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OK, Tachlis: Jewish Unity in three easy steps

Concrete steps that can bridge the chasm include liberal Jews increasing their daily religious observance

Preamble: An apology

Let me begin by practicing what I preach, specifically, what I preached in my previous blog about important figures admitting their mistakes in public. I am far from being an important figure (other than to my wife and kids, I hope), but I did make a big mistake (and that’s a nice word for it). Having re-read what I wrote regarding Rabbi Gordis and the Kotel controversy, I realize to my profound chagrin that it can be taken to imply that Gordis advocates risking Israeli lives – that he is willing for Israelis to die – as part of a strategy for achieving Conservative and Reform goals. To the extent that my words implied that (and indeed, the title of the blog states the same more or less explicitly), I hereby affirm that they represent nothing less than a full-blown fabrication and a vile calumny. I know Daniel Gordis, have known him for quite a few years, and he would never under any circumstances condone such an idea, let alone advocate it.

Further on in the article I asked, “Where is [Gordis’] ahavat yisrael? Where is his humanity?” This, too, was a cheap shot, and the irony is awful: not only is Rabbi Gordis a great ohev yisrael (lover of the Jewish People), he has been busy for decades instilling this love in the hearts of thousands of others through his writing and teaching, to an extent that few have matched (and his humanity, from everything I have seen, is not in question). I wanted to score points, so I did what I have ever warned my students never to do: I painted my opponent’s position in the darkest possible colors, virtually called the man a murderer to win my argument. I, too, wrote out of righteous anger, and it led me far astray.

Nothing and nobody compels me to write the above paragraphs other than my conscience – I am under no threat, no pressure (I’ve got tenure!) – but as anyone who has read Edgar Allen Poe knows, the conscience is the most relentless of compellers (which is why I am writing these words, after much agonizing, at 3: 30 in the morning on Costa del Sol, instead of snoring soundly in between the hotel’s giant pillows). My wife thinks apologies are in some senses a bigger mistake than the original offense, inter alia because they draw attention to that offense, and constitute an admission of guilt. So be it. I am guilty.

I stand by my criticisms of Rabbi Gordis’ call to arms: I think he was wrong – calling for a boycott by Jews of any Israeli institution, to say nothing of Israeli hospitals, is unacceptable – and I think his approach in this particular matter is damaging to Israel and Jewry in the short and long run. But for the rest, for the unfair imputations, I am truly sorry.

Three Steps to Jewish Unity

I am grateful for the myriad responses I received to my previous blog: for the praise, obviously, but even more so for the criticism – because it really made me think – and especially for a particularly incisive type of critique, repeated in diverse forms by quite a few readers. They pointed out correctly that I condemned intra-Jewish warfare but proffered no plan for obviating it, no strategy for achieving a Pax Judaica without either party to the conflict having to compromise the principles it holds dear. Part of the reason I didn’t do this is that I had a plane to catch, but the other part is that it sounds like nothing so much as mission impossible. However, in line with the rabbis’ injunction that “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” – and in the spirit of the season, the Three Weeks before Tisha b’Av, when we remember that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed because of the division and “baseless hatred” among Jews – we are duty bound to take up the gauntlet.

Without further ado, then, here is my proposal for the coming together of what certainly looks like an irremediably fragmented Jewish People. (I would point out that we should never aspire to a fully unified nation, bereft of variety, dispute and the thesis-antithesis dialectical energizer, but hey: it’s not like we have to worry about that.) Here, in short, is the route to a pan-Jewish rapprochement in three easy steps. (OK, that’s a lie. The first step is easy, the second one hard, and the third… Lord help us!)

Step One: Value Jewish peoplehood – a lot

Before we can embark on a struggle to build drawbridges between sections of Jewry that have been for so long holed up in separate castles – castles that are alternately indifferent and virulently hostile to one another – we have to make sure that those of us participating in this grand venture agree that reestablishing and then vigorously maintaining Jewish peoplehood is a hugely desirable goal. Otherwise said participants will not be sufficiently motivated to expend the heroic effort and offer the painful sacrifices that are necessary to the success of such a frankly Quixotic project.

