Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

A Heart of Many Rooms: Keeping the Door Open to Jewish Diversity

The great test of the modern world is not how to live next door to someone who is different than you. Rather, the great challenge of modernity is how to live with difference anywhere in the world.

The practices, customs and mores of any community is no longer sheltered by geography and geopolitical boundaries. As Jews we can no longer live out our lives ignorant of what other Jews around the world do or how they constitute their own particular communities. Before the advent of mass communication and mass transit, a Western enlightened Neo-Orthodox German Jew might never need to confront the lifestyle choices of her Ultra-Orthodox co-religionist in the hinterlands of Hungary.

How do we live with this diversity? What are we to do? One option is to actively seek to write out those with whom you disagree from your orbit. If you can successfully convince yourself that those ‘others’ are not part of your larger network than you need to be no longer attuned to the choices they make.

For example, how does the Orthodox community live with the tension of two polar opposite views of a single issue? The Satmar Rav wrote in his work Vayoel Moshe that the very idea of Jewish nationalism is tamei, impure, and those who adopt it are minim and apikorsim, absolute heretics. Whereas for all forms of Religious ZIonism the establishment of the State of Israel was a special event with religious significance.

On one hand, Zionism is a complete abandonment of the mesorah, Jewish tradition, and an insult to Chazal, our Sages. While on the other hand, Zionism is undeniably a step in the redemption of the Jewish people and the Jewish legal process has the strength of spirit to respond courageously to the call of the times. In the words of the spiritual father of Religious Jewish nationalism, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook: “The old will be made new and the new will be made holy.”

The example of Zionism is but one instance of many where those on opposite sides of an issue see each other as heretical, deniers of tradition and cut off from the larger community. The same language was employed on a plethora of issues throughout Jewish history and continues to be utilized today.

There is another way. A person need not have to walk the path of exclusion and division to foster their own sense of identity and purpose. The Tosefta in Sotah (7:12) offers another way:

All the words were given to us by one Shepherd, one God created them, one Provider gave them, the Lord of all deeds, Blessed be He, has spoken them. So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.

We cannot go back to a time where we could live comfortably without the knowledge of what other Jews do and how they accustom themselves. We cannot return to the innocence of communities living out their daily lives removed from each other by distance and borders.

In this time what is called for is cultivating religious personalities with broad shoulders and hearts of many rooms. What is called for is the development of inner confidence in oneself that does not depend on the perceived wrongness or the rightness of the other. A Jewish community that sees the removal of one part of itself as nothing less than an excision of a part of our own hearts will be a stronger and more vibrant community.

All too much of Jewish history is the story of trying to write each other out of the picture. Perhaps it is time for a new paradigm, where we turn the page and learn how to write each other in to our collective picture.

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software developer in Tel Aviv. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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