Is Jewish Unity Even Possible?

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When I was approached in regard to being a member of Jewish Values Online's Panel of Scholars, I was very excited about the idea. I have always felt that the false, monolithic presentation of modern Judaism and Jewishness that dominates our community’s consciousness, rather than fostering Jewish identity and strengthening Jewish unity, actually has the opposite effect. Contrary to what may be the general populist opinion that we should avoid marking differences within the Jewish world, this circumvention of the truth actually, in my opinion, only weakens Jewish commitment of any nature and advances disunity. So here was a website that was going to be honest in presenting the truth about the divergence in thought and belief that exists within the Jewish world. Rabbis from the different branches of Judaism – from variant and even opposing theological perspectives – would be asked the same question. From the disparity in the answers, and even clash in fundamental principles, which would emerge, individuals would, then, be able to recognize the true nature of the divergence in religious thought that exists within the Jewish world. Knowledge of the true nature of modern Jewishness would expand and I was happy to be part of it.

Individuals, however, did question my involvement. Through being involved with Jewish Values Online was I not, thereby, supporting a forum for the presentation of ideas, beliefs and concepts with which I fundamentally disagree? Was I even, thereby, also giving tacit approval to these perspectives? My response was straightforward. Allowing someone to honestly voice their viewpoint does not mean that I, in anyway, am in agreement with this perspective. What it does mean is that I believe that it is important for this viewpoint to be truthfully presented for, otherwise, it could be understood incorrectly – and cause greater problems thereby. This is, in fact, what I believe is occurring within the broad Jewish world. The vast majority of Jews do not understand the nature of our diversity – but the greater problem is, actually, that we think we do. How can we promote Jewish identity when we don’t really know what terms such as even ‘Jewish’ and ‘Torah’, mean today within the breadth of their present divergent meanings? How can we foster Jewish unity when we don’t even understand the nature of the unique and dissimilar parts that need to be unified? People believe that they can solve the problems that face the Jewish world through the application of their monolithic understanding of Jewishness – which they further believe that all Jews really share. Nothing is further from the truth – and from what is actually necessary.
To illustrate, let us look at the simple word ‘Torah’. We would assume that everyone who may use this word would mean the same idea but is that really the case? True the word could refer to the actual written text of the Five Books of Moses and to the general corpus of Jewish religious thought but my point actually extends beyond this. One person could recognize both such meanings in his/her use of the term but what I am referring to is the case of two different understandings of the term employed by two different individuals, each one, furthermore, rejecting the other’s definition.. Some years ago, for example, I heard the presentation of a Reform rabbi in support of same-sex marriages. At the time, Canada had not yet legalized same-sex marriages but this rabbi, it seemed, as an adamant supporter of this cause, had begun to perform them, in any event, because he believed that the ‘Torah’ demanded it of him to do so. While, he admitted, Jews do generally have to follow the law of the land, there are cases, he argued, where a Jew should not do so if such practice is in contravention of a ‘Torah’ directive – and, to him, this was such a case; the ‘Torah’ demanded his officiation of same-sex marriages. After the talk, individuals in the audience came over to me to question the rabbi’s language. How could he refer to his support of same-sex marriages as the ‘Torah’ position, especially given the many textual references in the Bible and Talmud that would seem to challenge such a viewpoint?
I explained to these individuals that this rabbi was simply applying a Reform understanding of the word of ‘Torah’, in this case referencing the broad Reform theological perspective of Judaism. He was making a presentation that reflected his theological beliefs, which he termed ‘Torah’, which were obviously different than the theological underpinnings of Orthodox Judaism which I would, within my language of communication without further explanation, also refer to as ‘Torah’. Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism do not simply disagree on issues of practice while maintaining a general agreement in regard to underlying principles of the faith. The truth is actually the opposite. It is the significant theological distinctions that usually explain the disagreements in practice. The corollary, however, does not automatically hold true. Similarity in practice does not necessarily mean overlap in theology. The overall result and reality is two (or more) truly different meanings to the word ‘Torah”.
As such, when a Reform rabbi makes a reference to ‘Torah’, he/she is simply making reference to his/her theological beliefs in the same way that an Orthodox rabbi uses the word to reference his theological beliefs. Just as these theological systems are vastly different, the meaning each applies to the term ‘Torah’ is similarly different. It is the lack of recognition of this reality that then causes further problems for it breaks down even the possibility of communication and, in my opinion, prevents a possibility of some level of unity. Whenever anyone references Torah, or even Judaism, it is simply important for one to know what this person means through the use of this term.
So I am involved with Jewish Values Online not because I accept everything that is presented on this site. There is much with which I strongly disagree. There is also much which pains me to have to recognize as part of modern Jewishness. My involvement, though, is predicated on the fact that each and every idea presented on the site, though, still is part of the world of modern Jewishness -- and a recognition of this diversity and complexity within modern Jewishness is necessary in order for one to have an intelligent perspective on the issues facing the modern Jewish world.
I know that from what I have written many questions may now emerge. For example, if such extensive diversity does exist within the Jewish world, why are we even interested in unity? What is the value of a unity of such diversity? And then there is also that classic question that we actually always try to avoid: Does Jewishness define a nation/people/ethnic group or a religion? And if we try to answer that we are both a nation and a religion, how does that really work? Aren’t nations and religions really two vastly different types of groupings? These are issues which it would be in our best interests to consider and work out. Jewish Values Online is a significant step forward in this direction.
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