Progress Often Surprise Result of the Bitterest Confrontations
June 15, 1984
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
Perhaps I ought to make it clear that even those Jews who want Jewish unity (among whom I count myself) do not necessarily insist on sameness. We recognize that inevitably there will be differences among Jews, because we are a people given to thinking. And a people that thinks usually generates challenges to old ideas and proposes new ones.
This was always true in Jewish history, and it is the sheerest folly to hope that in an age when there are so many well-educated Jews the situation will be different. The best we can hope for is mutual respect for differences and a consensus with regard to matters that make for survival.
As a matter of fact, what impresses me as I study the history of Jewish sects is that when these sects actually dominated the scene the feuding between them was intense occasionally even violent. However, when the struggle between them is studied centuries thereafter, one finds that they influenced each other considerably. Later generations enjoyed the benefit of ideas which, when first advanced, were resisted bitterly.
Even today many Orthodox rabbis will admit that their understanding and appreciation of Judaism was enhanced by ideas which were advanced by non-Orthodox rabbis. The latter will also admit that they have learned much from the Orthodox. From the way the two groups presently relate to each other, one would never surmise that this is true. The general public gets the impression that these are warring groups like East and West on the world scene.
Yet the fact is that the differences have benign effects on both sides, even as they do some harm. The harm might be reduced if there could be mutually respectful dialogue instead of acrimony.
However, one can virtually prophesy that a century hence Judaism even the most Torah-true Judaism will have been enriched by some of the insights and challenges of those who presently are deemed dangerous heretics.
Recently, at Bar-Ilan University, a very stimulating lecture was delivered on some Hebrew literature published in the 18th and 19th centuries in Eastern Europe. That was the time when the so-called Enlightenment movement known as Haskala emerged.
It was also the period when the Hassidic movement flowered. And, of course, it was a golden age for the deepening of Talmudic study.
The hostility among the three groups, as expressed in the literature, was enormous. The tone of the authors was vitriolic, saturated with irony and vilification. Yet, when the battle was over, and no one again tried to place any members of the opposition in jail, what did one find? The Enlightenment had very definitely yielded a Zionist idea and program which though authentically traditional would not have achieved a foothold in the Jewish world without the so-called heretics.
And many of the Hassidim and opponents of the yeshiva world embraced Zionism. Certainly the Hassidim upgraded their commitment to Talmudic study and the intellectual quality of their leaders, and the leaders of the yeshiva world began to appreciate the contribution of the Hassidim to the joy of Jewish living and the need for more Jewish fellowship and less arrogance on the part of scholars.
The Zionist secularists also learned from their devout and observant brethren how impossible Jewish survival is without that which the Hassidim and Mitnagdim (followers of the Enlightenment) contribute in basic commitment to Judaism.
If only they could have fought less with each other and listened more to each other. I suppose that if they had not fought as hard as they did, they would not have contributed as much. Is it, then, only through strife that mankind can advance? I hope the answer is no.
One might reply and say that those who feel strongly about an issue must inevitably fight hard for its acceptance; sometimes one’s fervent commitment to a position prompts one to lose one’s tolerance and even to become violent. This happens especially when it is as important a matter as one’s faith. Consequently, if we want people to espouse causes with strong conviction, the price we must pay is the feuding as mean and bitter as it may sometimes be. Thus, Jews who feel strongly about their Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Liberalism, Reconstructionism or secularist humanism must regard their opponents as enemies and enemies find it hard to relate to each other civilly or respectfully.
It is precisely in this connection that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook with his insightful interpretation of the relevant Talmudic texts made his brilliant distinction. Our ideas may be inimical to each other but not our persons. Therefore, Jews may hate each other’s ideas but never each other. Therefore, the disputes, the debates, the confrontations, must be between loving brothers who bemoan the fact that those whom they love are on a course of error or heresy, and with love and understanding they must be helped to see where they err.
Kook believed deeply that they erred, but he expended more thought and feeling on trying to discern how they arrived at error than he did on castigating them.
It was for that reason as I wrote several weeks ago that he faulted his own Orthodox brethren for their contribution to the misunderstanding of Judaism by those who abandoned the faith and the tradition. Visualize how much Jewish brotherhood would be advanced if every Jewish group or sect spent time asking itself why others find it so difficult to accept their point of view.
Every group would then try to improve itself. As it improved itself, it would be more understanding and tolerant of its opponents, who would also try to improve themselves. The competition would then be between groups that try to edify their own perspective and program instead of competition as to who can outdo the other in abuse and calumny.
It is to such an ideal that Israel’s celebration of its 36th birthday was dedicated. Everyone in Israel knows that in an election year Israelis are at their worst. The parties, the candidates, the media all show their seamiest side. And those who say it is religion that breeds hatred and intolerance can discover in Israel that politics breeds more of it than religion ever did. Indeed, when religion and politics merge, the mixture may be impossible to bear.
That is why so many Israelis are worried about what their country will experience in these pre-election months.
I doubt that this soliloquy on the right and wrong way to deal with differences will do any good as sermons seldom do. But one must sometimes pour out one’s heart.