To Hasidic Jews, those who are conservatives who nevertheless do not follow Hasidic practice are considered as Misnagdim, or objectors. The level of objection is an important one, as it is a common fault line in our dealings with other people. To somewhat simplify the point for comprehension, Hasidic Jews value the passionate devotion of Jews to the laws and ways of God as they understand them, while those who object often do so on intellectual levels. The conflict, at its root, is often a matter of preference between head and heart, and so it is of little surprise that the Hasidic movement took fire among peasants and country folk while leaving many intellectuals somewhat cold. The battle between head and heart is a common one in many areas of contemporary history and culture and in many areas of life, and so it ought not to surprise us when it creates division and conflict that we can witness in looking at the world around us. Many of us have seen the divide between the head and heart within our own lives and within our own selves, after all , and known what damage can result from being divided inside by the presence of a sharp mind and a sensitive and tender heart simultaneously seeking to influence behavior.
During the Vietnam War, my father paid a heavy price in terms of his own life goals to claim the status of a conscientious objector. He neither burned his draft card nor absconded to Canada, but ended up working for years at a farm, something he could do very well, as part of the I-W program before having to return home before finishing his undergraduate studies at a small religious college in rural Eastern Texas. Nor was his experience at all an isolated one as far as being a conscientious objector is concerned. The noted poet William Stafford, for example, similarly served at an internment camp as a conscientious objector during World War II, and ended up finding his bride there among the pacifist brethren . There are many today who, whether or not they may be fairly considered pacifists, nevertheless oppose the war-mongering and violence of our contemporary culture, as well as specific incidences of this militarism where it may be found. As might be expected, there are a variety of motives for this. Some people are opposed to any sort of violence on principle, others have very strict moral doctrines when it comes to the limits of legitimate force and a refusal to sanction coercion against others even if they believe in a right to self-defense for people and nation-states, while others oppose specific cases of military action for various personal or political reasons.
What is it that ties the objectors to the emotional Hasidic attempts at Jewish revival and conscientious objectors to military service? In many ways, patriotism itself is most notable on the emotional level. There is a certain gut feeling of anger if one’s nation is under attack, a certain emotional connection between real people and the imaginary nation that they are a part of, whether this nation is considered to be coterminous with a state’s boundaries or whether the nation is taken as part of a religious or ancestral heritage even if that nation has no state, like the Kurds. To object to the often fallacious emotional responses of people with regards to such loyalties is to put the claims of the heart to the test of a rational and skeptical mind. Even if the people who engage in such objections, like my father, are not strictly intellectuals, the act of objecting is itself an act of intellectualizing, of counteracting the claims and demands of the passionate heart with somewhat cold reason that douses the flames of such passion. There are times, and marching off foolishly to war is one of those times, where a bit of cold reason restraining the excesses of our passions is a good thing, and not nearly common enough to prevent ourselves and our neighbors from great disaster.
Yet it is not as if cold reason is always right and the passion of our heart always wrong. We were created as beings of both head and heart, and a lack of compassion for others leads us also into disaster, even if cold reason would remind us of the difficulties and complications of following our heart and conscience. The fight between the head and the heart is something that many people are familiar with, and that few people manage particularly well. The battle is made the more difficult by the fact that the two exist as peers, but operate according to very different principles, and the fact that neither of the two is notably more right than the other. The mind can justify and with spurious logic defend its errors, and the heart can provide emotional arguments that lack truthfulness and justice in order to defend its excesses. What is needed is a just and fair judge to adjudicate the claims of both, which can be skilled to give the verdict to one side or another on a case-by-case basis, to bolster just reasoning with the passion of a convicted heart, and to give sound reason to the legitimate claims of our emotions, so that both heart and mind can work in harmony. This task is necessary within larger society as well, lest our body politic suffer from the excesses of either corrupt reasoning or corrupted and unrestrained hearts. If our objecting is to be godly and not merely stubborn resistance to the claims of others, it must be in service to a higher power than we ourselves alone, and if we are to judge the sins and excesses of our times and our situations, we must make sure that we are just judges filled with warm compassion for others, even those we judge, as well as sound reason.
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