Where Shall Unity Be Found? Two Necessary But Neglected Building Blocks of Achdut

Yet another Shlomo Carlebach story that either is true or should be. At a concert in the ‘60s, everyone was high on something and world peace was the motherhood/apple pie of the day, he asked who wanted world peace.

Are you kidding? This was the sixties. After an uproar affirming that all indeed wanted world peace, after checking several times to be sure they wanted world peace, he said, “Then make peace with the three people you like the least.”

That tempered the enthusiasm. Because it’s easy to get behind a big idea, until you realize what it will cost you.  To a smaller extent, in my more limited way, I suggest that we have a similar situation today with Jewish unity, even if narrow our discussion to Orthodox Jews. How could anyone argue against achdut, unity?

But people today—on both sides of the aisle, however you define that— focus on two of the elements of building a unified community, neglecting or failing to recognize two other equally necessary parts of that process.  That itself diminishes our unity and our ability to reach greater unity. The first step of getting to a truly unified Jewish world is remembering all four basic elements of diverse communities.

It’s not easy to know how to implement the four; reasonable people can differ on when each one applies, and to what extent. I claim here only that people across the spectrum are losing sight of the pieces.  I stress that I see these as issues across the spectrum, so if you read this and say to yourself, yeah, those others are forgetting that, or, why’s he only talking to me?, you’re missing my point.

The Well-Known Avenues to Unity

Basic unity, where we all share a single purpose and view of how to get there, is easy and the one we all agree we want. Think standing at Sinai, the libation celebrations of Simchat Beit HaShoevah, or when we jointly mourn great lost people.

Nice as that is, it’s not practical all the time, nor is it always ideal.  The smallest communities are heterogeneous, and much of that is valuable, giving us the diversity that enriches our world. Valuable or not, differences have to be navigated; the community has to find ways to meet its’ members’ needs and goals.

One popular method is by allowing everyone the freedom to do what works for them, a stance we can take in one of two ways. There is the co-existence of diversity, where our choices express our different needs and goals, without one side having any problem with the other.

You prefer to improve the world by curing cancer, I by building a navigational map, a third member of our group by providing water to those who don’t have it.  In that and similar situations, we aren’t unified in the sense of approaching the world the same way, but our differences do not create tension or friction. We live together comfortably, unified in that which we share, with no distance created by that on which we differ.

The Co-existence of Disagreement

Sometimes, though, we disagree strongly, on an issue of such serious substance that we cannot ignore it.  The most popular strategy today is to push for co-existence, where we let each of us do what s/he wants (as individuals and/or communities), and still stay together in one larger community. This can seem just like the co-existence of diversity, but it’s not, in two ways.

First, this co-existence necessarily creates distance. When someone chooses a profession or charitable cause, that does not generally impact others to the extent that they should have an opinion about it.  But where there’s a right or wrong, where there are choices to be made among limited resources, it should be impossible to be indifferent. We can agree to disagree, and do what is necessary to maintain our overall unity, but one side is acting in ways the other side finds unfortunate or worse.

Second, this kind of co-existence challenges us to retain respect for each other. Banal choices, or those where it is clear that multiple answers exist, allow for easy co-existence. When two sides to a disagreement know that only one of those answers can be correct, accepting that the other side has an unshakeable point of view which needs to be accommodated has proven enormously difficult, on both sides of the aisle.

Let me repeat here that if you assume it’s the other side that does this and not your side, whichever side that is, look again. I don’t have the space to elaborate, but it’s a problem on both sides of almost any issue in the broader world, in the Jewish world, and in the Orthodox world.

Vigorous Disagreement and Co-Existence

The best model of this kind of co-existence is portrayed in Mishnah Yevamot 1;4, where Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed about the laws of levirate marriage.  Each side followed its view in practice, which meant that in the eyes of the other side, some of it members were mamzerim, prohibited from marrying natural-born Jews.

Note that to produce a mamzer involves engaging in sexual relations for which the Torah prescribed death or karet. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, in other words, were entering marriages the other side thought was so seriously wrong as to render willful violators liable for death or karet! That takes halachic courage, but it’s the reaction of the other side I find most interesting.

The Mishnah comments that the two sides would intermarry when opportunities arose, confident the other side would let them know if it violated their standards.  Each side lived the way it thought right, while the other side had to watch tolerantly as karet or capital prohibitions were violated. Not only that, each side also respected the other side enough to keep track of who was a mamzer by that other side’s standards! Imagine having to say to someone else, “Yes, by your standards, my parents were violating the Torah so seriously they should deserve death or karet,” and to say it with so little bitterness that they could marry each other!

