I still remember the first time I saw the phrase ושבו בנים לגבולם—“the children will return to their borders”—spray-painted across the wall of a Palestinian home in East Jerusalem. The phrase is from the Book of Jeremiah, when the prophet, knowing the Jewish people will be exiled from the land of Israel, imagines their eventual return. I was 18 at the time and a student in midrasha, a women’s religious seminary. At that moment, I knew that this violence was not the prophecy of comfort Jeremiah had articulated to the fleeing people. Jewish vandalism and the displacement of Palestinians had distorted these precious words, stripping away their messianic yearning.
Biblical graffiti in East Jerusalem is not a unique example. Traditional Jewish texts adorn signs throughout the occupied West Bank, yeshivot dot the hills of settlements, Jewish holidays signify checkpoint closures for Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and even the sewer caps here in Jerusalem are emblazoned with menorahs. And so, I am left wondering: how do we praise God in an occupied city, where the richness of our tradition has been looted in service of land-theft and home-seizures?
A midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, an exegetical text on the third book of the Torah, offers the following observation:
אמר רבי אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה אם משמש הוא בכלים שבורים גנאי הוא לו, אבל הקב”ה כלי תשמישו שבורים, שנאמר “קרוב ה׳ לנשברי לב״ (תהלים לד:יט), ״הרופא לשבורי לב” (תהלים קמז:ג), ״ואת דכא ושפל רוח״ (ישעיהו נז:טו), ״זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה לב נשבר״ (תהלים נא:יט). — ויקרא רבה ז:ב
Rabbi Alexandri said: “If an ordinary person uses broken vessels, it seems disgraceful. However, the Holy-Blessed-One’s vessels are all broken, as it says ‘God is close to the brokenhearted’ (Psalms 34:19), ‘Healer of the brokenhearted’ (Psalms 147:3), ‘[I dwell with those who are] contrite and of low spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15), ‘Sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken heart’ (Psalms 51:19).”—Vayikra Rabbah 7:2
The midrash here suggests that God does not see our grief and brokenness as ignoble, as humans may imagine. Rather, it is precisely from a place of brokenness that we are most able to be in relationship with God. I have found living in Jerusalem a lesson in having one’s heart broken again and again—with every home-demolition and eviction, with every glimpse of the separation barrier lining the landscape. It feels lonely to know that many of the communities in which I was raised are at best blind or at worst supportive of today’s political reality in Israel/Palestine. The midrash offers both comfort, in suggesting that brokenheartedness equips us in particular ways for sacred communion, and excitement, in the implicit charge to seek out such a holy relationship.
In the Israel/Palestine of today, our brokenness is public and political, and so our repair must be public and political as well. How do we do that work, not letting our brokenness do us in but instead using it to seek out that which is sacred? As a member of the All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective, I have been involved in many iterations of answering that question, including protests, nonviolent direct actions, and education initiatives. Having grown up with and held fast to the belief that Jewish texts convey an urgent message, I have found the creation of Jewish rituals that engage our political present to be a particularly precious answer to the question of repair. These rituals have ranged from Sukkot Against Demolitions, a series of events around the world to protest the planned destruction of Al-Araqib and, the following year, Khan al-Ahmar—both Palestinian villages unrecognized by the state and on opposite sides of the Green Line; to a Freedom Seder in Hebron, which was planned together with Palestinian partners there to mark 50 years of Israeli settlements in the city and call for liberation; to Purim Against Kahanism, in which communities around the world read a megillah that we wrote to detail the story of the Goldstein Massacre and commemorate its 29 victims on its 25th anniversary, calling for an end to the policies of segregation that began in Hebron in the wake of the massacre. These initiatives are, I believe, the sacred work of creating holiness from a place of brokenness.
Too often, the Jewish progressive ethos of tikkun olam is far too shallow, a general reflection of somewhat obvious values that one could have arrived at without encountering the Jewish canon
I have heard criticism of the rituals developed by members of All That’s Left from friends, acquaintances, and social media commenters, all coming from different positions on political and religious spectra but who share a concern that we are merely instrumentalizing the Jewish tradition in the name of politics. I hear this concern. Too often, the Jewish progressive ethos of tikkun olam is far too shallow, a general reflection of somewhat obvious values that one could have arrived at without encountering the Jewish canon, rather than a sharp and particular perspective arrived at through grappling with both the complexities of Jewish tradition and the messiness of our political moment.
But I want to argue that something different is happening here in Jerusalem, something that is also possible around the world. Young Jewish leftists did not invent protest ritual. From the prophet Jeremiah who walked with a yoke around his neck (a classic form of street theatre) in order to represent the ways the Jewish king of his day had shrugged off the yoke of God and instead gave his people over to the yoke of Babylon, to the 1970s movement to free Soviet Jewry, which encouraged Jews around the world to add an additional fourth matzah to their seder as a “Matzah of Hope” for Soviet Jewish liberation, there is nothing new about demanding that our rituals address the most urgent political contexts of our day.
That is not to say that Jewish ritual linking our holidays with opposition to demolition of Palestinian homes, for example, is the only or obvious response. Our tradition is polyphonic. There are certainly Jewish texts that support violence and bigotry, and we need to grapple with these texts, understand them in their appropriate context, and confront the destructive possibilities they contain. Members of All That’s Left have not been the ones to throw the first punch—Jewish texts are used every day to justify the occupation and the violence it entails. The question is not whether to bring together politics and religion but, given our political context in Israel/Palestine, how. Not doing so would amount to admitting defeat to the idea that Jewishness itself stands behind the protocols of a state in which only half of the residents have the basic rights granted by citizenship.
