Members of the Jewish community rightly strive for unity. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative... we are all Jews yet we wear denominational labels that seem like a remnant of last century. We are good at getting along on the individual level; can’t we unite organizationally and institutionally? We are one people yet we have different shuls and different schools. Why can’t we just be Jews, no label necessary?
God desires peace within the Jewish people. The Sages tell us that there is no greater vessel for divine blessing, no more effective method of earning heavenly grace, than peace (Uktzin 3:12). We are given permission to occasionally lie, based on God’s example, for the sake of peace (Yevamos 65b). When there is Jewish unity, even if some Jews are idolators the community is safe from divine fury (Tanchuma, Shoftim 18). Yet, with all this admirable desire for unity, there is another type of peace that sometimes lies neglected. To be good Jews, we need to ensure the proper priority order of communal peace.
Unity requires four elements, each essential to the survival of unity and each alluded to in a famous rabbinic passage (Avos1:12): “Hillel said: Be among Aharon’s students—1) love peace, 2) pursue peace, 3) love people, 4) and bring them close to Torah.”
The first essential element of unity is Desire. Only people who want to unite, who strive for peace, can do so. Like a happy marriage, communal unity requires constant work to overcome the inherent divisiveness of human nature. We all see things primarily from our own perspectives. If we are not deeply committed to unity, we will quickly resign in frustration. Because the Torah tells us to strive for unity, we must all find this desire.
The second necessary component of unity is Compromise. We must pursue peace, actively attempt to work through our differences and resolve our competing needs. That can only be accomplished through compromise. No single person has all the wisdom so we have to learn to accommodate other visions of what is right.
Third is Respect, love for each other. We have to step out of our own skins to see life from each other’s perspective. Only then we will be able to recognize the deep passion and conviction we each bring to our positions. Without mutual respect, we cannot sit at a table and work together in good faith. At most, we would be able to temporarily cooperate in a spirit of distrust.
The fourth essential element for unity is Common Purpose. We can only unite in pursuit of a goal. Otherwise, we are merely acting friendly, which is no small matter. For Aharon, and for us, bringing peace to the world is inherently linked to bringing people closer to Torah. For Jews committed to the Torah, the ultimate Common Purpose is maintaining and spreading Torah faith and observance. There are other common purposes, such as combating anti-semitism and supporting Israel. We can unite under those and similar banners. But when it comes to religion, which lies at the center of our very being, we unite in support of a divinely ordained Judaism.
Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, arguably a forerunner of Modern Orthodoxy, put the issue as follows (Minchas Ani, Pinchas): Do not argue that we must unite with religious reformers for the sake of peace. While peace with other Jews is very important, we must first have peace with God. I do not believe that Rav Ettlinger was arguing for erecting a communal barrier between Orthodox and Reform Jews. Rather, he was saying that we must proudly advocate for Torah views even when they become unpopular and divisive. When we join with others, it must be in pursuit of a Torah vision of the common good.
However, this position is ambiguous because Torah interpretations abound. Who can say that any particular position is not a legitimate Torah view? This is a particularly problematic question. Havdalah, distinguishing between sacred and profane, between right and wrong, between good and evil, is one of our primary challenges in life. The inability to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate Torah interpretations is a sign of a crippled critical mind. It is a paralysis of judgment that quickly and inevitably leads to religious collapse.
Rav Norman Lamm, in the title essay of his Seventy Faces, writes (pp. 136-137): “A pluralism that accepts everything as co-legitimate is not pluralism, but the kind of relativism that leads to spiritual nihilism. If everything is kosher, nothing is kosher. If ‘Torah’ has an infinite number of faces, then it is faceless and without value or significance.”
Torah scholars have the duty to teach what is and is not Torah. While the layman’s instinct is usually very good at quickly discerning improper interpretations, we must ultimately defer to our experts. In order to make peace with God, we must ensure that we unite toward goals that are at least consistent with Torah and ideally advocate Torah faith and observance.
Why do we need different schools and shuls? Why must we maintain separate institutions and only join together on specific topics of mutual benefit? Because our primary goal in life is to maintain and spread Torah faith and observance. However, joining with those who advocate other goals, who even wish to undermine traditional beliefs and attitudes, is an absurd negation of the very core of our lives. We do not demand religious perfection; even idolators are welcome to join our ranks as long as they do not publicly advocate their sins. We must be willing to pay dearly for communal peace but sometimes the price can be too high.
By Rabbi Gil Student