The co-existence of difference is a necessary part of community-building, more difficult than some of us make it seem.

Where those strategies can be applied, they are valuable and necessary parts of building and maintaining our communal unity. But there are two others, which used to be well-recognized but are falling into desuetude (such a nice word, yet it itself has so fallen into desuetude that Microsoft Word knows no synonyms!).

Compromise, Painful But Real

Where we differ in ways that create distance, while we can let each side go its own way, there is a way to avoid the distance that creates. Compromise, an easy word to say but harder to implement, involves finding a way to keep us all together despite our deep differences.

One way is to find a middle position, with both sides making concessions, some painful, even galling. The joy in these compromises comes from our continuing to stay together instead of labeling another issue so off-limits that the best we can do is co-exist.

Sometimes, we cannot find our way to such a compromise because one side is so committed to that issue that they cannot move further.  (When both sides feel they cannot budge further, that’s a more serious problem; they either have to find a way to co-exist, or they have to find a way to compromise). But where it’s one side, we can also trade surrenders.

When one side cares more about issue x and the other about y, trading one surrender for another works, as long as it stays in rough balance.  I say rough balance to deny both exact balance and imbalance.  Looking for exact balance sort of defeats the purpose of compromise, since it perverts the spirit of unity, trust, and generosity that is supposed to animate our interest in compromise for a hackles-raised alertness to being cheated.

Compromise, Fake and Problematic

Letting it fall out of balance is equally problematic, maybe more. When one side consistently insists on greater concessions, and the other gives in, in the name of unity, it can look like compromise. So much so that I hear people advocate such going along to get along.

It’s a double error. First, the “winning” side morphs into a tyranny; absolute power corrupts, and the winner will expect more and more compliance. Second, balances of power aren’t stable; as each side’s power fortunes ebb and flow, whoever is ascendant will push their agenda as far as possible, irritating the other side, fraying the bonds that were supposed to unite us.

That’s not a community, it’s a tug of war between people stuck together.  Compromise is meant to remind us that the benefits of staying together outweigh most issues, that giving in produces dividends of community and harmony. As long as we’re not being tricked into tyranny.

Confrontation: Who Is for Hashem, To Me

A last necessary piece of unity and community is today often rejected out of hand.  I maintain, though, that we cannot have communities unless we all recognize the occasional obligation to publicly oppose something, and to reject those who insist on maintaining that position.

This is unpleasant, by its very nature divisive, so that we should avoid it whenever possible. It is also sometimes sadly necessary.  Our forefather Abraham got his start by smashing idols. That’s not how he filled his life, he spent most of his life bringing people closer to monotheism with his kindness and generosity.  But one of his earliest acts was smashing idols, was becoming HaIvri, he who stood on the other side of the line from the entire rest of the world

At the sin of the Golden Calf, most of us were blamed for failing to protest the idol-worship, not for worshipping itself (tradition has it that only the 3000 people killed had actually worshipped).  Hashem held the entire populace accountable, presumably for their failure to object or protest.

It’s not easy to know when we must oppose. The Vilna Gaon thought the Hasidism of his time required such a response, although his student, R. Chaim of Volozhin seems to have thought that was no longer so.  R. Samson Raphael Hirsch demanded that the Jews of Frankfurt separate from the Reform community as soon as it became possible, while other Orthodox rabbis disagreed.  Mid-20th century authorities agreed that mechitsah was an issue that obligated line-drawing—it is important to remember that R. Soloveitchik, zt”l, thought it better to forego hearing shofar on Rosh haShanah, a Biblical obligation, than to hear it in a Conservative synagogue.

There is much room for differences of opinion on where to draw our lines. But that there are lines that must be drawn, firmly, with real requirements to separate from those who cross those lines, is being denied today by larger and larger circles of Orthodox Jews. Even as it is a simple necessity of Jewish community building.

A Puzzle with More Than One Solution

We are unified in our love of unity. We respect the need to accommodate diversity, whether the diversity of difference or the diversity of disagreement. But that’s half the picture.

We are losing sight of compromise, a way to hold our communities together even where we cannot have unity. And we have to remember that to stand for something, we have to stand against some things; that there are times when we have to say that to be part of a community, you must believe or do x, because that’s essential to this community.

This is a delicate, case-by-case process, in which more than one version is likely to be correct or reasonable. Some of us find the process so difficult that we’ll discard one or more.  But it is only by fitting this puzzle together, painstakingly assessing and reassessing how to do so, that we can hope to build a community that could stand again at Sinai, that could merit entering the land, each person under his or her vine and fig tree.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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