Gam Zu v’Gam Zu: Weeping with All Who Grieve

It has become as a mantra for me during this shattering time, a challenge to hold multiple realities. I repeat it for myself and for anyone who will listen to me: gam zu v’gam zu, “this and also this.” The words come as a reminder that we need to hold both — our Israeli and Jewish family, as well as our extended family, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip living beneath the bombs and those under assault on the West Bank. It hasn’t become any easier holding the trauma of Oct. 7, praying for the hostages, crying out with each day’s tally of the dead in Gaza, weeping for all of the innocents, for all who grieve, for all of the children on either side of the border, each one as our own. Children are estimated to be more than a third of the dead in Gaza.

There are times when I don’t know where or with whom to stand in shared grief and horror, how to bear witness in the public square, with whom to call for an end to the carnage. Gam zu v’gam zu challenges the binary that blocks the way forward, the either/or that prevents us from seeing each other. It is to stand with Israel, to stand with Palestine, to stand for peace, for justice, for release of the hostages, for surcease from the terror beneath the bombs.

I wander among my people at a Jewish community rally for Israel, sharing in collective heartbreak, horrified by the raucous booing of a politician’s call for a ceasefire. Seeking solace, the tensions are palpable; labels that have long defined me become blurred, left and progressive no longer offering assumed common ground and belonging. Unsteady at times on the shifting ground, I hold to underlying beliefs and values as the steadying constant beyond labels — compassion and kindness, faith and hope, the pursuit of justice and peace, all the more so, gam zu v’gam zu, weeping with all who grieve.

Wandering through the shattered landscape, as through a Samuel Bak painting of post-Holocaust destruction and trauma, a destroyed world internalized, the bombed-out landscape of Gaza, a devastated land of rubble, disease and hunger on one side of a thin border. And on the other side, Israeli fields watered now with blood, screams still echoing from shattered kibbutzim whose visions of cooperation extended beyond themselves; and from the field where young people had gathered in song and hope, disembodied notes flung from a twisted staff. Seeds of hate are sown for generations in the gaping furrows left by the bombs, in the psychic scars left by the slaughter of an October day that was meant to bring the Tishrei cycle of holy days to joyful coda. Seeking a place to stand where Jewish grief is not invisible, nor where there are only enough tears to shed for our own, weeping with all who grieve amid the shattering is the first step towards shaping the future together.

Torah offers a context in which to struggle towards place and belonging. Coming to know where we stand in the worlds of our texts helps us to know where we stand in worlds beyond the texts. There is an overarching vision of wholeness from the beginning that is meant to guide our seeking, a gentle breath hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). It is the breath of life in every human, breathed into every baby on every side of every border.

How we see the non-Jewish other — whether worthy of our tears and love or not — is an ancient tension that plays out in our texts. It is a tension felt with immediate urgency in a time of war as the ultimate shattering of the human bond. On the broad canvas of time, it is the tension between the universal and the particular, and the inherent challenge to hold multiple realities, each as part of one whole.

The tension is held in two versions of a familiar text. In the courts of ancient Israel, judges would exhort witnesses in a capital case, laying bare the enormity of the witnesses’ responsibility. It was not only one life that lay in the balance. It was all the stillborn lives of all the generations that would never come to be. Emphasizing that the first human was created as one, the rabbis complete their warning, “whoever destroys a single life, nefesh akhat, it is accounted to them as though they had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves a single life, nefesh akhat, it is accounted to them as though they had saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

There is another version of the mishnah that adds one word, yisrael, one who destroys or saves nefesh akhat meiyisrael, a Jewish life. A definitive study more than 50 years ago by Professor Ephraim Urbach suggests that the universal reading is the original reading, that the narrower reading, in fact, may simply reflect the reality of a Jewish court, which would only have adjudicated among Jews. In this shattering time, numbed by our own trauma, hearts quickly become closed to the other, their dead reduced to numbers, God forbid, even by those who would not otherwise be drawn to a narrow reading of text or life. For all the worlds destroyed, we weep, gam zu v’gam zu.

