Each and every letter in a Torah scroll symbolizes an individual human being. Just as a Sefer Torah is incomplete if even one letter is missing, so too is all of creation incomplete if even one person is excluded by others.
So teaches a most profound idea of Musar, the Jewish discipline of ethical and spiritual development. The power in this teaching is that every single letter of Torah reflects the inherent holiness within each human individual, and likewise, the diversity of creation itself is a reflection of the Torah’s holiness.
In the wake of the AIPAC/IfNotNow standoff last month, I have been thinking a lot about this teaching as a religious response to the widening chasm in the Jewish world. Over the past weeks, I have witnessed conversations devolve into contests over who can cherry-pick the “right” biblical verse to show that “all” of Jewish thought somehow agrees with their view, or who can summon the best Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote to support their cause.
I want to share two exchanges illustrative of this divide that I have been unable to shake off: In one, an INN supporter told a rabbinical student that should this future-rabbi not make an active and vocal opposition of the occupation a central part of their rabbinate, there would be no place whatsoever in their community for this individual. In the other, an AIPAC supporter told a group of progressive Zionists that because of their critical love for Israel and anti-occupation stance, they should find a term other than “Zionist” to refer to themselves.
As these debates reverberate, a question has been gnawing at me: is there something profoundly un-Jewish about the way we are navigating this gulf?
Why? Each of these stances essentializes and condemn the identity of the person identified as opposite. Each posture creates a litmus test which says: unless you agree with me, then you’re not good enough for me.
As anyone remotely concerned about Israel can attest, these interactions are not unique or isolated. They are very much reflective of the increasing ossification within the Jewish world vis a vis Israel.
I want to suggest that the reason these exchanges (and the wider paradigms they reflect) do not reflect the best of what Judaism has to offer can be found in the very banner which INN uses to proclaim their resistance against AIPAC:
I don’t know whether INN had Musar in mind when they designed their graphic, but this powerful image of a Sefer Torah constructed out of a diversity of people is actually a perfect illustration of the moving teaching about the Torah and human holiness.
It prompts some uncomfortable questions: What about all the people dismissed from that Torah? In our debating over Israel, how many people are we excluding from a life of holiness?
Too much of the discourse on Israel and the occupation seeks to exclude others. Too much of our resistance against ideas or actions which we find to be morally unconscionable is having the side-effect of expunging the holiness inherent in each of us.
One of the core ideas of Musar is that we can combat divisiveness and work to increase holiness and inclusivity by balancing our capacity for judgement (Din) with our capacity for kindness (Chesed).
Yes, our passion to rectify ills in the world must indeed come from a place of judgment. But if it is only rooted in Din, without any Chesed, then it becomes far too easy for us to diminish the worthiness of each human being as one of God’s holy creations. I see this when we reduce others to but one part of the totality of their identity, when we operate with an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality, or when we deny the lived experiences of others.
Our vision of a more perfect world must be tempered by self-reflection and an ability to acknowledge the impact of how we treat those closest to us. As Jews, we’re blessed with something of an inbuilt way to do this.
What combination of Din and Chesed does this moment in history call for?
As I see it, we have an overabundance of Din, and are desperately in need of some Chesed. What we need is a willingness to acknowledge and confront hard truths, from a posture of love, kindness, and openness to the holiness inherent in every single human being as a creature of God.