We Need Each Other: A Cry for Wholeness from the Narrow Place

The following is an excerpt from “Israel: Democracy, Race, Ethnicity, and More” 
(Fragments #2).

by Rabbi David Jaffe

The horrific October 7 Hamas massacre and hostage-taking of Israelis and foreign nationals, and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war with its massive devastation of Palestinian lives in Gaza, has exacerbated divisions within the Jewish world that were growing in the decades before the war. This essay, written before the war began and lightly edited since then, identifies two broad ideological camps among the Jewish people and argues for why these camps need each other. These ideas are aspirational and may seem even more so in the midst of the destruction, displacement, and fighting in Israel and Gaza and the intensity of the protests, arrests, advocacy, and rising antisemitism in the U.S. What I lay out here is a spiritual roadmap for the months and years after the war when we must build something different for the well-being of both Jews and Palestinians, in the Land and around the world.

The broad ideological camps referred to above are Zionism and Diasporism. For the purposes of this essay, I am defining Zionism as the return of the Jewish people to our ancient national home in the Land of Israel and the effort to build a thriving Hebrew and Judaic culture there, take responsibility for self-government on a national level as Jews, and create a permanent refuge for Jews persecuted by antisemitism around the world. Zionism includes those with conservative and progressive worldviews and, for the sake of transparency, I locate myself in the more progressive end of this camp. Diasporism emphasizes positive engagement with the many Jewish cultures that developed over more than two millennia of diaspora and explicitly rejects the centrality of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel as a central component of Jewish identity. It is growing as a loose movement among progressive Jews, especially those under 401, and includes such efforts as the reclamation of diasporic cultural heritages, farming and land-based cultural projects, and political organizations that focus on domestic social justice issues. Tensions and resentment often run high between these camps as both Zionists and Diasporists can feel that the other’s positions ignore Jewish history and create a more dangerous world for Jews. The current war has only heightened these tensions.

Although I align more with the Zionist camp, I believe that Zionism and Diasporism are both generative expressions of Jewish peoplehood. While Israel has dominated the organized American Jewish communities’ peoplehood efforts for the past many decades, Diasporism will continue to grow as an alternative form of belonging as long as Israeli government policy and the U.S. Jewish community continue to diverge on core issues like Palestinian human rights, commitment to democracy, and the role of religion in public life.2

I believe we Jews have a compelling interest, in the long term, in bridging the seemingly contradictory movements of Zionism and Diasporism. The wholeness, or shleimut, of our people and our universal mission is at stake. Central to our historic mission as Am Yisrael, and what we can model for the world, is how to live in deep connection to each other — and our collective identity and purpose — while celebrating and honoring the dignity and difference of each individual and the various cultures within the Jewish people. This modeling would offer to the world a much-needed picture of what a pro-social, raucously diverse yet connected, creative culture looks like at a time when rampant polarization makes balancing difference with a sense of the whole seem out of reach. While the current moment makes such connection feel even more distant, getting started on this bridging work is all the more important the moment this round of war ends.

This reaching across differences is deeply spiritual work.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (d. 1935) provides us with a framework for navigating these differences. Rav Kook was a towering spiritual figure and a creative synthesizer of disparate aspects of Jewish thought and spiritual experience who not only observed the development of political Zionism in the early 20th century but was a central actor in its unfolding as the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and later Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He also founded the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which, under the influence of his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, became the spiritual launching pad for Gush Emunim and the contemporary settler movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Rav Kook’s writings, mostly recorded in personal spiritual journals, are deeply learned, wide-ranging, filled with messianic yearning and contradictions. While the primary political legacy to date of his intellectual and spiritual work is the right-wing settler movement, his thought is much broader than this political current and integrates deep spirituality and learning with contemporary issues. There have always been those who saw the more universal and humanist messages in Rav Kook’s writing, and there is growing interest in revisiting the nationalistic perspectives championed by his son.3 I turn to Rav Kook’s thought in this essay in that same spirit and because the late 19th and early 20th century world he inhabited confronted similar challenges as we do today, not the least of which included massive economic transformation and the rise of nationalism.

