s ally, Azerbaijan. Are these morally neutral realities or do they carry karmic consequences? Do they go in line with Israel’s higher purpose or do they contravene it?

Still other elements in recent events point to other idols. The claim has been made that forces were diverted from protection of settlements surrounding Gaza to the protection of settler activities in Judaea and Samaria, such as the outrageous installation of a Sukka in the middle of Palestinian Hawara, site of multiple terror attacks. We seek to settle the Land. But Land can become an idol, and indeed has become an idol in those circles that have preferred it over many core values. How have hubris, a false sense of Jewish superiority and an idolatrous approach to the Land eclipsed fundamental dimensions of the spiritual life that are the foundation and purpose for our life here? If they have, then they provide one more breach of the fence of divine protection.

Other idols translate into ideologies that in turn sow division and cause a warped sense of the whole and its purpose. Torah itself can become an idol, as the expression “loving the Torah more than God”, made famous by Levinas, drawing on a holocaust era text by Yossel Rakover suggests. A direct line follows from haredi ideology to the attempts to weaken the judicial system to the social strife it has generated and to its nefarious consequences. As the war progresses, the challenge of a society split by ideology and carrying an unequal burden, while seeking to affirm unity, becomes greater. The ideological warp of the so-called Torah world is not free from its moral faults. It too is a piece of the puzzle.

The final pointer is the hardest to speak of, because it can easily be misunderstood. I must, once again, make clear that I am not repeating an old haredi trope, theologically abusive and morally insensitive, of blaming catastrophes on Shabbat desecration. But we cannot ignore a fact of the story that invites us to further reflection. I became aware of this point when reading that some of the people who attended the nature party could not reach their families as the families were Shabbat observant. One in five killed attended the nature party. Those who observed the Shabbat, and who did not attend the party, were not massacred. God did not punish these party revelers by having them massacred. That is sacrilegious. Nor have Shabbat observers been spared elsewhere. Yet, one of the pointers towards possible breaches does relate to Shabbat observance. What has happened to that hallowed ideal, enshrined in the ten commandments? How much sanctity do we attach to it, and how much sanctity do we attach to our lives (some have belabored the point further in relation to the party)? If we have to rethink everything in our lives in light of a trauma whose full extent, past and future is still unknown, we cannot turn a blind eye to a principle that has been considered as the cause of the downfall of Israel in earlier periods.

Repairing the Breach

The specifics cues taken from the unfolding of events may be interpreted differently by others. But we must interpret the moment and recognize the ways it calls us to a revision our life here. The classical movement of repentance is seen as a movement of realignment of Israel and its purposes in light of a higher vision that, in some way and to some extent, we have lost. We must strive for the repair of the breach and this must shape our lives.

There is one key factor by means of which the breach can be healed – love. Love is the antidote and protection, a seal against evil. Love is the force that now finds expression in the noble spirit of mutual support. It must become a more fundamental reality in a perpetually divided nation. It must extend to others beyond Israel, as part of Israel’s calling. Above all, the God who allowed the breach to take place is a God of love, not a punishing God of vengeance. He has not abandoned us and he will save us from the destruction that our enemies seek to bring about. God’s love is a discovery that must be made through direct experience. And only through such direct experience can our priorities be realigned, our vision elevated, our idols smashed and the higher purposes for which the State has been created rediscovered.

We are still on our knees. On our knees we remain, as we pray for this.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.