I am not going to dwell overmuch on this (I wrote a whole book about it). Words can certainly help create Jewish nationalists and ohavei yisrael (Jew lovers) – Max Dimont’s words among others’ certainly had that effect upon me in my youth – but this is neither the time nor the place. In what follows I am addressing myself to those of us who are already there, those possessors of the pintele yid (the “Jewish spark”) for whom the nation of Israel is a sacred unit that must be preserved at virtually any cost, those who harbor a burning fraternal affection for the members of their tribe wherever they are found.

And indeed, we are commanded by the Torah to feel this way. Here’s a dirty little Rabbinic secret that may hit you in the ecumenical kishkes: the famous verse veh ahavta le ray’akha kamokha – “Love your neighbor as yourself” – refers, according to the Talmud, specifically to your fellow Jews (as in Moses’ remonstration with the two quarreling Hebrews: “Why do you strike your ray’a?). And still, it is a strange and elusive precept: who could fulfill it? I think the answer to the conundrum, the meaning of the verse, is this (a different interpretation than the one I offered in John Lennon and the Jews): there does indeed exist – think about it – one class of people whom we love at least as much as ourselves, for whom we would, without thinking twice, give our very lives (like my colleague Dr. Omri Nir, may his memory be for a blessing, who, upon seeing his son fall from the cliff directly above, immediately released his hold on the rung he clung to – threw his life away in a millisecond – caught his son in mid-air and fell backward ten meters onto solid rock in a heroic effort to cushion his son’s fall). We all know what this class of people that we love as much as ourselves is called: our family. So if the rabbis are right and our verse refers to fellow Israelites in particular, then it is enjoining one profound and powerful injunction: treat Am Yisrael as your family.

And, to a large extent, that is what we do. While we’re revealing secrets, here’s a CIA secret (really). The Humint (“Human Intelligence”) section of America’s premier spy organization spends a large part of its time recruiting foreign nationals and convincing/bribing/blackmailing/pressuring them into betraying their country and furnishing US agents with sensitive info. For the purpose, the section analysts have for decades made use of an operational model according to which – to simplify – an individual (the “mark”) is likely to sell out his country for the sake of his tribe, his tribe for the sake of his friends, his friends for the sake of his family. There is only one country in the entire world to which – so the CIA regularly warns its operatives – this model does not apply: Israel. Because the Jews are one big family.

Step 2: Recognize the vast distance that separates us from one another, and how much pain it causes

Once we’ve established that sticking together (despite our manifold differences) is a very high priority for us Jews today, the next step is to actively comprehend and regularly call to mind how yawning the chasm is between the worldviews and lifestyles of each camp – let’s call them the “orthodox” and the “liberal” to save time – and how very much mutual anguish this causes. I say “mutual” even though for the moment I am primarily addressing myself to the liberal side, to the Conservative and Reform movements. Sure, non-orthodox Jews may be pained when they think about the lot of – say – women in the municipalities of Borough Park or Mea She’arim who are shunted aside in the synagogue or prevented from studying Talmud (or from singing at table, or from feeling the wind blow through their hair, or what have you). But the orthodox horror at the way non-orthodox women (and non-orthodox men) comport themselves in a whole gamut of areas is arguably far greater, and besides: there is a whole, vast realm of endeavor in which the horror is in no way comparable, indeed, exists solely on one side. You already know this, dear reader.

When liberal Jews witness orthodox Jews walking on foot to synagogue on the Sabbath, they obviously experience no negative sentiments whatsoever. When orthodox Jews witness liberal Jews driving in their car to synagogue on the Sabbath – violating, among other ordinances, the express d’orayta or Pentateuchal proscription against lighting a fire on the Seventh Day – they are devastated to their depths, each time afresh, by this mitzvah ha’ba’ah be-avayra, this “fulfillment of a commandment via the commission of a transgression” (and that is being charitable, because for the orthodox what takes place in a Reform Temple or even a Conservative Shul is in many respects a transgression in its own right). When liberal Jews witness orthodox Jews refraining from shellfish or the consumption of meat and dairy products in succession or off of the same plates, no misery is engendered in their souls. When orthodox Jews witness liberal Jews not refraining from these things, their misery is multifaceted and indescribable: divine precepts from Sinai cast aside as if nothing, millennia old traditions that sustained the People of Israel through thick and thin no less than we sustained them, precepts that hundreds of thousands of our ancestors died rather than violate – stomped and spat upon with ne’er a care.