In an essay titled “The Three Wrestlers,”4 Rav Kook claimed that there are three main forces or “faculties” that function in relation to each other on the individual and collective levels. They are the particularist impulse to focus on one’s own people or nation (Le’umiyut), the universalist impulse, focusing on all humanity (Enoshiyut), and holiness (Kedushah), the impulse for transcendence and for bringing the sacred into daily life. These three inclinations often work in opposition but ideally function to balance each other and curtail each one’s extreme manifestations. He claims that the universalist, particularist, and holy impulses all exist to some degree in each individual, but people tend to gravitate towards one or the other. Problems arise when these three areas are understood as distinct, disconnected, and even in opposition to each other, which was certainly the case in his day and continues in our time. When this happens, Rav Kook describes the spiritual malady that afflicts us as follows:

[D]ivisiveness where there should have been unity brings about the gradual emptying of spirit. Positive awareness gradually dissipates in the individual or the collective… Instead, a negative awareness comes to nurture life. Then each master of some specific faculty is filled with fiery energy vis-a-vis his negation of the other faculty or faculties that he refuses to recognize. In such a life-style, the situation is terrible, the spirit broken, the position of truth, its inner awareness together with its love, falters and disappears, by virtue of the fact that it [i.e., truth] has been parceled.5

Rav Kook points to a disease of the spirit that takes root and spreads when one is overly sure that opposing perspectives have no validity and claim on one’s commitments. Movements and approaches that may have started with an appreciation of nuance harden over time as a result of lack of interaction or active antagonism to opposing approaches. This is where Rav Kook has much to say to us today in our increasingly polarized context. Diasporism may be a healthy alternative to an overly hegemonic Zionism, but not when it negates the positive impulses within the effort to build a Jewish national home such as the revitalization of Hebrew and Jewish culture, taking responsibility on a societal level for the well-being of other Jews, and creating a place of refuge for persecuted Jews from around the world. Similarly, the dominant expressions of Zionism could use a more robust appreciation for and skilled approach to living in community with non-Jews, especially those living under Jewish hegemony. At stake is both the material well-being of Palestinians living under Jewish domination and the spiritual and physical health and security of Jews living in the Land of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. To be clear, I believe both Zionism and Diasporism are expressions of Jewish peoplehood, the former with its emphasis on a Jewish national home and the latter with its focus on reclaiming particular Jewish cultural lineages. Where Rav Kook’s thinking might be helpful is in clarifying what each camp has to offer the other to build a healthier whole.

How might we think of Rav Kook’s three forces in our day?

Particularism: The term Rav Kook uses is Le’umiyut, and he refers to those Jews whose main interest was the revitalization of the Jewish people through building a national home in the Land of Israel. They had a particularist focus on this Jewish national project with other concerns being secondary. In our day, this impulse includes any and all efforts that raise up the Jewish people as a whole as an historic and contemporary ethnic, religious, and cultural entity. The center of this camp, in the contemporary era, cares deeply about the well-being of the State of Israel but also includes severe critics of its government’s policies. Particularist Jewish projects include producing Hebrew and diverse Jewish culture (often involving language, music, spirituality, and art), creating refuge for Jews in distress, and building a sense of mutual responsibility for the well-being and liberation of the Jewish people. Accomplishing all this requires both a certain population density, which allows for creative interactions, and the power to act on a societal level. For many Jews in Israel, responsibility for each other is not a theoretical idea. One needs to rely on other Jews in real time — a reality experienced with heightened intensity by Israelis in this time of war. In its most healthy manifestation, the particular group can have the self-confidence needed to treat those living amongst, but not part of, the nation with equality, full dignity, and respect.

