The Myth of Solidarity

Internal divisions always have been part of Judaism. They never doomed the Jewish people before, and they won't now.

Will internal divides destroy Judaism?

First, we must explode one myth: the myth of classical Jewish solidarity.We romanticize the unity of our forebears. Jews have always suffered frominternal divisions, at times far more drastic than today.

The Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that baseless hatred was responsible forthe destruction of the Temple. This is more than rabbinic hyperbole;remember that the Romans, who eventually destroyed the Jewish state, wereinvited in because the Jewscould not maintain peace among themselves. Once invited in, the Romansneverleft.

Though we do not like to recall it, Hanukkah is not only a triumph offreedom for Jewish practice. Hanukkah also recalls a war between differentJewish factions.

Inter-Jewish enmity did not end with the ancient world. The Middle Agessaw its share of divisiveness, and in the modern age the brutality of therhetoric between Hasidim and mitnagdim (who regularly excommunicated eachother and even burned each other's books) as well as the enmity between thetraditionalists and the maskilim (enlighteners) is shocking. Even insidethesame learned circles harmony did not always reign.

The great scholar Saul Lieberman was once asked whether there is any humorin the Talmud. "Yes" answered Lieberman, "the statement that scholarsincrease peace in the world."

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In modern times the State of Israel has become the focus of these conflicts. When political capitalis on the line, divisions take on a new resonance.

In the middle ages fights were limited by the scope the non-Jewishgovernment would permit. But as everyone knows, fights inside one's ownfamily have the ferocity offamiliarity; we are often kinder to strangers than to our own.

The unkindness to kin is what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. If aBuddhist practices something that is at odds with my faith, it does notthreaten me. But when someone whose practice is very close to minedeviates, it touches on the integrity of my self and my practice.

That is one powerful reason why members of a group fight over differenceswhich seemincomprehensible to those outside the group. Ethnic hatreds claim thousandsof lives over distinctions so subtle as to seem absurd. It is rather likethe Star Trek episode in which one race hates another because one is whiteon the left side of the face and black on the right, and the other is whiteon the right side of the face and black on the left.

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