by R. Gidon Rothstein
Apple pie tastes great, fills us (although there’s usually room for more), is a comfort food, and, per an ad from my childhood, joins baseball and hot dogs as core American experiences. But it does not nourish, does not satisfy our dietary needs.
In these sad and tense times, many voices celebrate the achdut, the unity, the Jewish people have rediscovered. It is remarkable and beautiful; of the many moving examples, people extending themselves for others they do not know and may have thought of as “other,” I think my favorite is of the Tel Aviv restaurants that turned their kitchens kosher so they could cook for soldiers who required such food. Just this past Shabbat, I heard two stories of people flying to Israel with dozens of duffel bags loaded with supplies for soldiers.
For sure, this sense of family will be crucial to maintaining achdut going forward. But it is apple pie, in the sense that we can all easily support it, yet does not nourish, is not enough for what we will need. Nor—for another example of applie-pie achdut–will manufactured joint events do the trick, whether learning Torah, doing chessed, singing together in large gatherings.
At some point, God should send us this kind of good news soon, the war will be over, and we will have to face the thorny issues that divided us, where two sides see the world viscerally differently, each side thinks and feels it needs its view to prevail.
Our current achdut does not prepare us for then. Certainly, a first step will be to hold on to our sense of family. When a stranger demands what we find unreasonable, we react so differently than when it comes from a sibling, parent, child, cousin. Even families rupture, however, so just that awareness will not preserve our hard-won achdut.
Achdut in the Face of Deep Division
Take the example that roiled our people the past year, judicial reform. Those in favor think it is only right and fair; those opposed thought it a perversion of democratic processes. Perhaps the war will table that issue, but it will come back at some point, as will many others. There are so many groups in Israel—the Old Guard of secular Ashkenazic Jews, the traditional Sephardic Jews, the Religious Zionists, the Charedim. Each believes deeply in its view, has needs it wants met and is certain its view is the best way forward for the nation and the Jewish people.
Achdut means finding mechanisms to maintain our unity through the conflict that arises when interests collide. I’d like to suggest some ways to think about these situations.
Live and Let Live
The easiest solution is to carve out room for everyone to do what they want. You eat kosher? Fine, we’ll have kosher restaurants. You eat non-kosher? Fine, we’ll have non-kosher ones. You want a particular version of kosher? We’ll have a plethora of supervisions (more on that later).
Clearly, any diverse society will need this type of achdut sometimes; halachah itself thinks the ideal Jewish society has shevatim bimkomam, the twelve tribes of Israel again identified, each living in its area of Israel, in its particular way. Or so I assume from the fact that the Gemara expected each tribe to have its own Sanhedrin. I think that means there are areas of halachah where the Sanhedrin of Zevulun would rule differently than that of Asher, for example, and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem would see no reason to get involved.
Diversity contributes much of value, but is not itself unity. If members of a family live in the same house, each acting as s/he wants, coming together occasionally for meals or other joint events, there may not be tensions or division, but there’s also not significant connection. More, situations inevitably arise that require a joint decision, where firmly held opinions will differ. What then?
Ultimatums Need Solutions
What then, indeed. To me, a story in R. Elisha Aviner’s Dor Tahpuchot captures much of the issue. The book seeks to advise parents on how to relate to children who have left religious observance. He tells of a father whose no-longer-observant son needed his father to buy him a motorcycle. The father was willing, as long as the son committed not to ride it on Shabbat. The son refused. (Chazon Ish told the father to buy it for him anyway, for reasons I think have more to do with the parent/child aspect of the issue).
Parenting aside, what if a brother asked that, or something else to which the person objected (deeply, morally, halachically)? I’ve shared the story with a few people, all of whom say you can either say yes or no, but it is unreasonable to try to set conditions, it becomes transactional. Perhaps in parenting situations, but as a relationship issue, it seems to me to miss a key piece of achdut: that we want to find a way to be connected.
