No. 31: Can Nations Repent?

The following is a transcript of Episode 31 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel Hartman:

My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today is August 29th, 2021. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s i-Engage project. Our theme for today is the high holidays and collective repentance. In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the institute here in Jerusalem and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. Elana is on a brief sabbatical and will join us for the next podcast. Let’s begin.

Donniel Hartman:

The process of teshuva, repentance, has a central role in the Jewish tradition. Human failure is a given: a part of human nature. The challenge is not to avoid failure, but to recognize when it occurs, where necessary make amends, commit to not repeating it, and to trying to act differently in the future. The two key components as Maimonides teaches us are in Hebrew “harata,” which means remorse over the past and “kabbalah l’atid,” which means a new commitment for the future. The purpose of the high holiday period is to challenge ourselves, to examine our actions, our character, and to seek out flaws and commit to personal transformation. What is interesting is that the Jewish people are not commanded to repent during the high holidays. On Yom Kippur in Leviticus, chapter 16, the Jewish people are commanded to engage in a collective ritual. The end of which affords them guaranteed atonement forgiveness, which is different than repentance.

Donniel Hartman:

Even though they have not repented to quote Leviticus “for on this day, God shall affect atonement to you, to cleanse you. Before the Lord shall you be cleansed from all your sins?” God cleanses our collective sins. We do not repent from them. Why is this the case? It is possible that the Bible believed that to effectuate collective change, atonement, and its implied freedom from the weight of past failures is sufficient to inspire us to start a new and open up a new leaf. We, however, have learned that that’s not the case. Communities need to and can undergo collective repentance. If we do not, we will be destined to repeat over and again the mistakes of the past. I remember the deep process of collective repentance, which Israeli society underwent as a result of the Yom Kippur War. At the same time, for example, no collective teshuva has ever been initiated with regard to the status of Arabs in Israel.

Donniel Hartman:

Maybe this is also why the situation has yet to change. How might we identify those challenges, communal character flaws, if you will? As distinct from individual personality, failings, and then go about implementing a tikkun. While we’re doing this, it’s important to remember that at times it’s easier to engage in issues of collective teshuva than individual. Critiquing our community can be a national sport focusing on the failing of others as distinct from ourselves. We will try today, Yossi and I, to avoid these failings. Our collective challenges belong to us as well. Present company included. As we prepare for the high holidays, we offer this episode as a prayer to help activate our collective process of teshuva. Yossi, it’s great being with you again after the break. I hope you enjoyed the European August.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

The European August.

Donniel Hartman:

When everything shuts down. Nobody works in Europe and August. Actually, you know, I stayed here in Israel. Normally I go to Europe during the summer.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Right.

Donniel Hartman:

This year I stayed here and it was remarkable. Israel’s a great country. It just, I just never take vacation here.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

We had a similar experience. We went up north. As Israeli say, “we discovered America.” You know?

Donniel Hartman:

Okay. From this brief levity, our subject today is a serious one. And it’s a very aspirational one. It’s an attempt to try to look at who we are to say Yossi, you know, if you could pick one thing, two things Donniel, like what do you want us to think about as a community that could enable us to have a significant possibility of growth and improvement? So our world’s not yet redeemed and we’re not all we ought to be. We never are. But how do you want to start our conversation today? What do you believe? We have to concentrate our collective attention and then hopefully repentance on?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I think this has been an especially brutal year for internal Jewish discourse. The way we relate to each other the way we think about each other. But I would like to actually take a leaf out of your opening remarks and rather than begin by pointing fingers outward about what’s wrong with the way other Jews speak about their fellow Jews, I’d like to start with myself: what I feel I need to do to teshuva for in the context of this increasingly acrimonious and even dysfunctional Jewish discourse – is the way I’ve thought about entire communities of Jews over the last year. And specifically about the Haredim. I’m certainly not alone in the bitterness with which I spoke about Haredim. The anger, maybe even rage. I hope not, God forbid, hatred, but certainly deep anger about the separatism of the Haredi community. Especially at a time of Corona. What many of us here felt was a lack of consideration for the rest of the country. But you hear I’m trying to do teshuva and I’m just digging my hole even deeper.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So I really want to stop and look at myself and look at where this anger comes from. I think it comes from disappointment. I think maybe in its deeper and pure root, that comes from love, from a feeling of unrequited love. But it also comes from an inability to accept other Jews as they are. And we are, as you and I have so often discussed here, Donniel, we are a country of tribes. We are a global people of tribes. And the only way that we’re going to have a creative future is if we can figure out how all of our tribes can coexist because no one tribe is going to defeat and erase the other. So that’s what I’m bringing to this conversation: a deep sense of my own failure to live up to my ideals of Jewish, unity, mutual respect, and respecting the dignity of my fellow Jews.

