I would like to start with a story. About four years ago, when we were all assailed by a spirit of peace and optimism, I was invited to participate in a meeting of spiritual young people who were discussing the relationship between religion, nationality and tolerance. The speakers were in agreement that institutionalized religion and tolerance do not go hand in hand, and that absolute personal liberty does not tolerate external religious authority. Based on similar logical considerations, they claimed that national affiliation prevents a country from giving all its citizens equal rights, and that faith that is truly absolute leaves no room for pluralism. The obvious conclusion is that if every person were to forego the totality of their faith and their religious, ethnic and national affiliation, the Middle East would be a quieter place.
Despite the atmosphere in the room, I was not even slightly convinced by the recommended ethical relativism model and the concept of relinquishing a particular identity. There was another young fellow, a devout Moslem judging by his clothes, who, like me, felt uncomfortable with the great enthusiasm in the room. This young fellow, who proved to be very learned and well-versed in classic Moslem teachings and modern philosophy, announced that he, in contrast to the lecturer, did not consider his religion to be a racial burden. Using different verses and quotes from
Koranic tradition, he described his faith as a liberating tradition that contains deep-rooted values such as being benevolent to others, the requirement to listen to conflicting opinions, and the call to diminish the “self” in the face of God's abundant will and the existential needs of other creatures. He was seeking a friendly face in the audience and turned towards me, a bearded man with the unmistakable appearance of a religious Jew. Surprised, I smiled and nodded my head encouragingly, although at this stage I preferred not to become involved in the discussion. Mesmerized, I could not avoid watching the participants as I tried to understand the existential motives behind their faith which to me appeared almost childish. They believed that in the post-Zionist, secular “nation for all its citizens” there will supposedly be fewer power struggles between the warring factions.
After many long years of education in the lap of skepticism and criticism, the appearance of a generation seeking a civilized world, or the illusion of one, without any red lines or disputes, absolutely fascinated me.
On the one hand, I could see that this audience, which was seeking a new Paradise and considered itself to be free of national history and collective responsibility, was the embodiment of another, far more serious stage of Western consumer culture in which the consumer seeks erotic and mystical experiences without investing effort, and without any gradual progression or commitment. In fact, from the comments being made during the discussion, it sounded as if the speakers had collected together the beliefs and sayings of different religions, almost like you would collect items in the supermarket and put them in your shopping trolley. For me, this process did not symbolize a spiritual message. Khaled – the Arab fellow who in the meantime I had managed to chat with – and I exchanged condescending looks of disdain.
On the other hand, I became familiar with the innocence of those seeking a New Age that would delight in a tolerant and open multi-culturalism in which religion would not be the cause of bloodshed and is, instead, like a collection of memories of man's encounters with God. These young men and women – who are so critical of institutionalized religious traditions and prefer a personal-spiritual process over oppressive religious discipline that is stupefying and numbing – were as naïve as could be when it came to man's ability to free himself from the cultural environment into which he was born and to make autonomous choices concerning his value system and preferences.
A shared desire to develop a model that offers an alternative to Western thought, which is deaf to the voice of sanctity, gave rise to the unusual connection between me and Khaled. For months on end, we entered into profound discussions and studied different sources together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, as we researched a new way to deal with contradictions which classical and modern philosophy had defined, because of the law of opposites, as unbridgeable.
With deliberate disregard for the modern compromises which try to turn these ethical conflicts into something shallow, and as the result of age-old pre-modern Jewish and Moslem traditions, we saw these opposites, and this dispute, as an opportunity to connect to something infinite. They discussed the underlying tension between “self” and “other”, past and present, finite and infinite, chaos and cosmos, and questions such as those that Mordechai Rotenberg calls “shrines and study houses” (MeMikdash leMidrash, Shoken, 5762 ). Based on this concept, we tried to address commonplace questions of modernity versus tradition, personal autonomy versus accepting a belief in God, absolute truth and tolerance for falsehood, faith and criticism, tribal identity and universal identity, etc.
