Schechter Logo for Print

The Goal versus the Way: On Pluralism and the Exodus from Egypt

Symbols and Rituals
The State of Israel
Thought and Philosophy

Ruth Duek, a political activist and a member of Besod Siach (an “Organization for the Promotion of Dialogue Between Conflict Groups in Israeli Society”), describes a street clash between political right and left that took place at the scene of a demonstration. A battle quickly ensued for control of the intersections. Demonstrators tore down placards and replaced them with their own, mixed into the ranks of the demonstrators to heckle them, and even attacked opponents who were pulling down signs. Duek writes, “It would have been more respectable to enable [passersby] to see two opposing points of view and to decide, each according to his or her own predilections, which of us was right. There was no need to shut anyone up.”  (Ruth Duek, “Is Dialogue Possible on the Street?” Analiza Irgunit 12 (2007), 85-89 [Hebrew]).

What is pluralism? Duek’s fond wish summarizes the main points of a definition—showing respect and granting a forum for viewpoints with which one disagrees. Of all the disputes fragmenting Israeli society, Duek chooses to deal with the rift between right and left. Avi Sagi deals with the dispute between religious and secular people, seeing “in each one of the viewpoints included in the open marketplace of ideas a stance having its own value whose validity is not temporary. They have internal value.” ( That is his definition of “strong pluralism.” See Avi Sagi, “The Jewish Religion: Tolerance and the Possibility of Pluralism,” Iyun 44 (1995), 175–200; for this definition see p. 184. [Hebrew]).   Sagi, in the spirit of his teacher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and along with others of his students, including Gili Zivan, regard pluralism as an objective only recently attained in Jewish thought, an accomplishment to which they ascribe a revolutionary character. The core of that revolution is the rejection of the metaphysical basis of Judaism as a “religion of truth,” recognizing instead the legitimacy and value of different Jewish narratives (Ibid.; Gili Zivan, “Challenges of Togetherness and Loneliness,” Mifneh 52 (December 2006), 18-22 [Hebrew]; Avi Sagi, “Leibowitz: The Man Against His Thought—Political Thought and Its Possibilities,” Daat 38 (1997), 131-143 [Hebrew]).

Yossi Yonah and Yehouda Shenhav deal with the dispute arising from the ethnic rift in Israeli society. Just as Sagi and Zivan deny any essentialist view of Judaism in order to enable it to include different value systems and promote belief on the basis of individual choice, so do Yonah and Shenhav, in their attempt to formulate a pluralistic, multicultural stance, deny any essentialist definition of the cultural identities that shape the power structure in the Israeli reality, “a reality in which there are at work social mechanisms of discrimination and exclusion on the basis of binary distinctions such as ‘first world’ versus ‘third world,’ ‘Ashkenazim’ versus ‘Mizrahim’ [Middle Eastern/North African], women versus men, […], ‘Jews’ and ‘non-Jews,’ ‘modern’ and ‘traditional.’” Their negation is intended to open up a space for “alternative ways of looking at the manner in which history has been written, at the interrelationships of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and at the manner in which these groups have been defined and established in the context of the asymmetrical power relationships between them.”  (Yossi Yonah and Yehouda Shenhav, What is Multiculturalism? On the Politics of Identity in Israel (Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2005), 152 [Hebrew]).

Two very different theoretical starting points regarding pluralism have been presented here. One is religious, and the other is ethnic and cultural. One is accommodating, the other bellicose. One is critical of a collective cultural identity, the other of a hegemony.

Despite the contrasts, I am interested precisely in the common element in the two approaches: both of them concentrate on defining the goal: pluralism. Both approaches map the social world and attempt to apply to it new definitions, hoping that those definitions will create an opening to coexistence and the inclusion of groups of “others” within the Israeli collective. Defining the goal, in the form of a new social structure or a new belief structure, is the attempt being made and the solution being proposed. Reaching the goal—internalizing the definitions of pluralism—will translate automatically into creating social justice, establishing a more moral reality, lightening burdens, and renewal.

I would like to argue that when it comes to pluralism, the path is no less important that the objective, and the little Sisyphean steps are no less important (although no more so, either) than the revolutionary leap forward.