Donniel Hartman:

Well, let’s take this to a national communal level, which is our theme for today. And I think the example you picked is a really great one. As I’m hearing you, it pushed me to think. We could always be tolerant or pluralist when we don’t really care. We don’t really care about something. Okay? Knock yourself out. I didn’t care – pluralism or, or a culture of discourse is always challenged when you hit the issue that you really care about or when you’re frightened. The reason why you were so aggravated, Yossi, was not because you love the Haredim so much. If I could interpret. I remember in talking to you, you were furious. It started when your kid was on a plane, right?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

That’s right.

Donniel Hartman:

You remember when your kid was on a plane with a bunch of Hardedi people who you knew the country did not test and you felt on your own skin, the disregard of a community for the well-being of others.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I knew the government had been warned about this planeload.

Donniel Hartman:

I remember you were talking, you were furious. But let’s collectivize this and make it into a rule for a second. And I think this is the challenge that we all face. And I want to take it to some places that I know – I apologize to our listeners, that I’m going to aggravate you. But the process of thinking about collective teshuva is about aggravating ourselves. When you’re self-satisfied, you never change. When you’re self-satisfied, all you do is navel-gaze. It’s about asking what’s not working. And that means all of us are contributing to it. I think the real challenge of collective conversation occurs when we feel that the other person is harming us. You know? So that’s what the Haredim say. When they say, you know, Conservative, Reform are harming the Jewish people. And when you come to that harm principle, all the, you know, “hine mah tov u’mah naim,” the Jewish people, our brothers and sisters, and we’re all family – you’re harming me.

Donniel Hartman:

I think that one of the things that we are seeing as a community is that for most of us on issues of religion, we don’t see the other as harming us anymore. We’ve made our places, found our space. In certain times, there are issues. But you know, where we find ourselves harming ourselves, that’s on political issues. And there the anger, the hostility is rampant because your vision of Israel, your vision of the United States, your vision of Canada is from my perspective destructive for me. And the interesting question, as we’re talking about communal teshuva, can we so-called tolerate the person who we think is promulgating an ideology that we think is destructive?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Dilemma is even more acute. The different tribes, the different communities regard each other, not just as harming the national interest, but in some ways as threatening the very viability of the state. I mean, how do –

Donniel Hartman:

Correct! That’s what I meant. Correct.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

How do mainstream Israelis speak about the Haredim? If this continues, if we allow this state within a state to continue in its separate this way, if we continue subsidizing the state within a state, eventually this will destroy the Israeli economy. It’s really speaking in apocalyptic terms about the Haredim. And Haredim when you listen carefully to what they’re saying, they speak in apocalyptic terms about Tel Aviv: the hedonism. We were thrown out of this country once before we were exiled for our sins. You’re leading –

Donniel Hartman:

Yes, Yossi, you’re right. And it’s not just that though. It’s also left-wing, right-wing Democrats – I don’t know each one of us, like I was part in Israel of what’s known in Hebrew as the, as the “rak lo Bibi machane.” You know, I voted as long – it was just not Bibi. Now you don’t get into that camp without a serious vilification of the other. NowI’m not interested in flattening. You know, everything is fine. Everybody’s okay. We’re all – no! It’s legitimate to believe that another person is wrong. You know, I’ve written a lot about this, that we overrate pluralism and don’t have enough tolerance. Pluralism is for those opinions you think are of equal value to you. But the fact is, is that on most of our serious debates today, we can’t be pluralistic. Most pluralism are on issues you don’t really care about.