I am not taking sides here (though it sounds like I am): I was raised a secular, assimilated American Jew and I have no more personal horror of cheeseburgers (if anything I have a hankering for them) than I do of a lit cigarette on Shabbat, a linsey-woolsey suit jacket, a razor blade on the cheek, an uncovered male or married female head, a benediction unpronounced or a missed morning prayer service. Nor can I claim to be particularly rigorous about each and every one of these matters. I am merely describing an objective state of affairs: on the whole, liberal Jewish lack of observance of Torah statutes is far more obnoxious, is far more heart-wrenching, to orthodox Jews than orthodox observance of those statutes is to liberal Jews. It’s a no brainer.

But so what? So this: if we have chosen a path that causes profound pain to our fellow Jews; and if we believe deeply in that path and are dead set on following it; then at the very least let us be aware of, and highly sensitive to, the effect our actions are having. Let us not blithely, casually, to say nothing of provocatively and in-your-facedly, parade our sharp break with time-honored Jewish tradition, as if we were Chinese communists trampling with glee on an intricate sand relief it took a hundred Buddhist monks ten years to create, or the soldiers of the Shah of Iran gaily ripping the hijab coverings off of Muslim ladies’ heads (and we all know where that insensitivity led…).

Let us rather realize the enormity of what we are doing, let us take into account that effect we are having on the feelings of our fellow Jews, let us even proceed, I dare say, with a bit of mourning in our step for the ancient, venerated, beloved ways that we were forced to jettison, like a glass broken at a wedding, as if to say: “We had no choice but to make this change – the times or our principles demanded it in no uncertain terms – but we make it with at least a modicum of sadness and trepidation, maybe even some hesitation, and certainly not with smugness, insouciance or levity, God forbid…”

I remember a campaign of the Israeli left some years back geared to convincing the populace that Judea and Samaria/the Occupied Territories must be evacuated. The campaign slogan, plastered all over the country on banners and billboards, was: Hevron, etzem ba-garon – “Hebron: a bone in the throat.” Now, can it be argued that the minuscule Jewish presence in Hebron is a lightning rod for terrorist attacks, is a provocation to the Palestinians, is an impediment to the peace process? Sure it can (not very well, to my mind, but let’s not engage in the debate here). Can it further be argued, even from a bona fide Zionist perspective, that Israel should therefore abandon the City of the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs, along with much additional territory, to Palestinian rule in the name of increasing the chances of Israeli-Arab reconciliation? Of course it can (many genuine Lovers of Zion I know want us the hell out of there yesterday).

But here’s the rub. If you are a Jew who cares at all about his or her people – about its history and its holy places or even just about the feelings of other Jews – then you don’t advocate the abandonment of the graves of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah (leaving them in the hands of those whose grandparents butchered the city’s Jewish community) without a lunar-sized lump in your throat, without the heaviest of hearts, without donning sackcloth and ashes, without bewailing and bemoaning and beating oneself about the face and neck like David and his entourage when they were forced to flee Jerusalem. You don’t call the four-thousand-year-old resting place of our forefathers and foremothers “a bone in the throat,” to be thrown to a dog.

Similarly, if we feel we have no choice but to diverge from the path laid down for us by Moses at Sinai – or even from the interpretation of that path advanced by the rabbis of old some two thousand years ago – we must remember that we are slicing deep into the flesh of our hallowed tradition, and avoid pouring salt onto the wound by acting like it is no big deal, by taking for granted our new-fangled dispensation as if things had always been thus, as if we hadn’t trounced – as if we don’t continue daily to trounce – upon what a sizeable portion of our people perceive as inviolable sanctities.

