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May 6, 2012 12:38 pm

The Biggest Internal Jewish Threat: Lack of Respectful Dialogue

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Harvard law professor debates the late Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. Photo: Screenshot.

The Talmud says that the plague that decimated Rabbi Akiva’s academy nearly two thousand years ago was because they did not treat each other with respect. This tragedy came to be associated with this period of the year we call ‘The Omer.’ Some famous commentators have over the years suggested that this was a euphemism for the disastrous Bar Kochba campaign that Rabbi Akiva supported, much against most contemporary rabbinic leaders. This period of mourning has now come to be associated more with the frequent anti-Semitic campaigns in the Diaspora, mainly under Christianity but under Islam as well. Its moral lesson has receded.

I suggest we need to go back to its roots. The biggest internal threat to the Jewish people is the current lack of respectful dialogue, be it religious or civil. There is a mood of bitterness and aggression, and a blind refusal to respect another point of view, which I see as being as big a danger to our survival as the external ones. Because history tells us that we are and have always been the architects of our own downfall.

Wherever you look, you see not just a refusal to consider another point of view. I can understand the dangers of giving any platform or credence to a morally corrupt, despicable regime, or to a point of view that fails the test of morality. Intolerance of intolerance is a virtue. No one in his right mind would give a racist a platform. But along the spectrum of ideas, there are variations which are not existential threats, but rather areas of exploration and respectful consideration. We have a tradition that the great schools of Hillel and Shamai battled for years over legal issues, sometimes acrimoniously. Yet the Talmud reiterates that they still treated each other with respect, and married amongst each other despite their differences over halachic definitions. It is a well-known Talmudic principle that “both contradicting points of view can equally be the words of God”.

I am worried by this now universal tendency to dismiss, to rubbish, to abuse, and not even to stop to consider whether there may be a point worth considering, whether it is a religious or a political debate.

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For years such abuse has been a feature of Israeli life, between political parties, religious and secular, different immigrant groups, let alone different communities and peoples. We would put it down to hangovers from less sophisticated societies, the tensions of war, of integrating so many different ethnic and cultural minorities. But it has gotten worse not better over time.

To make matters worse it has now become the norm in the USA both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. One could make out a case that it is the fault of the legal world with its adversarial approach to law and the desire to win at all costs being more important than the truth. One might argue it is the result of the cut, thrust, and grab as much as you can economic climate. It could be the increasing divide in a society that once encouraged integration and the ideal of a melting pot but now upholds division and separatism. In general, values passionately held are passionately supported and lead to zealous extremism, whether religious or political. The single-minded ideologues created revolutions, not moderates.

A recent sad example of how malicious public discourse has become in the USA (but it’s universal) concerns Yeshiva University. It is an admirable institution, of the sort that Old World Jewry has been incapable of imitating. It is a first-class recognized university, both graduate and undergraduate. It has an excellent yeshivah with outstanding Talmudic scholars at its head. It is the last bastion of thinking, academically rigorous Judaism of Diaspora Jewry. Yet it too has been accused of coming increasingly under the influence of the Right Wing.

Its student magazine, The Yeshiva University Beacon, has allowed students to express opinions, often uncomfortably close to the bone and controversial. Recently the magazine had its funds cut off by the administration for daring to publish an article that touched on the holy cow of premarital sex. Now an article written by a student, dated February 21, has suggested that the Jewish world is too focused and preoccupied with looking back to the Holocaust and should instead try to emphasize positive and moral contributions to society. The author did not minimize the Holocaust or the importance of maintaining the memory. But he suggested that we use it as a substitute for other more constructive forms of Jewish identification. We overreact in prosecuting Holocaust deniers. We are too sensitive about its use in public discourse.

This is not new. It’s a position that I have often expressed and several outstanding academics have written about. The article was neither innovative nor extreme. It was a student’s sincere attempt to think critically about something as horrific as the Holocaust, being so central to current Jewish experience and the sad fact that it does not necessarily succeed in reinforcing Jewish identity.

Poor fellow–all hell broke loose. He was accused of the most horrific heresy, of deserving excommunication, even death. The reaction was a very sad reflection of that brutal, primitive defense mechanism that represents the very worst elements of our people. It was so sad to see the disease now manifest in an otherwise praiseworthy institution.

Instead of confronting challenges, nowadays, the defenses go up. “Don’t we have enough enemies outside without you having to attack us from within?” There is no attempt to tackle the issue, just to dismiss it. It’s the very attitude that pushed me into becoming a maverick and a rebel a generation ago. It was this kneejerk self-censoring attitude that, in Britain at any rate, produced a colorless, conformist, unexciting community that I only wanted to stir and shake. This attitude now permeates the religious and the political community.