Even if the brawling demonstrators had set before their eyes the goal of granting legitimacy to the existence of values different from theirs and Weltanschauungen opposed to their own—how does one reach that goal? In the heat of emotion, it is easy to understand that the demonstrators followed a different path: overwhelming the opponent and silencing him. To our chagrin, that goal, based on such fine values, stands alone and embarrassed as empty words even when it has been internalized, even when there is every good intention. A goal longed for and dreamt of is not achieved by its very definition. Pluralism is therefore first and foremost a path, a way. It is an unfinished, demanding, and challenging process of grappling with the “otherness” of the “other,” a grappling that no declaration of intentions, be it ever so sharp and clever, noble and honorable, can ever replace. Simply understanding that is already half the journey.

The Exodus from Egypt can teach us a great deal about the way to pluralism. Meir Weiss, in a close textual analysis of Psalm 114, emphasizes the revolutionary element in the Exodus (This is according to his method of “total interpretation.” See Meir Weiss, Scriptures in their Own Light, (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1987), 252-262 [Hebrew]).  “With the Exodus from Egypt a transformation occurs, a reversal in the people’s situation. In the face of this transformation in history comes a transformation in nature. The elements of nature acted in reverse, completely opposite to their usual ways since the creation of the world, because the Creator, who chose the people Israel, made a reversal in nature. […] The individual perception shaped in our Psalm is that the election of Israel, which occurred ‘when the Children of Israel left Egypt,’ was a reversal of Creation, or more precisely, a new Creation.” (Ibid., 261).  The conceptualization of the Exodus as a cosmic upheaval, as it emerges from the Psalm and its interpretation, ignores the forty years in the wilderness, the hard, grey, extended journey. Weiss adds, “It is in the Land as a cosmic concept that the idea of the Psalm is made palpable.” (Ibid., 254-255).

Yehezkel Kaufmann too attributes great importance to the goal: “The desire of the tribes to return to Canaan, memories of which were still alive among them, […] under prophetic inspiration […] became a religious ideal.” (Translation from Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, transl. and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 241 = Kaufmann, Toledot Ha-emunah Ha-mikra’it, vol. 4 (Tel Aviv: Mosad Bialik – Dvir, 1947), 87).   Nevertheless, Kaufmann undoubtedly attributed great influence to the path as well. He writes, “While their most exalted religious memories are associated with the Wandering, this period is uniformly represented as one of hardship and suffering.” ( Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, 232 = Kaufmann, Toledot Ha-emunah Ha-mikra’it, vol. 4, 65-66).  Along the path to the ultimate goal were interim goals such as coming to “the mountain of God” in order to establish a covenant between God and His people, and such as shaping the association of the Israelite tribes into a unified people, goals which had great significance and established their collective identity (Ibid).

If Weiss represents a stance that placed the goal at the center and Kaufmann offers a balanced middle position, Ilana Pardes represents the other end of the scale by placing the path and its travails at the center of the story of the Exodus.

The interminably long path in the wilderness is the birthplace of the people Israel. It is that path that powers, in Pardes’ view, a necessary and inevitable process of becoming separate and taking shape as a people, a painful and gradual process that never actually comes to an end.

“The Children of Israel are torn between the two lands, between their deep ties to Egypt and their desire to seek another land. […] The birth of Israel entails a painful process of individuation from Egypt that is never fully resolved. […] [T]he drowning of the Egyptians does not lead to the effacement of Israel’s strong longings for the land of Egypt. National identity is thus poised on the bring of a ‘loss of identity.’” ( Ilana Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible (Berkeley–Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 33).
Pardes identifies the people’s grumbling in the wilderness as an expression of “the violence and difficulties that are part and parcel of the shaping of ancient Israel. The character and future of the newborn nation are negotiated among the people, Moses, and God through complaining […] and testing.”  (Ibid., 566).

In direct contrast to the presentation of the goal as a cosmic concept, Pardes portrays mostly ambivalence regarding the goal—the Promised Land—and difficulty accepting it. “The wandering Israelites are skeptical about the very premise that Canaan is their homeland. The only land they wish to return to is Egypt. They end up in the wilderness, between Egypt and the Promised Land, returning to neither.” (Ibid., 104).  The spies too, in Pardes’ interpretation, view the new country as both wondrous and threatening, and not as a land for which they yearned and which formed a deeply rooted goal (Ibid., 100-126).  In the end, “[t]he spirit of the desert generation unsettles future generations as well. Even when the Israelites finally invade Canaan, the wandering does not fully stop. […] The Promised Land throughout biblical times is regarded with a certain degree of ambivalence.” (Ibid., 125).