(Now wait: am I saying that the de-segregationists after Brown versus Board of Education should have hung their heads and muted their joy in deference to the millennia old racism they were breaking with, and to the minority if not majority of the population that still held fast to racist beliefs? That’s a tough one, I concede (and other examples, such as the unabashed celebration of homosexual love, could make it tougher still). The answer, in short, is no: the de-segregationists had every right to accompany the first black student to enter a previously all white school with song and dance and other expressions of happiness, whereas Jews who sanction driving on the Sabbath or same sex unions should do so with muted, even mixed, feelings. The situations are not comparable for at least one reason. Because even if we considered a given Torah or Talmudic law as oppressive and immoral as the civil rights movement considered discrimination based on skin color, in the latter case the revolutionaries felt no kindred ties to speak of with the upholders of the old order; in the former case we feel them and how (or at least we should: I refer you back to Step One).

It is for this reason that a Jewish civil war is even more traumatic than an English, American, Russian or Spanish one: because it tears asunder bonds of family, bonds of love. And whereas the English, Americans, Russians and Spanish managed to maintain their national independence despite being ripped apart internally, the rift and strife between Judah and Israel, and later between the Sadducees and Pharisees, were immediate preludes and proximate causes of the utter destruction of the Jewish sovereign entity.

Today the situation is no different. During the Second Lebanon War Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wrote an open letter to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbollah, encouraging him in his battle against Israel. He concluded by quoting Allah in the Qur’an on the Jews: tah-sabuhum jami’an wa qulubuhum shatta’ – “You may think they are united, but in truth their hearts are divided.” With a billion plus people who want us dead or out of here surrounding us on all sides, we can ill afford intractable internal dissension and feuding. Let’s save our fighting spirit for our real enemies).

If my overly demanding and largely one-sided recommendations haven’t gotten your back up yet, just wait! It gets worse. But first let’s address the accusation of one-sidedness. Orthodox Jews who are reading this and care as deeply about the Jewish family as the rest of us do – about Jews as your brothers and sisters, not just as human vehicles for the performance of mitzvot (and I know you exist!) – such Orthodox Jews are hereby urged to return the favor and make a similar gesture of good faith and understanding to that which we have been urging on liberal Jews. You are, for example, sufficiently denizens of the modern world to grasp why the roles you assign to women – which do not include, for instance, meaningful participation in Jewish ritual (but which do include the disgraceful state of an agunah, an “anchored” woman whose husband refuses to divorce her) – irk the rest of us to no end, or why your position on homosexuality – which you cannot help anymore than we can help ours (because in both cases we are commanded: you by the Torah, us by our conscience) – is anathema to those of us who recognize that that is the only way a significant percentage of the population is programmed to love.

Given your knowledge of how heavily your positions on these matters weigh on your fellow Jews, on the members of your extended family whom you love (right?), it is no less incumbent upon you to showcase your awareness of the pain that you cause us. The Women at the Wall stomp on Jewish tradition too facilely; the orthodox condemn the Women of the Wall without a smidgen of empathy. Step Two requires that both sides wake up to the disgust and the fury their actions engender among the members of the opposing camp, even if they fully plan to continue engaging in those actions (that does not make the understanding conveyed to the opposing side into Crocodile tears: I am not a big fan of sensitivity – if anything we have too much of it today – but this is a field in which sensitivity and empathy can really make a dent, can improve relationships considerably, can prepare the ground for the next step). This is what Step Two requires, and it is eminently doable: zeh lo oleh kesef as the (not particularly aristocratic) Hebrew phrase has it – it doesn’t cost you a cent.

But here comes…

Step Three: Come closer

So far all we’ve asked of those who ache to participate in the Yiddish Unity Project (YUP!) is (1) the confirmation of a state of mind – the prioritization of Jewish peoplehood – and (2) the cultivation (and demonstration and communication!) of some genuine understanding and empathy. Whoever cannot be bothered to implement the latter was lying when s/he signed on to the former.

But now the going is going to get tough. Brace yourselves. Because Step Three requires that we actually change aspects of our lifestyles (compared to which changing clauses in a movement platform, as difficult as that is, is child’s play). We deliberately stipulate “changes in lifestyle” as opposed to “changes in ideology,” because even in this third and final stage we are not asking anyone to compromise their strongly held principles: we can still get much closer to one another without betraying the ideas we deeply believe in. Here’s how it works.