Instead of condemning and marginalizing any opinion or community that wants to offer an alternative paradigm or opinion, we should encourage variety and debate not bully tactics. Bullies might succeed in the short run, but they rarely last the course.

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  • Steven

    As you havent given me the opportunity to reply to your last comment I will answer to you nevertheless through this new posting.

    1) We do not answer to the Rasha we say “Baavur ze oso hashem li velo “lo” all the meforshim ask that the correct gramatics would require for the father to say ” velo LECHA” the answer is that in reality the father at the Seder does NOT answer the Rasha but since everyone is sitting at the table including the son who is a “TAM” and he is impressionable the father turns toward the Tam and answer him that if the Rasha would have been there he would have not been redeemed.
    2) No matter how hard you try the fact is that you should be ashamed of yourself for defending your position. In the name of the tens of thousands of the children of survivors I wil tell you again and again that your stupid insensitive comments defending the right of a young person to publicly question the Holocoust are and remain unacceptable.
    3) Dont try to give clever ” Oiberchochom” evasive answers it makes you look worse – its time for you to apologize and that is my final word on this matter you can write whatever you like but understand that you screwed up big time.

    • jeremy rosen

      Steven
      You are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine.
      Shabbat Shalom
      jeremy

  • Steven

    Jeremy, iI finally am beginning to figure you out. You are a ” kochloffel” and I do not mean it as a compliment.

    You wrote a good piece and made some very valid points however you couldnt help yourself to throw in stuff that you should know better – is and should be untouchable – the Holocaust -.

    You do this all the time and it makes you no better but worse if you could just stick to the issues you would do much better.

    I wonder why you get a kick out of this maybe a couple of Freudian sessions would reveal the true you.

    • jeremy rosen

      Steven
      Thats clearly where you and I disagree. I do not think anything or anyone should be untouchable.
      Jeremy

      • Steven

        Your comment shows one of two things a) your incomprehension of the magnitude of the Holocoust b) your insensitivity to it.

        As a child of Holocoust survivors I can tell you that some things ARE and should REMAIN untouchable.

        It is upsetting and annoying to see ” a Rabbi” denigrade the memory of millions of people who were slaughtered burned and hunted to death. Never in the long History of the Jews did we suffer as much as our parents generation for some young schmock to write what he wrote and for you to stick up for him is simply outrageous.

        Sixty seven years after the end of the war there are victims who wake up every night reliving those horrors how dare you belittle that shame on you.!

      • Steven

        Well for the record there are things untouchable and all I cansay to you as a child of Holocoust survivors SHAME on YOU

        • jeremy rosen

          I should be interested to know how you think or what you can point to that I said that belittles the Holocaust.
          Jeremy

          • Steven

            The boy wrote a piece “why it is time for jews to get over the holocaust” and you defend that?
            By you defending this nobodys right to make such outrageous statement in the name of what? Read your piece read NL’s response then rerread what I wrote then THINK
            It shouldnt be too difficult to figure it out. You still think nothing should be untouchable? Even the effects of the Holocoust?

          • jeremy rosen

            I defended anyones right to ask questions, to challenge pre-conceptions. Why we even have a history of challenging God.This doesn’t mean we don’t accept God as the most important force in the universe.We even give an answer to the Rasha on the Seder night.Instead of shutting him up.In our religion questioning and challenging is good. Attemoting to silence never achieves anything other than resentment.
            Jeremy

    • Greg

      (Except, apparently, the Talmud and your devotion to it.)

      • jeremy rosen

        Not at all Greg. Challenging and questioning is an essential part of the Talmudic tradition.There is even a tradition of challenging God.
        Jeremy

      • Greg

        You mentioned being at cross-purposes and on different pages while all I was doing was challenging the Talmud and it’s application. You talk about ‘the biggest internal threat’ and ‘getting to the root of the problem’, but won’t go deeper than the Talmud itself. According to it, the plague was due to lack of respect… but what if it was due to God’s judgment on it’s proponents.

        When it changes ‘do’ into ‘try’, or alters the means for the person to do what was commanded so he thinks he is doing, but instead sinning… then then both you and he are in violation of God’s instruction. And in that, facing a much bigger threat than the Talmud acknowledges.

        Jeremiah 8:8-13

        • jeremy rosen

          Greg
          Are you seriously trying to second guess God?
          I honestly do not know what you are driving at other than criticizing the Talmud when every single traditional text of every religion is as open to ridicule, misunderstanding and misuse as much as it can be used as a source of inspiration. One chooses ones own poison.
          Jeremy

        • Greg

          You’d like to think so. But if instead I’m asking you to consider the real cause of the plague, then you’d have to accept that the Talmud was actually the source of the problem and not the cure.

