A Torah of Violence

The time has come to recognize that there are others in the room, that the Jewish People is a symphony of different voices.

The word for mute in Hebrew — i’lem — shares the same root as the word for violence — alimut.

A common interpretation of this linkage is that a person who cannot express his/her voice may become aggressive. An inability to voice one’s opinions can lead to resentment, which eventually explodes into hostility and belligerence.

I also understand the connection between i’lem and alimut like this:

Someone who silences another, someone who does not allow for the other to hear or express his/her own voice — is committing an act of violence.

By this standard, we are supporting an educational system of violence.

Education, at core, is a field of service and giving. The most important qualities of a teacher are love and compassion, listening and evoking. Without endless caring and patience, the students will never internalize whatever content their teachers are trying to convey.

But there is always the potential for violence in the classroom. I am not referring to acts of physical or emotional violence. I am not speaking of overt acts of abuse.

Educational violence — alimut — is the silencing of voices through intimidation. At some point in our lives, we have probably all experienced an educational setting that hindered, made unwelcome, inhibited, or even forbade, the free expression of our opinions.

In Israel, many of us are witnessing an educational approach so sure of its truth, so sure of its possessing ALL of the truth, that it leaves no room for other voices. Students either accept this truth and consent to its message, or risk being rejected and scarred. The ones who don’t “buy in” are often belittled, disparaged, and shamed as “off the path”.

To my personal sadness, this type of educational approach is extremely prevalent in my community — the Nationalist Religious camp, in Hebrew, dati leumi. Recently, a leading Rosh Yeshiva who has often given lip service to loving all of the Jewish People publicly and repeatedly slurred a segment of the Jewish People as “perverts”. He called on the dati leumi community to completely renounce LGBTQ Jews and anyone who shows identification or compassion for them.

As a respected educator, his words did not fall on deaf ears. This person’s damaging statement was accepted and validated by many. How can such a perspective and approach be nurtured in this community?

Violence breeds violence. Silencing breeds silencing.

The “national religious” voice of the Jewish People was silenced for almost 2,000 years. Through our holy texts, the Jewish voice spoke of the sanctity of the individual, the family, and the community. But for almost 2,000 years our national voice was silenced. We had nothing to say.

In the last 100 years we have begun to find our voice and have struggled to learn words and language.

A child learning to speak discovers its voice before it can articulate words. How does this phase look? The child screams. We’ve all seen 1-year olds in their pre-speech stage. Sometimes they scream so loudly that we look on in astonishment and laughter. Watching my grandchildren at this age, I often think that it is remarkable they can scream with such abandon, at the top of their lungs, holding nothing back. They need to do this. They are discovering their ability to make sound. It is a stage that all children experience. Eventually they will stop screaming and begin communicating.

Eventually they will even realize that they are not the only voice in the room and begin to listen.

The violence in the National Religious camp breaks my heart. I studied for years in a National Religious Beit Midrash and loved every minute of it. Looking back, I now realize that there was room for only one voice, cynically referenced in local jargon as the “line”, the Kuzari-Maharal-Rav Kook voice. Rav Soloveitchik was disparagingly deemed “galuti”, a voice from the diaspora. The Tanya and Chassidut were snubbed as the Torah of individuals, not of the Jewish People. I shamefully and candidly confess that my many years in this Beit Midrash were blissful. It is a taste of paradise to know that you have the truth, all of the truth, and therefore are relieved from listening to any other opinions or reading any books of a different line of thought. It freed me from ever having to listen to anyone else. The world was divided into two camps — us, the National Religious, possessors of truth — and the rest, a collection of unenlightened unfortunates for whom we nominally expressed love, though always with the concealed intent to win them over to our worldview.

I have long lost this paradise. The world proved to be way too complex and mysterious to be guided by one sole line of thought. And I harbor significant resentment and sadness toward the simplistic and limiting educational philosophy espoused at my Beit Midrash. Though my rabbis and teachers were kind people, they had adopted an educational approach of silencing other viewpoints, an educational approach causing us to be i’lem; an approach of violence, alimut.

But I also perceive our community’s craving to silencing others as a natural phase in its development. We went from 2,000 years of silence to screaming. Apparently, there is no fast or smooth track to developing the skill of communication and dialogue.

My hope and belief is that we will swiftly move beyond this ear-piercing, silencing educational approach — and begin to witness the maturing of the National Religious camp and the Jewish People as a whole.

The time has come to recognize that there are others in the room, that the Jewish People is a symphony of different voices.

The violence of presenting only one truth while silencing all other truths will never yield a loving, holy people. We all need to have our own voice.

The time has come for educators to listen, to evoke, and to love the multiplicity of voices of the Jewish People.