Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedi identity > Shavuot and the Multicultural Threat

Shavuot and the Multicultural Threat

The violence that has flared up between Arabs and Jews in Israel is symptomatic of a deep need for social reform. Rather than peaceful coexistence, multiculturalism has fostered just the opposite. The festival of Shavuot has a powerful lesson to teach us concerning how to achieve national unity.

It is hard to foresee the long-term implications of Israel’s current military campaign against the Hamas terror organization. Based on past experience, however, it seems safe to assume that these will not be dramatic. The pattern is well known. We hope and pray that Israel will inflict maximum damage to Hamas military infrastructures while minimizing casualties and damage on the home front. Ultimately, a ceasefire arrangement will be reached, and we will settle down again to years—as many as possible—of uneasy quiet.

By contrast, on the question of Israeli-Arab relations after operation “Guardian of the Walls” will end, we have precious little experience from which to draw. The rioting in mixed cities such as Lod (in particular), Jaffa, Acre, Jerusalem, and beyond, is unprecedented in recent years. Yair Revivo, mayor of Lod, has compared the situation to the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 Nazi Germany, lamenting the collapse of decades-long efforts toward coexistence. Other victims of Arab lynch mobs have compared the incidents to the 1929 massacres at Hebron.

These comparisons are likely to be exaggerations, yet they vent the deep shock of Jewish Israelis that such incidents can take place in the heart of the Jewish state. Given tens of synagogues that were set ablaze, hundreds of cars set alight, and thousands of Jews forced to huddle indoors for fear of violent assault by roaming thugs—which on many occasions spilled into private homes—harsh questions of co-existence must indeed be raised.

Yet, although the Israeli case has a unique setting, the pictures of anarchist rioting do not look unfamiliar from an international perspective. Black rioting in the USA, the “yellow vests” protests in France, anti-government rioting in Holland—all these (and others) resemble the kind of rioting Israel saw last week. It seems there is a common denominator between them, one that defines the breakdown of a cohesive society, and threatens not only Israel but much of the West.

Before our eyes, we are beholding the dangers latent in a multicultural approach that celebrates difference alone rather than diversity within a framework of commonality, encouraging each ethnic or cultural group to seek its self-interest alone

Before our eyes, we are beholding the dangers latent in a multicultural approach that celebrates difference alone rather than diversity within a framework of commonality, encouraging each ethnic or cultural group to seek its self-interest alone. The upcoming festival of Shavuot reminds us that the Jewish People embody a different social model and that as a Jewish State, Israel would do well to remember it.

 

Love and Freedom

At the end of his most famous song, the renowned French (and Jewish) singer Georges Moustaki sharpens the contradiction he found between freedom and love:

My freedom
Yet I left you
A December night
I deserted
The far-off paths
That we wandered together
When, unsuspecting,
My hands and feet bound,
I let myself go
And I betrayed you
For a prison of love
And its beautiful jailkeeper.

In Moustaki’s eyes, the institutionalization of a love relationship is akin to imprisonment—albeit in the company of a beautiful jailkeeper. While Moustaki limits his comments to the institution of marriage, the same mindset applies readily to social institutions generally. “Man is born free,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “but he is everywhere in chains”—the word everywhere referring to social institutions such as family, community, and state. All of these, alongside marriage, of course, curtail our freedom. They prevent us from being ourselves, from being “truly free.”

Today, even marriage is commonly understood as a contractual arrangement between independent parties. Yet contracts, as the “efficient breach” theory demonstrates, are fragile things and easily broken

Rousseau’s solution to the angst of our social shackles was the social contract—an idea he did not invent, but which he employed in his own way by defining a “general will” whose imposition would free people rather than imprison them. Today, even marriage is commonly understood as a contractual arrangement between independent parties. Yet contracts, as the “efficient breach” theory demonstrates, are fragile things and easily broken. France found this out the painful way as its Rousseauian revolution crumbled under its own weight, and too many couples find this out as their marriages fail when things don’t go quite as planned.

Rather than the contractual model, the Talmudic Sages present a Jewish vision—of marriage and even of society—that looks entirely different.

 

Contract and Covenant

The Psalmist states: “God settles the solitary in a house; he brings out the prisoners into prosperity” (Tehillim 68:7). Departing from the reading of the verse in context, the Talmudic Sages interpret the words as referring to the institution of marriage: God redeems singles from their captivity by bringing them together to form a home (Sanhedrin 22a). What is bondage for Moustaki is for the Sages liberty.

