It Takes Two to Disagree

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Learning to Disagree: Thoughts for When the World Renews

I have interrupted my usual involvement with Akedat Yitzhak for seven weeks now, because a time of tzarah, of distress, obligates a response (I vividly remember mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, quoting Ta’anit 11a’s scorn for those who eat and drink during a time of trouble as if nothing were wrong, thinking to themselves shalom alekha nafshi, everything’s fine for me).

As I write these words, the current phase of the novel coronavirus (we pray HKBH will take pity on us and make it the only phase) seems to be receding. With salvation, temporary or permanent, on the horizon, we can begin to think of how to build the new world better, in ways we can hope will be closer to how Hashem wants, itself a merit going forward.

Here’s an honestly thorny topic to consider: how to work with, and react to, those with whom we disagree violently, vigorously, and vociferously. The easy extremes are to hunker and bunker in our own like-minded communities, refusing to work with others we know are wrong in so many ways, or, at the other end, to pretend differences don’t matter, pretend we can just work with anyone.

The hard middle challenges those who are bothered by others’ behavior, and those who wish to behave—feel it’s their right to behave– in ways others find odious. As someone who more often falls in the first category, I will start there.

I believe we all need to work hard at our judiciousness, become more adept at being aware of the significance of each of our disagreements. If we disagree about what to eat for dinner, we can still eat dinner together, unless you insist on ordering something whose sight or smell I find intolerable. Finding ways to live and work together depends on our willingness to make maximal room to work together, to be careful not to label a minor disagreement a major one.

I was moved this past week by a photo of religious leaders in Jerusalem, who gathered on the porch of the King David Hotel, to jointly pray to Gd for salvation from this coronavirus. Think carefully about the men in the photo, and you’ll notice how they were extending themselves to accommodate others: I feel confident the Chief Rabbis, R. Lau and R. Yosef, are sure the leaders with whom they shared that porch adhere to religions the Chief Rabbis believe to be deeply wrong. The same is likely true, in reverse, for the other leaders.

They did not rescind their disagreement for the crisis, nor did they decide to ignore it. They all agreed, in this time of trouble, they shared enough to be able to act productively together, despite their profound differences. That’s not always possible, but I hope we are more careful to be alert to any times it is.

The incident reminded me of an Orthodox Forum paper Prof. David Berger delivered almost twenty years ago. The strong impression the paper made was fortified by R. Lichtenstein zt”l calling it stunning. Prof. Berger detailed how Ashkenazic Jews from the medieval to modern period found ways to avoid treating the Christians around them as idolaters. For all they knew Christianity (at least the strict Trinitarian versions) counted as avodah zarah, a segment of halakhic authorities looked at it as “idolatry in a monotheistic mode.”

Those Jews also had to remember it still was avodah zarah, still was worship of  a power other than Gd, yet the “monotheistic mode” of it expanded their opportunities to work with them in various venues. To build societies—of all sizes, nuclear families, shuls, communities, cities, nations, and a world—we need to be able to work with as many others as we can, often with whom we disagree, sometimes across an abyss.

The zaken mamrei also shows us how far we should be ready to go in tolerating others’ wrongs. The Torah prescribes death for a scholar of sufficient rank to serve on the Sanhedrin who rules differently than did the Sanhedrin. The elder only incurs the penalty, however, if he insists on ruling in practice for others, encouraging people to follow his view rather than the Sanhedrin’s. Akavya b. Mahalalel and R. Eliezer both insisted they were right despite the majority ruling against them, and were socially distanced (with nidui) for it; the death penalty wasn’t an issue, because they did not push for others to follow their view in practice.

Both were also still clearly part of rabbinic society—mEduyot 5;6 tells us the rabbis offered Akavya to be Av Bet Din, second in rank at the Sanhedrin, if he recanted, and R. Eliezer’s students visited him right up until his passing, despite his remaining in a nidui (socially distanced) state.

Life is complicated, the stories tell us. Soon after my year in Israel, R. Lichtenstein zt”l delivered a talk at YU titled “Tolerance on the Right and Tolerance on the Left.” The most memorable part, for me, was his attitude towards the right, his call for the audience to recognize how much we shared with them. He candidly admitted (back then, anyway) the right often made it hard, using a Hebrew phrase I had not known, okhlim kash, eating straw.

Encounters with others often force us to eat straw, to bear what seems unfair or improper, but worth the overall benefits. I often wonder what the State of Israel would look like today had more Orthodox Jews of the early twentieth century seen their way to eat the straw of working with the non- and anti-religious Zionists around them. I have no reason to think I would have been wise enough to do so, but we can hope to learn from past situations to stretch ourselves and reap unexpected dividends.

