The Need for Personal Conscience
In our day, the word “tolerance” has become very popular, as have words such as “pluralism,” “democracy,” and “unity.” These terms are used so often that one would hope most people have a proper understanding of their meanings. This is, however, far from true. In fact, it seems that the more these words appear in our papers, books, and conversations, the less they are comprehended. They are often used in ways that oppose the very values they stand for.
We can clearly see this when, for example, we focus on the word “tolerance.” People feel proud when they’re able to claim how tolerant they are. They see themselves as broad-minded and have little objection to any thoughts or views of others, since all attitudes and outlooks on life should be permitted in a free society. These views are then linked with values such as pluralism and democracy.
The shallowness of such thinking, however, is abundantly clear. If society were indeed prepared to be tolerant on all fronts, it would turn into hell and become self-destructive. Little effort is needed to explain that we cannot condone anti-Semitism, racism, public nudity, crime, or sexual harassment of women and children.
Suddenly, we realize that there are moral principles that cannot be violated, and we should stand by these principles, come what may.
Most people get confused when speaking about tolerance. They often use this word when in fact they are apathetic.
Alexander Chase once wrote:
“The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened with convictions.” (Perspectives, 1966)
Ogden Nash put it as follows:
“Sometimes with secret pride I sigh,
To think how tolerant am I;
Then wonder what is really mine:
Tolerance, or a rubber spine?”
Indeed, most of the time it is indifference that makes people believe they are tolerant. It is easy to be indulgent when one doesn’t care about values and principles, or about the moral needs of society and one’s fellow humans.
Tolerance has become the hideout in which many people turn their egocentricity into a virtue.
Looking at today’s Jewish scene, we see a similar phenomenon. This time it is “unity” that has become a popular word used by the various factions within the Jewish world. All of them speak of unity, and each one accuses the others of a lack of commitment to that unity.
Nobody doubts that unity of the Jewish people is of crucial importance. If the Jews would split – even more than they have until now – in such a way that unity could no longer be maintained, we would indeed have an irreversible problem, which could quite well be detrimental to the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Still, we have to ask ourselves if in all cases unity is really the highest value to strive for.
To many, refusal by a major part of the Orthodox leadership to recognize the Conservative and Reform movements as legitimate representatives of Judaism is a sign of weakness and intolerance. The same is true about the Conservative and Reform movements. Recognizing Orthodoxy as the authentic representation of Judaism is seen as taboo and a misrepresentation of genuine Judaism. (In earlier generations, Reform was an attempt to reconcile itself with the non-Jewish world and ideas, and to turn Judaism into a “Sunday morning religion” involving little commitment and effort. But over the years, Reform thinkers became much more dedicated to the relevance of a serious Judaism in modern times, and in that they clashed with Conservative and Orthodox thinkers.)
While it is fully understandable why many are disturbed by these attitudes, it would be entirely wrong to attribute this to lack of courage on the part of the Orthodox or the other movements.
There’s obviously a lot to say for cooperation and mutual recognition among all these movements. Indeed, agreeing to some sort of compromise shows strength and flexibility. Moreover, refusal by these movements to bend causes great and irreparable damage.
There is no attempt at mutual understanding and reconciliation. Instead, accusations fly back and forth on an emotional level, and any previous efforts to find solutions are completely undermined.
In the case of Orthodoxy, one could even argue that through some compromise Orthodox Judaism would be well served. It would benefit by no longer being identified as an extreme religious movement and, consequently, would be more readily accepted by the non-Orthodox, and even the anti-Orthodox. Some earlier opponents would perhaps even join its ranks.
There is, however, one “but.” All of the above would be true if religion belonged in the same category as politics, economics, science, and other such matters. But it does not. However important unity may be when referring to religious issues, it is not the priority. What is a priority is personal conscience.
Let us take a look at and understand the history of Judaism. Should Avraham have compromised with the world in which he lived, for the sake of unity? Wouldn’t this strong-minded man have been more influential had he not taken the stand he took? Clearly, Avraham created a great amount of emotional upheaval. He and so many prophets after him, like Shmuel, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu, were violent protestors and refused to go along with the values of their day. No doubt many saw them as inflexible extremists who shattered the tranquility of their societies.
Moreover, we can be sure that many “modern-minded” people in those days condemned them for their outdated ideologies and refusal to go along with the “up-to-date” values of the day.
It may be worthwhile to take notice of a major controversy that plagued the Christian world for a long time. One of the most famous Anglican theologians in the 19th century was John Henry Newman. After holding a most prominent position in the Anglican Church, he decided to join the Catholic Church and later became one of its most eminent cardinals. At the time, this move became a topic of intense debate throughout the Christian world. Many admirers of Newman felt he should have stayed in the Anglican Church. They correctly believed that from the point of view of reconciliation he would have succeeded in making a major contribution toward bringing both churches closer. He would have been seen as an authoritative Anglican with a strong leaning toward Rome. The Anglican Church would have been unable to ignore his position, and he could have brought both sides closer. But the moment he became a Catholic, the Anglican Church wrote him off.
When asked why he had not taken that route but rather remained with the Anglican Church, Newman made a most important observation. After admitting that he would have indeed been considerably more influential had he stayed in the Anglican Church and contributed to a much needed reconciliation, he added that this option was not available to him; that one cannot put reconciliation over one’s conscience. In matters of truth one makes a choice between what one considers to be true and what one considers to be false. Newman had come to the conclusion that the theology of the Anglican Church was erroneous and had to be rejected. To remain there would have been a compromise on truth and as such, a sign of weakness and lack of courage.
This historic event should be important for Jews to keep in mind when debating the authenticity of the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements. Neither Jewish identity nor the nature of Judaism can be decided simply on the basis of what will do less harm to Jewish unity. This is an instance where personal conscience, i.e., one’s perception of the truth, determines.
In Orthodox Judaism, the Torah and Oral Tradition are rooted in the Sinai experience. The Torah is seen as a verbal revelation of God’s will, and no human being may reject anything stated therein. Likewise, the Oral Tradition is believed to be the authentic interpretation of the text and, while open to debate, may not be even partially rejected or ignored.
Obviously, anyone has the right to challenge this belief and reject it. But no one should impugn the Orthodox for holding its ground and not compromising on these fundamental beliefs. To Orthodox Jews this is a matter of truth or falsehood. The Conservative and Reform movements have rejected – each in its own way and in varying degrees – these two fundamental beliefs as understood by Orthodox Judaism. That the latter therefore does not want to recognize Reform and Conservative views as authentic Judaism is not the outcome of weakness but of principle. It is a matter of personal conscious where no compromise is possible. Cardinal Newman would have understood.
The same is true of the Reform and Conservative Movements. On matters of Torah and Halacha, their belief of Judaism is radically different from that of the Orthodox. They, too, cannot compromise on this.
Paradoxically, the only way to create unity among these movements is for all to recognize that they are fundamentally divided. We need to stop asking for compromise on the very beliefs that are matters of personal conscience and therefore categorical.
Once all the parties accept this fact, they should sit together and see where they can work jointly while leaving their fundamental beliefs untouched.
If that happens, there is a real possibility that through discussion and gentle persuasion a new Judaism can arise, which will overcome all the fundamental differences of the denominations. Old prejudices will disappear, dividing lines will shift, and slowly, a much greater and deeper authentic Judaism will emerge.
In memory of Binyamin Yosef ben Yehoshua Aaron v’Basha Looks z”l. A Great Jew.