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  • תמונת הסופר/תDr. Moshe Lavee

Shall the Sword Devour For Ever? Religious Language in Violent Times


 


These are tough days. Days of despair and distress, days of doubts and dread. Frail nights. Nights of trauma and nightmares. Nights of anxieties and fears. In the morning, you say ‘if only it were evening’, and in the evening, you say ‘if only it were morning’. Indeed, if only it were morning, if only we could see some hope, if only one would plant in our hearts the faith that it is possible to rise from this colossal catastrophe? What kind of recovery can emerge from the trauma? Do we still have a response to those who claim ‘indeed, the sword shall devour for ever'?

What is the path for reviving the kingdom of Heaven, here, on Earth? May we still speak in the old religious language and say: ‘we aspire to renew the kingdom of Heaven’, given that the meaning of the phrase ‘kingdom of Heaven’ is no longer stable? For me it is clear that my kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of grace and morality; the kingdom of peace and tranquility, of caring for the other, for all human beings; the kingdom of good will, of mutual support, of seeing the other, of loving humankind. Can we still speak in the old religious language when we know that the very same words are also used by those for whom the meaning of kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of killing, of blood, the kingdom of dark nationalism and revenge, the kingdom of blind hatred?


My kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of grace and morality; the kingdom of peace and tranquility, of caring for the other, for all human beings; the kingdom of good will, of mutual support, of seeing the other, of loving humankind. Can we still speak in the old religious language when we know that the very same words are also used by those for whom the meaning of kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of killing, of blood, the kingdom of dark nationalism and revenge, the kingdom of blind hatred?

How is it that different people understand the kingdom of Heaven in such a contrasting manner? Is there still place for religious language? Is there still place for God? Is it not all a projection of the human heart, seeking and searching to and fro? Perhaps. But the Torah also suggests a key for the collapse of language. “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity (lit. good), death and adversity (lit. evil) […] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life […]” (Deut. 30:15-19).

We were given the power to choose: we were given the power to support and we were given the power to destroy, whether this is explained by God’s choice to create humankind with this capacity, or by social evolution that planted in our hearts and in our societies both the capacity for mutual care and support and the capacity for hatred and war (and both explanations are one and the same). This is humankind. In the heart of each of us is engrained the ability of care and support, of doing good. 


*** 


During the first month of the war, our daughter and our nine month old (now already almost one year old) granddaughter stayed with us. Their presence reminded us of how deeply rooted in human beings is the ability to provide, to take care of the weak and helpless. It also reminded us of how beneficial this very ability to provide and take care is, both for the benefactor and for the beneficiary. Our granddaughter is exactly the same age as Kfir Bibas, the baby kidnapped by the Hammas and held in Gaza. How awful war is. The face of our laughing granddaughter and the “activation” of the grandfather to the state of caring and providing, is a painful reminder of the absence, of the most horrific, of the absolute vulnerability.


*** 


Our hearts are also engraved with the possibility of wickedness and violence. Deep in our hearts each of us is familiar with feelings of xenophobia and hatred towards the other. We are all potential subjects to the slippery slope in which our compassion for our peers, for those who belong to our community, can deteriorate to aversion towards others. 

Both emotions are rooted in us. Both possibilities are given to us. This is the choice between “Take your son, your only son” and “do not raise your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:2,12). This is the choice between a religious experience of total belonging that leads to a nullifying of the other and between an opposite type of religious belonging, in which the strength of faith enables us to accommodate to the other, his existence, her life. 


The choice is in the hands of humanity. This basic belief in free choice should guide us in this low point, in this deep ebb of the Palestinian-Israeli bloody death dance to which we have deteriorated.

In Genesis, we find a dual call, identifying two aspects of the interpersonal dynamics. Not only “do not raise your hand against the boy”, not only the deterrence and avoidance of harming the other, but also “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand” (Genesis 21:18). This is the ability to see the other, to sense his vulnerability, and to take care of his most basic needs. The two mirroring stories, the binding of Isaac and the ordeal of Hagar in the desert, function as foundational stories not only in Judaism, but also in Islam. The two stories delineate two aspects of human grace, the two sides of our choice in life: taking care of the helpless baby, and avoidance from causing death in the name of God. 

Any human being who is committed to listen to the voice of God is trembling and swaying between the contrasting voices of “Take your son, your only son” and “do not raise your hand against the boy”. The choice is in the hands of humanity. This basic belief in free choice should guide us in this low point, in this deep ebb of the Palestinian-Israeli bloody death dance to which we have deteriorated. 

We have deteriorated to this pit on the wings of religion that has the power to amplify human choices. It can amplify the choice of wickedness, hatred and death. Nevertheless, religion can also provide us with the power to recover from this pit, as it can amplify and shed the light of love, of life, of grace and goodness.

There is a need for enormous improvement (Tikkun) here. A Tikkun of the depth of She’ol represented in the loss of truth, in the inciting, inflaming, and dividing discourse of social networks. There is a need for a Tikkun that shall rescue our society from the depth of She’ol represented in the recruitment of God to the army of evil. There is “Sitra Achra” (lit. “the other side”, in Kabbalah the aspects of wrath and judgment within the divine being) ; there are “shells” covering the “sparks of light” (as advised in Lurianic Kabbalah). Human beings, men and women, are obliged to remove the shells and expose the sparks of light, to recognize that the choice of evil, hatred, violence, and hate-speech are “the other side”. We are obliged to turn to the appropriate side, to the good side, the side of love and mercy. 


There is a need for enormous improvement (Tikkun). A Tikkun of the depth of She’ol represented in the loss of truth, in the inciting, inflaming, and dividing discourse of social networks. There is a need for a Tikkun that shall rescue our society from the depth of She’ol represented in the recruitment of God to the army of evil.

The realization, or shall we say the faith, that God gave human beings the choice, the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and if God did not give, we had taken, and it is good that so we did - this realization means that there is also another path. That it is possible to recover from all this horror, that the possibility of choosing grace and goodness is in the heart of every human being, Israeli or Palestinian, Jew or Muslim, religious or secular, believer of heretic. The circle of violence, war and blood is not the decree of Fate, a determinate destiny. We do not believe in Fate. We believe in free choice. And so we shall do, we will choose. We shall choose the good path. We will rise from this colossal catastrophe and fix all that went wrong. We will find in our hearts and in the hearts of all partners the possibility of life, the choice of goodness. We will not fall for the distorted faith claiming that “the sword shall devour forever”. We will recover the State of Israel from its destructive path and constitute life based on partnership, peace, equality, fraternity, caring for the other for all the dwellers of this land. Life of “choose life”.


*Originally published in Hebrew on November 21, here.





 

Dr. Moshe Lavee is lecturer of Talmud and Midrash at Haifa University. He is the director of the e-Lijah Lab for Digital Humanities, which focuses on Jewish Studies.

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