Donniel Hartman:

The real engine of social life is tolerance. And tolerance is where you think the other person is wrong. And then what we need to do is to develop a theory as why I should tolerate you. Why should I expect you be here? If I think that you’re so destructive. And unless we don’t develop a theory which explains that this collective – you know, it’ll be nice, oh, we should be together. And maybe we’ll for sprinkle the Jewish community some anti-Semitism that will unite us, but deep down social life needs to recognize that the society doesn’t belong to us. And even though I disagree with you profoundly, it’s not that you have a right to your opinion, who we are is you also. And unless we don’t change some of that, we’re just going to be in an endless cycle. I was speaking about something you had taught me, Yossi.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

You had this really interesting line which you talked about last year, that you were so angry at people who didn’t stand with you on the Iran nuclear agreement. And you felt that they were betraying you. And you came up with this line where you say, “you know, now I understand those people who feel that I’m betraying them. When I come out and say, Trump is not the worst thing in the world.” And I can understand that as an American Jew, you have your interests as an Israeli Jew, you have your interests. And I was actually trying to teach the type of collective repentance that you’re speaking about, Yossi. We shouldn’t vilify each other. And the fact is that from six to 10,000 miles away, maybe one of the biggest things we have to learn is that we’re going to co-exist as a community not necessarily by things that we share, but by recognizing that it’s okay, that we don’t share them.

Donniel Hartman:

That we have different interests, different positions. And that’s okay, because if I can understand where you’re coming from, I don’t have to value you. It’s not pluralism. I frame it in a different context. Well, Yossi, I even, I just mentioned this. I was set upon by a person the furiousness of the anger and I was talking, I was just speaking on a meta-level. There is something that closes down when we feel threatened. And I think part of this collective discourse is that we are really trained as Jews to be pluralistic about the issues that we don’t really care about or that we’re not existentially invested in. And we’re used to, when the greatest problem that we face is the enemy on the outside. But how do we create this type of, discourse or this teshuva that you’re speaking about also for the enemy who’s at the gates? You know, one last thing I – there was a rabbi colleague of mine in California. She was running these encounter sessions in her synagogue for Trump supporters who felt that they were Marranos. And like they had no place in, chas v’shalom, I’m not talking about Trump. Let’s forget about Trump. You know, he’s former president. It’s not our issue. But we haven’t resolved them. Neither in Israel, neither in America. And neither between Israel and America.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Interesting that you, that you brought up the Trump example that you and I had spoken about, especially in the context of Iran, because what, I understood from friends of mine who were furious at me for trying to explain why Israelis didn’t feel about Trump the way that American Jews did. It’s that as you say, things really do look different within your own context, within your self-interest, but I don’t think that that’s good enough. I think that if we’re going to be a healthier Jewish people, we need to start developing some minimal capacity for empathy, for being able to try to understand how this appears to that camp, with which I so profoundly disagree. When I realized how betrayed American Jews felt, because we did not see Trump the way they did that helped me come to terms with Iran. And so that’s one example. And there are different ways of approaching this. So one is to really try to nurture one’s capacity for empathy as part of a teshuva process,. That we are not only permitted to see reality through our own eyes and our own limited perspectives. But if we’re really going to be a Jewish people, we are, I would say, literally commanded to empathy to one extent or another. And again, it’s not agreement, of course it’s not agreement,

Donniel Hartman:

Let’s play with empathy for a moment in traditional Jewish sources, there is a mitzvah, not for empathy – there’s a mitzvah for responsibility. “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh b’zeh.” We’re responsible for each other. We are guarantors for each other. That means when you do something wrong, I’m responsible. But what that does is it puts each one of us in the other person’s face. Empathy requires distance to be able to empathize. I’m not responsible for you. And I could say what you’re doing, you’re not doing it to me. I have to see you as you see yourself, maybe in order to create some empathy, we need a little less collective responsibility. Less like: leave them alone.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

It’s a great insight.

