By Rabbi Baruch Cohon
LOS ANGELES — No, my friends, this is not about any election results. This is about our Jewish community, and about akhdus. Akhdus means Unity. It is a very elusive goal. Why is that? What’s the problem?
For one thing, we tend to be tangled in various snares in our thinking.
Myth: “In the Old Country/ In the Old Days, everyone was observant.” Reality: Religious observance, even belief, was always somewhat subjective. Maybe more so in one generation, less in another. But always people will select observances that are valuable to them, and reject others. Some turn their backs on religion altogether.
Inevitably, what is religiously correct to one person can be just as incorrect to another. When my father z”l was a boyhood Yeshiva student in Minsk, if he asked a question that his teacher didn’t want to answer, the teacher told him: “Sheygetz, freg keyn kashes nit!” (Little Gentile, don’t ask questions!) That teacher was telling him that by that question, young Simha was religiously incorrect.
When my Reform colleagues decided not to admit me to the CCAR (the American Reform rabbinical organization), even though the request for my admission came from the HUC/LA Campus where I was teaching at the time, they were telling me that I was religiously incorrect because my own rabbinical ordination was Orthodox.
Political correctness, we all know, involves a good deal of blame-throwing. I once heard a caller on a radio talk show state that “conservatives think liberals are wrong; but liberals think conservatives are evil.” Obviously that caller was a conservative. A liberal caller might well use that very statement as evidence that conservatives are “mean-spirited.”
Religious correctness can involve equally violent invective, and not only invective but action – from the Born Again who shoots an abortionist, to the Muslim who torches a Hindu shrine, or the Satmar who stones Sabbath breakers in Jerusalem, or the leftwing rabbi who demonstrates for BDS.
When my children were small, one of them had a friend across the street named Howard. One day my son asked me: “Daddy, are we more Jewish than Howard?” I explained that we and Howard’s family were equally Jewish, but that didn’t satisfy my boy. He insisted that we were more Jewish. Why? Because we lit candles on Friday night and we went to shul and Howard’s family didn’t. Was 5-year-old Howard religiously incorrect? Were his parents?
Unlike other religions, Judaism is not a matter of correctness. It is not a matter of degree. Either you are Jewish or you are not. It is part of a total identity which is both national and religious. We define it in narrower terms at our great peril. The Jew who sinned is still a Jew.
Sages in the Talmud disagreed with each other consistently, like the schools of Hillel and Shammai. But the verdict comes down: Eylu va-eylu divrey Elokim khayim – “This opinion and that one are both the words of the living G-d.” The lesson here is as profound as it is simple: we don’t have to agree, but we have to work together.
Stubborn struggle for an extreme goal endangers whatever future we have as a people. The present is always precarious and the future is only partly in our hands. So we need to recognize that we may somehow bring Moshiach (the Messiah) a few steps closer, but we cannot create Utopia. Because Utopia is different to different people. For the leftist, Utopia might be Anschluss with the Arabs, and a female-led religion with total acceptance of intermarriage and homosexuality. For the rightist, Utopia may be an Arabless Israel with no Dome of the Rock or el Aksa mosque – so the Temple can be rebuilt; and a passionately pious Jewry throughout the world. Clearly, these two extremes are mutually exclusive. The only way we’ll build a future for our people is to subordinate extreme goals to a reality that accepts differences among us.
Would it not make sense for Aguda and Chabad and Aish haTorah rabbis to sit on Boards of Rabbis with female Reform rabbis and secular Reconstructionists and revisionist Conservative rabbis and lenient Modern Orthodox rabbis, somehow to find some policy, some position, some message of unity for our lost and turned-off generation? It seems as if only in times of danger or catastrophic tragedy can we pull together. That condition has to change.
I refuse to believe that we learned nothing from 5,000 years of history.
Rabbi Baruch Cohon is a practicing rabbi and cantor in the greater Los Angeles area. You can write him at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit his website at blog.cantorabbi.com.