Friday, July 20, 2007

On Compromise or Lack Thereof

I was working my way through a book of Hasidic stories, and there's one about the late Klausenberg rebbe. (The following is heavily paraphrased.)

Apparently the rebbe was once visiting South America and a reporter asked him about Jewish unity. Why, if Orthodox and Hasidic Jews want to live together with other Jews, do they fight with them so much, especially in Israel? Why not compromise so they can live together in happiness?

The Rebbe responded, "Before Shechem kidnapped Jacob's daughter, his father Hamor first came to Jacob to ask his blessing of the marriage. He said, 'why not let us become one nation? I will take your daughter and you make take my son, and we will live together.'

"The sons of Jacob said, 'But we are all circumcised, and anyone who is not circumcised is a disgrace among our people. How could we live with you since you are not circumcised? If you will circumcise yourselves so you are like us, then we can live together.'

"The Dubno Maggid wrote that to be a nation means that everybody must be the same, not sects or separate groups but one people and one nation. People cannot pick and choose, they must all do the same things. So with Jacob, there were only two options. Either Hamor and his sons would circumcise themselves, or Jacob and his sons would un-circumcise themselves. But having been circumcised, Jacob and his sons could not go back, so the only option was that Hamor and his sons should become circumcised."

The rebbe continued. "In the camps, I avoided all meat. I didn't touch anything treif. Why? Out of fear of God and his punishment. I fear God, I fear Gehenna. I can't help it, I cannot eat pork, because I fear God. You could push it into my mouth, but I can't eat it. I starved in the camps because I wouldn't eat treyf. Why? Because I fear God. I can't. I can't just go and start eating treif, being treif.

"I can't go and start working on Shabbos. I can't do it. It's something I can't do. But nobody told you that you can't eat kosher. The worst is that you will be uncomfortable if you just eat kosher meat. If you couldn't ride on Shabbos, you would just be uncomfortable. You don't fear to keep Shabbos. That is why the two groups cannot be together. The Orthodox person can't compromise. The only person that can compromise is the one that is not frum, because what is stopping him from becoming frum? He may not believe in it, but he has no fear of becoming frum. He isn't afraid that God will punish him if he becomes frum. It's a free world."

The problem with this model is that it is based on the Dubno Maggid's falacy that being "one people" means everybody acts and believes the same way, something that neither Israel, America, nor even the modern Jewish world (or Orthodox world) reflects. This in turn leads to a second falacy, that "compromise" must be equivalent to surrender. Rather than serving as a way of building bridges and relationships between different kinds of Jews, the Klausenberger sees compromise as a kind of zero-sum game in which the "winner" is the person that achieves religious and cultural hegemony.

I have to say, as a non-Orthodox person, I don't think that this is the goal of non-Orthodox denominations, and certainly not non-Orthodox lay people. Compromise, in my view, is not meant to be a weapon to brandish over other people's heads, but rather a means of continuing communication and basic interaction. I don't want Orthodox people to stop being Orthodox. If they're getting something out of it, that's good enough for me. I don't agree with it, I have some problems with it, but at the end of the day, it's not my business how they live their lives. What I take issue with are things like Orthodox politicians in Israel trying to give Orthodox Judaism preferred legal status within the state. Ultimately, though, I don't ask for- or expect- legitimacy from Orthodox Judaism or its representatives. I don't need it, and I know they can't give it.

But not giving legitimacy is not the same thing as a total lack of dialogue or brotherhood. I'm convinced that there are, indeed, ways for the conversation to go the other way (feminist egalitarian minyans, anyone?) Bloggers like Harry at Emes Ve-Emunah have it right when they tell their fellow Orthodox Jews to reach out.

The Reform Movement has done a 180. They have gone from being defiantly opposed to any Mitzvah observance to actually promoting it. To be sure there is still a very strong faction that opposes Mitzvah observance considering it archaic. But the leadership today is not going that way. Reform rabbis used to make you take off your Yamulkees if you walked into their congregations. Now you will see Reform rabbis themselves wearing them. They now encourage their members to observe as many Mitzvos as they can. True they still do not consider Halacha binding. But they now see the folly of their pioneers removal of ritual observance. It ended up removing Jewish identity. One cannot just be a Jew in the heart. One needs to act in Jewish ways. The way to do that they now understand is by doing Mitzvos.

Changes are occurring now in the Conservative movement too. Though they have been debating moving away from calling themselves Halachic, there is a simultaneous unprecedented move to set up religious elementary and high schools that will almost certainly lead to a more observant Conservative populace.

The question now becomes what should Orthodoxy’s response be? Do we sit idly by and continue to refuse to engage with them? Or do we find ways to engage with them and help them along their quest to be more observant?

Now, obviously, I think that viewing engagement with non-Orthodox Jews in purely kiruv terms is misguided, not to say a little condescending. In a perfect world, inter-denominational conversation, if not cooperation, would be done on its own merits, including its potential to keep Jews and Judaism a more healthy and cohesive family (as well as helping keep the ideas and innovations- including Orthodox ones- flowing). But it's a start, and the attitude, in my mind, seems to be a great departure from the Klausenberger's "frum or nothing" approach. I don't expect Orthodox Jews to ever be "ok" with Reform Judaism. But getting people talking can't be a bad thing.

1 comment:

DARSHAN said...

we should be able to unite on social causes- ex. hospitals, nghbrhod patrol, helping the poor, etc.

we should agree to disagree on the technical points of halacha.

it is the rabbis' obligation to pave the way...

ultimately, we should recognize that everyone isn't perfect, so we might be able to focus on the positive things that bind us.

also, the reform and conservative could admit that since they are pretty lax in keeping the law, they should leave such things as torah scrolls and conversions to the orthodox.