Author’s Note: I wrote this article for the February, 2020 issue of The Scroll.
When the Torah was accepted on Mount Sinai, which we will read about on February 15th in Parshat Yisro, our sages tell us that the Jewish people were united. They were “one people with one heart”. Unfortunately, that probably was the only time in history when that statement could be made.
The very structure of the Jewish people made unity very difficult. When a nation is broken down into twelve separate tribes, it results in division. Just look at the United States. We are 50 states and there is competition between the states. Having different designations is a barrier to unity.
The United States has many divisions. Not only are we different states, we are different political parties, different nationalities, different philosophies, and much more. All of this leads to a great deal of argument and strife. We see it in the papers every day.
None of this is new, of course. The US has had many internal fights over the years. Back when war was brewing in Europe in the 1930’s, there were tremendous divisions in the country. The isolationists were against any participation in foreign affairs. They were successful in the early 1930’s with the passage of a variety of laws, like the Neutrality Act, which were designed to limit the ability of the United States to get involved. The debate and division continued until that fateful Sunday in December, the Date-That-Will-Live-In-Infamy, when the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Immediately, the country was absolutely and totally united. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war from Congress on December 8, 1941, the resulting vote was almost unanimous with only one member of the House of Representatives voting against it. When the Congress responded to Germany’s declaration of war against the United States with its own declaration, the vote totally unanimous.
Even in modern times we have seen that adversity can bring unity. The election of George Bush in 2000 was a hotly contested issue. The political divide was wider than ever as Democrats felt cheated by the results in Florida and refused to accept Bush’s legitimacy as POTUS. Less than 9 months after his inauguration, the United States was attacked by 19 terrorists who turned planes into flying bombs. The Twin Towers were destroyed, the Pentagon was hit and a third plane, believed to be headed for the White House or the Capitol Building was deliberately crashed when the heroic passengers revolted against their hijackers. Once again the country united in the fight against terrorism.
No one knows how to argue like we do. As the old saying goes, “2 Jews, 3 opinions.” We thrive on argument and have been trained in the art of mental and verbal warfare. We have been arguing for thousands of years and a great deal of a Yeshiva student’s education is spent in studying the arguments of the past in the Mishnah and Talmud and then discussing, analyzing and arguing about it themselves.
I am reminded of my 11th grade experience. My 11th grade Rebbe was Rabbi Reuven Hochberg, an incredible teacher. I remember how he would begin a topic by learning the text of the Talmud with us. We would review a few of the basic commentaries, primary Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki who lived in France, 1040-1105) and the “Balei Tosefos” (written by Rashi’s grandchildren and who argue with him all the time). After completing the basics, Rabbi Hochberg would lean back in his chair and say, “Rabboisai (Gentlemen), I have a question.” He would ask his question and we were then set free to work on a solution. We would hit the books pulling out many different sefarim from the library shelves so we could see if anyone discussed the question Rabbi Hochberg posed to us. After a time we would discuss our answers with Rabbi Hochberg with each of us going back and forth with him and each other in sometimes heated debate. Finally, Rabbi Hochberg would lean back again and say “Rabboisai, I think I have a teretz (answer).” He would give his answer and then just sit back as we all attacked him. We would do everything in our power, frequently, at the top of our voices to destroy his answer. He defended himself against 20 rabid boys with aplomb, and he loved every minute.
Yes, Jews know verbal judo and many of us graduate high school with a black belt in the art. It’s fun and it can be a good thing. Of course, it depends on the nature of the argument. If I am arguing a point of Jewish Law with my learning partner, that’s good. If, on the other hand, my argument is based on sectarian and factional differences, that’s not good. First of all, Torah arguments are a means to come to the truth. Factional arguments are not about truth because the participants have no intention of listening to the other side. It’s kind of like someone with a MAGA hat arguing with a member of Antifa: do you really think that is an argument that will ever be resolved?
If times of travail can bring people together as I have discussed, why are Jews not united now in the face of the danger around us? If Pearl Harbor could united a severely divided America, should the events of the past month not do the same for us.
Chanukah was our Pearl Harbor. Therefore, while I may disagree with many Jews from different walks of life on many issues, I am unwilling to continue those disagreements in the face of the current danger. I am unwilling to commit suicide.
I feel very sad to have to write these next lines but there is a necessary qualification I have to give to the prior paragraph. You see, I can put aside almost any difference of opinion during times like these. I say “almost” because there is one thing I will never forgive: if you stand side by side with those who call for, or commit, the murder of fellow Jews, you are beyond the pale to me. You have, in my humble opinion, proven yourself unworthy to be called a Jew regardless of what your birth status might be. I apply this standard to the right and left. I will not stand with Neturei Karta or organizations like If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace. When you ally with people who have blood on their hands, it rubs off on you. Call me a hypocrite if you like, but that’s where I draw the line.
In today’s troubling times we need to be as united as possible. It is time for us to reach out to those to the left of us and to the right of us and try to engineer peace between us so we can stand against the danger as a united front. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Our sages teach us (Mishnah Avot 5:17): “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.” Hillel and Shammai argued to find truth whereas Korach fought for personal benefit. Today Hillel and Shammai are revered as great scholars whereas Korach met an ignominious end.
It’s time to leave our differences behind and come together to fight the common foe. Nothing else makes sense.