The Jewish ‘middle way’ and world events

The Jewish approach to life is based upon the “middle way.” It is characterized by a constant attempt to strike a balance between two seemingly opposing forces – those of giving and those of restricting the giving – both of which are needed in the proper amount and time. This dialectic manifests itself in numerous ways, be it on an individual level or on a collective and national level.

An example of this principle from everyday home life can be found in the sometimes frustrating endeavor of a parent to find the right balance in their relationship with their child. More specifically, since there are times when a parent must be stern with a child while at other times there is a need for greater compassion, the difficult challenge for a parent is to know what measure of each attribute needs to be applied to every situation.

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Complicating this juggling act is the fact that while always being strict and continuously disciplining a child will have disastrous effects on the mental well-being of the child, the opposite approach of yielding to every request of a child and never saying “no,” for fear of upsetting the child, will likely produce a spoiled brat.

Turning to the broader Jewish national level, an interesting example of this frequently challenging interaction is brought by Yossi Klein Halevi in the introduction to his book “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.” Commenting on the difficulty of the Jewish people in the modern State of Israel in fostering a renewed relationship with the use of power and force after so many years of not having to deal with the issue, he states;

“What, then, does Jewish history expect of our generation? The Torah imposes two commandments of memory. The first is to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message is: Don’t be brutal. The second is to remember that we were attacked without provocation on our way out of Egypt by the tribe of Amalek, archetypal enemy of the Jewish people, and the message is: Don’t be naïve.”

In other words, there are times when the Jewish people must act with kindness towards its non-Jewish residents and neighbors, while at other times they need to reduce the compassion and increase the might in order to act more forcefully with those who threaten us.

In the inner teachings of Judaism, these two forces are known as “chesed” and “gevurah,” loosely translated as kindness and strength. Using water as a metaphor, chesed would be the powerfully flowing mountain water that is the source of a river while gevurah is the restriction or delineation of this mighty downward flow into various channels and tributaries. When interacting together in a harmonious relationship, the result is that the initially overpowering and churning water is transformed into a useful and manageable life force.

If this proper equilibrium doesn’t exist, however, and one of the forces begins to have an overly dominant presence, then the effects can be disastrous. Returning to the water metaphor, if access to all the tributaries but one were suddenly closed, causing the raging mountain water to be diverted to the only remaining outlet, the force of the water would quickly overcome the limited capacity of the one available tributary with the result being a life-threatening flood.

In other words, pure chesed has to be channeled so as not to overcome the receiving capacity of the beneficiary. Likewise extreme gevurah, characterized by too many restrictions, needs to be “diluted” in order to prevent it from extinguishing the loving energy of kindness and giving.

Analyzing events in the world from this perspective, I’m a bit alarmed by what I see. On the one hand, ultraliberal voices in the Western media and intelligentsia, particularly those in the United States, seem to be leading a cultural revolution whose goal is to erase any differences amongst people, especially those of gender, in order to uproot traditional modes of behavior.

Stated differently, there is a disproportionate emphasis on the giving and flowing of life, which is a manifestation of excessive chesed, without any corresponding rules or restrictions (gevurah). As noted above, from a Jewish perspective this is a serious imbalance.

Although it’s true that there have been other periods in the United States that have witnessed a revolt against the established rules of society, most notably in the 1960s, this time it’s different in that it’s being led by prominent media figures and well-respected intellectuals as opposed to “long-haired hippies” and “radical youth.”

For this reason, there is a seismic shift that is occurring in America in terms of defining the cultural characteristics of what it means to be an American and, in a broader sense, a Westerner.

Moreover, since this societal transformation is being driven by an enormous overabundance of unimpeded chesed, it may, like any imbalance, trigger a backlash of equally extreme proportions. Or, as in the case of the water metaphor, it might lead to something much more catastrophic.

At the other end of the spectrum and in total contradistinction to the exceedingly liberal trend in Western society is the rapidly expanding influence in the world of what’s occasionally called militant Islam or fundamentalist Islam. Regardless of how it’s classified, the Islam that is increasingly affecting events throughout Asia and Africa and which is also scaring the hell out of Europe and other Western countries is characterized by an extreme measure of gevurah that is intolerant to other opinions and which demands absolute obedience to Islamic rules of law in society.

Moreover, this overly rigid framework, which is the exact opposite of the “no rules” atmosphere being cultivated in the West, tends to choke off the vibrant source of life in society, both figuratively and as increasingly witnessed throughout the world, literally as well.

Although it’s true that in terms of liberal or conservative periods there have always been ebbs and flows throughout history, what we are witnessing today is the simultaneous existence of two rapidly growing and mutually exclusive cultural trends with each one, from the Jewish perspective of the “middle way,” exceedingly top-heavy in its dominant feature of either chesed or gevurah. It is the lethal combination of these two extreme developments that is potentially destructive for the entire world.

At the risk of being labeled a “right-wing reactionary”, which happens to be ridiculous and untrue, I believe nevertheless that it is important to put these thoughts in writing, since based upon what I see silence is simply not an option.

Yoel Meltzer, a freelance writer living in Jerusalem, has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. He can be contacted via