Jewish unity

There hasn't been Jewish unity since our ancestors began writing some 3,000 years ago.

We can guess that Jewish literacy has something to do with Jewish creativity, individual capacity to express oneself freely, tolerance or enthusiasm for dispute, as well as economic success.

Roots of self doubt and being disputatious appear several places in the Hebrew Bible. Moses questioned God about the best way to leave Egypt, with God telling him to lie. Later Moses quarreled with the people he was leading, and expressed the inevitability of it by wishing that all could be prophets, i.e., deciding by themselves what messages they were receiving from the Almighty. Later prophets accused their competitors for misreading God's messages. Ezra demanded that Jews divorce wives of doubtful heritage, and did the politically conventional thing of appointing a committee when the Jews protested. It is not all that clear what the committee decided.

Jews never went the Roman Catholic route of appointing a supreme judge of theocratic matters. Israel has two Chief Rabbis, one for the Ashkenazim and one for the Sephardim, with the ultra-Orthodox not recognizing either of them. The various communities of ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform et al each demonstrate variations among their own rabbis, as well as what their congregations and individuals practice. 

A substantial number of Jews do not affiliate with any congregation, in a pattern apparent in history at least as far back as Judah Maccabee, who came on the world stage due to his violence toward Jews who Hellenized. That's an old word equivalent to what us moderns describe as "assimilated." A couple of hundred years later, Josephus wrote about fanatics battling those who identified with Rome. 

Every page of the Talmud reveals argument among the rabbis who created what serves as the basis of Judaism. Commentators have also argued about what the participants in those disputes concluded. A page of the Talmud shows the early record of Rabbinic discussions, surrounded by the commentaries of classical commentators, with additional commentaries going up to when the edition went to press. In order to decipher the layers of dispute, it is helpful to know Aramaic, and Hebrew as usage changed from various periods, and to be familiar with the script used by the commentator of the 11th century, referred to as  Rashi.

Judaism as a religion couldn't exist without those disputes about religious law, and how it should be interpreted. 

There's a rabbinic tale that Jews reach closest to God's will by arguing with one another before deciding anything important.

The cultural trait spills over to the culture of Jewish ethnics who never darken the door of a synagogue, and may be the best explanation for Jews' success in commerce, science, and the arts.

You want unity? Become a Muslim. There unity prevails, with danger for those who violate what others think are important ideas or ways of behaving.

The overall scorecard of Judaic and Muslim success is pretty clear, and it doesn't support discipline meant to avoid or to obliterate dispute.

No doubt that Jewish contrariness can rub raw.  It's one of the classic explanations of anti-Semitism, i.e., those Jews are always arguing; you can never tell what they think or what they'll do.

Currently a sizable number of Jews are inciting other Jews to disappointment, wonderment, anger, or outright hatred by joining Palestinians and other anti-Semites in their mindless accusations against Israel.

Many of those shrill Jews are academics, i.e., either faculty or students in colleges or universities.

They remind me of colleagues encountered over a long career-- what a few of my adversaries say is a career too long by far.

In virtually every faculty I've been associated with, either as member or visitor, there have been nutty people. Often the nuttiest were bright Jews who accepted no discipline of thought or expression. 

The best defense of one's sanity in such a context is the realization that the nuts are their own worse enemies. While some may applaud what they say and write, others dismiss them for being off the rails of civilized discourse.

That's the fate of Jews and others who accuse one of the most moral of countries for being the most immoral.

Few if any of them compare Israel's practice--with or without judging Israel in the context of the threats faced by Israel--to their own country, whether it be the US or any member of the European Union.

One of my friends and colleagues is far to the left of the Israeli median, often describing his own country as fascist. 

We once rode together during the Lebanon War that began in 1982. Both of served, my friend as a major and tank commander, me as a private in the lecture corps. He spoke at length, and with enthusiasm, about his military accomplishments, as well as his weekends on leave participating in anti-war rallies. 

I cut him some slack for his extreme views, given his actual behavior. Moreover, he spent part of his youth in a European monastery, put there by parents on their way to be killed. My own memories of the war are from a safe haven in New England, where my father was an air raid warden, patrolling streets against an invasion that never came.

We might count it as part of Jewish dispute that Dad was a patriotic American, who served in World War I, posted against members of Varda's family, who served their country as patriotic Germans.

This is Israel's Day to Remember the Holocaust. The candle that Varda lights for her Grandmother, Uncle and others, is burning in the other room. 

It's also a time to remember the New York Times, in the 1940s even more a Jewish-owned newspaper than today, which did what it could to bury developing news of the Holocaust in its inner pages.

Dispute, and occasional unpleasantness, are among the consequences of being a Jew. It's not all that different from the experience of Moses and all others over the years.

It's a lot better than what the Muslims get from their discipline and insistence of unity, especially when they are killing one another for the purpose of obtaining the unity that is elusive even for them.

Comments welcome

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
[email protected]