Thursday, May 22, 2014

Accepting the Other- The Precursor to Unity

Before my trip to Israel in March, I spoke a lot about Achdus/t, unity. Seeing a fractured Jewish world, my initial response was that unity was the answer. While I still very much believe in Achdus, and continue to try to work with individuals who share this view, on a communal level, I no longer believe that achdus is currently achievable between the Modern Orthodox and Charedi worlds. Instead, I'd like to pivot and suggest a new communal goal, which might be a step towards ultimate unity.

When one speaks of unity, it is between people who see themselves as part of the same group. The more homogeneous, and the smaller the group, the easier it is to have unity. As the group becomes more heterogeneous, and larger, it is harder to keep everyone together. Over time, this usually leads to infighting, and ultimately, a split.

Comedian Emo Phillips has a great routine that highlights this point. He tells of an encounter with a man who is about to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge. In trying to talk him down, Phillips starts to discuss religion. He asks the man whether he is Christian or Jewish. The man answers Christian. Emo responds “Me too”. He continues by asking Catholic or Protestant, and when told the latter, he once again responds “Me too”. The questions continue, with the same response of “Me too”, until, upon discovering that they are members of slightly different sects, Phillips says “Die Heathen!” and pushes him off the bridge.

Unity involves more than being part of the same people. No one, on either side of the divide, denies the Jewishness of the other. Where communal unity becomes impossible is when we turn to theology and halacha. The modern Orthodox (and for the point of this post, I'll be a little less nuanced, and include the dati leumi community under that title) and charedi worlds, have too many differences over what we believe God asks of us, relating to the outside world, the State of Israel, secular Jews, non-Jews and more. Regardless of who is correct, or even whether many of these issues have a single “right” answer, there is too much that divides us. The differences are so strong that we are unable to agree to disagree. I do not wish to deal with whose fault it is. Let's leave it that each group too often seeks to demonize the other. Let's ignore the question of fault or blame.

So, what is the alternative? Is there a way to move from the status quo? I believe there is. One, is less than ideal, but might just be the best that we can hope for. The other is far more ideal, and far harder to achieve.

In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi tells the fictional story of a king who has a dream, where God informs him that he is on the wrong path. The words that God says are instructive. “Your intentions are good. Your actions are not good”. God acknowledges that the king means well. He is trying to do what is right. The problem is that he has chosen the wrong path. The king has good and noble goals, he's simply not doing the right things to achieve them. It is one thing for God to say this. After all, He knows that which is objectively. When a person uses these words, there is a bit on condescension in them. “Now, now” he says, sounding a bit like a scolding parent or school marm. “I know that you meant well, but let me tell you how it's done”. It is this connotation that makes it less than ideal. Implicit in the message is that we are right and you are not.

The second possibility is to recognize that our “objective” knowledge is, with few (possible) exceptions, subjective. Everything that each of us sees, we see through our own eyes, and understand through our own minds and biases. With this perspective, we can recognize that the person who sees things differently can have the same goal, but think the way to achieve it is different (Of course, we can and should extend this to people with other goals). Here, the goal is not agreement, or necessarily interaction. The goal is simply to understand that the other group is not anti-Torah or anti-God. It is much more difficult to achieve because we often fail to recognize that we are inherently subjective.

This new goal is much less noble sounding than a call for unity. It is however a necessary precursor to unity within our community. Before we can love our fellow like ourselves, we first need to stop demonizing him. This is the longer shorter way.

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