Disagreement can be the basis of Jewish unity even during a pandemic – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on April 22, 2020

During the coronavirus outbreak, we have witnessed a stubborn resistance among some of the most insular and ultra-Orthodox pockets of the Jewish community regarding compliance with critical pleas for social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, both in the United States and Israel. These developments have been a source of concern and frustration among a wide swath of the Jewish community, including other Orthodox Jews. Although the reaction to these non-conforming behaviors has focused on the spread of the coronavirus, it would not be surprising if more than a few Jews also are wondering whether the version of Judaism practiced in these enclaves is essentially unrecognizable. The leaders of the Orthodox communities that have flouted governmental mandates are likely very different from the typical Orthodox outreach workers who do kiruv outreach and are familiar to many religiously liberal Jews. And although television audiences in Israel, America and elsewhere may have received some fairly authentic education about these extremely insular communities through the wildly popular Israeli television show Shtisel, and more recently Unorthodox, it cannot be denied that most American Jews just cannot relate to, let alone sympathize with, the stringencies and unfamiliar practices showcased in these programs, especially under the current circumstances. This reality unfortunately further diminishes the already fractured notion of Jewish unity.But as Prof. Adam Ferziger writes in the Times of Israel, there is a wide spectrum among haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in terms of their insularity, and in recent years, some pockets have been more open to certain types of digital content. This tendency has become more pronounced in recent days to combat the impact of COVID-19.WE WOULD all do well to remember that strong disagreement regarding Jewish practice has always been part of the fabric of Jewish law and life. Diverse positions and customs date back to the first two major schools of thought represented by the sages Hillel and Shammai. In todays world, it cannot be denied that the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations have distinct identities and positions regarding matters of religious practice. It is also the case that individuals affiliated with these same denominations may disagree about religious practices as well as hot-button political and social issues. But in the end, there still is a shared past, present and hopefully future.Despite the divergent legal rulings and customs prevalent among modern Jews, until the Enlightenment, there was a recognizable consistency in Jewish observance. Even so, geography often contributed to diversity because both the legal rulings of the rabbis as well as the customs of the people were heavily influenced by the various outside host cultures in which the Jews lived. For example, during the Middle Ages, Jewish law mirrored Christian practice in that it banned polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews living in Christian countries, in contrast to the Jewish tradition governing Jews living in Muslim countries where polygamy was part of the larger culture.But post-Enlightenment, opportunities for Jews to participate in the surrounding cultures increased. Once they were no longer culturally and economically isolated, divergent factions of Jews emerged with distinct views on the importance and relevance of Jewish law, known as Halacha.EVEN SO, history has witnessed countless examples of Jewish unity despite a lack of agreement on many significant issues. In his book American Judaism, Prof. Jonathan Sarna noted that in the 19th century, American Jews developed a series of powerful unifying symbols marking their diverse worship spaces, such as the Torah scroll and a visual of the Ten Commandments. More recently, the Soviet Jewry movement that began in the 1960s provided a powerful unifying force for Jews from different backgrounds. We may not pray in the same synagogues, but we still join together to fight against the oppression of Soviet Jews, applaud the achievements of Jewish actors and athletes, and unfortunately in response to the current realities, march against antisemitism.In addition to Judaisms historical capacity to sustain divergent opinions, sociological data also suggests a more nuanced basis for Jewish unity. The comprehensive 2013 Pew Report on the American Jewish community revealed that a strong majority of Jews in the United States see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance. In other words, most American Jews do not see religion as the main component of Judaism. But although there seems to be little consensus on what the essence of Judaism is or on what it should be this lack of agreement may actually foster unity because it allows many types of Jews to feel an attachment to their heritage. The Pew Report confirms that a large majority of American Jews are proud to be Jewish, see being Jewish as important, and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.This potential for Jewish unity is on of our greatest advantages. Unbridgeable differences are dangerous for any religious group. This danger is particularly problematic for a cultural religious minority that is increasingly becoming the target of attack both here and across the globe. Especially now, a sense of unity among the Jewish people matters more than ever. This is a message that all Jews regardless of how, or even if, they practice need to keep in mind. When all streams of Judaism accept the inevitability of differences and appreciate the good faith function of each space on the Jewish religious spectrum, the Jewish people are at their strongest.Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is a law professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World (Roman & Littlefield, 2020), and The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition (Oxford U. Press, 2015).

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Disagreement can be the basis of Jewish unity even during a pandemic - The Jerusalem Post

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