The Jewish community seems constantly engaged in battle. Aside from the normal friction that is part of any group dynamic, we also experience prolonged and bitter ideological conflicts. The Left insults the Right, and vice versa. Some Orthodox groups denounce the Reform movement, and vice versa. One group rejects another kosher supervision and that group rejects the first’s treatments of converts. And so on and so on.
The discord is frustrating and exhausting. These are good people with good intentions, all trying to do the right thing. Yet they fight with a stubbornness that continues to disappoint our desire for harmony. Why can’t we all get along? A community divided against itself cannot stand. Why can’t we put our disagreements to the side and focus on the many areas on which we agree? While reading a recent biography, it occurred to me that there is another way to look at this, a perspective in which this phenomenon is something for which we should be grateful.
The Mishnah (Avos 5:21) says that a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? If people are truly sincere, they should be able to resolve their differences. Their disagreement should not endure. Yet the Mishnah states that it will last. I found an answer while reading Hillel Halkin’s recent biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the famous Zionist leader (Jabotinsky: A Life).
In the early twentieth century, when Zionist activity was at its pre-State peak, Jabotinsky was a passionate advocate of armed defense. He envisioned Jews fighting for their rights, establishing local self-defense patrols and an active underground army in British-controlled Palestine. His movement, the forerunner of the Likud party in Israel, determinedly sought broad representation, if not domination, in the World Zionist Organization. This put Jabotinsky in direct competition with David Ben Gurion, whose party ultimately won control.
What struck me while reading this account was the level of vitriol in this dispute. These two great leaders, both of whose goal was establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel, harshly denounced each other’s ideas. Not only was the rhetoric heated but there was actual physical violence. Halkin writes (p. 181):
Groups of demonstrators interrupted and heckled both men. Violent brawls were frequent. In Warsaw, Ben-Gurion was attacked with Revisionist stink bombs and bricks; in Brisk, Jabotinsky was stoned by a Labor Zionist mob. The level of invective was fierce. Jabotinsky called the Zionist Left “lackeys of Moscow.” Ben-Gurion referred to him as “Vladimir Hitler”…
Why the nastiness and infighting? Jews are a tiny minority in the world and, among them, Zionists are a small group. These disputants all agreed on so much yet they magnified their differences, dwelling on the areas of dispute rather than points of convergence. Why couldn’t the Zionists get along?
While thinking about this, it occurred to me that we need to look deeper. Rather than focusing on the disputes, we need to think about the reason for the disagreements. Certainly, there was an element of personality but I think the primary reason is simple: they cared. Both Ben Gurion’s and Jabotinsky’s followers cared deeply about their Zionism. The stakes were very high–a Jewish homeland–and these people were so involved, had so much of their being invested in these issues, that they magnified every point of disagreement. Their conflicts were not due to a lack of care for other Jews but because they cared so much. Passion, not stubbornness, is the basis of ardent ideological debate.
So too, today, the people who fight care just as much as the Zionists of yesteryear, even if they are less violent. Passion seeds our disputes. We care so much about our issue that we see loss as failure with profound consequences. Whatever the issue is–education, Torah, equality–we embrace it with such passion that this leads to discord. We fight because we care.
To some degree, we should be happy about this. No, I don’t like nasty rhetoric, denunciations or fistfights, and I am certainly not calling for more of them. However, I see infighting as a sign that we can overcome the greatest threat to Judaism today. Some see intermarriage as the primary enemy of Jewish continuity. Others see Jewish illiteracy as the culprit. I believe it is apathy.
Too many people simply don’t care enough about Judaism to even make an effort. At most, they identify as a Jew, some only when it is necessary or convenient. And even those who identify as Jews are often so distracted by media, so glued to their screens, that their Judaism is only a passing thought. People who fight about Judaism care about it. Those who debate the most ferociously about Jewish ideology are those care so deeply about it that they have intertwined these issues with their own identity.
We need more people who care deeply about Judaism. We are losing souls to apathy. Thank God, we still have some fighters left among us. They are the future of Judaism.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.