These contrasting visions of marriage, one as bondage and the other as freedom, are contingent on how the bond of marriage is defined. The distinction can be summed up as the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract ties both parties in a joint framework of laws and regulations, defining the relationship in terms of obligation and right. A covenant, too, has its rules and regulations. But instead of limiting and restricting the parties to its narrow straights, a covenant brings them greater freedom.

In a contractual relationship, parties retain their absolute independence from one another. Each continues to pull in its own direction, seeking to maximize its own benefit and gains—yet it does so in the legal framework defined by the contract. Wedlock, in this vision, is an expedient arrangement for both parties, and they enter marriage with a view to realizing self-interests of pleasure, joy, children, financial stability, and so on.

Entry into a covenant involves a broadening of each party’s self, rather than the legal contraction of each party for the gain of mutual benefit. A covenant with another expands the scope of my own existence

This is not the case for a covenant. Entry into a covenant involves a broadening of each party’s self, rather than the legal contraction of each party for the gain of mutual benefit. A covenant with another expands the scope of my own existence: I am not merely a person, but rather a spouse; not only an individual but a family or a community. Associates to a covenant are not one another’s jailkeepers, but partners in the deepest sense.

When a covenant is true, parties to it empower one another to step outside and beyond their own borders. It enables them to transcend their own personality and their close and familiar world and to embrace an infinite journey. It is freedom, not bondage.

 

The Torah Covenant

The Mishnah (Taanis 4:8) refers to the giving of the Torah as a marriage day and the event of Sinai as a marriage ceremony. The Torah is thus placed in the framework of a covenant; its Divine giving and human acceptance are acts of covenant, just as the giving and acceptance of a wedding ring. Indeed, Scripture refers to the Torah on several occasions as Sefer Ha-Bris, the “book of the covenant” (Shemos 24:7; Devarim 7).

Although the Jewish People’s national relationship with God was inaugurated at the redemption from Egypt, it was institutionalized at Sinai with the giving of the Torah. At this point, it became a covenant. With the Torah, the covenant God first struck with the Patriarchs was transferred to Israel as a national institution.

The covenant between God and Israel, struck at Sinai with the giving of the Torah, brings us the liberty of a transcendent, Divine perspective. The Torah covenant takes us beyond the confines that earthly existence imposes—beyond the limits of space and time, and beyond the constraints of our own humanity

This can allow us to understand another well-known teaching of the Sages, who write that the Torah is the key to human freedom. The verse writes: “The tablets were the work of God, and the script the script of God, engraved upon the tablets” (Shemot 32:16). On this, the Sages comment: “Do not read ‘engraved’ (harut), but rather ‘freedom’ (herut)—for there is no free person other than he who is occupied with the study of Torah.”

The covenant between God and Israel, struck at Sinai with the giving of the Torah, brings us the liberty of a transcendent, Divine perspective. The Torah covenant takes us beyond the confines that earthly existence imposes—beyond the limits of space and time, and beyond the constraints of our own humanity. Like marriage, which grants us eternity by means of the children we bring into the world, so our union with God brings us new life, a new eternity.

 

The Multicultural Danger

As the nation encamped at Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse (Shemot 19:2) uses the singular term “[Israel] encamped” (vayihan), instead of the plural “[they] encamped” (vayahanu). Citing the Midrash, Rashi famously comments that the Jewish People reached a unique level of unity, “as one person with one heart.”

This unity is directly related to the covenant between God and Israel. A covenantal relationship requires us to make space within ourselves for the other. If our attention is wholly taken up by our own drives and desires, our engagement with others cannot get beyond the contractual. Covenant requires us to look beyond ourselves, to expand beyond ourselves by allowing somebody else into our lives. Rabbi Akiva thus declared that “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) is the great principle of Torah (Jerusalem Talmud 30b)—for if we cannot make space for others in our lives, we will surely be unable to make space for God.

A covenant cannot be struck without a deep commonality, a joint mission or purpose that transcends the instrumental and penetrates our sense of identity and being. In the case of the Jewish People, this covenantal unity was achieved at Sinai, in preparation for receiving the Torah—the glue that for millennia held us together even through the hardships and tribulations of exile. For other nations, it can be something else—religion, civic values, national culture. But it cannot be the common denominator of living a simple, earthly existence—putting bread on the table. For the sake of putting bread on the table, each for his own self and family, we can at most enter a contractual deal. We cannot strike a covenant.