          And sure, there may be inspirational parts in it, but didn’t you read the passage, where God said that they healed the hurt slightly…

  • N L Friedman

    Holocaust survivors are rapidly disappearing. I wonder what human encounters the author of that article in the Yeshiva University Beacon, titled “Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust,” has had with any actual victims of the Holocaust, and, if so, how much he really understood about them.

    My parents survived the Holocaust. I agree that ad hominem attacks, curses, and death threats are wrong. I searched for that article mentioned above and read it before forming an opinion. Its author will continue to be left unnamed, but, apparently, some thought his viewpoint, even one expressed so “provocatively,” worthy of prominent publication. I also note that that author later apologized, at least, for his “provocative” title.

    Unfortunately, in that (presumably young yeshiva bokher’s) essay, more than just the title was unnecessarily provocative, written af tsu lehakhis, whether from foolish or inarticulate (or deliberate) choices of hurtful words. One need not be a talmid khokhem to know that words matter. The author certainly doesn’t deserve to have the skin flayed from his body, but he does deserve to be rebuked for his khutspe and told — if he still doesn’t yet know — how he is wrong to have written what he did rather than what he thought he did or may have intended to do.

    As to his reductio ad absurdum about that bad thing about “the Holocaust” being the most important “thing” in the Jewish world to the exclusion of anything else, of course that’s absurd and false; contrary to the benign assessment in the article above, his argument does try repeatedly to “minimize” the importance of “the Holocaust,” to “make room” for all those other good “things” in Judaism.

    Obviously, to that author and those who find him convincing, “the Holocaust” must be a bad “thing” for drawing attention away from all the good in Judaism and in the rest of the world. Just as obviously, for all our attempts at education about it, the Holocaust is still not understood well enough even in some Jewish minds. I note today that there are many Jews who don’t know what the Omer or Tisha B’Av is about. While there are still those for whom it is a living memory, it is an extreme sacrilege and insult to suggest that Holocaust awareness be “minimized” in importance.

    Let me propose one simple analogy. Suppose one were to have a deep, unhealable, open wound that brought indescribable pain when probed. One must certainly try to get on with the rest of one’s life as best one can (and the survivors did), but how can one control a visceral reaction to such provocation and probing when told by someone apparently so unaffected by it to “get over” it?

    • jeremy rosen

      Thank you NL for that moving response. I would only argue with one thing. He did not say that remembering the Holocaust was a “bad thing.” That would indeed be ridiculous and offensive. He was talking about emphasis. Maybe he is just an immatire student and mabe it was a case of stirring the pot. There’s no harm in that. We adults should be big enough to take it and argue back reasonably.
      Jeremy

  • Simcha

    This is the second time in a few days that I have heard from two different sources about respectful debate. The only time that establishment Jews call for respect is when they feel they are losing control of the public arena. The vicious discourse has always come from people on the right.

    I am a graduate of Yeshiva College/Y.U. I am also a graduate of Bar Ilan U. in Israel. I used to be very proud of being a YU grad and modern Orthodox Jew. No more. I studied in YU in the late 60’s. No more. The move to the right is so apparent. I would not send my son to YU today.

    The vicious talk is always feom the right whether in American affairs or those of Israel. This article quotes the extreme responses which respectful views and discussion get you. It is also clear from where it comes.

    I have on more than one occasion risk my life for the medina . I was a volunteer in Israel during the six day war just five miles or so from the Egyption troops in Gaza. Later in my life I lived in the city of Kiryat Shemona were I was lulled to sleep with Israeli artillary and awoken by sirens to take cover only to feel Katyusha rockets landing a few hundred meters away. Should that not give me permission to speak.

    When I came back from six plus years in Israel I thought that the Jewish community would want to hear about my experience. From my first efforts to speak, I found that many organized efforts to stop me from having access to speak in Jewish circles was put in place. All because I was revealing Isreal’s pimples and not just praising its beauty.

    I am convinced beyond any doubt that respectful debate is just talking points by the establishment who buy their power with money and refuse to share control with committed Jews who disagree with the direction of their leadership.

    Actually the most dangerous issue for the Jew’s in America and in Israel is the occupation. Though I consider myself a life long Zionist who has proven it with actions and not money, I have held this view of the occupation for thirty years. Prof. Yishayahu Leibowitch, torah scholar and a’h held similar views until his death. Every effort to have an open discussion in a public Jewish forum was prevented.

