Jewish Diversity & Unity

June 20, 2012
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Published in Jewish Action on 20th June 2012

The beauty of creation, as we believe and as science ever more wondrously shows, is that Unity above creates diversity below, and the more complex the life form, the greater the diversity. The Rambam (Moreh haNevuchim 2: 40) says that though diversity applies to all life forms, it applies more to humans than any other. To which one must surely add: and among Jews more than most.

No small people is more diverse, ethnically, culturally, attitudinally and religiously – and the more religious, the more diverse. There was hardly a Jewish settlement in the Middle Ages without its own minhagim and piyyutim. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century each hassidic group and yeshivah had its own style, its own niggunim, its own derekh ha-limmud, its own role models, its own spiritual tonality. The way of Ger was not that of Chabad; that of Volozhyn not that of Mir.

Diversity is a sign of strength not weakness. As R. Yechiel Michel Epstein notably said in the introduction of Aruch haShulkhan to Choshen Mishpat: in the very last of the 613 commands, the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah, Moses uses not the word Torah but shirah, because in this respect Torah is like music, that its greatest beauty lies in complex harmonies. Or as the Netziv writes in his commentary to the Tower of Babel, uniformity of thought is not a sign of freedom but its opposite.

Almost everything I read in Torah, Tanach and Torah shebe’al peh seems to say likewise. Judaism is the only religion I know, all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments: arguments between God and humans, humans and God, humans and one another. The Mishnah preserves the arguments of the Sages even when it knows that the law is like one not the other. The greatest work ever undertaken to eliminate argument from its pages was the Mishneh Torah, and it gave rise to more arguments than any other.

So difference, argument, clashes of style and substance, are signs not of unhealthy division but of health. The Judaism of Torah, Emunah and Halakhah continues to do what it has done for so long: to defeat the law of entropy that states, all systems lose energy over time. Not Judaism. Where you find argument, there you will find passion.

What then is the proper response to the current situation? First, not to take too seriously the fact that someone delegitimates you. When this happens, the only thing to do is to remember Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s dying words: halevai sheyehei morah Shamayim alecha kemorah bassar ve-dam. Would that you worried about what God thinks instead of worrying about what another rabbi thinks.

Second, to maintain your own position without criticising others. There have been moments, thankfully few, when things I have said have been interpreted that way: if so I apologise. The truth is: hamoser din al chavero hu ne’enash techilah. One who passes judgment on his fellow is judged first. It is not necessary to negate in order to affirm.

All that is necessary to achieve Ahavat Yisrael is to remember daily that Hashem loves us – all of us together, despite our differences, failings and disagreements.

Hashem loves and forgives. Let us love and forgive.