18 Apr

The War of Ideas

How should we relate to the multitude of ideologies and value systems in the world? “Both opinions are the word of the living God” – but to what point? Do opinions outside the realm of holiness also have a root connecting them to the divine? Certainly, morally corrupt opinions should be recognized as such. In fact, the moral standing of a society is defined by its ability to identify corrupt opinions and reject them. And part of bringing about the peace between ideas is by allowing them to do battle. Although, we must recognize that people often cling to a clearly false idea because of the spark of truth contained in it. And so, we must aim to identify those sparks of truth and acknowledge them, and thereby ‘uplift them’. In fact, the greater the moral corruption of a belief or opinion, the potential for holiness embedded in it is greater. Instead of developing a partial worldview we must strive to attain a more inclusive one. In our generation, this means to strive for a synthesis of the religious, national and cosmopolitan aspirations in society.

“Both opinions are the word of the living God” – to what point?

There are many differing opinions in the world, and anyone with an opinion wants it to be the one that becomes widely accepted. How should we relate to this multitude of opinions?

One approach says that tolerance is needed – Everyone has the right to voice their opinion while at the same time being tolerant enough to listen to others’ opinions. There is also the opposite approach – only correct opinions should be voiced. Someone with an incorrect opinion should not be voicing it, as incorrect opinions are also dangerous and must be opposed. The first approach assumes that truth is unattainable, and therefore there is no reason to prefer one opinion over another. The second approach assumes that the truth can be discovered and that it has clear criteria, and so there is no room for tolerance toward other opinions.

The war of ideas has been raging among the Jewish people for generations, but is particularly pronounced in our generation. In the past, conflicting views would clash but they were both rooted in the realm of holiness. For example, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed on many issues, but despite all of their disagreements they agreed on the fundamentals of the Torah as given by Moshe. Even when they argued over whether the Shema passage should be recited at ‘bedtime’ or ‘while lying in bed’ they agreed that a Jew must recite the Shema. In recent generations the argument has expanded. In our time, the discussion regarding the Shema is not about the proper posture for its recital, but rather whether or not one is commanded to recite it at all.

As we know, it is said regarding the debates of the Mishna and the Talmud: “Both opinions are the word of the living God.” Meaning, that every opinion has a root connecting it to the divine. The work of the sages in every generation was to decide which of the existing opinions was most suited to their reality, but these judgments in the practical plane never rejected the grain of divine truth held by the opinion that was not adopted.

And here we must ask: Do opinions outside the realm of holiness also have a root connecting them to the divine? What is the position of the Torah regarding secular views that are clearly outside the realm of holiness?


Separation for Elevation

In Rav Kook’s work, Orot, he explains that in every society, and especially amongst the Jews, there are three forces that must properly manifest themselves in order to maintain the health of that society. There is the force for holiness, or the religious force. The second is the force of national aspirations. The third force is the cosmopolitan aspiration to unite with all of humanity.

To be healthy, the society needs all forces present simultaneously. No human collective can develop properly without all three of these forces functioning. And so political partisanship is necessary, as no one can dedicate himself fully to all three ideals at once. It is much easier to be dedicated to only one ideal. There are those who choose to be religious, those who choose to be national, and there are also cosmopolitans.

In Rav Kook’s view, even the hatred that exists between rival groups has a positive facet to it. This hatred leads each group to reject the positions of the rival groups and, in doing so, to more fully dedicate itself to its own ideal. It’s good that the religious people ignore the fact that there are things outside of religion, otherwise it would get in the way of their being religious people. And it’s good that the nationalists and cosmopolitans believe strongly in their ideals because otherwise they wouldn’t be free to fully realize the potential of each’s ideal. In this way, even hatred can have a constructive effect.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 77A), there is a description of the period of the “footsteps of the Messiah”, meaning the period preceding that of the Messiah. There are many negative phenomena expected to occur in this time: “prices will rise”, “sons will not fear their fathers” and “daughters will rebel against their mothers” etc. Among these signs is also, “the truth will be elusive [neh’ederet] – the truth will become divided into flocks [adarim]”, meaning the truth will be divided between different groups in the nation. Each will hold part of truth and will build its worldview around it.

