Growth through disagreement

Haredim (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
The more we are apart, the more likely we are to stray further apart. The more separation we seek, the more isolated we will be. We spend too much time defining who we are by convincing ourselves who we are not.
One of the issues that arose during the recent Gesher Media Mission to New York was the historic separation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams and where that relationship is headed today. There is clearly a great deal of antagonism around this subject, but over the past few years we have also seen some important changes.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his disciples certainly held/hold a strong line against the non-Orthodox streams, but I found the following quote from former Yeshiva University president Rabbi Dr.
Norman Lamm quite revealing.
It is always appealing (to me) to witness a great leader’s ability to embrace introspection: “If I treat a person with respect, it doesn’t necessarily mean I approve of what he or she is saying. When I was in the rabbinate ... I used to pound the pulpit and storm against Conservative and Reform and secular ideas and practices. In retrospect I think it may have been the wrong approach ... The only thing that happened as a result of all these anti-Conservative/ Reform/secular groups is that we have less people davening [praying] ... I like the idea of having Conservative day schools and Reform day schools....”
Frankly, I am not convinced that what a rabbi (as prominent as he may be) says at a pulpit has quite the effect that he assumes, but the idea that long-term efforts to limit Reform or Conservative legitimacy by the Orthodox actually reduces the level of Jewish commitment in all its forms should leave us with much to think about.
By denying a bar mitzva ceremony for special needs kids, has our president brought Jews nearer to their Jewish identity or perhaps (inadvertently) pushed them away? When a Shas minister expresses out loud (and on national radio) that he cannot refer to Reform Jews as Jews – does he sanctify God’s name, or perhaps, heaven forbid, do the opposite? On the other hand, we find a different perspective from the previous Shas religious services minister, Ya’akov Margi. When asked about the inevitable cooperation with the Reform and Conservative movements resulting from Shas joining the World Zionist Organization in 2010, he responded was that there were two different approaches to the issue.
“One theory holds that we cannot participate in congresses with them or vote with them on different issues, but the other school of thought holds that when Shas enters the WZO, it dilutes the influence of other movements, including Reform and Conservative.
That was the approach that was adopted.”
Without delving into the legitimate considerations of Shas joining the WZO, it is clear that when called for, a more pragmatic approach is possible. It goes without saying that we welcome support from non-Orthodox leaders of American Jewry when it comes to moral, political and financial support, and that this benefits all of Israeli society, including those between whom there exists a great ideological divide. However, this welcome does not extend within the borders of Israel, where there is no religious recognition by the State of Israel for the non-Orthodox streams. This is bound to be a source of tension, rather than unity.
Back in New York, we encountered a young rabbi working with a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) outreach organization spearheading an educational venture with a counterpart from the Union for Reform Judaism. The partnership centers on delivering follow-up for the returning alumni of Birthright and ensuring they find a place in the Jewish story. It was fascinating to see the combination of excitement and hesitation that was obvious on the faces of the two educators. Excitement at the idea of bringing more Jewish engagement to a wider audience, and hesitation, natural for a born and bred haredi rabbi facing the concept of working directly and openly with the Reform Movement. This, notwithstanding the anonymous support he received from a number of haredi rabbis and mentors, and publicly from Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the leading halachic authority of Yeshiva University.
These idealistic, sometimes risky, sometimes pragmatic approaches can teach us to spend much more time and effort defining who we are by who we want or ought to be, as opposed to who we are not.
In response to his own minister’s controversial comments, the prime minister has announced the creation of a roundtable to discuss strategic relations between Israel and the Diaspora. While this is to be welcomed, if it is meant to stymie rather than encourage discussion, it will end up doing more harm than good; if it is meant purely to bolster political support for Israel overseas, it will miss the mark. Here is an opportunity to launch a real dialogue and I would urge all to be engaged, even from a position of deep disagreement, and even including representatives of the haredi parties and communities.
Creating opportunities for meaningful dialogue between people of different backgrounds and identities not only affords us the opportunity to learn about the other’s identity, views and opinions, but it grants us a much needed opportunity to investigate in more depth our own worldview, our own identity.
Without investigating and questioning my own basic assumptions about life, I cannot grow.
Over-confidence in my own position does not lead to growth but arrogance and stagnation. Jews have always questioned and this exercise is best done with others, and especially with those we disagree with. If done with respect, both to one another and to our past, it can lead us to care jointly about our future.
The writer is chairman of Gesher and managing partner of Goldrock Capital.