The tension between the universal and the particular is also at the heart of a critical difference between the Talmudic sages Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai in seeking to distill the essence of Torah:

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). “Rabbi Akivah says, ‘this is a great principle in the Torah.’ Ben Azzai says, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created the human, God made the human in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1). This is an even greater principle” (Sifra, Kedoshim, 4:12).

Some commentators (Ravad[1], Avot d’Rabbi Natan) suggest that Rabbi Akiva is speaking of every human being as the neighbor to be loved. Ben Azzai is wary, though, knowing how quickly lines are drawn to exclude, choosing instead to express the Torah’s essence with a verse that is clearly universal. Ben Azzai’s wariness is borne out through time and experience in the way of our own people’s penchant for suspecting each other’s loyalty and belonging, constricting the Jewish tent before we even consider whether there is room in the tent and in our hearts for non-Jews. As though to protect with universal framing the pure essence of the verse as Rabbi Akiva might have hoped we would understand it, Ben Azzai is responding to the danger of narrow interpretation and perception, of text and of people. How we understand and feel in our souls the identity of the neighbor we are to love[2] informs with whom we stand in these shattering times, and whether we choose to stand for the sake of our own people and also for the sake of others, for Israel and for Palestine, gam zu v’gam zu.

Informing not only with whom and for whom we stand, who we regard as our neighbor informs more deeply the relative value that we ascribe to all members of the human family. Painful in its starkness, it is the question of whether Jewish lives are more valuable than non-Jewish lives. In an interview with U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stepson of Holocaust survivor and author Samuel Pisar, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asked, “Do Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian and Muslim lives, Muslim and Palestinian Christian lives, given the incredible asymmetry in casualties?” “No, period … .”

It is the answer that needs to be said, that needs to be heard with all the clarity of the Secretary of State’s response, but it is also the answer that needs to be acted on. It is the unequivocal answer that is in desperate need of affirmation through policies and actions that reflect in real terms such equal concern for the sacredness of all life. It is an answer that is clear in the beginning and in the end of creation’s vision and its fulfillment. It is clear in the Torah’s telling of the human created as one in God’s image and in the prophetic vision of swords turned to plowshares. That clarity is often lost along the way in our people’s journey through time and space, between beginning and end, in the tension between the ideal and the real.

How we read our texts is not an academic exercise. The essence of who we are depends on how we read them and how we bring them into conversation with each other and among ourselves. Most of all, who we are as Jews depends on how we act on our texts, on how we discern through our texts values and guidance that abide through time, waiting to be realized. Seeking where to stand in our texts, which voices and versions to affirm, which words to place upon our banners, we bring our struggles to all the disharmonies encountered between means and ends, between visions narrow and expansive in the worlds beyond the texts.

Tensions between defining values are as real in our texts as they are in competing opinion pieces in response to the day’s events. The vision of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks offers the vision, a world at peace, and the way, if we would only follow. Responding to the threats of his own time, the prophet Joel turns the vision on its head, calling for people to beat their plowshares into swords, their pruning hooks into spears (4:10).

In the prophetic space between dissonant voices, the question thunders in its silence, was there another way to respond to the horror of Oct. 7? Was there a way to acknowledge our own trauma without so traumatizing another people to both peoples’ harm? A way to channel into collective action, rather than allowing to dissipate the moral revulsion at what had been done to Israel and the Jewish people? From Tanakh to Talmud to us, different views of war and peace, different views of the other vie for our souls, those that hold the universal and the particular as two parts of a whole and those that posit Jewish superiority, thereby demeaning others, ensuring separation. It is one thing when demeaning non-Jews and diminishing the holiness of non-Jewish souls is an act of theological catharsis or political fantasy, and another when military power is vested in a Jewish state.

Was there a way to acknowledge our own trauma without so traumatizing another people to both peoples’ harm?

