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The Orthodox Divide

By Larry Gordon

The ongoing disputes between Orthodox Jewish groups locally, as well as in Israel where the Modern Orthodox are at odds with the so-called ultra-Orthodox, are both agonizing and disheartening.

Here at home there are more than just a few of these inter-tribal disagreements, but the one discussed most often these days in the Five Towns is the matter of a former school property in Woodmere possibly being sold to a commercial medical center operator. Both those against and those in favor of the project have some fairly convincing arguments. They run the gamut from the possibility that real estate values might suffer to the need for more advanced and comprehensive medical care closer to the heart of the community.

The two opposing positions on the matter has led to some attacks and name-calling not befitting one of the premier Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States. The local school board here in the Lawrence district has accomplished some remarkable educational breakthroughs over the last decade. To see all that threatened and possibly going up in smoke does not do anyone any good and is damaging to everyone all around the community. Emotions should be checked and sanity needs to prevail. If you are against the sale, you can vote “No” on March 20. If you are in favor, you can vote “Yes.”

It is particularly hurtful because the unraveling of this school board is just the sort of thing that our many critics hope will someday transpire. Not so long ago, there was a long era when, although more than 65% of our real-estate taxes were earmarked for education, most of the Orthodox community was essentially locked out of receiving educational services except for busing, some books, and nowhere near enough special-education services. This situation existed even though more and more Orthodox families were moving into the Lawrence educational district.

There was a sense at the time—about a decade ago—that tax monies had to by law be directed by and large for public-school education. The fact is that our elected board members asked questions and analyzed the laws and broke new ground in how educational tax revenues may legally and properly be utilized. There was an ongoing demographic shift taking place that would lead to new policies, a new orientation, and a new day.

But now a threat has burst to the fore that has put all that has been accomplished during the last decade in jeopardy. A combination of differences of opinion and a divide on what plan or formula best serves the overall community has split the community in two. At this juncture it seems that there is some momentum in the direction of rallying the district to vote down the proposal in the referendum. Those against seem to be displaying some passion, while those in favor can either take it or leave it.

The outcome may be very important to many, but frankly it is not as important as what the process will do to us as a community in the interim.

As King David expressed it in Psalms some time ago: “How goodly it is that brothers can dwell together.” It looks like we are not doing such a great job of that here or, for now anyway, in Israel. It was Winston Churchill who said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” In Israel there is an awful struggle focused not on who might be the real chosen people, but on who are the real Orthodox Jews, so to speak.

On the one side, there are the chareidim, represented by their black hats and clothing along with significant government aid for families that allow men and women with many young children to retain their commitment to lifelong, all-day Torah study. Many in these communities abstain from joining the workforce because in Israel if one does not do military or national service they are looked at askance yet they are legally not allowed to work until that commitment has been fulfilled.

And then there is the national religious world, today represented by Naftali Bennett and Bayit HaYehudi. They are at least superficially identified by their casual dress and knitted yarmulkes. What separates the two constituencies is not their commitment to Torah and performing mitzvos. The key issue on which they differ is the sacredness with which they regard the modern-day land of Israel.

During the election campaign there was an air of anticipation about the dominance in any new government that Torah-observant Jews would have. The time had possibly arrived when Israel could more openly express the fact that the existence of the enterprise known as Eretz Yisrael was to a large extent an extraordinary gift from G‑d. But that’s where the Orthodox divide comes into the picture.

The reasons for this type of confusion, crossed signals, and misunderstandings vary. The political mainstream in Israel—that is Likud and Labor—has traditionally aligned itself with the chareidi political parties for an interesting reason. The greatest point of contention between establishment Israel and the nationalistic parties is the disposition of the land.

Today, parties like United Torah Judaism and Shas have made it abundantly clear that they rank their priority as social issues over the matter of territory. At one point UTJ leadership was reported to have said that if Bayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid would not relent and would not allow them into the ruling coalition, they would gladly join the opposition and support relinquishing territory and uprooting settlement communities.

Now, is that any way for one Torah-observant Jew to talk about the other? Granted that jockeying for political position in Israel is a hard-nosed undertaking with a great deal at stake. And as long as we are on the subject of misguided judgment, the Israeli press reported this week that while Prime Minister Netanyahu was busy criticizing Bayit and Yesh Atid for insisting that the chareidi parties not serve in the coalition, Bibi was telling Shas that he was not going to invite Bennett and his party into the government.

In fact when Bayit leader Naftali Bennett wanted to set up a religious bloc in the Knesset, he could not get Aryeh Deri from Shas to return his phone call. And all this because Bibi assured Shas that Bayit would not be invited in. When Bennett learned of this, he entered into an agreement with Yair Lapid to join the government together or not at all. And how did Netanyahu arrive at the decision not to have Bayit in the government? Well, apparently Sara Netanyahu does not particularly care for Naftali Bennett. Is that any way to run a country?

And now, back at the homestead, we have similar differences and disputes. Disagreements are one thing and certainly acceptable. It can be argued that viewing issues differently from one another is what the very fabric of life is composed of. But the methods that we employ in these situations are almost as important as the substance of the matter itself. Divisiveness weakens and even destroys us, whether it is a local, communal matter or an international situation.

History and our holy books have reiterated and emphasized how, as a people, we have suffered grievously not only as a result of external persecution but frequently as a result of our own internal and endless bickering. Who can forget how Jewish leaders argued about leadership and who would be the spokesman for the group as they waited to speak with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II to beseech the president to take in more Jewish refugees and order the bombing of the railways leading into Auschwitz? As recorded in Professor David Wyman’s The Holocaust and the Jews, the dissension and disagreements amongst Jewish leaders back then broke them apart, and the meeting with the president failed to materialize as a result.

Unity, achdus, amongst us is such a difficult and even elusive goal because it is so challenging and very often in defiance of human nature. It is a fundamental error to believe that this requires that we not disagree. In reality there is a unity that can be achieved even within the context of our differences. The secret, underutilized formula is the respect for each other that we should administer within the context of those disputes.

Perhaps this is the message being communicated to us in this week’s double Torah portion of Vayakhel and Pekudei. In a sense, the juxtaposition of these two parashios seems contradictory. Vayakhel deals with the sum total of the Jewish people and Moshe gathering them as he descends Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets. Pekudei, on the other hand, deals with the specifics and the individual items donated by the people to build and furnish the Tabernacle.

Chassidic thought says on the names of these portions that they teach us the same lesson—Jewish unity—from opposite perspectives. From Vayakhel we learn that each of us is part of the whole; and from Pekudei we understand that each of us has intrinsic value as individuals. The point is that just as these two segments of the Torah are read on the same Shabbos and coexist, so can the community and the individual live side by side despite their differences.

There are articles and letters elsewhere in this issue about the pros and cons of the proposed medical facility at the Woodmere school. And there are also pieces about the attempt to bridge the divide amongst the Orthodox political leaders in Israel. Of course we can disagree, and even vehemently at times. But let’s take a step back and view the big picture. Our critics from the outside are enjoying this too much and are probably planning on exploiting our divisiveness at some point. That should be a catalyst to lessen the public intensity of these differences, and if nothing else, we should try to agree about that. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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Posted by on March 7, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.