Jewish Infighting

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Greatest Terror of Them All


   In your library there is a book by Samuel Freedman called: Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. That book was published before September 11, 2001. Therefore it is possible that the horror of that Arab attack upon us will once more moderate the hatred and antagonisms of Jews against other Jews as described by Freedman. If so, then such moderation is to be welcomed. Like all Americans, Jews have felt a need for unity when under attack. It is nevertheless a sorry state of affairs within the Jewish community that only the hatred of outsiders, the physical threat that comes from our enemies, drives us together.

   At the time that Freedman wrote his book, the Oslo accords were still taken seriously by some Jews and there was then an appearance that the Palestinians were finally ready to accept the existence of Israel. Since then we have learned that the Palestinians and their supporters were not really interested in a state as offered them by Prime Minister Barak, but that they were only interested in murdering Jews.

   There is then the possibility that the intra-Jewish fighting has lessened somewhat as the Arab atrocities have increased. Yet, our fundamental differences, according to Freedman, remain.

   First there is the endless dispute between secular Jews and religious Jews. This dispute centers around the question, “who is a Jew”? The orthodox American Jews reject the notion that a Jew is anyone who says he is a Jew. To Torah-true Jews a Jew is someone who lives an orthodox life and who is committed to the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah. Such a Jew also accepts the Talmudic interpretations of Jewish religious life. Many such Jews wear black clothing as prescribed by the sumptuary laws of the Middle Ages. Many wear beards and earlocks and some have “tzitsit” or fringes visibly protruding under their jackets or shirts. Some orthodox women wear a wig because they cut their natural hair to a minimum. All eat only kosher food and generally appear to differ from mainstream America in appearance, in beliefs and in life style.

   All of this annoys some secular Jews so much that not long ago a Cleveland, Ohio Catholic judge was called upon by orthodox Jews to order the suburb of Beachwood, Ohio to allow the construction of an orthodox Jewish community center and yeshivah. The town board and the mayor of Beachwood, who had refused a building permit for the yeshivah,  are all Jews. They argued that they did not want “the black beards” in their neighborhood. The Christian judge decided that religion cannot be used in this country to prevent someone from building a school. The secular Jews of Beachwood evidently didn’t know about the freedom of religion and separation of church and state doctrine in this country.

   Not to be outdone in their prejudice against other Jews by the secularists, the orthodox let is be known that non-orthodox Jews are no Jews at all. At least, so said the Agudath Harabonim, the association of rabbis of the ultra orthodox who declared in 1997 that Conservative and Reform Jews, making up two thirds of American Jewry, are “not Judaism.”

   Having convinced themselves of their own superiority and having placed themselves into the position of judges the “haredim” or “shakers” of Israel now engaged in physical attacks upon American conservative Jews who had come to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray. The conservatives had women among them. Seeing this, the orthodox Jews at the Wall threw various objects at the conservatives as they read the Torah and even used a fire hose to drive water on the American visitors during their reciting of the prayers. Physical violence became so intense that the police had to insure the safety of the conservative congregation.

   This then led the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a conservative institution in New York, to call the orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel “dysfunctinal and without a scintilla of moral worth.”

   Thereupon the orthodox fired back that the conservatives are “haters of God.”  Meanwhile, some secularists and orthodox have decided to establish their own financial appeals in the New Israel Fund on the secular side and the One Israel Fund on the orthodox side because neither wants to support the Untied Jewish Appeal lest the money support the other Jews.

  The essence of the arguments between us, says the author Freedman, is whether Judaism is enhanced by plurality or whether Jewishness is adherence to religion. There are those who predict that we are so divisive that we will not survive another generation. There are those who claim that the Reform are to blame because, according to some Jews, the Reform are nothing more than imitation Protestant Christians.

   Those who have never been at a Reform service may believe that, but they are wrong. We visited Temple Beth Zion on a recent Friday night and had a wonderful, Jewish Shabbat experience then and there. The two rabbis and the cantor at Beth Zion created a truly Hebrew/Jewish traditional Friday night service including music, including all aspects of our Shabbat traditions, all within the framework of the Reform approach. As a conservative Jew I could see that Reform is the essence of Judaism. So is orthodoxy. I have repeatedly attended orthodox services on Shabbat and found that the orthodox are the essence of Judaism. 

  Recently, we visited Williamsburg, Va. and found that there is only one synagogue there. We attended the Reconstructionist “shul” on Friday night and found that Reconstruction represents the essence of what is Jewish.

   We attend Temple Sharey Zedek every week. It is surely conservative and there I find the essence of Judaism in the ceremonies, in the sermons and in the ever present fellowship.

    Diversity is our strength because it allows all of us to be Jews by many routes. It is in diversity that our survival must be rooted. Total agreement on religious issues is impossible. Any effort to use force or violence to bring on such agreement leads only to hatred and delusions of superiority.

   It is precisely the wish to do away with all differences of opinion and to force the world into one view and one life style that motivates all terrorists from Hitler to Arafat. The Moslem fanatics of today seek to bomb the world into Islam. Crazed by religious fanaticism, they hate whoever disagrees. They hate Israel for being Jewish. They hate Christians and impose the death penalty on Christian missionaries. In India the Moslems attack Hindus and burn Hindu temples to the ground. In Indonesia the 99% Moslem community has persecuted the small Christian community mercilessly. In the Sudan, the Moslem government sells Christians into slavery; in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt the Coptic Christians live in the mausoleums in the Cairo cemetery while earning their living by ransacking the city garbage dump for food.

   Innumerable additional examples of Moslem intolerance can be cited. They all reflect an attitude that will not allow diversity and seeks to enforce conformity by brutality, leading only to bloodshed and hatred.

   The Jewish view is exactly the opposite. We have never taught that the world must become Jewish.    We do not even proselytize. We accept converts gladly but we do not hold other religions in contempt. On the contrary. The Jewish view is that non-Jews are as righteous as we and that we have no edge on decency or kindness or goodness. Others are always our equals in virtue.

    Yet, we fight each other. We have already forgotten that Hitler cared not one whit whether his Jewish victims were secular, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Zionists, etc. etc.  He and his Nazis, including the Arab Nazis of yesterday and today, see only Jews. Therefore and in the name of our common descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from Sara, Rachael, Leah, and Rebecca let us stop the hatred now. Let those of us who read this never say another ugly word against another Jew or his beliefs. Is it not written: “Kol Yirael Chaverim”, “all Jews are brethren” even when there is no threat of annihilation? How much more must we keep those words in mind now. So make a pledge. Say this to yourself. “The next time I feel I need to attack another Jew I will pretend that Arafat will hear what I am about to say.” Then also remember the famous “categorical imperative” of Immanuel Kant: “Act as if that which you are about to do will become universal law as soon as you have done it.”

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.

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