According to Rav Kook, there is an advantage to this. By each group focusing exclusively on its truth, it is capable of developing it fully and realizing its potential. 


Different Generations, Different Reasons

In the tractate of Eruvin (13B), the Talmud says of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:

Said R. Abba in the name of Samuel: Three years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel disputed. Each side claimed that the Halacha was in line with their opinion. A heavenly voice was heard that said “Both opinions are the words of the living God, and the Halacha is accordance with the school of Hillel.” Now if it is true that both schools are the words of the living God, why should the school of Hillel set the Halacha? Because the members of the school of Hillel were modest and patient, and would always study the words of the school of Shammai. Not only this, but they also always cite the opinion of the school of Shammai before citing their own teachings,

The heavenly voice here has taught us something important: Both the school of Hillel and that of Shammai speak the words of the living God. Even so, the rulings are according to the school of Hillel. And so, even though Shammai’s teachings are also the words of the living God, anyone who was to follow their rulings would be considered a criminal.

This Talmudic passage begs the question: How is it that within the Halacha, which is meant to reveal the word of God in the details of reality, is there room for multiple opinions?

Many answers have been given to this question. One of them is given by Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Asevilli known as the Ritva, who quotes a Midrashic source not quoted anywhere else. According to the Midrash, when God gave the Torah he gave it with 49 sides of purity and 49 sides of impurity. The meaning is that every issue requiring a Halachic ruling has 49 reasons to declare it pure and 49 reasons to declare it impure. If so, how should any ruling be given? The Halacha should be decided by the reasoning of the Sages in every generation who identify the application best suited to the needs of the generation. In one generation, the reasons to permit may be primary, and in another generation the reasons to prohibit may be more compelling. The Halacha then, is not meant to be the pure, distilled truth, but rather the path of action most suited to the spirit of the times.


To Sing the Song of Songs

There is a slight sense of hopelessness in the above however. A loss of any hope of the ability to take a clear stand on anything having to do with worldviews. Because every time you will have a strongly held view you’ll have to consider that not all the truth is with you; some of it will always be with others.

But there is alternative: Instead of developing a partial worldview one must strive to attain a more inclusive worldview. For example, in our generation, one must strive for position that can combine the religious, national and cosmopolitan aspirations.

Rav Kook says in Orot Hakodesh (2, 444):

There are those who sing their own personal song, and inside their souls they find all, the totality of spiritual satisfaction.

And there are those who sing the song of the nation, who depart the circle of their individual souls, as they are not found to be expansive enough and not ideally arranged, and they aspire to courageous heights, and connect with a refined love to the whole of Knesset Israel, and with it they sing its song, feel its pain, and dream its hopes, think magnificent and pure thoughts of its past and future, and delve with love and wisdom of the heart into its inner spiritual content.

And there are those whose souls expand beyond the borders of Israel, to sing the song of humanity, and whose spirits broaden to encompass all of mankind and its splendor, aim to its most universal manifestation, and yearn for its greatest perfection, and from this life-source they draw all their way of thinking and evaluating, their aspirations and visions.

And there is one level even higher and wider than the previous, when one is unified with all existence, with all creations, with all the worlds, and he sings with all of them. This is he who engages with Perek Shira every day and is promised life in the world to come.

The simplest song is that of the individual. He sings is own song. The next level is identification with one’s nation. Such a person has risen above his individual identity and is influenced emotionally by the events that come upon his nation. At yet a higher level than this, one identifies with all humanity, is happy for its successes and saddened in its pain. Such a person is not focused solely on his own nation but on all of humanity. Even above this is one who identifies fully with all of existence: the animals, the plants and the inanimate. He would even share the pain of a worm who, blocked by a rock, could not continue on its path.