Will Jewish ritual on its own bring about Palestinian liberation? No, of course not. But it is an important tool in what will be a long struggle. Ritual can awaken something, reminding us of our obligations to others and shedding light on areas we had previously ignored. It can stir the apathetic and give strength to the committed. It can bring communities together, turning isolated activists into a collective movement. Most importantly, when we start from a place of brokenness and engage with the thickness of our tradition, we aim for both theological and political repair—a necessary pairing given the weaponization of ritual and text that happens here on the ground every day.
Our use and creation of Jewish ritual gives voice to the sources and traditions that the nationalist right has excluded in their quest for political domination. And so we find ways of engaging with Shabbat, with Chanukah, with Purim, and with Shavuot that fill the Jewish calendar with justice and give a comprehensive praxis for those who otherwise would only see Jewishness debased to violate others.
There are times when deviation leads to innovation, when lacking leads us to create anew. Sometimes, the nullification of Torah is its foundation.
While I understand the ritual that members of All That’s Left have created as in keeping with Jewish tradition, I also recognize the ways in which it represents a point of breakage. I think often of the story of Moshe descending from Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments in hand. Seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, Moshe drops the tablets, shattering them to pieces. The Torah doesn’t tell us how God responds to this moment of breakage, but the Talmud in Tractate Menachot imagines God responding to Moshe: יישר כחך ששברת, translated colloquially, perhaps, as, “Good for you for breaking them.” The Talmud here comments, פעמים שביטולה של תורה זוהי יסודה—“There are times when the nullification of Torah is its foundation.” There are certain practices that ought to be broken. Rav Yitzhak Hutner, commenting on this line in the Talmud, explicitly connects the idea of the broken tablets to the creation of the Oral Torah and the rabbinic tradition’s elevation of multiplicity and argumentation.¹ There are times when deviation leads to innovation, when lacking leads us to create anew. Sometimes, the nullification of Torah is its foundation.
Perhaps most of all, we can learn from the Gemara here that brokenness is holy. The Talmud further comments, הלוחות ושברי לוחות מנחין בארון—“The tablets [i.e. the second tablets], as well as the broken pieces of the tablets [i.e. the first tablets], were placed in the Ark.” The Ark, broken tablets and all, traveled with the Children of Israel in the desert, leading the way forward.
The Reishit Chochma, a 16th-century kabbalistic commentator, elaborates (Shaar HaKedosha, ch. 7):
ועוד נלמוד מדברי הרשב”י שאמר שכיס הלב הוא הארון, ונודע הוא שבתוך הארון היו הלוחות ושברי לוחות, כן ראוי שיהיה לבו מלא תורה… וכנגד שברי לוחות צריך שיהיה לבו לב נשבר ונדכה שיהיה מכון לשכינה, שהשכינה מושבה הם מאנין תבירין דילה
We can further learn from the words of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [i.e. the Zohar] who said the heart’s pocket is the Ark. It is known that within the Ark were the tablets and the shards of the tablets. Thus, it is fitting for a person’s heart to be full of Torah… And, to represent the shards of the tablets, one’s heart must also be broken and downtrodden, in order to be prepared for receiving the Shechina [God’s presence], as the Shechina resides only in broken vessels.
The Reishit Chochma here challenges us to take the mythical-historical moment of the tablet’s breaking and the meaning the rabbis infused in it and transform them into a personal and collective practice. Our hearts must be full of Torah—we must keep learning from the Jewish canon, letting it guide us—but we must not forget the heartbreak as our tradition is used to justify oppression.
Torah and halachah are meant to be counter-cultural. To be a God-fearing Jew is not to go with the winds of popularity or of any particular political or cultural moment.² They necessitate sticking to one’s principles, understanding that there is a moral system and a higher authority to whom one is accountable. I take comfort in this knowledge today, knowing that I am neither the first nor the last Jew who will be shunned for holding fast to conviction, for not compromising on the knowledge that our God “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalms 33:5). When we come together in political ritual, we make this fact known, we demand that this is true, and we prove that ritual can accomplish it.
The word עבודה in Hebrew has two meanings—“work” and “worship.” When we assert today in Jerusalem that we cannot forget those who are not yet liberated on Pesach, those facing home evictions on Sukkot, those living in fear of violent revenge on Purim, we manifest both meanings of avodah, linking the day-in and day-out work of political struggle with deep practices of worship, insisting—just as the Hebrew language insists—that these two things are not so different. For the midrash in Eliyahu Zuta 2:1 teaches:
כשנתן הקב”ה את תורה לישראל לא נתנה להם אלא כחטין להוציא להם סולת וכפשתן לארוג מהן בגד
When the Holy-Blessed-One gave the Torah to Israel, God did so in the form of grain from which to make flour and flax from which to weave clothing.
The Torah we have received, the midrash claims, is not its final product. It takes hard work to bring about a digestible and usable form. We must keep spinning these texts around, doing the diligent and pious work of turning grain into flour, flax into clothing, and ancient rabbinic texts into comprehensible calls for human action.
God created light in primordial vessels, the Zohar says. These vessels, however, proved too weak for the divine light and shattered to pieces. Much kabbalistic writing focuses on the shards of light that remain and humanity’s task to find and gather this light. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known The Piaseczner Rebbe, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, focuses on a different question: what about the broken shards of the vessels? What happened to them? The Piaseczner answers that those broken shards from previous worlds were used to create this world that we live in now.³ This means that brokenness is foundational, preceding us all. But it also must mean that everything that matters can be built from broken pieces. Will it work? Tikkunei HaZohar teaches: ויתער משיחא לתתא—“The Messiah will awaken from below.” We can gently force the hand of the One above, for the revolution will start on the ground.
- Pachad Yitzchak: Chanukah 3
- See, for example, Psalms 20:8 or the Rema on Orach Chayim 1:1
- Esh Kodesh, Rosh HaShanah 5702 (1941)