July 13, 2024
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Aggressive Compromise Is a Sign of Strength, Not Weakness

There is a mystical theory that people reflect the physical settings within which they live. In Israel, for example, the time between sunset and darkness seems relatively short. In other words, it is either day, or night. Most Israelis, I believe, think accordingly — in absolutes. You are either right or wrong, you’re either with me or against me. Yes, it’s either day or night.

This is playing out in the searing judiciary debate. Those on the left see the former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak as a heroic figure. Viewing a pair of 1992 Israeli Basic Law as the beginning of a “constitutional revolution,” he inspired an activist court that over the years has, at times, overridden the legislative powers of the Knesset.

The right is now doing the same, attempting to introduce laws that are equally extreme, laws that with a razor-thin 61-majority of the Knesset, could override Supreme Court decisions.

Both sides are pushing extremes in yet another way. Over the past years, members of the Supreme Court and of Israel’s bar association constituted the majority of the committee appointing new high court justices. In effect, it was a policy of judges choosing judges, without any checks.

Now the right is doing the same. Its new laws would have the legislature predominating in making these judicial choices – here again without any checks.

If those promulgating these opposite extremes continue on their paths, it could lead to catastrophe. Imagine this scenario, noted by others: the Knesset passes the new law, and soon after the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional. Imagine, too, if, soon after, circumstances arise wherein the Supreme Court and the Knesset give contradictory orders to the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff. What, then, will the IDF do? This, God forbid, could spiral into a serious existential threat.

Yet, these moments of potentially extreme danger can actually turn into blessings. From bitterness, our tradition tells us, sweetness can come.

This can occur if both the right and left adopt what is called the koach hatzimtzum, the power of contraction, of stepping back and making space for one’s opponent, understanding that aggressive compromise is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

This involves listening to, rather than talking at, the other, recognizing that neither side has a monopoly on loving Zion and the people and land of Israel. As difficult as it is to imagine, each side has what to learn from the other, as both the Knesset, the body that enacts law, and the Supreme Court, the final protector of human and civil rights, are vital to the future of a strong, Jewish, democratic State of Israel.

What is needed here is the magic of dialectic which contravenes absolutism. Absolutism means that one side is entirely right and the other side, entirely wrong. Dialectic involves opposite ideas pulling in different directions with true and profound creativity coming from the tension between the two.

On a very personal level, I know both phenomena. As a young activist, I took positions wherein I could not see any truth aside from my own, going so far as to make the tragic mistake of being the American rabbi who, in the 1980s, galvanized support for the Jewish underground (machteret).

But as I grew older, I came to recognize that Israel will not make it with the right alone or the left alone. Concerning Israel and the well-being of the Jewish community, dialectic is critical. Relative to our matter, the following must be emphasized: while each side believes that it alone is the savior of checks and balances, both sides have a crucial role to play.

At the Passover seder, which we will soon be celebrating, we first focus on the past, our freedom from Egypt. Towards the end, however, we shift direction, as we recite texts reflecting our yearning for a future redemption.

Redemption is often associated with a utopian society — a world that is all good. But redemption is not all good. It is, as Maimonides posits, not perfection. And so, in one of the final seder melodies, we sing out karev yom asher hu lo yom ve lo laila, the day will come when it is no longer day nor night.

This is the dream of “twilight expanded,” wherein opposites not only coexist but, for the sake of the greater good, contract (tzimtzum) to make space for the other, thus thriving and flourishing in dialectic.

For the sake of Zion, may it be, may it be.


Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, New York, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a longtime activist for Jewish causes and human rights.

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