Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi says that most Jews fall into one of two categories:
• “Pesach Jews,” who hear the commandment to treat the stranger well, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. As Pesach Jews, we work hard to be fair, tolerant and appreciative of diversity. When it comes to Israel, we point out the ways that Israel is missing the mark by not treating its “strangers” well.
• “Purim Jews,” who know what it means to feel frightened and protective when we are collectively threatened. As Purim Jews, we work hard to make sure the Jewish community is safe and secure. When it comes to Israel, we point out the ways that Israel is threatened and support the need for a strong defense.
Whatever our leanings, communities –– like ecosystems –– thrive in diversity and become depleted in a monoculture. When we are able to be open to differences, speak with each other with care and respect, listen with open hearts, and sometimes lovingly challenge beliefs, we strengthen our community connections, the Jewish people and a world in need of our voice.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
Many Jewish groups are grappling with how to create safe, vibrant, respectful and open-hearted conversations while being mindful of past and possibly future threats, without getting stuck in old pain. Many are wondering: What is the best way for us to engage in a complex world?
Our ancient teachings –– about how to treat each other, how to move beyond the human impulse to hate, how to be fair in business and take care of those unable to care for themselves, how to honor our families and ourselves –– are at the root of Judaism and cut across the Pesach-Purim divide.
Imagine a community that more deeply integrates the wisdom of our teachings into a wiser communal space. And then imagine that we take that caring, collaborative spirit into the political sphere and model not rancor, but care; not hatred, but love; not conflict avoidance, but dynamic, respectful conflict engagement. Now imagine doing that during what is sure to be a hotly contested political election year with talk of war with Iran all around us!
You might be thinking: “Nice vision. Now get real. How can we possibly implement this?”
First, we need to be open to people with different views, different experiences of Israel, who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds that inform their world views. Too often, we only see these “others” when “they” show up in the political sphere articulating their differences.
Many (dare I say most) of us have learned to prefer our own ways of thinking and our own experiences and beliefs over our yearnings for a society that is more compassionate. We pride ourselves on being able to discern friend from enemy at the drop of a hat. While this has allowed us to survive and even thrive, does it not also close off portals of knowledge, and propel us into prejudging, belittling or demonizing those who see things differently?
The 20-year-old discipline of interpersonal neurobiology has shown that people who grew up with trauma, genocide and even family conflicts can express that trauma through successive generations of children less able to quiet their nervous systems and more reactive when under stress. And it has shown that through meditation, prayer, building strong communal bonds and dynamic and loving interpersonal relationships where we reach out to help others, our nervous systems can heal and we can build healthier immune systems, both personally and collectively.
Every one of these ways of healing is at the core of Judaism.
Clearing the shmutz, the hametz, off our windows of perception heightens our capacity to really see each other, to discern true threats, and respond with wisdom.
Our tradition of yearly renewing, growing and evolving ourselves, our families, our communities, grounded in our ethical wisdom tradition, has served us throughout history. Together we can unfold a new way of engaging that works in these complex times and we can be more effective together than Pesach or Purim Jews alone can be. And together we can live far more caring and integrated lives, continuing to influence our world in the direction of tikkun olam and health for all.
Rachel Eryn Kalish, M.C., is the founding facilitator of the JCRC’s Project Reconnections and Year of Civil Discourse, which trained 1,000 Jewish community members in how to have open discourse about Israel. She can be reached at workplaceconnections.com. (photo/yishai hope)