As two adults, each with a solid identity and academic training, we managed to agree on a theoretical model that accommodates religious complexity. However, the real challenge was to test the validity of the model in conditions of national and local religious conflict, and then to hand it over to the educational system, or more correctly based on Israel's reality, to the different educational systems. Some of the organizations that were involved in this process initiated programs to educate towards religious complexity in the Jewish and Arab worlds. We began with a pilot group that included principals from religious schools and religious leaders from one area, and continued with groups of teachers and meetings involving senior students. In addition to the joint activities, the Arab group organized itself independently and implemented bold projects with far-reaching potential for intra-Islamic dialogue. For pragmatic reasons – organizing funding and activities – we worked with religious leaders and religious academics from all over the world, and together with them initiated think-tanks and taskforces in Western Europe, in the Balkan nations including Bosnia among others, and in the United States. It became clear that we are not the only ones trying to develop a “Theology of Pluralism” and religious tolerance based on religious traditions rather than on secular values of personal autonomy. I wish to present in these few lines the insights we gained from our investigation and our practical experience. For the benefit of the Jewish reader, I will position the model within the context of Jewish thought and will use Jewish terminology, even though this process does have a parallel in Moslem thought (as mentioned above) although it is considerably different. Additionally, in light of the difference in the socio-political reality of the Arabs and the Jews in Israel, the identity study using similar methodology that we are spearheading within the Arab population will touch on points that do not always coincide with dilemmas facing the Jewish sector. I will therefore focus here on the Jewish reality and hope that my Arab partners will soon present their positions in writing too.
Jewish Dilemmas and Arab Dilemmas
It was clear to us that compromises proposed by Moslem Modernists of the 19th century and by the Reform Jews in all their variations, could not serve as an educational model for teens who seek authenticity and totality. The compromise cannot compete with the fundamentalists, who are so consistent and so decisive and therefore also so capable of presenting the illusion of perfection. Even in cogitative terms they are trying to reconcile between the Moslem call for absolute submission to God and the Kantian call for personal autonomy, which may give rise to superficiality and mediocrity.
Our traditions are indeed different from each other. The Jews had a historical advantage. As a nation living as a minority in the foreign surroundings of Babylonian captivity, the Jews developed interesting and creative methods of that facilitated selective receptiveness to the dominant culture. The Jewish spiritual leaders developed models of compromise which, over the generations, enabled traditional Jews to become integrated into the foreign culture; during the last 300 years, from Moshe Mendelssohn to Rabbi Y. D. Soloveitchik, the nation's great leaders tried to adapt the prophetic ethics to the standards of those ethics that change from generation to generation. However, in the individualistic world in which we live today, there is no reason that a young person, who is descended from Jewish parents but is not the hostage of a closed community, would choose a tribal identity over becoming integrated into the broader open society. It is very clear that for Jewish communities in the West, and to a certain degree for religious communities in Israel, the old models which are trying to revive and justify marginal culture are no longer valid. The liberty and intellectual freedom experienced in the secular world will always have a far stronger pull than that which is offered by the religious world, and despite the make-up and other cosmetic changes, there is no room for competition.
For me, the advantage of the religious world is the awareness that it brings about the presence of God and the possible connection to something sacred offered by the ancient religious traditions. Personal autonomy releases a person from the presence of God in our world; furthermore, ethical relativism in its modern form, despite all its advantages in terms of tolerance, does not allow for a total religious experience, involving the relinquishing “self” and absolute submission to God.
In Islam, everything is simpler. The historical experience of compromise and making the dispute superficial was less polished; quotes supporting the need to listen to the inner voice were less common; and also the intensity of the call for ardent totality had far greater impact.