We mentioned before that no liberal Jew is morally offended by the sight of an orthodox Jew walking to shul. Here are some other orthodox/halachic practices that s/he he is almost certainly not morally offended by: the strict avoidance of non kosher food (no Reform Jew has ever formed a lobby on behalf of the poor, discriminated against pig, demanding this animal be granted the honor of being wolfed down by his more observant co-religionists); not using electricity, or carrying things in the public domain, or handling money, or separating carrots from peas, on Shabbat; wrapping phylacteries or wearing tzitzis; fasting on Yom Kippur or Ta’anit Esther or the 17th of Tammuz; making an elaborate Kiddush on Friday night complete with ritual hand washing, Sabbath songs, Grace after the Meal, even the latter day, supremely supererogatory custom of mayim achronim (a minor, concluding lavation); a Sabbath morning service with a full Torah reading, followed by an afternoon and evening service (and a learning session in between them) and crowned by Havdalah on Saturday night – even the monthly blessing of the moon out of doors; banning bread on Passover and eating and sleeping in a Sukkah constructed according to the strictest halachic standards; and a whole lot more where those come from (including – and here I tread very lightly – at least some of the regulations subsumed under the currently fashionable euphemism “family purity”: in short, abstention from marital relations during part of each month).

All or most of these traditional Jewish observances present not the slightest moral or ethical difficulty for liberal Jews (sure, there are those who might claim that kosher slaughter is insufficiently humane, or that circumcision violates the rights of the infant who is not consulted, and the like. Let’s agree that our argument can live with these rather minor exceptions to the rule). Now, since none of us harbors any genuine moral qualms against keeping kosher, or studying Torah regularly, or shaving with an electric shaver, or ripping toilet paper prior to the onset of the Sabbath (though the latter ranks pretty high up on the silliness scale); since, that is, observing such commandments or practicing such customs does not violate our ideological principles in any way (for even if we find some of them less than intellectually compelling or, alternately, onerous and time consuming, few would argue that doing things that are unreasonable or inconvenient is in any sense reprehensible); and finally, given that adopting and consistently practicing as many of these acts of commission and omission as we can will unquestionably help bridge the impossibly wide chasm currently separating Jews from Jews; given all this, and given that the liberal Jewish reader places an extremely high value on Jewish nationhood and cross-denominational solidarity, what good reason do liberal Jews have for not taking upon themselves – gradually and selectively at first, but with a view toward increasingly filling up their lives with daily Jewish observance – those mitzvot and minhagim that are not objectionable to them in principle? What excuse, under the current dire circumstances, do we have not to do this? That it’s hard to find time in the morning to recite thousand year old formulae? That we really want to watch the next episode of “Breaking Bad” this Friday night? That life is just not the same without the matchless flavor of pepperoni pizza?

Come on! I’m not denying the extreme difficulty of all this, at least at the outset. I myself still suffer from withdrawal due to stuff I gave up, hate fasting with a passion, and to this day have one helluva time fitting thrice daily davening into my demanding academic schedule (stop laughing!) – and often I fail, God forgive me. But if we really mean it when we place Jewish Peoplehood high up on a pedestal, then we have little reason not to give it our best shot. We Israelis send our sons and daughters to the army to risk their very lives for the sake of the Jewish People; I think we can pass on the calamari.

And you know what else we can do? (I can’t believe I’m going to say this). We can consider dressing just a little bit more modestly – both sexes! Is it really a moral imperative of ours that our daughters dress in hot pants that leave so little to the imagination (my wife just told me that a burgeoning Facebook group of Israeli secular mothers is forming to force the clothing chains to manufacture at least one pair of shorts that extends below the buttocks). Without at least some movement in this area, the rest of our efforts will be largely wasted, because our orthodox counterparts will simply be prevented from being anywhere in our vicinity.

One final assignment, and it is in many ways the most important one: let’s learn Torah. Or, more to the point, Talmud. And I’m not referring to some after-school Hebrew school, Jacob Neusner anthology of cutesy excerpts from rabbinic sources or a weekly ladies auxiliary study session over wine and cheese. I’m talking about our kids pounding the pages for several hours a day, year in and year out for their entire young lives, wrestling with our fascinating law and beautiful lore in the original Hebrew and Aramaic until they can read Gemara like a novel and parse responsa upside down. I envision the following scene: a Haredi guy is standing on the sidewalk examining the etrog he just bought with a magnifying glass. Up sidles a Reform Jewish girl and glances at the guy’s purchase.

