Some Thoughts on the Jewish Condition

Throughout Jewish history, we have asked the question: How far are we willing to stick our necks out to make the world better when we know we could lose our heads in the process? To analyze this question, I will look at a major tension within human nature and the nature of the Jewish people, a biblical example of this tension, and then end with examples of how this tension is playing itself out today.

In the Mussar stream of Judaism, human nature is expressed as a constant struggle between the yetzer hara (YR) and the yetzer hatov (YT). These terms translate poorly as the ‘bad inclination’ and the ‘good inclination.’ The YR really refers to the preservation of the self. Our Rabbis teach us that without the selfishness of the YR, people would not find jobs, build houses, take care of themselves, or procreate. The YT refers to selflessness, those altruistic actions necessary for families and societies to stay together and those actions intended to make our world a better place. The conflicting and underlying unity of the YR and the YT are best summarized in the words of evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, “The human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, the two impulses often conflict.”

These conflicting impulses hold true for both individuals and for groups of individuals, such as the Jewish people. Rabbi Sid Schwarz* refers to this tension as the Exodus consciousness and the Sinai consciousness. The Exodus consciousness is the selfish impulse for the Jewish people to circle the wagons and strengthen itself as a group when threatened. Facing slavery and genocide in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves banded together and formed a nation determined to clearly establish itself and to preserve itself, if need be as a nation that dwells alone. The Sinai consciousness represents the selfless impulse of the Jewish people; the great task that we have taken upon ourselves to be a light unto the nations, a kingdom of priests and prophets, and the repairers of the world (tikkun olam). We are a tense people, consistently caught between these inclinations when they so often compete.

The oft conflicting values of the safety of the Jewish people and our mission to redeem the world as a partner of God is not a new phenomenon. We see the competition between the Exodus consciousness and the Sinai consciousness near the end of the Bible in the generations following a major collective trauma. 2,600 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, the First Temple was destroyed, and a third of the people died from disease or starvation, a third died from the sword, and a third were exiled to the rivers of Babylon where we sat down and wept. After 70 years, by the grace of the Persians, a Jewish state was reestablished in the land of Israel. In the generations following the end of our exile, four relevant biblical books were written: Ezra, Nehemiah, Jonah, and Ruth. Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the Exodus consciousness, the establishment and protection of a nation with clear boundaries. Other nations, like the Samaritans, are seen as a threat that can and should be dealt with in whatever way is thought necessary, and perceived threats to group cohesion like intermarriage are dealt with violently. On the other hand, Jonah and Ruth explore the Sinai consciousness, our altruistic mission in the world. Jonah teaches us to share our light with other nations and to help guide them, no matter how grudging we may be or how hostile they have been toward us. And Ruth exemplifies welcoming the outsider into the group and truly loving our neighbor. These four biblical books show us the very real and ancient tension between our collective selfish and selfless impulses in the generations following a massive collective trauma.

A few generations after the holocaust, the debate between group preservation and repairing the world is found everywhere. Should European Jews move to Israel for safety reasons, or should we encourage a diaspora presence so that we can be a light unto the nations? Should a Jew be strictly defined as a matrilineal Jew or an Orthodox convert, or should we broaden our definitions of who is a Jew to include patrilineal Jews and partners who choose to not formally convert? Should Jews isolate themselves in Jewish neighborhoods or live amongst gentiles? Should Jewish institutions consider only internal Jewish problems, or should they engage in broader issues? Should we seek peace and honestly negotiate with Iran, or should we declare a pre-emptive war because of Iran’s threatening rhetoric and actions? Should we seek friendship and coexistence with Palestinians, or should we strengthen our security with more walls and checkpoints? And finally, does ‘never again’ apply only to us, or does it apply to everyone, and how much are we willing to risk to protect others? How much are we willing to let our guard down to do good?

As we continue to move through the post-holocaust world, it is necessary to recognize the tension between protecting our people and the holy mission of our people to redeem the world. These two truths stand stubbornly side by side in an eternal paradox. We must strive to never succumb to extremism in either direction. And as we move from Passover through Yom Hashoah and toward Shavuot, we must always seek a path forward that honors and holds both the Exodus and Sinai.

*The Exodus-Sinai continuum appears in Judaism and Justice, The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.

Many thanks are due to Rabbi Ira Stone for teaching me Mussar, and to Tamar Kamionkowski Ph.d for teaching me about post-traumatic biblical texts.