Has Common Ground Become Foreign Territory?

I recently returned to the U.S. for the first time in close to four years to help with a family member who is unwell. While my wife and I had postponed a transatlantic trip until a wedding or bar mitzvah necessitated one, I found myself rushing to Oregon on short notice.

On the shuttle to downtown Portland, I realized that I last visited the Northwest 25 years earlier as a senior in high school on the hunt for a university. After my guidance counselor assured me I would never be accepted to Reed College, I decided that few things would give me greater pleasure than proving him wrong.

While this trip, a quarter of a century later, lacked the optimism of my teenage visit, it yielded an enlightening discussion with a close family member whom I unfortunately see far too infrequently.

Fundamental differences?

I love and respect this family member immensely, not least of all for her lifelong commitment to Judaism and her mindful practice of its tenets. In discussing an upcoming family simcha, some of the inclusive norms in her reform community in Illinois came to light. When I expressed surprise regarding these norms, this family member seemed shocked. She explained that in her kehila they prioritize welcoming anyone who expresses an interest in participating in the community.

What emerged in our brief discussion regarding this point were some fundamental differences regarding openness and flexibility on core values. I wanted to explain that a Torah-observant Jew requires boundaries and separation from values that are antithetical to the traditional Jewish way of life. I felt instinctively that my years in yeshiva equipped me to prove this family member “wrong” regarding the points on which we differed.

Learning to say less and listen more

But something happened and I held my tongue, listened to her points, and then let us move on to the next topic. It felt like a small miracle that I relinquished this potential ideological “victory” in the interest of continuing to connect with this family member during our brief time together in America.

For the next week or so, I thought about what my family member had said about her community’s norms and wondered if I could learn something from their approach. As a latecomer to Orthodox Judaism, I have eliminated or minimized certain influences in order to develop and strengthen my dedication to Torah. It occurred to me that this is perhaps a “price” that my family member and her community might not be willing to pay to safeguard certain values.

Defining our goals

This led me to wonder if perhaps our different strains of Judaism are in fact striving for different goals. In the Orthodox world, we work toward the ultimate goal of doing G-d’s will by honoring each other and ourselves through respectful and loving speech and action. The more I thought about it, this aim sounded a lot like the goals of my family member’s reform community, where they see tolerance and inclusion as inherently necessary to achieve their goals.

I was thus reminded of a comment made by historian and scholar Rabbi Berel Wein in discussing various Jewish splinter groups. To paraphrase, Rabbi Wein noted that like normative halachic Judaism most splinter groups wanted to “preserve the Jewish people”—they just had very different ideas about how to accomplish this formidable task.

Increasing the light

With Chanukah only a few weeks away, I couldn’t help but feel that this discussion’s timing was prescient. Out of all of our holy days, Chanukah reminds us of the existential struggle against external pressures that threaten us, be they military, cultural, or spiritual forces. Indeed, we celebrate the flames of the menorah, which symbolize the light of Torah, to a far greater degree than the historical military triumph. The real victory of Chanukah is perpetual; it survives as long as the Jewish values of love, respect, and awe for G-d’s creations are ascendant.

Prior to this discussion with my family member, I had not engaged in this manner with a non-Orthodox Jew for years. I felt a deep sense of connection through our willingness to listen to each other and rise above the labels and divisiveness that can tear the world apart from within. In the weeks following this discussion, I realized that this willingness to engage is actually a value that my spiritual heroes—from the Lubavitch Rebbe to Rav Kook—embraced. As Torah-observant Jews, we must be open to such discussions with family, friends, and even strangers. Only by engaging in an open and honest way will we have a chance to connect.

Chanukah: a time for hope

After reflecting on this conversation for a few weeks, I realized that perhaps I had matured just a little in the 25 years since I had last visited Portland. Instead of focusing on how I could prove my family member wrong, I was able to see that her community in Illinois may be working toward the same goals as my kehila here in Jerusalem, albeit with different strategies. And this gave me tremendous hope as we approach Chanukah, a time in which we invoke the potential for light in the world, regardless of how intense the darkness may appear. My prayer this year is that we, as individuals and as a people, connect more with each other, increasing exponentially the light in this world.

About the Author
Ebin Sandler writes about the arts, G-d, American law, and memories that refuse to fade away. He weathered Minnesota winters and New York nights before discovering his home in Jerusalem. Ebin wishes he had more time to visit the Golan with his wife and children.
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