February 28, 2020

Parting of the Ways? Haftarat Vayigash, Ezekiel 37:15-28

Two Jews, three opinions, says the adage. But in this week’s Haftarah, God promises to fix things:

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in My hand.

That promise remains unfulfilled, to put it mildly. The Jewish people is not close to becoming one in God’s hand: we cannot agree on just about anything, be it theology, or ritual, or politics, or even who is a Jew. Conservative writer Michael Medved was surely correct when, several years ago, he observed that Jews can only agree on one thing: we are not Christian.

At some level, such argument represents a healthy development. Spiritually productive religious civilizations generate heresies. Jewish tradition celebrates argument, even holding that dissents must be recorded for use as persuasive authority by other courts (Eduyot 1:5-6). In the celebrated formulation, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue about just about every aspect of Jewish law, with the conclusion being that, “these and those are the words of the living God.” (Eruvin 13b)

But it continued that “the law follows Hillel.” At some point a ruling authority must make a decision. To put it more precisely, sides might continue to argue, but there must be an agreed-upon method of making decisions. The legal theorist “>Yale Law School’s Scott Shapiro has argued (persuasively, in my view), that a Rule of Recognition is not strictly speaking a rule so much as a commitment to a plan of action. Put another way, no formal decision rule can survive unless accompanied by a series of value-laden informal norms.

That seems to put us right back where we started. The failure to agree on substance cannot yield a purely procedural result, because procedural rules have substantive consequences. (No wonder Israel lacks a constitution).

“> the Mussar tradition attempts to inculcate in us. The dialogue will not seek to establish consensus or agreement, but will insist on the manifestation of intellectual and moral virtues central to Jewish tradition. Such a search and eventual dialogue may not repair the schism, but it will bring about the best in all sides. In order to see why this might be true, let us consider the relevant middot.

Generosity. We must assume the best about our interlocutors’ intentions. It is very easy to discern a hidden agenda in the statements of those with whom we disagree (I know this because I have a bad habit of doing it). Writings, statements, and even actions by others must be seen, to use a legal commonplace, in the light most favorable to the doer.

Generosity also requires us to work creatively in reaching out. On a plane flight a couple of years ago, I found myself sitting next a very frum rabbi whose day job was inspecting food production for the Orthodox Union. We got to talking, and he mentioned “>Nashuva has attracted hundreds of people to her Shabbat services. He praised her, and said she “is a quite a dynamic…uh…rabbinic…figure.”

It was quite a moving moment for me, because I realized that he just could not bring himself to call a woman a “rabbi.” But he was searching for something that would allow him to honor her yet maintain integrity to his own vision of Judaism. I try to keep this rabbi’s tentative and halting words whenever I confront beliefs that discomfit me.

Non-defensiveness. Judaism demands politeness (“do not whiten the face of your fellow,” instructs the Talmud) but it virtually never permits dishonesty. The Tochacha, or rebuke, serves a key function in Jewish religious dialogue: “You shall certainly rebuke your comrade, and you shall not bear sin on his account.” (Vayikra 19:17). Such an emphasis puts a responsibility on the critic, but an even greater burden on the recipient, namely, to take criticism as an opportunity for learning and growth. If someone criticizes my practice of Judaism, I need to listen and consider carefully the merits of the critique. That is hard because one’s spiritual life is very personal: of course I would take it personally! But no learning can occur otherwise.

Curiosity. Before we can criticize, we must learn. And in order to learn, we must actually want to learn. Curiosity is not generally regarded as a moral virtue; most Mussar texts do not list it as a middah that we need to cultivate. It is inherent, however, in the crucial middah of humility. If we are truly humble, then we recognize the vast universe of crucial truths that we do not know. And if they are crucial truths, then we must learn them. Maximal Jewish unity, then, might not require compromise, but it does demand a genuine desire to learn from those who oppose us.

This middah is rarer than one might think. “>Parting Of The Ways, as occurred between Judaism and Christianity in the late 1st century. At the very least, when we part, we will be the best separate religions that we can be, and by staying in dialogue, we will prepare ourselves for the time in which God brings us together.