This past July, the American Jewish Committee released a survey comparing opinion in the United States and Israel. In key areas ranging from politics to prayer, from prime ministers to presidents, from peoplehood to peace processing, large gaps separate American Jews from their Israeli counterparts. An article about the survey on The Forward website was headlined, “The end of the Jewish people is here.”
The results, according Natan Sharansky, past-chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Gil Troy, a scholar of North American history at McGill University, provide a snapshot of the Jewish people, clashing frequently, arguing intensely, but for the most part unwilling to go their separate ways.
This, of course, is nothing new to Jews. Our history is replete with instances of one group of Jews trying to out-shout another perspective. The prophets and the priests had little love for each other and, of course, the prophets and the ancient kings of Israel were at loggerheads for centuries. The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essences wrestled with each other for dominance and power for the first two centuries of the Common Era. More than 1,000 years, later the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim accused each other of heresy. The enlightenment of the late 19th century would eventually lead to Jewish denominationalism and its opponents. The list is endless; we are a people who revel in argument and the need to prove the correctness of our opinions.
Even in our little village of Ottawa, we find room and oxygen to argue over such issues as the Shabbat closing of the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, the necessity for full-time Jewish education, the place of the Jewish community in the greater community response to reconciliation, poverty and homelessness, and myriad other issues some find extremely important and others simply reject as not in our interest.
In the Mishnah, Hillel the Elder is quoted as saying that argument for the sake of Heaven is worthwhile. But when the argument is about what constitutes Heaven, how do we proceed?
We proceed by accepting that there are multiple truths in our reality. Multiple truths suggests that there is no truth, but that is false syllogism. Multiple truths suggests that individuals perceive events and circumstances from many different perspectives and that their starting points may lead to divergent end points.
For example, historically, when North American Jews were mostly helping Israel by sending cheques, Israel’s Orthodox religious authority on issues such as marriage, conversion and other aspects of personal and civil status, may have been annoying to those living outside the land, but was ignored as irrelevant by most Western Jews. However, following the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War when North American Jews started to turn to Israel to solve their identity problems, Israel’s slighting of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism suddenly stung more deeply and came to be more resented.
Conversely, as Israelis needed less money but more help to fight boycott threats and UN sanctions, Jewish criticism of Israeli policies became more pointed and more resented by those criticized.
The interdependence – both new and unfamiliar to both Israelis and North American Jews – raises the emotional temperature of their dialogue. Both Israelis and Western Jews are correct in their beliefs, if we acknowledge the world in which they live. Israelis are struggling for physical survival and unity appears to extremely important to them. North American Jews are struggling with spiritual and communal survival and pluralism appears to be essential.
We can hold divergent views. We can even hold divergent truths if we are prepared to acknowledge that different circumstances and different cultural challenges produce the beliefs and underpin the actions of each member of the family. If, however, we continue to believe that there is only one path to walk and that it is my way or the highway, then we will never find the argument that is for the sake of Heaven.