One of the greatest threats facing the Jewish people today is not antisemitism, even though we are now living through one of the worst Jew-hating periods in our history. It is also not the large degree of deficiency in Judaic knowledge, even though so many Jews would struggle to recite the basic tenets of our beliefs.
The biggest threat that I am more concerned about than any of the other typical menaces is the lack of unity among the Jewish people.
All of us have been following the protests that have riled Israel over the past year. I have personally found myself on more than one occasion affected by the protests. Whether I was attending a government function or just traversing the streets of Israel, it was impossible to ignore. To be honest, I have a broad collection of friends and when engaged in real conversation, I have found compelling arguments on both sides. Unfortunately, we are also witnessing a lack of ongoing real communication. Shouting has become the norm, even among friends.
What has shaken me to the core is that like a raging forest fire, embers have flown off and set other things ablaze. We are witnessing major conflicts between religious and secular Jews. Conflicts between religious Jews and religious Jews. Conflicts among secular Jews and secular Jews. Any type of Jew one can think of has gotten caught up in protest fervor and started shouting at another. We have forgotten how to talk to one another. We have forgotten how to embrace one another. We have forgotten how to argue with one another.
When Jews fight Jews: Forgetting how to argue
The Talmud is filled with arguing. Rabbis are constantly fighting with one another to find the pathway to the Almighty. Yet all the rabbis would walk out of the study hall in harmony and know that they were part of the same nation. It was only during periods of infighting among our people that true calamity struck. There is literally nothing more powerful in the world than a unified Jewish nation. The converse is also true. When the Jewish people are filled with infighting, there is never a more fragile and destructive time in the world.
Many years ago I led the largest international Jewish youth movement. It was at a time when the Internet was skyrocketing as the place to be and people were discovering that their voices could be heard around the world. One individual decided that the youth group I led was a danger to the world, and would attack us weekly with all kinds of terrible accusations. My approach was to adopt the philosophy of Mark Twain: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” So I ignored his tirades.
One time he wrote some really nasty untruths about us. I felt I just couldn’t let it go. But instead of fighting back on his platform, I reached out and invited him to coffee. This totally went against my gut and I was sure it wouldn’t amount to anything yet I was at the end of my rope. To my surprise, he quickly accepted and we met at a Starbucks near NYU.
We were both apprehensive at the beginning of the meeting. He asked if we could be “on the record.” I suggested that we talk off the record and at the end, if he wanted to be on the record, we could do that. We surprisingly found common ground rather quickly. I explained a lot of what we did and why we did it. I admitted that in the past we had made mistakes but showed him how we had corrected many of those historical missteps. We even discussed a WWII documentarian whom we both admired.
At the end of our talk, I offered to go on the record and he said that there was no need. We agreed to speak if other issues came up and walked away with an understanding of each other. We may not have agreed on everything but we were able to remove the demonization that was plaguing his view. We did this together. We could have only done this together. He stopped his attacks and moved on to other issues.
My friends, it pains my heart to no end that Jews are losing the ability to talk to one another. Jews should be able to disagree on issues but by the end of the conversation, we should be able to love one another. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. No one is perfect. In spite of imperfection, we can love one another. Today we all live in communities, both online and in person, where we tend to spend most of our time with people with whom we see eye-to-eye. We have forgotten how to disagree and love those with whom we disagree.
I will make a few radical points and I hope you will forgive me. The Orthodox Jewish community has become extremely large and successful over the past few decades. It has also become incredibly insular.
THE ORTHODOX Jewish community must stop speaking only to itself and start speaking to all Jews. We must embrace our fellow Jews as only a family member would. Our conversations should be agenda-free and free-flowing.
That we adhere to differing levels of religious observance does not mean that we cannot find common ground on which to communicate. This is also true for secular Jews who sometimes view Orthodox Jews as having a chip on their shoulder. Orthodox Jews want to know you. We must give each other a chance.
My beloved friends, at this point, from my vantage point, I am looking at a dysfunctional family. A family who has lost the ability to communicate. A family who doesn’t know how to disagree and hug at the end. A family that cannot find the tools to embrace one another. We must fix this or the Jewish people will have a dark future. You must fix this.
This is all of our shared responsibility. We will all soon be standing in front of the Almighty on Rosh Hashanah. We must beseech Him to aid us in our quest for unity. We must show Him that we have done our part. We must show Him that we love every Jew. We must show Him that we understand that we can never accept a broken, disunited Jewish nation.
Please make a list of actions that you can personally take toward Jewish unity. Share your plans to unify the Jewish people. Share them with your friends and family and ask them to make their own lists. May the Almighty grant us the strength to rectify this situation and the courage to make a difference.
The writer, a rabbi, is the CEO of Aish. He also serves on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, as an executive board member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and board member of Yeshiva University High Schools and Naaleh High School.