The multicultural ethos empowers each group and sub-group to “be itself”—each with its own religion, ethos, culture, value system, and every other meaningful human parameter. What, if so, remains to serve as the glue to bind groups together in one society, in one state?

Herein lies the danger of multiculturalism, whose failure seems to be currently striking at the heart of Arab-Israeli coexistence in Israel. The multicultural ethos empowers each group and sub-group to “be itself”—each with its own religion, ethos, culture, value system, and every other meaningful human parameter. What, if so, remains to serve as the glue to bind groups together in one society, in one state? For Will Kymlicka, the answer might be the liberal ethos itself, the idea of autonomy, and toleration of the other’s autonomy. I doubt this can be a strong enough adhesive anywhere, but in the Middle East, it certainly cannot do.

We are left with the common cause of “putting bread on the table.” Though a noble goal, this lowest common denominator is cannot constitute a covenantal relationship. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is an extreme realization of the social contract idea. Bereft of a national covenant, it relies on a contract of mutual interest to keep the peace. As recent events in Israel demonstrate, among events around the world, this is not sufficient to prevent tribal warfare.

President Reuben Rivlin has been instrumental in promoting a vision of tribes—the Four Tribes of Israel (the secular, the religion-Zionist, the Haredi, and the Arab). The Arab “tribe,” and to a lesser degree the Haredim, ostensibly stand to gain much from the vision: they can maintain their own culture and value system even as they opt out of partnership in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People. Ultimately, however, all stand to lose as society disintegrates into its constituent tribes and sub-tribes, and Israel effectively ceases to function as the “nation-state of the Jewish People.”

If we are strong in our vision of Israel as a Jewish state—and I believe that as they become more involved and integrated, Haredim can play a central part in this vision—the Arab minority, which will continue to enjoy equal individual rights and freedoms, will both respect Israel and even take pride in their Israeli identity

If we are strong in our vision of Israel as a Jewish state—and I believe that as they become more involved and integrated, Haredim can play a central part in this vision—the Arab minority, which will continue to enjoy equal individual rights and freedoms, will both respect Israel and even take pride in their Israeli identity. But if we are weak in our identity, inclining toward a multicultural state of convenience with some Jewish symbolism attached, then we stand to lose even the most instrumental of purposes: the defense of the Jewish people.

 

Between Pesach and Shavuot

In the Pesach-Shavuot continuum, it seems the two holidays represent two concepts of freedom. The first, celebrated on Pesach, is freedom from oppression. No longer slaves of Pharaoh and Egypt, we became free to worship the One God. The second, the festival of Shavuot, is freedom not merely from the constraints of others, but even from those imposed on us by our circumstances and by our human nature.

The first freedom is achieved by the defeat of our enemies. The second is achieved by means of a covenantal relationship—first and foremost with God, but also with our spouses, our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow countrymen—the entire Jewish People. These relationships are the key to the entire Torah; they empower us to escape the straits of solitude, to go towards an infinity we sometimes conceal even from our own selves. Without them, we run the risk of coming apart at the seams. As a society, a nation, and a state confronted by deep challenges, we need them today more than ever.

***

We opened with one song; we will conclude with another, this time from R. Yehuda Ha-Levi:

Slaves of time—they are slaves of slaves;
A slave of God, he truly is free.
Therefore, as each soul requests his part
“The part of God” shall my soul shout.

Modern serfdom, the serfdom of the free, is slavery to circumstances. We are trapped by our place and time, by trends of thought and fashions of speech, and by the narrowness of our own vision. Torah empowers us—empowers humanity—to rise beyond these boundaries, to transcend the transient, and experience a new dimension of freedom.

Entering a covenant does not mean giving up our freedom; it means gaining it. In the case of Israel, it even means gaining our national freedom—to realize our national right of self-expression, to be who we really are.

Shavuot provides us with an opportunity to reflect and to contemplate on this special freedom—the freedom of covenant, of breaking personal boundaries by joining with others. Entering a covenant does not mean giving up our freedom; it means gaining it. In the case of Israel, it even means gaining our national freedom—to realize our national right of self-expression, to be who we really are.

 


Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

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