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June 24, 2012 12:23 am

Pondering the Limits of Conversation

avatar by Misha Galperin

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Natan Sharansky, left, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel is welcomed by Masa Israel Journey alums. Photo: David Karp.

The Jewish Agency’s third Global Jewish Forum is just a stone’s throw away on the calendar. I use that expression intentionally. Occurring three times each year, the Forum opens conversation among young adults, scholars and Jewish communal leaders from around the world on the most profound and urgent issues facing the Jewish people. The purpose is to share perspectives and gain understanding. Last June, the discussion focused on de-legitimization. This past February, we tackled the growing tension between the Haredim and mainstream Israeli society. Both gatherings were at times tense and reflected the passion which Jews from all walks of life carry with them. Next week, we could have a repeat performance. We are still a stone’s throw away from any true state of civility.

I’ve been pondering the limits of conversation lately and thinking about how language has become one of our great constraints. Language is all we have to communicate ideas. It offers both the gift and the limitation of being a uniquely human skill. But our Jewish lexicon is having trouble holding certain words in place at the same time. Words like “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “Zionism” “right, “left,” “republican,” “democrat.” While actions can bring harm, we regard language as essentially neutral. It is a vehicle or vessel for containing ideas. But all of the words above have taken on all kinds of connotations and often produce many visceral reactions. Language is not safe.

And when language ceases to be safe it also ceases, on some level, to be meaningful. For example, conservative Judaism is viewed as overly permissive by orthodox standards, while many reform or secular Jews would find this practice of Judaism to be too restrictive.  Labels are relative and often meaningless as a result.

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Erik Erikson described this problem as the need to have foils in order to assert one’s own identity. Rather than positive assertions of personal identity, we describe our movements and ourselves reactively. Often we are reduced to doing this because the differences between us or among us are not actually that significant; the stakes are often very small. We sell books by throwing out controversial statements because it’s good for marketing, but it’s not so good for the Jewish People.

The forum topic this time is whether liberalism and Zionism can still co-exist as the drivers of Jewish identity in the 21st century. Are the two “isms” becoming mutually exclusive, as Peter Beinart seems to believe? The issue has been framed by many on the progressive left that democracy and the Zionist collective are on a collision course. But it is not a zero-sum game, and we are self-inflicting damage if we believe that to be the case. The challenge is to re-frame the discussion from security-related issues to what democracy looks like in a small country – created by and for the sovereignty of the Jewish people – with unique security and existential threats.

Israel was never formed to be the United States of the Middle East. The context is totally different, but that doesn’t make its democracy any less valid or robust. It serves a different purpose and the contours of its democracy must reflect its complicated realities, not U.S realities. Ecclesiastes 3:5 says that there is a time for everything: “A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away.” We have to stop throwing stones. It’s time to embrace. It’s time to gather stones. Stones will never meld with each other, but they can sit beside each other in peaceful co-existence.

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  • The best way of building trust with another human being is just sitting with them. The ancient Greek word “Sanhedrin” actually means sitting together. Internet forums like this are a good resource but are nothing like actually sitting with various people and discussing issues. They are always an ersatz replacement. Also when you sit with someone you get to know them better. An idea about where they are from, why they are at a certain place and where they want to go allows you to build trust and to “connect”.