    The author quotes rabbis in support his views. I will rely on our Torah. Hochiach tochiach et amecha and further l’hochiach b’sha’ar. You shall rebuke your people when they go wrong at the gates of the city.

    Their was a custom in our past that any Jew who had a beef with other Jews could stop the synagogue service and ask for redress. This has been denied to those of us who speak Jewish truth. Though desirable, what will respectful debate get. Nothing.

    Telling other Jews that they are wrong is a mitzva as long as it is designed to try to change the other persons ways without humiliating him. The only humiliating statements come from the right and ignorant Jews on the left. Not from those of us who just want to be heard but have never been given an opportunity.

    The call for dignified debate is mostly another attempt to shut us up.

    • jeremy rosen

      Simcha
      I completely agree that Yeshaya Leibovitz was a great man and he was right about the evils of Occupation.He spoke his mind and he was ignored. And I sympathize with your pain at the refusal of people to listen and the inability of the Jewish community to take criticism. But what then is your answer? Not to talk at all?
      Jeremy

  • Greg

    The biggest internal threat? It goes deeper than ‘can’t we all just get along.’ Like God telling Samuel that He doesn’t judge by outward appearance, but by looking at the heart.

    Biggest threat? The first two words of the article is a good start, but again it’s the heart that embraces it, hides in it as opposed to openly doing what God commanded… somewhat like Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves… but worse as is written in Is 59:6.

    But, like you said, ‘There is no attempt to tackle the issue, just dismiss it.’

    I’ve already experienced that on a number of occasions here, it seems easier to try and deal with interpersonal issues than inner personal ones.

    • jeremy rosen

      Not sure what youre driving at. Care to expand?
      Jeremy

    • Greg

      Sure, my point is this, How do you hope to reach the goal as summarized in Zechariah 8:16 with a faulty road map?

      • jeremy rosen

        Greg
        The world is as corrupt and dishonest now as it was in Zechariah’s day and we have failed to find systems of governance and interaction that are honest. He would have answered “Follow Torah and you will get there.” I wish it were that simple. But in the meantime each one of us should try to live according to Zechariahs principles, follow Torah and be honest.
        Jeremy

      • Greg

        Kind of interesting, I was just reading where Naaman the Syrian almost wasn’t cleansed of his leprosy because the task given was too simple.

        The principles weren’t Zechariah’s but the Lord’s and if the traditions handed down corrupt, distort and alter the simplicity of His instruction how can we hope to receive His help in resolving issues in the increasingly corrupt and dishonest world we live in?

        And the Lord’s instruction in Zechariah wasn’t “try” either, was it.

        • jeremy rosen

          Greg
          Nothing wrong with the traditions handed down. No ones come up with a better version since his time. Only problem is with the people who dont follow them.
          Jeremy

        • Greg

          Jeremy, how good can they be when they change ‘do’ to ‘try’? How are people supposed to follow what’s been changed? They can’t very well ‘do’ when they’ve been told only to ‘try’ can they…

          • jeremy rosen

            Greg
            You misunderstand me. They say “do” and I say “do.” But most people can only try and even more fail.
            J

          • Greg

            Unfortunately when you base any instruction off of what ‘the Talmud says’ your admonition to ‘do’, is not the same as His.

            When He says ‘speak each man the truth with his neighbor.’ As soon as you start teaching from the Talmud you’ve joined the ranks of those who’ve failed… same for giving judgment for justice, truth and peace.

          • jeremy rosen

            Greg
            Clearly we are talking at cross purposes and are on different pages.
            Jeremy

          • Greg

            Let’s back up a moment then, and let me ask this, Is it your position/understanding that God’s commands + Talmudic explanation = do/how to do?

            You said there was nothing wrong with the traditions, so was there something I misunderstood in that?

  • Nadia Dellal

    Very thought provoking article. Dismissing a point or view in religious and political or other dialogue requires a maturity in its response. Otherwise I sadly agree that issues will be dismissed and not sucessfully debated.

    It is my view that different opinions do not always necessarily diminish current perspectives, and should be embraced for being fresh views. There is a clear line between anti-semitism, or negative comments when it comes to religious and political debate.

    The tendancy to assume new perspectives somehow undermine or conflict with present views is not helpful in engaging with new opinions and dialogue. In fact, its the opposite reaction to our centuries old jewish method of philosophizing, arguing, debating, and coming to a well thought out understanding which embraces our tradition, and brings our understanding collectively to a new level.

    I hope we can engage better in this context, and let our debate and discourse flourish as it well should.

  • Nadia Dellal

    Very thought provoking article. Dismissing a point or view in religious and political or other dialogue requires a maturity in its response. Otherwise I sadly agree that issues will be dismissed and not sucessfully debated.

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