Beliefnet
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."

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.

Inter-group rivalries are an enduring part of thehuman condition. When you add political power, and the certainty on thepart of some that they are standard bearers for what the Author of theUniverse demands of us, the brew is incendiary at best, annihilating atworst.

Judaism has sought to minimize infighting in many ways. The tefillin (theleather straps and boxes worn in prayer) were taken to be symbolic: thereare four compartments on the box affixed to one's head, a single compartmentin the box affixed to one's arm. Tradition taught that the differencesymbolized that although thoughts must be free, action must reflectsolidarity. For much of Jewish history, repression coupled withideology has led to a higher degree of solidarity than might otherwise bethe case.

But this creative, contentious and ancient people has always fought and willalways fight. What we need to regulate is not the fight but the forms ittakes. Internal divisions will not likely destroy Judaism, but leave itweakened, and drive away many who might otherwise be attracted by therichness of its spiritual legacy.

Devotion to our history and sacred texts is a powerful common denominator.If we manage to produce an educated generation of Jews, Jews who understandour culture, the very different assumptions we make about that culture willnot be determinative. What will matter in the end is what the Rabbisreferred to as the many sided mirror of the Torah: even though to each of usit reflects a different face, each is a spark of the same God.

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