This description seems ideal, each group finds its place under the sun and connects deeply to whatever gives it meaning. The problems start, however, when members of each group begin to talk to each other. The individualist, who lives in harmony with himself sees the nationalist as a fascist and the nationalist counters that he is an egoist. They both maintain that the cosmopolitan neglects his own identity as well as his nation’s and the cosmopolitan would counter that only he deals with what’s is really important: the image of God that is manifest in all humanity. Then come the “environmentalists” who are concerned with the entire cosmos and insist that the lives of insects are just as important as those of humans.

What’s the solution? How can all four songs coexist without giving up on their position? Rav Kook suggests yet another possibility:

And then there is he who brings all of these songs together, and each sings its tune, and all together make fine music, and each one enriches the life and vitality of the others, the sounds of joy and happiness, the sounds of rejoicing and exultation, the sounds of delight and holiness. The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of mankind, the song of the world, all of them are constantly joined together by such a person. And this innocence rises up in its entirety to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its tremendous vigor and splendor, in its truth and greatness, “Israel” [can be rewritten] the song of God, a simple song, a double song, a triple song, a quadruple song, the song of songs of Solomon, the king who the peace is with him.

Another song: the Song of Songs. This is the fifth song and includes all the others and in doing so can bring peace between them. But the fifth song cannot fulfil its role if it is not preceded by the war of ideas. Otherwise the peace between them will be but a fake compromise. Meaning, that peace between the ideas will arrive eventually, in its time, but until then the war between them is good and proper.

There is a Limit

Now we must pose the question: are all opinions legitimate? Must we be tolerant of every possible viewpoint or are there some that must be categorically rejected?

For example, if a political party were to arise which calls for the licensing of firearms to ten year-olds. Can we be expected, in this case, to be tolerant of such a viewpoint? Can we image allowing the promulgation of such a position? Or must society say in this case: “Until here!”

In this instance, the answer is pretty clear. This viewpoint is of the sort that does not pass the threshold of legitimacy. A corrupt opinion such as this must be opposed. In fact, the moral standing of a society is defined by its ability to identify corrupt opinions and reject them.

Another example of this type of corruption is idolatrous belief and practice. The Torah requires waging uncompromising war on idolatry or paganism and demands the destruction of it and its adherents. This too has its qualifications: it could be said that there is a difference between the initial phases of this war against idolatry and its later stages. Initially, it was absolutely necessary to use all available force against pagan worship. But, over time, the world became more pure, the intensity of pagan worship weakened and it began to decline. Therefore, so did the need for the high intensity of the struggle against it.


To be more smart than right

One example of an uncompromising battle against idolatry that turns out in the end to be unnecessarily so, is the episode of Elijah (Eliyahu) at Mount Carmel. During his lifetime, the prophets of the Ba’al grew in popularity, and Elijah was so exasperated by this that he decided to teach them a lesson. He approached the king of Israel, Ahab, and requested to gather all of Israel and all the prophets of Ba’al at Mount Carmel (Kings I, 18:19-20):

Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel to Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Ba’al four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table. So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together to Mount Carmel.

During this unique event, Elijah rebukes the nation for, out of confusion, worshipping both Hashem and the Ba’al concurrently. He challenges the people to choose between them, either the God of Israel, or the Ba’al, and to worship only the one chosen. For this he invites all the false prophets, the worshippers of Ba’al, to a “contest” with the God of Israel. They take two bulls – one for Elijah and one for the prophets of Ba’al – and prepare each of them to be sacrificed on the altar which they built. And Elijah asks the prophets of Ba’al to pray their god to bring down a fire from heaven and consume the sacrificial offering:

And they took the bull which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Ba’al from morning until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, and no answer and they leaped over the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry louder: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, or maybe he is sleeping and needs to be woken up. And they cried aloud, and cut themselves in their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was no voice, and no answer, nor anyone listening (ibid, 26-29).