When souls are worth less, then bodies are, too, and it becomes easier to kill. Implicitly challenging the foundational ChaBaD mystical text, the Tanya, and its demeaning view of non-Jewish souls, Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Chein (1880-1957), a scion of ChaBaD royalty, is a voice that cries out to be heard for its comfort and challenge. Born in Ukraine and emigrating to the Land of Israel in 1935, Rabbi Chein draws passionately on the Sixth Commandment — not to murder— as the foundation of universal morality, blurring distinctions between contexts of killing:

Lo tirtzakh/“You shall not murder.” This foundation pertains to all who come into the world. This essence is the great and first principle, and its holiness is a holiness that is equal for all. It is the foundation of the world … . You shall not murder, without any conditions and without any exceptions … .[3]

It is one thing when demeaning non-Jews is an act of theological catharsis or political fantasy and another when military power is vested in a Jewish state.

Crying out against the slaughter brought by human beings against each other, Rav Chein calls for the creation of Sefer Hadam/The Book of Blood. Recorded for eternity in this holy book would be the name and the family name of every individual whose life was ever taken by violence, biographical information about each one and photographs from the different seasons of their life — a family album, as it were, of the human family, the very suggestion a reminder of our common humanity. And for eternal shame, there would also be listed in The Book of Blood the names of the slaughterers. Wistfully, Rav Chein writes with prayerful hope, “And perhaps there would be in these names a measure also of remedy and a protective amulet against the destroyers to come.”[4]

Another voice cries out with painful immediacy, “one of the passionately concerned rabbis,” Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) warning that “from ‘defender’ one becomes in the end ‘aggressor.’”[5] However just the cause in the hearts and minds of the aggrieved, just war quickly becomes its own justification. Milkhemet mitzvah is generally understood in Jewish law to be a defensive war, yet reflexive emphasis on Israel’s right to self-defense can tragically blind us to the search for other ways. With all of the pain that consumes us in this time, this is the time, nevertheless, to consider that the idea of just war is itself a dangerous delusion, the “defender” quickly becoming the “aggressor.” Squandering good will and sympathy that might have been channeled into collective international response to the horror brought to Israel, we have seen the futility of war even when the cause seems most just.

Perpetuating the horror of organized mass killing among nations and peoples, sinking into the quicksand of the just war theory prevents serious exploration towards finding an alternative to armed conflict in resolving differences among nations, and even in responding to aggression and brutality, as witnessed on Oct. 7 and with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. The search for nonviolent alternatives to war is an active way of response to aggression and brutality, the search itself meant to be a long-term defensive strategy towards preventing recurrent cycles of hate and hostilities. However just the cause may be in the eyes of the combatants, war is never just for the innocents killed on both sides. It is not just for all of those whose lives are shattered, for the families and communities whose lives have been torn asunder, the survivors for whom even the most “just” war will never end. Similarly, the idea of “purity of arms” — the very words, tohar haneshek, however ethically attuned the intent — ascribes something of the sacred to tools meant to kill, as though they were ritual objects meant for some holy purpose.

This is the time to consider that the idea of just war is itself a dangerous delusion; the “defender” quickly becoming the “aggressor.”

I continue to search out the places and the people with whom to stand, but it becomes ever more difficult to find common ground, to hear the voices that neither demonize nor excuse from either side of a false divide. I linger on tear-stained pages listening to ancient arguments not unlike our own, the vision beckoning, offering the way from within itself. The way begins in our weeping with all who grieve, gam zu vegam zu.

[1] Rabbi Abraham ben David, a rabbinic leader in 12th-century Provence.

[2] Focus of a classic essay by Professor Ernst Simon in Modern Jewish Ethics, Edited by Marvin Fox, The Ohio State University Press, 1975, p. 29-56.

[3] Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Chen, B’malchut Ha’yahadut, Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem 1970, vol. 1, p. 72-73.

[4] Ibid., p. 72.

[5] Rabbi Everett Gendler, A Passionate Pacifist, Ben Yehuda Press, Teaneck, N.J. 2020, p. 87; Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares, Cherut, Musar Ha’Torah v’Ha’yahadut, Vilna 1912, p. 44.

One Response

  1. Thank you for sharing your multi-faceted approach to our ancient texts in a modern context. As you did the unpacking of your feelings, thoughts and varied sources you made visible the serious tension that holds us together as human beings.

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