One last example, so surprising I have had people tell me it can’t be true, when it’s a verse in Scripture. At the end of his life, Yehoshu’a gathered the people to Shekhem to exhort them to serve Gd. He closed (24;14) with a call to remove the idols their forefathers had worshipped on the other side of the river and in Egypt. In the next verse, he either rhetorically or sincerely raised the option they would choose to follow those other gods.

The simple implication of the verse (as Radak reads it, too) says the Jews to whom Yehoshu’a was speaking had idols they had had with them since Egypt. (Other commentators assume the Jews might have retained their allegiance to forms of worship, perhaps not physical idols).

Throughout the forty years in the desert, the verse tells us, as Gd led them with a pillar of cloud during the day and fire at night, as Gd gave man in the morning and slav for meat, the Jews had idols in their possession, possibly in their hearts, and Gd did not react! As Gd doomed one generation to die in the desert, the new one took on what I would have thought a disqualifying element of the old, where Gd instead let matters develop, did not make an issue of it.

In no way do I mean Hashem doesn’t care about idolatry, or that we should lose our passion to fight breaches of theology or of practice. I only mean to notice tradition gives examples of finding ways to work with such people.

There are limits, and those too matter to the picture. The Karaites damaged Jewish life to the extent, centuries later, R. Uzziel was still upholding the tradition to refuse to accept their converts. If the zaken mamrei did insist on ruling in practice in line with his views, the Sanhedrin would need to put him to death. And so on.

A key component of what forces us to react, I suggest, also shows the other side of the coin, how those with whom we disagree (or us, when we are the ones with whom others disagree) can ease the path to community. The zaken mamrei is certain he has a truth others do not recognize. He may passionately believe the majority are hurting Judaism or even Torah with their faulty views. Nonetheless, he has to know the line not to cross.

Ideally, he should stay silent, once he has argued his case in front of the majority and they have voted otherwise. It would be frustrating, I assume, to be so sure you were right and have to watch “them” all be wrong, but it would be the correct choice. Less positive, he could speak about his views while making clear the ruling had to be observed. Only the decision to push his agenda in practice incurs death. An important reminder: it’s when we insist we know better enough to flout the majority and push our agenda that we step over an intolerable line.

The same is true every time we have ideas “others” do not accept. We can make it about who has the power to act as they want, we can seek compromise, or we can decide to stay silent, leave it for some other time. The more we can take the last two options, the easier it will be for society to stay together, to all of our benefit.

To use an example relevant to us all and yet not so specific as to anger anyone: in politics today (and, unfortunately, in many Jewish communities), whoever has the majority assumes a mandate to do whatever his/her constituents want. If a member of the House or Senate (Democrat or Republican, I am not being political here) wins 60% of the vote, that Congressperson or Senator goes to Washington ready to work to enact the agenda on which s/he ran, inherently ignoring (in policy terms, anyway), 40% of voters.

I have been involved in more than one shul community where the majority did not care about the minority’s concerns, or a particular shul did not care how their new practices would affect the broader community.

The one side of working together asks us to expand our tolerance, to find ways to stay silent, be polite to, or work with those with whom we disagree in areas where we really care. The equal flip side asks us to refrain from offending others’ sensibilities, even where we think it should be our absolute right, even where we think we’re being asked to forego an important principle.

We always did this where it didn’t matter much; back when we had weddings with a variety of guests, for example, we often adhered to a higher level of kashrut supervision than we personally thought necessary, to accommodate guests with stricter standards. We should do the same in other areas as well, in all our units of society.

Sure, there are limits to how much we can do that, on either side. The Netziv famously shuttered Volozhin, probably rather than adjust the yeshiva schedule as radically as Russian authorities wanted. In the middle of the twentieth century, Orthodox Judaism decided mehitzah was a line in the sand (although even there, the OU grandfathered non-mehitzah shuls for decades, long after the battle had been won), and more.

Salvation lies in grappling with it, the value of working with each other across great divisions itself a value to compete with the others, to lead us sometimes not to react as negatively to a way of life we think deeply wrong, and also not to act on our belief that a particular way of life is so right that we need not care about others’ sensibilities. The State of Israel was built by people who disagreed radically, such as the religious and not, and yet found ways to work with each other (Yosef Burg a”h was a member of every Cabinet of Israel from 1951-1986, as a representative of religious parties, making difficult compromises while achieving valuable results).

The years leading up to the coronavirus were ones, it seems to me, when we all got used to being certain of our own correctness, dismissing the “other” where possible. As we come out of a magefah, let’s prepare to eat a little more straw, to refrain from acting on all our beliefs when they will offend others—no matter how absolutely right we know ourselves to be– even if it means we don’t get to fully express ourselves, and to react a little less quickly when well-meaning people act in ways we find distressing. Let’s reach across, on both sides, ready to forego action and to forego criticism, where we can.

Because unity is also a value, and unity is bought by eating straw, often bitter straw, leading us to a much better place than we might have imagined.

About Gidon Rothstein

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