Girl: “I can’t help but notice that your shoshanasa is damaged, turning your pitom into a gomeh, and even though le-shitas ha-Gra on the Bays Yosef brought down by the Debrecener we paskin le-kula, the Taz and the Rama, following the Ritva among othersgo decidedly lekhumra.  So I’m afraid they’ve sold you a lemon.”

Haredi guy: “What the…?!”

Torah is our lingua franca, it’s the ultimate ice-breaker and conversation piece: if we want to get close to our fellow Jews of other denominations, we have to have what to talk with them about.  The Torah is our national subject, and it is as wide and deep as the sea.  Let’s get a shteigen

I hear you – the Reform and Conservative – chafing again: “Once more you have placed the burden primarily on us. What lifestyle changes, what sacrifices, are you demanding from the orthodox side?!” So let me say this about that.

First of all: cut it out, would ya? You sound like my seven year old daughter, who, when asked to help clean up the mess in the living room, immediately blurts out, “But what about Na’ama?! Why isn’t Na’ama cleaning up?!” Let’s try some maturity, even some nobility here, OK? Let’s try to epitomize Hillel the elder’s famous injunction: “In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch.” We’ll get to the Orthodox, I promise, but even if they fail to “man up” and change that little which they are able to change for the sake of Jewish unity, that does not exempt us on our side from making the supreme effort (in Israel, acting thus altruistically without getting something in return is known as being a friar – basically, a sucker – which is one of the ways that Israeli society truly…sucks).

The second reason I have addressed the liberal camp first and foremost is simply this: that without a considerable, across-the-board increase in daily Jewish observance, this camp has no future anyway, is, in a word, doomed. And the leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements are profoundly aware of this – Rabbi Gordis perhaps most of all. As impossible a task as it may appear to them to beef up halachic observance among the ranks of their congregants, those of them who are wise enough to take the longer view know that it is far more impossible that their movement will survive without such a beefing up. As it turns out – in other words – what is good for Jewish unity is simultaneously good for the liberal denominations themselves. Win-win.

The third and final reason that we have placed the onus in this matter primarily on the liberal camp was already stated, and we merely reiterate it here: for Orthodoxy to forego even some of the (“morally neutral”) Jewish rituals we have enumerated entails a major sacrifice of major principles; for the Reform and Conservative to adopt and scrupulously observe as many of those rituals as possible entails no such sacrifice.

Now: what can the Orthodox change if they want to show us that they give a damn about Jewish peoplehood? Well, some of them are already busy making important changes, if not necessarily for the sake of Jewish national solidarity then for the sake of their own community’s internal well-being (and so, again: win-win). Women’s study groups and women’s minyanim (worship circles), for instance, are a significant example, and even congregations that insist they have found halachically sound ways to allow women to chant the Torah and participate otherwise in the liturgy. This is still very far from full-fledged egalitarianism (which we ourselves, by the way, should think thrice about before enshrining as a sacrosanct principle), but it is definitely a step closer to us. If we, for our part, daven more or less the traditional liturgy (little changes aren’t lethal: there is liturgical variety within orthodoxy itself) and forego the damn microphone, and they, for their part, continue to expand female participation, then we are this close to praying together under the same roof. Add a serious dose of pan-Jewish family feeling to give a final push to both sides – and we are there!

Now, what will the ultra-Orthodox – the haredim – be willing to do, be willing to change, for the sake of Jewish unity and in return for our admirable compromises and noble sacrifices? I’ll tell you what: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ultra-Orthodoxy and intransigence are virtually synonymous. Nietzsche (following Kelly Clarkson) said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The Aufklarung/Haskalah/Enlightenment almost killed halachic Judaism, and now it is back stronger (and frummer) than ever, boasting nearly invincible antibodies and most of all determined never again to make the mistake of pulling their finger out of even the tiniest hole in that dyke and risking another deluge.