Donniel Hartman:

You know who was sharing this? I learned this from, you know, our colleague Mijal Biton. We’re developing this new i-Engage series. And she was, she’s been talking about the fact that do we have this imperialistic perspective that my values have to be your values? And so much of the time we talk about how Israel and North American Jews have to find agreements and shared dimensions. And maybe part of what we have to do is to understand that it’s okay, that we are different. And that the empathy is that I understand that you’re not a moral bigot, that you’re not an intellectual flaw. And then when I allow you to be it’s so far away from tolerance, because it never even gets into, do I agree? I assume it’s, I’m not even looking for that agreement. My empathy is that I allow you the space of your own life without some of this intensive collective Jewish dynamic, which at the end, it’s fine when we all agree, or it’s fine when we’re all little children and somebody’s in our parents’ house and they tell us what to do. But as adults, distance disagreement is great, but it creates alienation without your empathy and with your empathy – now we could have a different conversation. So

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I think, Donniel, that you and I agree that mere tolerance or an attitude of live and let live is woefully inadequate to deal with a situation where one group of Jews feels almost existentially threatened by another again, whether it’s over the territories and peace and occupation, or whether it’s over religion and state issues, I would like to suggest an additional,

Donniel Hartman:

I don’t, by the way. No, I said the opposite, Yossi. I don’t think it’s woefully inadequate. I think it’s actually exactly where we have to go to.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Ah, great. So then you and I have a disagreement. Let’s –

Donniel Hartman:

Oy, oy, oy! What are we going to do here?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Let’s play-

Donniel Hartman:

Yossi, I’m you’re being empathic with your right to be wrong.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yes, but I feel existentially threatened by your empathy.

Donniel Hartman:

Oh my God.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So here’s the thing. I think that when we’re in the realm of disagreement, even serious disagreement tolerance can work. When we’re facing a situation where the very premise of the Haredi community is –

Donniel Hartman

Leave the Haredim alone.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

No, they’re a really good example because the premise of the Haredim is that their survival depends and separatists. If we dismantle the mechanisms of separatism, they fear that they’re going to be overwhelmed by modern Israel. And then they may not survive as they know it. So they feel, they feel existentially threatened by my need to incorporate them into the Israeli mainstream. I feel that the Israeli mainstream will not be viable in the long-term if they’re not incorporated in my mid. So we have mutually existential fears here, and that’s what makes this so complicated.

Donniel Hartman:

Yossi, we’re going to have to work to be. It has to, Yossi, it has to. You know, Yossi it has to do you know why? Because the nature of our core societies, our disagreements aren’t on tax rates. Our disagreements are in some of the most important things for the future of our country.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yes.

Donniel Hartman

You know, you like to use the Haredi example. And I want to tell you, there are a great example. The only reason why I don’t like to use them is that it’s so easy for us to always see them as the problem, the biggest problems now in Israel, aren’t the Hardedim. And you know, the biggest problems are the differences between right and left anything but Bibi or anything only Bibi. Or it could only be Republican. It could only be Democrat where our societies, we thought, that there were these figures, you know, Netanyahu, Trump who were these great polarizing figures and the minute they would move, there would be this great healing process.

Donniel Hartman:

Healing Schmeling. Do you watch the news? Do you look? Yossi, the problem is we have to develop a tolerance capacity precisely when we are existentially threatened. Now that doesn’t mean I have to agree with you. It just means that I have to make a place for you without calling you a traitor. I could call you wrong. I could disagree with you, but I have to -there’s a place we can go, because whether you like it or not, that’s why the problem with the Haredim. I wish it was just the Haredim, but what happens when it’s at the core of right-wing, left-wing? What happens when that’s the way we talk between Jews and Arabs? What happens when that’s the way we talk between Republicans and Democrats?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

What we need is something deeper than tolerance. We need conceptual framework. For example, for 2000 years, Jews have been fasting on Tisha B’Av studying the rabbinic texts about why the second Commonwealth was destroyed. Now we have a tremendous resource emotional intellectual resource that helps us see an uncontrolled schism as a greater threat than any of the positions that our protagonists are taking. That’s the whole -that’s what we’ve been studying for 2000 years. And so if we take that seriously and we apply that to Israeli society, we apply that to our theme of teshuva. I may be completely right about the Haredim, or about the left, or about the right, choose your poison. But if that leads me to a place where I can no longer feel the most minimal commonality with another Jewish community, that in itself is a greater existential threat.