If you think marijuana is a blight on humanity, and I think it is fine, and I am invited to your house, is it reasonable to demand I not use it, in any form, while visiting? Or, for another example from R. Aviner’s book, what about asking a nonobservant unmarried couple to sleep in separate rooms when guests in an observant household (interestingly, R. Aviner is aware of couples who will refuse, yet includes letters from writers who are certain it is only polite for the couple to accept the mores of the hosting household). Is it transactional to make a request, and the other person to counter, and to hash out some agreement?
I say, these are the kinds of conflict we need to prepare for if we really want achdut. Where one group’s beliefs run up against another group’s equally strongly held ones, we have three main options: 1) One side gives in (perhaps in the hopes or with a clear agreement the other will give in elsewhere); 2) they find a middle ground, where each side yields somewhat, 3) rupture.
Let’s examine the first two, because we already know what rupture looks like.
I’ll Give You This, You Give Me That
One side might realize they object less on this issue than the other, and agree to forego it, in the name of amity and comity. Think of home decorating: if I want orange walls and you want turquoise ones, what are we going to do? We could pick a third color, where nobody gets what they want, or one of us can give in. But if one side always gives in, that’s not achdut, that’s one side suppressing itself.
It seems to me yielding promotes achdut as long as it is overall reciprocal: we want to work together, as a family, community, nation; we see the world differently; on this issue, I can give you what you want, because it matters less to me. As long as, over time, it sort of balances out.
Where possible, I think compromise is a better solution, as long as we are ready to bite down hard and accept what we find problematic or bothersome. In compromise, no one gets what they want, other than the achdut we claim to value so highly. I have read that in healthy marriages, there are three parties, the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself, where each spouse takes actions for the sake of the marriage, as an independent value. In compromise—as the Gemara prefers for court cases, by the way—we give up what we want and believe is our right, as does the other, for the sake of the achdut preserved or created.
I am reminded of a responsum of R. Ovadya Yosef, z”l, who agreed to continue to certify the kashrut of a hotel that served milk with coffee immediately after meat meals. While certainly this suggested some people would be drinking milk right after eating meat, R. Yosef found room to avoid revoking the hotel’s certification, with the explicit goal of retaining as broad a network of kosher hotels as possible, to maximize the opportunities for people to eat kosher food.
Compromise means giving up some of what we want, even what we consider crucial, as does the “other.” We do so in the name of a higher value, the unity we reap when we manage to live together, despite our differences.
Two Simple Examples, Close to Home
We often think of achdut as something to achieve with someone wildly different from us, but allow me to point out two versions of achdut we Orthodox Jews are far from achieving, fully within the Orthodox world. I am on a rabbis’ WhatsApp group, and the most common question, by far, is: does anyone know this kashrut symbol, and whether it is reliable?
In our globalized times, we still have thousands of kashrut-certifying organizations. If we wanted achdut, we could find ways to merge some or many of these, reduce the confusion around kashrut. Of course, that would mean finding middle ground on various rules and practices of kashrut, as well as some way to arrange the financial ramifications. There’s an achdut we could use right now, and does not involve fundamental commitments. What would it take for us to be willing to make it happen?
Or, another: R. Uzziel, z”l, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel (someone who compromised with R. Herzog, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State, in their attempt to bring about a nation of greater achdut) was asked about renewing the Sanhedrin, and rejected the idea as premature. Instead, he advocated, often, for a national conference of rabbis in Israel, to meet, hash out issues, and come to a joint agreement on them. Never happened.
What would it take for that kind of achdut, where just leaders of the broad spectrum of the Torah world are willing to meet, discuss, and forge agreement?
Singalongs, learnalongs, other joint activities, they’re all fun, and they feel good. Like apple pie. Tasty, enjoyable, and in times of stress, quite plausibly what we need. I hope and pray we will soon need and be ready to achieve a more complicated unity, hope and pray we prepare ourselves now for the choices involved: where it is we have to live separately, within a larger umbrella, where we can yield so others will yield for us when we need it, and where we can agree to live together in a reality where we have to forego deeply held values, as are our fellow family members, in the name of that unity we seek, achdut.