In general, the casual divisiveness we’ve witnessed in today’s society has led to an increased oversimplification of reality, when the reality is not so black and white. True, there are certain maxims which merit a touch of black-and-whiteness; murder is evil. Stealing is evil. But when it comes to humans, it is anything but black and white. Although the trend of modern discourse is to neatly divide people into two groups – Left and Right, good and evil, etc. – this doesn’t work when it comes to humans. Those who are intent on sowing division and planting people firmly in one of two camps do an injustice to human nature.
It is commonplace now to resort to finger-pointing, accusations, public defamation, or generalizations – on both sides. The natural consequences of these kinds of attitudes are worrisome. Someone who is perceived to be on the opposing side of the political spectrum is considered evil, and does not deserve respect. And, even more frightening, the logical consequence of this is that his or her life is expendable.
It is not so far-fetched. How many forums engage in ruthlessly abusive discourse? The comment wars one sees online make Nazi propaganda look tame by comparison. We have reduced each other to unworthy sub-humans. One could say this is what they deserve if they truly have engaged in evil – perhaps if they are serial killers, sex traffickers, or the like. But our cruel and vicious speech toward one another, assuming most conversations are happening between average folk who aren’t psychotic murderers, is one of the most destructive forces of our time. Do you think what you say doesn’t matter since it’s online? If someone else is seeing it, it has as much weight as speaking it out loud. And according to Jewish thought, even allowing such thoughts to take over one’s mind is destructive.
We are in the midst of the Three Weeks, and baseless hatred, sinat chinam, is the topic of interest at the moment. Why? Because it is baseless hatred between Jews which led to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile. In general, it is abundantly clear throughout the Torah that we, as Jews, have a bad habit of being quite vile to one another. And G-d is unequivocal in His condemnation of an evil tongue.
There are six things that the Lord hates, and the seventh is an abomination of His soul; Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood; a heart that thinks thoughts of violence; feet that hasten to run to evil; [one who] speaks lies with false testimony and incites quarrels among brothers.Proverbs 6:16-19
Unity is essential now more than ever. It is not realistic to expect that we can all be harmonious if we believe we must all agree with one another. Disagreements are natural and are part of a healthy discourse. But we can, and should, express our disagreement in a respectful way. We need to be able to communicate openly, willing to listen to one another and agreeing to disagree if it comes to that, which it often does. We can communicate our differences in opinion and perspective in a non-aggressive way. When you engage in accusations, generalizations, and outright disrespect of another’s humanity, you are sowing division. This is antithetical to the tenets of Judaism.
There are ideas held by Jews which are antithetical to the Torah. If you are a Jew who understands what the Torah commands us to do, you are obligated to bring the Torah’s truth into the conversation and into this world. However, while doing so, you should understand that you are speaking to another Jew for whom the Torah is as much an inheritance as it is for you.
With this in mind, you should always approach another Jew with Ahavat Yisrael. Rabbi Akiva taught that Ahavat Yisrael is the most important commandment. Instead of baseless hatred, we must engage in baseless love. If you don’t agree with someone’s perspective, it doesn’t give you the excuse to dehumanize them, disrespect them, or humiliate them.
We need unity among our people. But unity does not mean uniformity. Before we sing kumbaya and hold hands, we have to understand what unity really means. Unity means being able to recognize our different perspectives while recognizing the common base which unites us as a people; Hashem, and the fact that He made us a people when He gave us the Torah. Even if every single Jew accepts this as their base, which ultimately it is whether they choose it or not, we can’t possibly entertain the notion that everything will be perfectly harmonious. The Talmud itself is full of argumentative discourse about what different concepts or verses of the Torah mean, but it isn’t filled with hate-filled diatribe, insults, or accusations. I’m sure such certain things were said occasionally, but it was not the norm.
Division and polarization are particularly serious issues for us as Jews. It is something we should reflect on during these Three Weeks. One who sows discord is destructive to the nation’s health, and a nation which is internally divided cannot stand. If we as Jewish people hope for unity, the ingathering of the exiles, and peace, then we must learn to work with each other.
The exile is perpetuated by our own errors. And while there are certainly major practical aspects to the exile – namely, the need for Aliyah en masse – there are also many spiritual aspects to the present exile. We are much more in control of our destiny than we realize. We must address both the practical and the spiritual issues of our current exile, since both aspects feed and sustain the other.
There are many Jews who sit in exile, on the sidelines of Israel, bashing secularism and complaining about the State of Israel. If the religious Jews in exile were to move en masse to Israel, perhaps they would have a fighting chance at making changes. They could move into society, engage in the political process, and influence the trajectory of Israeli culture and norms simply by being there. Instead, many find it much easier to condemn and to disparage.
And, simultaneously, there are Jews in Israel who deride religiosity, who laugh at the idea of the Torah as a framework for Israeli society. They look down their nose at anyone with religious beliefs and attempt to force their viewpoints on society at large. They dehumanize and demonize the religious, a vicious habit which both sides unfortunately share – and everyone suffers for it.
Then there are the Jews within Israel who dismiss all exiled Jews as useless nudniks who should just be cut off from the people already. They are washing their hands of Diaspora Jews and in some instances suggesting that the anti-Semitism they face is deserved and somehow good for them.
Not only do all parties mentioned here generalize several million Jews, who come from all sorts of different backgrounds, but they are disrespecting and disregarding each other’s humanity. They essentially decided to wash their hands of each other, lumping people into one giant category of those no-good Jews.
While we destroy each other with our words by accusing, insulting, and generalizing, we perpetuate the exile which has persisted for too long. Sure, it’s a different kind of exile now. We have the opportunity, at long last, to enter the Land. But what did it take to establish ourselves there again?
It took unity. The recognition that no matter where someone stood on the political or religious spectrum, we were one nation and we must defend one another. This is exactly what many Jews throughout Israel and Europe did leading up to and during the Holocaust.
Did the Jews of the early State of Israel cross their arms and dismiss the Jews dying in Europe? Did they say, “Well, they didn’t come sooner, so they deserve it. We’re fine here, there’s no point in getting them.” No, absolutely not! There were, throughout the war, concerted efforts to save their brethren. Did it matter whether they were religious, nonreligious, communist, fascists? Nope. Many Jews smuggled other Jews out of Europe and into Israel, at the risk of losing their own lives. Some Jews, like Hannah Szenes, immigrated to Israel (before it was officially a state), only to return to Europe to save her fellow Jews.
Many of those who went to save their brothers and sisters were so-called “secular” Jews. They risked their lives to save other Jews, displaying the truest form of Ahavat Yisrael. They did not balk, and they didn’t wash their hands of their fellow Jews being destroyed in Europe.
Let us live up to these heroes who died defending our people and our Land. Let us stop engaging in destructive speech, and reach across the divide to recognize our common humanity, our common Jewish soul, our one G-d who implores us to love one another. We are Am Echad, we are one nation. Let us strive for unity, for redemption, and for an ingathering of the exiles.
Hinda Leah Sheyman (AKA Helena Hawkins) is a dual American and Israeli citizen currently living in California. She and her husband plan to return to their true home, Israel, in the near future, and plant roots there once and for all.