(The fact that haredim do not, for the most part, serve in the Israeli army – a disgusting situation and a chillul HaShem if ever there was one, plus we are going to need every able bodied Jew to defend our country as matters get worse – is part and parcel of this retrenchment of theirs, and must be understood as such. Until and unless we arrange matters such that sending one’s haredi son to the army does not mean exposure to phenomena that will potentially undermine eighteen years of Torah true upbringing, don’t expect this ever to change. That will be one major benefit of us “getting closer.”)

There is a famous anecdote, popular in “black hat” yeshiva circles, about a great ultra-Orthodox rabbi – maybe the Hazon Ish, maybe some Chassidishe Rebbe, I don’t remember – who is approached by a delegation of the nascent Reform movement, who affirm their willingness to “return to the fold,” bringing with them all of their flocks, and re-adopt every prescription and restriction they had shed, on the sole condition that the rabbi make a minor gesture of good faith in return and forego one, single precept. The rabbi asks for three days to think the matter over. When the delegation returns three days later the rabbi addresses them: “Well, I reviewed all of the 613 biblical commandments: obviously I could not back down on any of them. Then I examined their hundreds of thousands of derivative laws, both Pentateuchal and Rabbinic – but they are all obviously out of the question, as well. Next I surveyed the vast realm of minhag yisrael, of custom, where of course no candidate presented itself. I finally homed in on a very minor practice – not legislated at all or even customary, for that matter, just a habit of some Hasidim, and one of relatively recent provenance at that. These Jews, when they pare their nails, instead of throwing away the tips prefer to burn them, and they are wont to add to the little fire a wooden splinter that comes, naturally enough, from a four-legged table. So I mulled over the matter at length, and thought that perhaps I might be willing, in line with your very moving request, to permit the use for this purpose – on those rare occasions when a four-legged table is not immediately available – of a splinter of wood the source of which is a three legged table. But then I reconsidered.”

So don’t expect any requital from the ultra-Orthodox for your willingness to metamorphose major aspects of your existence. Indeed, at least at the outset, expect the opposite: as we, God willing, approach closer to them in practice and lifestyle, while nevertheless clinging to the innovations that are truly important to us, expect them to recoil in horror, disgust and fear. Because as things stand now they can at least identify us as out-and-out kofrim (heretics), even goyim, and ignore us as clearly definable irrelevancies. The more we come to resemble them without actually joining them full on, the more vile and dangerous we appear in their eyes (the technical term is mumar be-davar ehad – “a rebel in a single matter” – but that’s not really applicable here). Excommunications and execrations will issue forth in great number and fierceness from the mouths of their rabbis (and this, too, we must try and understand: for the haredim nothing works but “package deal” Judaism. And time may well prove them right).

If so, what’s the point? What, we should give up our lobster and our Friday night TV just to get pulsa de nura-ed (ceremonially consigned to hell) by a bunch of guys in fur hats and gabardines? Let me tell you a story I heard decades ago from a professor of mine, no less than Arthur Green, scholar of Hasidism and leader in the Reconstructionist movement. Art was once traipsing around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, when he was approached by a schnorrer in unmistakably Hassidic garb who was collecting money for a big Lithuanian, misnagdeshe (anti-Hassidic) yeshiva. His curiosity piqued, the professor promised the schnorrer twenty bucks if he would just explain how it came about that a chassid was schnorring for a Lithuanian yeshiva. The schnorrer said, “Sit down, and let me tell you a story. There was once a very rich Jew who had two accomplished, beautiful daughters. When they came of age he sent the matchmaker to the local yeshiva with instructions to bring back and betroth to his girls the two sharpest iluim – Talmudic geniuses – in the yeshiva. And so it was. One minor catch: the first ilui only ate meat, the second one only ate dairy.

So the wealthy father set up his sons-in-law at two separate, oak inlaid tables in front of the hearth, with room for a rabbinic tome and a dining set on each, so as not to mix milchigs and fleishigs. And so matters continued for many moons, the first ilui feasting on the likes of filet mignon and marinated pepper steak steeped in marinara sauce, the second one on fancy soufflés, gourmet ice cream and truffles. At a certain point the householder’s business went into decline, and the succulent meats and dainty dairy dishes were replaced by simple chicken breast and cheese. Still, the two young scholars ate and studied at their separate tables. Eventually the father went bankrupt: the family fell on truly hard times and could not even afford wood with which to heat the house in winter. Far from fancy fare, all they could procure for their meals with what meager funds they had left were kartoshkes – potatoes. So the two iluim sat at their separate tables and ate their potatoes and froze, until the youngest sibling in the family pointed out the obvious: that there was no more justification for the separate seating, and the iluim joined one another at one table, and the other was thrown into the flames to keep the family warm. “And that,” concluded the schnorrer, “is why I am collecting for a Litvishe yeshiva.”