The distorted, unbalanced aspect of this camp manifests as Jewish supremacy and all its offshoots — chauvinism, bigotry, dehumanization of the “other,” and the glorification of power and militarism. While these tendencies have been prominent in recent Israeli governments, their presence has been an element of the Jewish national project since the beginning. It is these “exaggerations” that Rav Kook was well aware of, and did not think were inevitable, when he wrote about the need for balance. Some in this camp are angered by what they feel is a lack of caring for Israel by many Jews, and others feel a strong aversion to more “universalist” Jews whom they criticize as not being sufficiently loyal to the tribe.

Universalism or humanism: Rav Kook’s term, Enoshiyut, refers to a universal concern for all humanity, regardless of particular tribe or people. I think of Diasporism as a universalist form of Jewish peoplehood, inviting us to cross boundaries of ethnic, religious, and racial communities and putting universal justice, based on particular Jewish commitments, at its center. Diasporism honors Jewish cultural life as it emerged in relationship with host cultures wherever Jews dwelled over the past millennia. It makes space for complex identities and expresses commonality with the migrant experience of other peoples. While Diasporism is only one expression of the universalist impulse, most Jews in the United States probably also identify with this humanist position, as Pew surveys show that a majority of Jews say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them.6 Those with this inclination tend to be very aware of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and are often active in fighting for Palestinian liberation.

The distorted and exaggerated wing of this camp sees value in Judaism and Jewishness only with regard to its universal aspects or in its relationship with other cultures. It expresses little sense of the Jewish people as a unified whole with a collective mission, and it outright rejects the more particular aspects of the Jewish experience, particularly those that have to do with the Land of Israel. The exaggerated expression of this inclination manifests when one can only see the oppressive aspects of the State of Israel and not its role as a hub for Jewish cultural renaissance bringing together diverse strands of the Jewish people, as a base for collective responsibility, and as a place of refuge for persecuted Jews in response to the continuing reality of global antisemitism.

The Holy/Kodesh: This is the inclination towards awareness of and care for the sacred. In Rav Kook’s essay, he hesitatingly limits this category to the ultra-Orthodox. In our day I think we can expand this category to all people who find spiritual value in Jewish ritual and practice and sense Divinity in its many definitions just beyond physical reality. Those concerned with “the Holy” seek to make their lives a blessing through individual and communal acts of sanctification, which, of course, can include the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, but also extend to other practices like mussar, meditation, song, and more. This camp offers a nourishing connection to Jewish spiritual lineages going back millennia, as well as access points to transcendence. The distorted and exaggerated manifestation of this inclination is an extreme inwardness that becomes disconnected from real-world emotional and physical struggles, the well-being of other people, and the community as a whole.

How might we balance these forces in our day? Let’s look again to Rav Kook’s essay. After presenting the problem with not balancing these forces, Rav Kook offers a vision for positive integration, saying that when an individual and collective can appreciate the strengths of the other impulses, as well as the ways that they challenges one’s own extreme tendencies, the result is a spiritually healthy person and polity. Not only is the collective better off, but the individual or sub-group better expresses its core message without exaggeration or distortion. He warns that this balance is not easy. To illustrate the skill required for doing so, he draws on the kemitzah ritual from Temple times:

This is that most difficult of rituals in the Temple, kemitzah [taking a precise handful of flour, which was neither less nor more than the size of the priest’s hand]. Thus when we look intelligently at the eruptions from which we suffer in our generation, we know that there is but one way before us: that everyone…use faculties that reside in other persons and parties, in order to round himself and his party…which truly fortify his particular strength by preserving him from the ruination of exaggeration…7

In other words, we need each other. By referring to kemitzah, Rav Kook is offering us a path forward. Let us look closer at this ritual.