Viewed through Ilana Pardes’ eyes, the story of the Exodus teaches us to keep from seeing the goal—in this case, the Promised Land—as something self-evident. The responsibility is always on our shoulders. We must be aware of the gap between the dream and the difficulty of its realization when it becomes quotidian reality (Ibid., 158).

The hardships of the Exodus shed light on the difficulties of pluralism and of its application in practice. Longing for the desired, exalted goal is important—in fact, necessary. Without striving for pluralism we will surely not attain it. We might add that the festive, revolutionary character ascribed to the goal raises its value and lifts it higher in the eyes of many. But goals, exalted as high as we may raise them, are not enough. The hard work is done along the way. It is a not a nuisance or a pointless delay but a core constitutive process that cannot be unhitched from the goal itself or from the possibility of attaining it.

This is shown, for example, by the Haifa demonstrators in the violent clashes. Duek tells of eye contact made between her and the “head of the right-wing group” when she tried to come between two young people fighting, with calls of “Make love, not war.” That eye contact brought a spark of mutual understanding that “these youngsters are a reflection of ourselves: immature, hitting each other because of a power struggle that has no connection to the conflict […] When one of the demonstrators from the right crossed the street to push his way among us, the head of his group came over, grabbed him by the shirt, and dragged him back to the other side of the street. When one of our people went to insinuate himself among the right wingers, I grabbed his ear and dragged him back to our position. From that day on, for a year and a half, we continued our demonstrations at the Carmel Center, with the people from the right on one side of the street and us on the other.” (Duek, “Is Dialogue Possible on the Street?,” 89).

The insights that arose from the interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt are significant for understanding that event:

For Kaufmann, the goal is important but access to it is made possible by processes, both planned and unplanned, that occur along the way. The story Duek tells us provides an example. The goal—pluralism and its adoption—are essential. But the path, meaning the interpersonal interactions, the gestures, the face-to-face encounter (to use Levinasian terms), the actions on the ground—it was these that made the difference and succeeded in transforming a violent confrontation into a pluralistic arrangement.
An additional truth is revealed by Pardes: the ethos of complete arrival at the goal is an illusion. Our path to the Land of Israel is eternal. It is actually a way of life. So it is in the case at hand: nothing can be declared hermetically “pluralistic.” The pluralistic path has to be leveled and paved each time anew, in each situation, vis-à-vis every “other” that stands before us, with faith, labor, and determination.
We should not regard this as a failure! “Rather than signifying failure,” writes Jessica Benjamin, “the emergence of breakdown and rupture can be resignified as the opening of possibility. In this punctuation of the relational sequence—which to my mind constitutes a simple but radical change—failure becomes the condition for reparation.” (Jessica Benjamin, “Two Way Streets: Recognition of Difference and the Intersubjective Third,” differences, 17 (2006), 116-146 [quotation: 136]).

The goal to which the Israelites looked during their forty years in the wilderness was Israel. The goal that Gili Zivan, Avi Sagi, Yossi Yonah, and Yehouda Shenhav set for themselves is a pluralistic society. Here the metaphor and its correlate that have accompanied us through this discussion come together into one goal: a pluralistic Israel, an Israel whose sons and daughters can embrace the differences among them. The way is long and arduous, but our reward lies there.

Dr. Galia Glasner-Heled teaches in the Family & Community Studies and Contemporary Jewry tracks at the Schechter Institute.

English translation by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Galia Glasner Heled directs the Community Management in the Spirit of Judaism MA track and is the academic consultant for the Mishlei program. She teaches courses in the Contemporary Jewry and in Family and Community Studies.  Dr. Glasner Heled received her MA in clinical psychology and her PhD in social psychology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She writes about questions of identity and memory in Israeli society, particularly about the memory of the Holocaust in Israel. She lives in Kiriat-Ono.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone

    Skip to content