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hassidim and misnagdim were at each other’s throats. Each side excommunicated the other with reckless abandon, even informed on each other to the authorities, and the hatred between them seethed. The famous Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev reportedly made an annual pilgrimage to the study of the Vilna Gaon, leader of Lithuanian Jewry, stood in front of his desk for hours on end and just… wept. Gornisht helfen. In the decades after World War Two, however, when both Hasidism and the Litvaks lay decimated, nearly eradicated, by Haskalah and Hitler combined, they could nary afford the luxury of internecine warfare based on differences in praxis and worldview – the same differences that loomed so large and led them to excommunicate each other only several decades earlier. Now the excommunications were allowed to fade away, and today the two camps more or less get along, pray together, marry into each other, and the like.

Tough times lie ahead for us Jews. Our exclusivist, tribal nature – what we see as an instance of the natural human phenomenon of preferential love – is more sui generis (read: anathema) today than ever before, in a world become simultaneously more universalist and more individualist. Exponentially accelerating advances in science and technology – in a word, “the Singularity” – will soon introduce changes in our world and in ourselves that will challenge traditional/religious conceptions in unprecedented ways on a hundred different fronts. A resurgent Islam, Sunni and Shi’ite, is throwing up genuinely existential threats to Jewry at large and to the State of Israel in particular, threats such as we have never faced. We may all be eating potatoes sooner than we think.

As the world becomes a more and more challenging place for Jews, we will naturally gravitate toward each other, circle our wagons, seek solace and strength in one another. If we come closer to each other in observance and lifestyle, there may well come a day when even the haredim let their guard down, realize that we are their brothers and sisters, indeed, that they can learn a thing or two from us (e.g. how to deal with the inevitable awakening of the female half of their community). We need to close the gap sufficiently now so that a leap of faith will someday be possible.

Is any of this realistic? Can hundreds of thousands of Jews belonging to the different denominations of our faith/nation make conscious, collective decisions to change direction, pointing themselves toward one another? And if so, what would such a process look like? What are the details? Who would make it happen and how?

Don’t know. I have just been thinking out loud about the underlying principles that would need to inform such a Jewry-wide effort, if we really want it to bear fruit. And let me add this: I am not arguing for unity at all costs. When Vladimir Jabotinsky established an alternate wing of Zionism – the Revisionists – he was accused by many of dividing the movement. “God’s name is not unity,” he riposted. “God’s name is truth.” Perhaps we are too far apart to meet in the middle, or anywhere else on the spectrum. Perhaps, even, our internal divisions are not as great a tragedy as I am claiming that they are (after all, few entities have been riven by bitter dissent like the Zionist movement was, and look what it accomplished!). Still, the increasing mutual dismissal and hostility of recent years, epitomized and to some extent brought to a head by the Western Wall dispute, is sufficiently disturbing, bodes sufficiently ill, that we should at least try to step up and do something about it.

So this is my shot across the bow. To date I have kept aloof from the whole online social network business – in part because I barely know how to turn on my computer, let alone “tweet” or “snapchat” or whatever it is y’all do. I’m not even “on” Facebook (I don’t honestly know what that preposition means in this context). But the responses to my previous blog were so interesting and stimulating (I even appreciate the Star Trek corrections) that I would love to hear what anyone who had the stamina to read all this has to say on the subject, and would be more than gratified if some continuing discussion were to result, perhaps even between members of the different denominations – not in the form of angry polemic, but in the understanding spirit hopefully reflected in our proposed “Three Easy Steps to Jewish Unity” (and how’s that for false advertising?).

So – what say ye?

About the Author
Ze’ev Maghen is the author of John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage (Toby Press, 2015). He is professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic History and Chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Maghen also serves as senior fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem and at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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