Yes to Limmud, no to holier-than-thou polarization

A Jew is a Jew; our numbers are very small; we need each other’s support, respect and love.

American Israel flag kippa 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
American Israel flag kippa 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
So let me get this straight.
Jonathan Rosenblum is against Orthodox rabbis attending Limmud in England, because the conference provides equal standing to all denominations of Judaism and includes lectures on Jewish culture, humor and even anti-Israel presenters.
Mr. Rosenblum: This is not 19th-century Germany, in which religious Jews founded new streams of Judaism as a way out of a religious lifestyle. It is 2013, and it is a shame that you and others who share your perspective don’t realize that millions of Jews in other streams are looking for a way in.
And, thank God, newly appointed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and other Orthodox rabbis (myself included) will appear at the Limmud Conference and any other place where people want to hear words of Torah.
I had a remarkable experience on Shabbat two weeks ago. An Orthodox rabbi in New York hosted me and some congregants of his, along with two Reform rabbis, one of whom brought along his wife and children. We talked about Israeli politics, sang zemirot and had in-depth discussions about the parsha.
Is there really “no theological common ground or meeting point” among those of us who gained so much from this Shabbat meal experience, as Mr.
Rosenblum argues? Is the “chasm” really “unbridgeable and absolute,” as he suggests? The remarkable Torah discussions in which we engaged prove otherwise.
Yehuda Avner, in his book The Prime Ministers, describes a beautiful scene which took place on May 15, 1948: “There were about 25 of us, armed with pickaxes, shovels and a dozen World War I Lee-Enfield rifles – an untrained, inglorious bucket brigade of diggers and hackers fortifying a narrow sector of Jerusalem’s western front… We’d heard that Iraqi irregulars were infiltrating Ein Kerem to join up with a Jordanian brigade coming up from Jericho. We were supposed to stop them… Grimy, exhausted diggers assembled in the glow of a hurricane lamp hanging on the door of a stone ruin, hidden from enemy view, to recite the Shabbat prayers…” “Someone then came and told them that David Ben-Gurion had declared the new state that afternoon. “‘Let’s drink to that,’ said Elisha, with delight breaking open the new bottle of wine and filling a tin mug to the brim. ‘A l’chaim to our new state, whatever its name!’ “‘Wait!’ shouted a hassid whom everybody knew as Nussen… a most diligent volunteer digger from Mea She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. ‘It’s Shabbat. Kiddush first.’ Our crowd gathered around him in a hush… he added the triumphantly exulted festival blessing [sheheheyanu] to commemorate this first day of independence – ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. Amen!’” Was the “chasm” between these secular soldiers, religious-Zionist soldiers and ultra-Orthodox soldiers “unbridgeable and absolute?” Was their ability to unify solely based on the secular Jews being in a “frame of mind to change their lives,” which Rosenblum implies is the only platform for unifying together? Every Tuesday, there is a beit midrash in the Knesset. Secular and religious Jews join together to study Torah. But not all religious Jews come.
No MKs from the haredi parties have ever come and seem to have no interest in attending – and this is a tragedy. It is tragedy born out of the holier- than-thou philosophy espoused by Rosenblum but masked as some sort of important and traditional ideology.
The Bible records that the Jews were camped around Mount Sinai, with the Talmud expounding that they were “like one person with one heart.” But then, as they traveled from Sinai, the Bible describes how each tribe had its own flag and special place to camp. Why were we creating such divisions after that massive show of unity? The answer is clear. Unity does not mean that we agree about everything. We are going to be different, as demonstrated by the different tribes and their individual flags. Unity means treating each other with basic respect despite our differences, and putting aside those differences in order to work together when we can. In the desert it was reflected by the rituals in the Tabernacle, which sat in the middle of the camp; in May 1948, it meant fighting together to save our country and people; this past Shabbat, for me, it meant enjoying a Shabbat meal, and at the Limmud Conference it will mean joining to study and discuss Torah.
There is a natural bond which all Jews must feel towards one another despite our differences. Morrie Schwartz, the professor dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease in Tuesdays With Morrie, told the story of “The Wave”: The waves were all out in the ocean bobbing up and down and having a great time. Suddenly, one of the waves said, “Why are we having fun? This is crazy. All the waves are crashing into the beach and disappearing. All is lost!” Another wave responded to him, “You are looking at this all wrong. We aren’t individual waves. We are part of the ocean…” All Jews are part of a unique ocean. We are on a national journey together. Every generation plays its role with different challenges and circumstances.
But we share the deepest of bonds, regardless of those differences in geography, culture – and even beliefs. No “chasm” is “unbridgeable” and the only thing that is “absolute” is our bond to one another, which no holier-than-thou ideology can break.
A story regarding the well-known Orthodox rabbi Aryeh Levin demonstrates the approach which Jews should have towards one another.
Levin was walking in his hometown, Jerusalem, when he noticed a familiar young soldier who was home on break from his military service.
“Hello,” said Levin, who was already an older man. “Please come to my home and share some tea with me. I would like to hear about what you are doing.”
The young soldier seemed uncomfortable and replied, “I don’t think it’s right for me to come visit you. I don’t even wear a kippa anymore.”
Rabbi Levin, wearing his black hat and long black coat, took the soldier’s hand into his own and with a smile on his face, he said: “Don’t you see? I’m very short. I cannot look above your head to see whether you are wearing a kippa or not.
However, I can see your heart and it is big and kind, and that’s what counts.”
Levin then paused and added, “You are also a soldier placing your life at risk for all of us in Israel.
Please drink tea with me – your ‘kippa’ is probably bigger than mine.”
A Jew is a Jew. Our numbers are very small. We need each other’s support, respect and love. Rejecting opportunities to join together – especially when the opportunity involves sharing words of Torah – is destructive and potentially catastrophic.
The Babylonian Talmud relates that when God came to destroy the Temple, the angels asked Him to put a mark on the heads of the righteous people so they could be saved. God replied that these “righteous people” will be the first to be punished because it was their responsibility to reach out to those who were unlike them and inspire.
God did not see a “chasm.” God saw nothing as “unbridgeable.” God did not assess whether they were “in a frame of mind to change their lives.”
I will be at the Limmud Conference and believe that God’s Presence will rest upon a gathering of Jews from all backgrounds, who will join together to discuss, debate and connect.
Mr. Rosenblum: I hope to see you there.
The writer is a Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party.