In order to preserve the development process of the concept, I will go back to the early months when I met frequently with Khaled. During our shared study time, it became clear that he and I shared some psychological and social characteristics: We both have childhood memories of uncompromising worship of God and a benevolent attitude to strangers and to the weak; we both have a strong inclination to accept religious discipline and intellectual curiosity that is undeterred by boundaries; we both clearly have a mystic inclination and a desire to connect with the transcendent, as revealed in the overall experience. Furthermore, we both experienced alienation within the school system; we both met individuals who extricated us from this insufferable situation; and we both have a very strong need to acknowledge God's part in this and to return this great kindness by doing the same for others. Regarding our faith, despite the numerous theological disputes, we both shared some intuitive responses, some of which we mentioned earlier: our belief in people and their ability to change; a belief that religious dogmatism is not a part of truly worshipping God but instead is paganism, a worshipping of the immature human “self”; a belief that God and the holy person who approaches him will be blessed, capable of containing the unified contradictions; and a whole series of beliefs relating to previously mentioned shared premises.
With awe and reverence, we searched for another model, needed because we had negated modern ethical relativism which obstructs the performing of idealistic deeds, and as a result of negating the closed dogmatism, a widespread phenomenon in the religious worlds, which obstructs open and free worship of God. We reached the conclusion that a real and challenging alternative would be the model that emphasizes the existing contradictions. Education that espouses life with internal dilemmas is, for us, the transcendent objective and is compatible with the belief in a God who is both near and far and who is both transcendent and imminent at the same time. The God who is both “holy and awesome” and “merciful and beloved” is a model of religious complexity to which we can adhere. All the Jewish Kabalistic literature from the Middle Ages strongly emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the complexity of the upper and lower needs. If the one true God expresses himself in complex ways, man, who was created in God's image is also fundamentally complex. Every person, both religious and secular, aspires to holiness and purity alongside the aspiration to profligate and to be inconsistent; they have an urge for harmony and for destruction; they experience an irrational desire for domination and submission alongside rational considerations about justice and integrity. The human race has paid dearly for attempts to conceal or suppress these strengths. The time has therefore come when we must stop looking to the simple solution of a pure one-dimensional world, and start learning to live with the internal and external conflict.
If we see rational modernism as a youthful rebellion in the out-of-date world of beliefs, it is time to begin the painful negotiations over the belief in monotheism and idols. It is probable that if we stop being in denial and acknowledge that man is an anarchist commune, there is perhaps a chance that we will begin to connect with ourselves and perhaps with each other.
During recent years, educators and instructors who work with youth have accumulated evidence indicating that the critical thinking of the secular world is destructive, affects the adolescents' innocence and silences non-utilitarian initiatives such as various community-oriented activities. According to utilitarian ethics, it is difficult to justify an activity that does not meet mutual requirements and does not provide any real reward or compensation. In a jungle such as this, the weak and lonely find themselves more and more outside the life circle.
Regarding the religious world, the lack of criticism reinforces the naivety, and actions done “for the sake of …”, but also leads to dogmatism. Believing that the right path is being followed expedites idealistic activities, but usually does not leave room for other opinions. We found the expression, a “second innocence” somewhere between the indifference and despair of skepticism, and the innocent enthusiasm that is teeming with energy but which does not excel at openness. This “second innocence” is a mature choice of faith, a choice that is based on self-awareness and an awareness of the dangers it may present.
A Real Alternative
As the result of working with groups of religious educators, a model developed that operates on two complementary axes: the first is associated with emotional maturity which enables a person not to feel threatened by someone with different opinions; and the second concerns conscious growth. Throughout the psychologist-supervised process experienced by the group over a one-year period, participants were gradually exposed to more and more serious existential dilemmas and were tested by more and more intellectually challenging experiences involving encounters with people holding differing opinions. Completion of the process should reinforce the participant's personal, religious and national identity without the person feeling the need to negate the other or to be disparaging about their opinions. During this period the participant acquires the ability to live with internal dilemmas and external conflicts. Contrary to the initial innocence of the pre-modern religious person who lives in a conceptual ghetto and is unable to contain the non-believing world, a person's second innocence recognizes impiety but nonetheless chooses this option, and this, in my humble opinion, is a real alternative.