After the prophets of Ba’al fail in their mission, it is Elijah’s turn:

And Elijah said to all the people: Come to me. And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of Hashem that was broken… And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet approached, and said, Hashem God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Hear me, Hashem, hear me, that this people may know that you are Hashem the Lord, and that you have turned their heart back again. Then the fire of Hashem fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and consumed the water that was in the trench.

The people, stunned by what they witnessed, understood well who is the true God, and as they cried out “Hashem is God,” Elijah takes all 400 prophets of Ba’al and slays them in the Kishon stream.

And so, Elijah fought with merciless force against idolatrous practices. In the blink of an eye he devastates all the prophets of Ba’al that he could find. He responds to war with war. But then, God reveals to him that this isn’t the proper path.

After Elijah kills the prophets of Ba’al, Jezebel attempts to kill Elijah. From this it is learnt that Jezebel had the power to act against prophets of God, despite the open miracle performed at Mount Carmel, and that the system of government at the end of the day supported her. So Elijah failed. Disappointed, he looks to escape from Jezebel and with God’s instruction comes to His mountain. There, while Elijah is hiding in a cave, Hashem speaks to him (Kings I, 19:9-10):

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of God came to him, and He said to him: What are you doing here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, destroyed your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I was the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

Elijah complained that he had saved the Israelites from the impurity of idol worship and in return they tried to kill him. In the Midrash, the Sages add God’s responses to Elijah’s claims and present a tense dialogue between the two:

  • “I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant.”
  • “They left my covenant? Or perhaps your covenant?!”
  • “They destroyed your altars.”
  • “My altars? Or perhaps your altars?!”
  • “They have slain your prophets with the sword.”
  • “My prophets? Or perhaps your prophets?!”

At this point, Elijah’s true motive is revealed, “and I was the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” Meaning, the source of his zealousness was actually personal. In another Midrash the Sages even add sharply, “(God) said to him: You have been zealous for yourself.”[1]

God hears Elijah’s claims and decides to teach him that it isn’t enough to be right, you must also know how to say things right (ibid 11-12):

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before God. And, behold, God passed by, and a great and strong wind that rents mountains and breaks rocks into pieces before God; but God was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice.

God teaches Elijah: In your generation no good will come from a fire and brimstone approach. If you keep up this path, eventually you will kill everyone.[2]

After the vision, God asks Elijah again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” But his answer remains the same (ibid 14):

And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, destroyed your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I was the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

Elijah chooses not to change his tune, and so God decides to replace him with another prophet (ibid, 15-16):

And God said to him, Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you come, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shafat from Abel-Meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It must be noted that Elijah acted perfectly in accordance with the Halacha. Biblical law sets out the death penalty for false prophets, and so from the standpoint of the Halacha, he was obliged to kill them. This sends a message to the following generations: When it comes to national leadership, even though the Halacha may call for radical measures, they are not meant for every place and time. The public leadership is responsible for understanding what type of period they are living in, and act while considering the character of the generation and its needs.


To Look for the Good Points

How should one deal will incorrect or immoral opinions? There have been periods when force was used in order to eliminate harmful opinions. However, today, it is not accepted practice to counter harmful opinions by coercion. How then, should one deal with these attitudes?

There are a number of ways. One is to demonstrate to the holder of the immoral opinion that he is wrong. To do this, one should use all possible claims to prove the error of his thinking. But there is a problem with this option: It doesn’t achieve its goal. Outright war on mistaken opinions, even one waged in the most sophisticated way possible, simply cannot succeed in weakening their attractiveness. There is a sort of unexplained force the keeps people believing in them as if they were their last hope.

Communism, for example, concluded its role in the world a long time ago. Today, it can be demonstrated in many ways that communism was destined to fail from its outset. Why then, are there people in the world who remain stubborn communists and refuse to abandon their belief? The reason is that within communism, which as a whole has proven a total failure from which the world has moved on, there is a grain of truth: the call for social justice. It is for this grain of truth contained in the system that communists are willing to hold on to a clearly false idea; just so that they may retain the particle of truth.

And so, we must recognize and point out to the holders of incorrect opinions the truth that is in their ideas. Thus, they will be open to reconsider their worldview and reassess their positions.

This method of dealing with incorrect opinions is called ‘raising the opinions.’ Let us take, for example, someone who declares that what is important to him in life is his own benefit – an egoist. Instead of demonstrating to him how wrong he is, he could be lifted up. We could inquire if his love for himself includes his wife and kids. His answer will likely be affirmative, for if his wife or kids were to suffer then so would he. So, we can conclude from this that he must care not only for himself but also for his wife and kids. We have made a little progress.

In the same fashion we could show the egoist that even through his egoistical intentions, he must care for the good of concentrically larger circles: his neighborhood, city, state, animals, plants, the ozone layer, and so on. For if the people around him were to suffer, it is likely that their suffering and hardships would come around to influence the egoist himself. This, eventually, the egoist would understand that there is nothing more important for himself than caring for those around him.


The Spiritual Potential is Proportionate to the Moral Corruption

In the war of ideas it is necessary to properly assess the type of idea you are dealing with – to assess if it is bad, terrible, or simply incorrect but not hazardous.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov distinguishes between two types of heresy (Likutei Moharan, 64:2). There is a ‘light’ form of heresy, of which it is said, “Know how to answer a heretic” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:14). On the other hand, there is another form, of which it is said, “Those who come to it do not return” (Proverbs 2:19). Rabbi Nachman explains that each form stems from a different source. The first form of heresy stems from a confusion regarding the priorities of different values. The less important values have been given primacy and the more important values have been subordinated. This form of heretic can be returned by showing him the correct hierarchy of values.

There is also the ‘heavier’ form of heresy. This form is rooted in a worldview that holds that there are, in fact, no values at all. Only the most supremely righteous individuals are capable of combatting this view; only they can uplift souls who have fallen into it. This can be put generally: the more distorted the belief is, the greater the potential for good that will result from its rectification. This is because it stems from an uplifted source.

An example of this is the fact that the seed of messianism was present in the most morally corrupt society humanity has known, Sodom and Gomorrah. Our Sages said regarding the passage, “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him” (Psalms 89:21), that this means God found David precisely in Sodom (Bereshit Rabbah, 50).

The people of Sodom committed two major sins: The principled rejection of giving charity and the sin of ‘sodomy’ (Sanhedrin 109:B, Yalkut Meor Ha’afela 96). The idea that brought an entire society to commit both of these sins was the feeling of total perfection. Because of their enormous wealth, the people of Sodom lived with the constant sense that their perfect society needs no improvement, and so they outlawed the giving of charity in their city. The giving of charity was perceived by them as putting the weaker parts of society on display. Charity, then meant revealing the fact that the society, in fact, had not yet reached perfection, that there are those who are dependent on others to survive.

Similarly, regarding homosexual relations. Because the people of Sodom felt they were perfect, they felt no need to produce offspring. As a result, they directed their sexual energies to avenues in which there is no recognition of the ‘other’, but instead, only a recognition of the ‘similar’, and this is by definition, devoid of fertility.

So, at the root of the sins of Sodom, we actually find a positive attitude – the desire to create a perfect society. Although, because they lacked purity the people of Sodom fell to the depths of moral depravity.

But even though the society of Sodom was morally corrupt, it had the merit of becoming the foundation of the messianic idea. This illustrates the above principle – the greater the moral corruption of a belief or opinion, the greater the potential of holy seed embedded in it.

[1] See also Sichot of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Issue 53,16: “At the end, it turns out that the issue was his own personal one.”

[2] See Maimonides’ Eight Chapters, Chp. 7.

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