The first chapters of the Book of Leviticus describe the methods used for making sacrificial offerings on the Temple altar. Finely sifted flour was one of the offerings, and it was collected through a process called kemitzah, which comes from the word for “grasp, close the hand.” How does kemitzah work? The kohen puts his right hand into a pile of flour and takes out just a precise handful, which was done by folding in his middle three fingers to form a scoop and using the thumb and pinky to brush off the remaining flour from the outside of the hand. The Talmud8 refers to this as one of the most difficult of all the priestly practices; apparently it took a lot of skill. Rav Kook uses this service as a metaphor for the care needed for each camp to express itself in the most well-rounded way, in creative tension with the other camps. Imagine universalism, in its extreme form, as an open hand, open and accepting of everything with no boundaries. Imagine particularism, in its extreme form, as a closed fist, holding tightly to those within and adversarial toward those without. The kemitzah, with its gently folded three fingers and open pinky and thumb, is a middle ground between the open hand and the clenched fist, neither completely open nor closed. It is porous, yet has form to hold what is needed and no more. Perhaps it is the kodesh that enables this liminal, yet effective and powerful stance. In the Temple system, the act of kemitzah was parallel to ritual slaughter of animal sacrifices. Rav Kook envisioned a messianic era with a renewed Temple service that only featured grain sacrifices, as humanity had refined itself to such a point that animal sacrifice was no longer needed. In this vision, kemitzah is one of the most holy acts, bridging the material and spiritual realms and effecting atonement and renewal for humanity.

The realm of the sacred invites expansiveness, the holding of opposites and continuous rebirth. It is a realm of imagination and deep connection. The kemitzah is of this realm and points the way toward the literal holding of opposites in creative tension for the purpose of individual and collective refinement. Our opportunity in this era of polarization is to step into our role as a nation of priests and remember the practice of kemitzah, being both open and protective, or welcoming and defending, in just the right proportions. It wasn’t easy in the time of the Temple and it isn’t easy now. But this difficult and, at times, painful balancing act leads to a great expansive wholeness. With all the difficulties and pain we experience as a Jewish people, torn over fears for security and indignation at oppression done in our names, may we reach for each other and see ourselves bound up in each other. And may we, and all people, move from the tight, constricted spaces of our separation to experience expansive wholeness, as Rav Kook exclaims at the end of his essay:

From the straits I called Yah; Yah answered me with an expanse. (Psalm 118:5)

May our efforts on behalf of the Jewish people and the liberation of all peoples be so blessed.

1 The understanding of Diasporism expressed in this article is heavily influenced by the work of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, see “Towards a New Diasporism” in “The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism,” Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007) p. 193-225.

2 https://jewishcurrents.org/recent-polls-of-us-jews-reflect-polarized-community, June 29, 2023.

3 My thinking about Rav Kook’s legacy is heavily influenced by the analysis of Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky that Rav Kook was politically naive and may never have intended his ideas to inspire the type of right-wing, expansionist, and messianic activism that they did under the leadership of his son several decades after his death. See “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution,” Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, (New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 2014) and “Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook 1865-1904,” Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, (Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2019).

4 This title was created by the translator, Bezalal Naor, as Rav Kook did not assign chapter headings or titles to any pieces in the original version of this material. See “Orot,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, translated by Bezalel Naor (Jerusalem, Israel: Magid Books, 2015), p. 14-16 for the translator’s explanation of his decision to give titles to the chapters.

5 All excerpts are taken from “Orot HaTehiya”, chapter 18, which can be found in “Orot,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, translated by Bezalel Naor (Jerusalem, Israel: Magid Books, 2015), p. 321-327. This specific quote can be found on page 323.

6 https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

7ibid. p. 325.

8Menachot 11a.

Photo of the author, Rabbi David Jaffe

RABBI DAVID JAFFE (he/him) is the founder and dean of the Kirva Institute, formerly known as the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, which focuses on the integration of Jewish spiritual wisdom and the work of social change. He is the author of the National Jewish Book Award winning “Changing the World From the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change”. He received private rabbinic ordination in Israel.