Embrace the gray

Joseph Aaron

Some people think that blue is the ‘Jewish color,’ but I think that gray is.

Gray as in not black and white. Judaism is all about things not being black and white, about wrestling with the gray, understanding that there are no easy solutions, that no one has all the answers, that no Jew or group of Jews is always right, as many groups of Jews like to think and act like they are.

Judaism today suffers from a deficit of gray. Too many Jews are so sure they and only they are right and that anyone and everyone who doesn’t see things as they do is wrong. Too little do we recognize that so much of life, and so much of Judaism, is about understanding that most important things are gray, are to be discussed and debated and wrestled with, acknowledging that all Jews are coming from a place of loving Judaism and loving Israel only that they see things differently, have honest disagreements about what is best.

If we could all only learn to understand that and practice that, think how much healthier Judaism would be, how much more unified the Jewish people would be, how much waste would be saved by us not hating each other, trying to destroy each other, how much time would be saved by us not judging each other, labeling each other.

What brings all this to mind is two things I recently read and a Shabbat lunch I recently was invited to.

The first thing I read was something about the two types of Jews there are in the world. To quote, “there are those who insulate themselves from the opinions of other people. They shut the door to the suggestions of others and close their ears to constructive criticism. Not only do such individuals not develop over the course of their lifetime but they pose a threat to society, especially if they are in positions of leadership.

“But there are others who not only tolerate criticism but seek it out. They know well the 48 qualifications for a Torah scholar. Among them are that he: “love mankind, love righteousness and justice, and love admonishment. That’s right love admonishment, love constructive criticism, love rebuke…He is not ashamed when others alert him to his faults, but uses the input of others to foster self-improvement.”

Interesting no? Today’s Jewish world is one where we seem to stifle admonishment unless it’s one group of self-righteous Jews admonishing another. But oy va voy if you voice any criticism of Israel, of Netanyahu, of rabbis who are said to be learned but don’t act that way.  We have done so much to make like Israel cannot be criticized, that it is somehow an act of love for Israel to never point out anything it is doing wrong, anything it could and should be doing better.

The second thing I read was by one of the greatest Jews alive and definitely the greatest Jewish thinker today, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who I have had the privilege to interview twice, most recently a couple of months ago when we were both in Israel to celebrate the 80th birthday of one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. I will be writing about his birthday party and more about my interview with Rabbi Sacks some other time.

But it’s something that Rabbi Sacks recently wrote that I want to quote.  It was about the vital importance of dilemmas to living a truly moral life. “A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life…  A righteous individual may sometimes be one who is capable of distress even while knowing that they have acted correctly…. Judaism recognizes the existence of dilemmas.”

We see this in the Torah story of the Exodus. The Egyptian army is in hot pursuit of the fleeing Jewish slaves and the final showdown comes at the Red Sea. When it splits, the Jews are able to make their escape on dry land, while the entire Egypt army drowns in the water.

The Jews naturally are elated, which G-d himself quickly tells them is not how Jews are to behave. Yes, of course, it is natural for them to be joyous that their enemy has been stopped, but one does not rejoice at the deaths of others, for they too are creations of G-d.

Rabbi Sacks notes the astonishing dilemma that came after the miraculous Six Day War in which, in just six days, tiny Israel thoroughly defeated five Arab armies, restoring the Western Wall to Jewish hands.

And yet, Rabbi Sacks notes, even months after the war, though Israeli soldiers were proud of what they had achieved, the “mood among those who had taken part in the war was anything but triumphal. It was somber, reflective, even anguished.”  The feeling was best expressed in a speech given by the chief of staff who engineered and masterminded the victory, Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory.

Said Rabin, “We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.”

Mixed feelings. That’s the Jewish way. Except today it isn’t. One only has to watch the preening of the right wing zealots in our midst who are so thrilled with Trump that he moved the embassy, killed the Iran deal, loudly voices support for Israel, basically is in love with our leader Sheldon Adelson. For them, there are no moral dilemmas, no mixed feelings that this is the same Trump who says there are some fine people among the neo-Nazis; who justifies his ignoring the fact that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered the murder and dismemberment of a permanent U.S. resident by saying Israel would be in big trouble without Saudi Arabia; who lies, name calls, treats people like garbage, calls himself the greatest president ever – all things that are clear violations of Jewish law.

And that lack of any sense of mixed feelings is having its effect in coarsening Jewish life. Embrace a moral degenerate, align yourself with a violator of every Jewish value and you start yourself to embody those qualities. As I found out recently when I had lunch with a lovely young British couple and two girls studying at a seminary in Jerusalem.

When it came up that I was a journalist, one of the girls, who at most was 20 years old, went off on a tirade. “Trump is right, everyone in the media hates Israel, makes stories up, is out to get Israel. You can’t trust anything they say.”

Now, yes, I understand she’s only 20 and when you’re 20 you know everything and, yes, I understand that she is from Brooklyn and as I have always said, I truly do love and embrace every Jew, but I make one exception, namely that being New York Jews. But even so, she was just so sure she was right, her mind was so closed, her hatred so tangible, her sense of Trump being her guide so firm, it was sickening and scary to behold.

When I asked her if she read the New York Times, if she was aware of how much favorable coverage Israel gets in the media, Jews get in the media, she thought I was out of my mind. She then quoted one headline she once saw that proved to her that all headlines and all stories and all media coverage of Israel is biased against Israel. Just like Trump has taught her. Everything is black and white. When I asked her how she gets her news, she said she gets it from instagram. There, she said, people really know what’s going on. When I pointed out that instagram is not exactly a reliable source, isn’t fact checked or run by experienced journalists, she simply proclaimed “well you may not be aware of it, but everyone reads instagram and everyone gets their information from instagram.”

I hope she is wrong but I realize more and more that she’s probably right, which scares the hell out of me. Yes, as a journalist I am particularly sensitive to this insane view of the media, do worry more than most what the pervasive sense that seems to have taken hold that the media is made up of a bunch of Israel hating liars will mean.

But it’s not journalists I’m concerned about, it’s Jews and Judaism. Too many Jews, too many young Jews have no sense of gray, have no sense that things are complicated, that there are all kinds of sides to every issue. Because they only go to websites that share their point of view, because they dismiss any source of information that doesn’t simply confirm their perspectives, they are closing their minds to information, not allowing themselves to feel dilemmas, be open to admonishment, which are the keys to leading a moral Jewish life.

Okay, I gotta go, but just want to mention one other place I recently visited. It’s called Yad Ezra v’Shulamit and it’s a wonderful organization in Israel whose main purpose is to provide food to hungry Israeli children.

It is a stunning and disgraceful fact that one third, that’s one third, of Israeli children live below the poverty line. Yes, Israeli officials like to talk only and a lot of about Israel being “the startup nation.” But the simple fact is that one third of Israel children live below the poverty line.

And the simply wonderful thing Yad Ezra v’Shulamit focuses on is providing food to as many Israeli children as it can. That’s what they do, the only thing they do. I went to one of their centers and it was heartbreaking to see the children sitting there eating. As the director of Yad Ezra v’Shulamit told me, they too often see kids who come in who, to quote her, “stare at a plate we give them as if they had never seen food before.” I will write more about the work they do at another time.

But just as that 20 year old so sure of herself Brooklyn seminary girl has haunted me ever since I had lunch with her, so too, in a very different way, have the six and seven year old Jewish girls and boys at Yad Ezra v’Shulamit haunted me for all the lunches they have not had.

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