Donniel Hartman:

Yossi, that’s tolerance. That’s what tolerance does. What tolerance does is that I don’t change my opinion about your opinions, but I don’t allow your opinions to create a separation between me and you. I don’t allow your opinions to disenfranchise you from my community. That’s what it is. Yossi, you quoted Tisha B’Av. Let’s go back. What is the great story of Tisha B’Av? And the story is that Jerusalem was destroyed because of senseless hatred. And as I’ve said, a gazillion times, I find that absolutely ludicrous because there is no such thing as senseless hatred, everybody hates somebody for a reason.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Right.

Donniel Hartman:

Everybody’s against senseless hatred. You know what the definition of senseless hatred is? When somebody hates me? I, when I hate somebody, I have a reason. You have no reason to hate me. So Jerusalem is not destroyed because of senseless hatred, Yossi. Jerusalem was destroyed because for purposeful ideological –

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yes.

Donniel Hartman:

That’s what tolerance says. Tolerance is not – unlike pluralism, tolerance doesn’t require you to change any of your ideological difference towards the other. If we’re going to achieve the type of collective discourse and how did you start today’s podcast? That this, what did you say about that? This discounting, this disrespect, you spoke even about hatred. We are going to have to learn to talk and to apply tolerance.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

The question, Donniel the question –

Donniel Hartman:

Even when we’re frightened from somebody,

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Ok. No, but the question is what is the value that’s going to allow us to reach that point of tolerance?

Donniel Hartman:

Great question.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Tolerance in and of itself is not a value. Be able to withstand the, fears, the existential dangers that I feel from the other community.

Donniel Hartman:

Tolerance is based on one principle, Yossi. And that is that you are committed to the well-being of the social enterprise to which you belong. This is what’s known as the paradox of tolerance. Where people ask, why tolerate somebody who I think isn’t tolerable. Now there’s a whole slew of answers. But the political philosophical answer is that I recognize that the society that I live in Israel, Homeland of the Jewish people, Israel as the country of all of its citizens, United States, Canada, that social life is only possible for that. If I do that and social life is worth sacrificing is worth pushing me. This is what I have to repent

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Let’s take that in our conversation. Let’s take it a step further. The intactness of the Jewish people worldwide, in Israel especially depends on our ability to accommodate communities who we regard as threats to the well-being of the society. Because if I don’t accommodate those other communities, I am laying the groundwork for a much greater threat than they represent.

Donniel Hartman:

Great. Beautiful. Maybe this is a great place to end today, which goes back to the core theme that we picked. You know, there’s individual teshuva. Why do we need collective teshuva? You know, and as you and I, we were talking thinking about what we wanted to do in today’s podcast. We wanted to elevate the conversation amongst the Jewish people. And maybe part of the problem is we talk about the importance of community all the time, but we don’t, it’s, it’s like we you know who was the president of the United States who smoked something, but didn’t inhale. I don’t want to mention names. Now, by the way, they could say, they inhale because especially if you’re – it’s legal. You know, we talk of people who’ve been together for so long, but the reality is, is that we’re allowing ourselves to be sectoralized into profound ideological groups, which are taking precedence over the larger. If we really want to do collective teshuva, and the issue is how we talk to each other, we have to begin to think more as political animals, as political beings as Jews, as political beings as Israelis, as political beings as North Americans. And when we do that, now we’ll have the ideology which could maybe inspire some of this process of teshuva.

Donniel Hartman:

Yossi, it’s great talking with you.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Always a pleasure, Donniel.

Donniel Hartman:

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Joelle Fredman. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at shalomhartman.org. Want to know what you think about the show you can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show. You can also write to us at, [email protected] Subscribe to our show in the Apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, audible, and everywhere else podcasts are available. See you in a couple of weeks, and thanks for listening. And if in the meantime, and we’ll be actually – Rosh Hashana’s coming, may I bless you, Yossi? Maybe we bless all our people, and then bless in fact, all our world and that next year should be one step better than this year. You want to end with a bracha, Yossi.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

To you and your family, to our Hartman Institute family, to the Jewish people, and especially to those parts of the Jewish people with whom we passionately disagree.

Donniel Hartman

Amen beautiful. Well said. Thank you all.