We found the concept “second innocence” in some Hasidic literature. The Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish mystical Rabbi, for example presents advice given to a trainee mystic by Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah (supposed by some to have been the author of the Kabalistic text Sefer Hakaneh) saying: “Once you have learned all the intentions, you must pray like a baby”; and Rabbi Nachman from Bratislav calls on his followers to begin believing anew every time, after the unavoidable human despair. The Hasidic philosophers from recent generations included the “Keeper of the Faith”, the Shomer Emunim, founder of the extremist Toldot Aharon group, who arrived in Israel at the beginning of the 20th century. He told his Hasidic followers regarding their obligation to worship God with both love and reverence, an instruction that contradicted reason, that indeed a compromise between the two ways would not lead to a substantial result, and the only way to achieve true worship is to combine the two modes of prayer. He instructs them to totally devote themselves to these “back and forth” tests, in other words, to constantly shift from one form to another doing so one after another. The “narrow bridge” that these thinkers present is not similar to the Hegelian synthesis which voids the thesis and the anti-thesis that came before it. Instead, it describes the reality of the person who is trying to find their way but is always afraid because he is aware of his inability to understand the Godly truth.
In contrast to the modern thinker, who believes in man's ability to know everything, this complex awareness is derived from the humble religious position of the creature whose intellect is limited in comparison to the all-knowing God. We are pleased that later modern thinkers and post-modernist thinkers also developed similar attitudes concerning conscious humility which, in this regard, is more compatible with the traditional religious positions. The orthodox position which combines, with great finesse, an uncompromising cognitive investigation of the truth with a complete confidence in God, tends to be forgotten, and there is therefore a need to develop structured processes for individuals or groups in order ensure that its return. It was Ernest A. Simon who re-introduced the concept “second innocence” to modern Jewish thought (Ha'im Od Yehudim Anachnu, ‘HaTemimut HaSheniyah', Jerusalem).
However, the meaning of the term that was developed for the religious sectors became immeasurably broader following discussions with professionals from other disciplines. It seems that different professions use different names when referring to this mature reality.
Apparently unaware of the Hasidic literature, Paul Ricard, a well-known postmodernist thinker, together with Michel Foucault, questioned the dogmas of modern thinking and called the mature reality that we should strive for “second naïveté”. Much to the surprise of the Jewish reader, he uses terms that are completely parallel to those used by the Hassids. The French philosopher argues that every culture contains a system of fundamental dogmas which enable it to exist, and given that man cannot free himself from the culture in which he functions, it is worth his while to select one consistent belief to enable himself to function, despite being aware of other belief systems. Based on similar considerations, Emmanuel Lévinas calls this need the “second rectitude”. Another philosophical confirmation of the term second innocence has come from the Americans who are influenced by William James and is called “constructive post-modernism”. This philosophical trend instructs its followers not to be content with doubt and encourages them to select one belief and adhere to it and all that can be deduced from it. From this point, relinquishing national and cultural identity and the aspiration to turn the Israeli, Jew and Arab, into a “citizen of the world” is an impractical and dangerous illusion.
At the beginning of the activities, Khaled and I were almost the only supporters of the complex approach presented. Today however, we are seeing very large numbers of young people from the religious sectors – Jewish and Moslem – of the population who refuse to see the national ideal as harmful to their universal ideal, and it is probable that they can relate to the complex that was presented here. We can see that this complex line of thinking has become acceptable by looking to our partners who have set up similar inter-cultural “discourse and study” projects. These projects reinforce the self-identity and are active in countries affected by inter-cultural conflicts, such as the Balkan nations, Italy, Germany, Belgium, France and the United States. We are pleased that more ripples have been generated in addition to those mentioned here. It is possible that a new religious and even existential model will be developed that portrays the individual with a solid personal, faith-based and national identity who can at the same time be tolerant and capable of accepting others at face value.
Dr Dov Maimon is a colleague at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute