Needed for Jewish Survival – Toleration, Civility
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
At Bar-Ilan University’s last conference on Jewish unity, I was asked whether I still believed it was possible to achieve the goal. I had to make it clear once again that if we conceived of Jewish unity as agreement by all Jews on any subject, then we were wasting our time. Indeed, there is not a single subject on which every Jew would vote the same way.
Even in their attitude toward anti-Semites they differ. Some cherish the anti-Semites who would persecute or eliminate the brethren they don t like. Many prefer to live under non-Jewish rule, Christian or Moslem, than to live under Jewish rule. And that means that even Israel does not evoke the loyalty of, or help from, more than a majority of Jews.
It must be obvious, therefore, that we are searching not for unanimity of issues or programs or beliefs but rather for civility, the traditional derech eretz, which ought characterize our behavior toward all people created in the image of God and especially toward our co-religionsts with whom we constitute one big family.
Perhaps to avoid giving the wrong impression, we will change the name of our conference and substitute for the term unity either civility, or derech eretz, or still another phrase that plays an important part in traditional Jewish law darchei shalom, the ways of peace. These terms describe more accurately what we are seeking. And these are goals which we can hope to achieve at least from most Jews. If I believe that these were unattainable goals for Jews, then I do not know that the survival of the Jewish people would be possible or desirable.
Only to preserve the genes of genius with which many of our people seem to be endowed in order to contribute to civilization is hardly worth the price Jews have to pay in order to continue in being. And unless we can prove that we have it in us to be a model people in accordance with our historic covenant with God, then we merit the punishment He seems to be meting out to us in every generation. Our sages tell us that it was because of our hatred of each other than the second Jewish commonwealth came to an end. We should do all in our power to spare the third from a similar fate.
Fortunate we are that more and more Jews are becoming aware of the need for civility in our interpersonal relations. Pressure is being exercised on members of the Knesset to deport themselves toward each other with derech eretz. I have always admired the British members of Parliament. Their disputes are often indescribably heated. They express their views with passionate eloquence. But they never forget that the men whom they are addressing and with whom they are debating are gentlemen worthy of respectful address.
Israeli legislators have yet to master this attitude and skill. And, unfortunately, the female members are as much to be censured for their ugly performance as the males. Must a woman, even when she is angry in debate, behave like a tigress instead of as a loving mother critical of her child? It is the female members who ought, in fact, to civilize their male counterparts.
However, what hurts me more than anything else is that Jews steeped in the Torah tradition, learned rabbis and even the organizations they form do not insist on maintaining standards of derech eretz in their council and toward each other.
When I was active in New York’s rabbinate, I often said it was a pleasure to attend meetings of rabbis when Orthodox, Conservative and Reform were present, and not such a pleasure when the group was all of one commitment. When the group was mixed, everyone was on his best behavior. There was mutual respect. Differences were cordially expressed. Almost never was there venom or vitriol. When the group was not mixed, outbursts of anger, intolerance, even envy and hatred, could be expected.
What can be done about it? At our last conference it was suggested that since most Jews would agree that civility is the minimum we must expect from each other, we should ignore the extremists, who are usually more guilty of uncivil behavior. We should focus only on the presumably civil majority, or at least the majority that holds civility as a value.
The suggestion may make sense. But do we not have a responsibility toward all Jews, even those who do not want what we have to offer? We are not allowed to despair about any Jew. We must try to redeem all for the good life. And it may be that if we act civilly toward those who do not cherish civility, they too may one day choose to emulate what they once rejected.
The best way to achieve civility among Jews is to practice it even with the uncivil. It is not easy to exercise such self-control. But hardly a worthy goal is ever achieved without discipline. The Talmud tells us how often people tried to overcome the great Hillel’ s patience and force him to lose his temper. But he was a model of both firmness and human kindness at the same time. (Shabbat 31a)
We must act as Hillel and never lose our temper. Yet we must also learn from him to be firm. In the overwhelming majority of controversies he and his disciples had with Shamai and his school, the school of Hillel took a lenient position for Jews rather than a demanding or exacting one. And they were not intimidated by the opposition. They did not fear that they were not adequately “religious.” They did not deem their views any less in the Torah tradition that the views of their opponents. And it is likely that their opponents never taunted them as being less God-fearing, less saintly, less loyal to the covenant.
The situation is quite different today, although there is good reason to believe that this state of affairs is perennial. In the Middle Ages the opponents of Maimonides were not quite as restrained as we would have wanted them to be. And the great Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin wrote only a century ago in several places in his commentary on the Bible about those Jews who always suspected their coreligionists of not being sufficiently religious and of how God disapproves of their attitude. Toleration is a manifestation of civility. In Berlin s day in a comparatively homogenous community the malady of the present had already made its appearance. He attacked this malady vigorously and deemed those responsible for it the spiritual heirs of Korach who once led the mutiny against Moses.
Needless to say when I took the position that in Israel’s present crises and its need for unity, the issue “Who is a Jew?” can easily be put aside, I knew that I would be the victim of very uncivil reactions. This is also happening to other modern Orthodox rabbis who took the same stand.
But we must not lose our tempers. We cannot respond to venomous attacks in kind. When we know that we are in the right, we must be firm in our convictions and not be intimidated by those who question how we can hold differently from even a dozen different Orthodox organizations. Without fury and without bitterness we must make our point. We must fight for the right in the right way.
I once preached to Israel s religious Zionists that there is also a religious way to engage in politics, and if politics cannot be practiced in a religious way consonant with spiritual and ethical requirements then religionists had better not practice politics. This message all so-called religious political parties ought to take to heart.