Ideological wars and social unrest: what can we do about them?
Drasha for Pesach 5779
The story of our exodus from Egypt is at the same time a story about the plagues and great crises that hit Egypt and its society. Although the Torah, describing the plagues, is rather laconic in the descriptions of social reactions to them (although it mentions, for example, anxiety of the pharaoh's courtiers and the great outcry after the death of all the firstborn), it is rather easy for us to imagine social moods in a country touched by such misfortunes.
Although the societies we live in are in no way touched by plagues comparable to the Egyptian ones, we constantly live in times of social unrests and, especially recently, of increased lack of civility in social relations. Some of the essential causes for them are ideological conflicts and radicalism. But do we indeed live in times of growing radicalism or are these ideas simply “popular” in media and thus our perception of the reality is distorted? In fact, when we can distill our core beliefs to the practicality of our day-to-day life, to our responsibilities, we often find more commonality than various propaganda sometimes suggests. Ideological and religious radicalism thrive in the virtual domain, but really most people are situated somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum. The problem is that in the virtual space radical views are vivid, highly palatable and over represented informing a warped perception of the world and other people, especially when it reinforces an already held perspective. This can make people more likely to simplify and reduce perception to banal stereotypes and can make people more likely to define their position by that with which they disagree rather than by what they have in common.
The popularity of social engineering encourages the view that the "correct system", "correct law" or "correct views" can solve all the problems faced by Western societies. Of course, the visions of the “correct system” are diverse and often mutually exclusive increasing the level of mutual anger, frustration, intolerance and aggression giving birth to ideas bordering on those from Orwell's or Huxley's novels.
While there is rarely one solution to any issue, certainly a vital step is to focus on the practical manifestation of our belief systems. It is imperative that the focus is on the problems that we all face and on that which we have in common, rather than on visions of an ideal world in which everything will be good and fair.
And since in the coming week Christians celebrate Easter, let me use an example from the field of the Christian-Jewish interreligious dialogue. If we focus on theological matters, it often leads us into an eternal, endless dispute. However, if we focus on practical matters, miraculously, it turns out that we do not differ that much, especially in the realm of ethics. The core of our morality is the 10 Commandments – values such as love, justice, responsibility, tradition and family.
On the occasion of Pesach, I encourage everyone to cultivate and focus on values that lead to a full, enriched, meaningful, and yes, responsible life, because responsibility is one of the main sources of life’s meaning. Focusing on practical issues embraces everyone, leading to more peace and civility within our community and between our communities. Make no mistake, this does not mean we should not address the bigger picture and make lasting and meaningful societal changes. On the contrary, it allows much more realistic long-term visions.
Our beliefs can become our Egypt; we can become enslaved and blinded by them. We must resist the tantalizing draw of the black and white arguments and focus on the pragmatics of how we all live our lives, how we treat one another, how we take care of one another, what happens day to day because it is not so very different from those with whom we disagree. Once we see that, we can better understand both others and ourselves, which helps us to live in peace – in a civilized community. Practical applications of our beliefs deepen our understanding of the world, of others, and make it a better place for all of us.
Hag Pesach Sameach,
Hag Pesach Sameach,
Menachem Mirski Rabbinical Student Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies American Jewish University Los Angeles, USA