One of the strong points of Jewish life throughout the centuries has been its lack of conformity - its diversity.
Diversity is far different than pluralism, which intimates that everybody and every belief (or lack of belief) is "right" and acceptable. Rather, Judaism and everyday Jewish life operated within a framework of belief in monotheism and the revelation at Sinai, the divinity of the Oral Law, the importance of traditions and customs and the tolerance of a flexible spectrum of actual observance of the commandments and rituals of the Torah.
Within this framework, there was still plenty of room for disputes, differing customs, halachic opinions and varying responses to the pressures and ideas of the far larger non-Jewish world in which Jews actually lived. Much of the time these debates and arguments were conducted in a civil and scholarly fashion.
However, there were always instances when the disagreements got out of hand and verbal and social abuse occurred, sometimes even accompanied by physical violence. This was especially true when new forces and ideas emerged, again all within the general framework of Judaism that I described above.
Thus the rise of the hassidic movement in 18th-century Eastern Europe, of Hirschian neo-Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany, of the yeshiva movement and later the Mussar movement that came to dominate the 19th and early 20th-century yeshivot, all were sources of argument, controversy and fierce debate within the ranks of traditional Ashkenazi Jewry. The great Jewish mantra that what common sense cannot accomplish, the passage of time eventually achieves, certainly proved true in all of these cases. All these matters have pretty much been settled, or reduced to scholarly debate and discussion.
The rise of Reform, Haskala and secular Zionism, however, created amuch deeper rift within the Jewish world. These movements were operating outside the framework of traditional Jewish thought, belief and practice. They denied the basic premises of millennia-old Jewish life. The Torah was no longer divine, the Oral Law was a fiction of the rabbis, observance of tradition and any forms of ritual was unnecessary - in effect, all of the previous generations of our ancestors were liars and fools.
Because of the radicalism inherent in these assertions, the opposition from the traditional camp to these new groupings within the Jewish people was fierce, prolonged and basically uncivil. In the rough and tumble practicality of human intercourse and society, insults beget insults and violence begets violence. Civilly conducted disagreement upon basic points of faith and definitions of Judaism and the Jewish mission in the world became almost nonexistent. These struggles spilled over secondarily into the traditional Jewish world as well, with great quarrels between rabbis, scholars and believers themselves.
There were many bitter disputes that occurred in Jewish history before the rise of the radical movements within Jewish life of the modern era. The Sadducees, Karaites and false messiahs all engendered fierce opposition in the Jewish world. Again, this was because of the radicalism of these ideas and movements and of the threat they posed to traditional Jewish beliefs and way of life.
But the tradition of civil dispute was greatly undermined by the split within traditional Jewry over the Zionist movement. Religious Zionism became the main focal point of dispute within traditional Eastern European Jewry in the years before World War II. The deeply held convictions on both sides and the looming importance of the issue intensified the debate and sharpened the means by which it was being held.
The ideological and social disputes of the past became entrenched in the political party system of the State of Israel. The pressure of constant elections and the struggle for power, patronage and budget allocations, which is the stuff of modern-day democratic electioneering, soured the hopes for civil disagreement in our country. Negative campaigning, smears and innuendos, populist slogans and public relations, spin doctors and pollsters created an atmosphere that does not easily allow for a true debate of programs and policies.
Instead, a shouting match ensued, one that has lasted for the entire 57 years of the existence of our state. The Torah allowed for civil debate and disagreements. But it always came to remind us that "its ways are the ways of pleasantness."
As we embark on the current election campaign here in Israel, we would do well to remind ourselves that our country needs a good deal of "pleasantness," and attempt to have a civil discussion of the issues, even though there are great disagreements about them and the possible solutions to our problems.