Wrestling With Ourselves

01/12/2016 05:08 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2017

In 1920, Orot ("Lights"), a collection of works by the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, was published, which included an essay called "The Three Wrestlers." In this piece, Rabbi Kook makes a profound observation about the human condition which I believe will serve us well as a map for navigating our current reality.

He notes that the "three wrestlers" of universalism, particularism and spirituality are present in every person and in every human collective, and we are tasked with maintaining a healthy interplay between them. When we do so, each organism - be it a person or a people - is able to fulfill its potential. When these forces are mutually antagonistic, all three are weakened, and the vitality of the individual or collective in question diminishes. Counterintuitively, Rabbi Kook argues that even a force which may appear in any given time and place to be dominant is, in fact, corrupted and depleted by its own isolation and excess, which of course damages the greater whole. In other words, any healthy individual or collective requires all three wrestlers to be robust and continuously interrelating with each another.

According to this road map, there is no true universalism without particularism, and vice versa, as each provides an essential context for the other. Universalism that does not respect the unique beauty and story of each individual is not true universalism, but rather totalitarianism that smothers individuality and soon leads to the most inhuman behavior, all in the name of humankind - consider the worst excesses of Communism. Particularism without universalism is equally inadequate, for the selfish pursuit of happiness brings psychological, economic and ecological degradation which eventually harms every individual - consider the dysfunctionality of hyper-individualistic capitalist societies.

For Rabbi Kook, authentic spirituality begins with an existential commitment to the love of life itself, even in the face of its absence and opposite. Without such a love, both universalism and particularism are vehicles for our fear and mistrust of others, flawed attempts to control an unpredictable and dangerous world. Jewish spirituality is founded on the belief that every human is both divinely unique, and deeply interdependent. It can embrace what might seem to be paradoxical - both individualism and particularism - because it is not static, but a dynamic, evolving Tree of Life.

Rabbi Kook's insight is even more relevant now than when "The Three Wrestlers" was first published. It is all too apparent that we as a people have forgotten how to hold these forces in harmony, or even in constructive tension. Instead, we have divided and weakened ourselves in fear, allowing the three ideals to manifest in ever-increasing isolation. Each wrestler's camp exists within its own echo chamber, receiving ever-diminishing feedback from those who might think or feel differently. The universalism, particularism, spirituality and overall vitality of us as individuals, and of our people as a whole, has been gravely debased by this separation.

When we fail to uphold all three yearnings in wholesome interrelationship, the results are severe. The barbaric fruits of our excessive particularism, devoid of any regard for the dignity of others, have been painfully difficult to avoid in our news feeds of late. Those claiming to act on behalf of our own faith, and others, have demonstrated the desperate insufficiency of a particularism that is not deeply imbued with respect for all life.

Meanwhile, many of our best and brightest are repulsed by such excesses to another extreme, whose negative consequences are less immediate, but equally tragic. Many young Jews are enchanted with unmitigated universalism, which rejects the possibility of learning anything of value from the unique contours of our own memories, narratives or indigenous wisdom tradition. This shortsighted rejection of anything resembling particularism uproots us from important information about ourselves. Whether we love or despise our family or our tribe, we cannot fully understand and refine ourselves until we have understood them, and our place among them. Without this understanding, we are unable to interpret the world around us because we do not understand the very eyes we are looking through.

As for spirituality, it is the neglected younger sibling of both the particularist and universalist camps. Our ancestors learned over countless generations what practices and technologies best served them in their persistent quest to improve themselves and the world. The events of the last two centuries have swiftly cut us off from millennia of wisdom that was borne from their rich experience. Without it, we are greatly impoverished and inadequately prepared for our ongoing mission to bring peace, justice and wholeness to the world.

Our challenge now is to celebrate and embrace the full power of each wrestler and to engage all three, ultimately, in a graceful and seamless dance. This means creating conversations and communities where universalism, particularism and spirituality all enrich, challenge and complete each other. Rabbi Kook gives very specific and psychologically astute instructions for how to achieve this. Whichever wrestler we identity with the most, we must strive to see the good in the others, and to persevere until we fully appreciate how essentially good and necessary they are. Eventually we will realize, he writes, that even their shortcomings are in fact good for the other wrestlers, and for the whole that we are striving to improve.

In a better-known piece than "The Three Wrestlers," Rabbi Kook writes (in "The Fourfold Song") that each individual and each people has their own song, as does all of humanity, and so too the entirety of life. The ultimate song of wholeness and peace, he teaches, is the intertwined harmony of all of these. May we each be granted the strength to help ourselves and each other to discover the music of who we are as individuals, as members of our own people, as humans, and as children of the Universe.