Rabbi Berel Wein

JWR Only in the Middle East!

Jewish World Review August 25, 2000 /24 Menachem-Av, 5760

Diversity and unity

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE NOMINATION of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the US Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate has engendered a slew of reportage and commentary about Orthodox Judaism, both in America and here in Israel.

What I found most heartening about this frenzy is that it is slowly dawning upon non-Orthodox Jews and the non-Jewish world that Orthodoxy is not monolithic.

I have always maintained that Orthodoxy is the most pluralistic of all Jewish groups. It has the widest range of ideas, personalities, institutions and traditions in the Jewish world. It is truly the "pluralism" that everyone seems to champion so devotedly.

Lieberman has been characterized as "Modern Orthodox." (Though in all of my years in the American rabbinate I was unable to define that characterization in specific terms, I accept it here for the sake of argument.)

There is also "Hassidic," "Yeshivish," "Shtiebel Orthodox," "Young Israel Orthodox," "Chabad Orthodox," and "Zionist Orthodox." And this does not include the significant number of groupings within Sephardic Orthodoxy, which is worthy of a study all by itself.

Within each of these groupings -- and the above list is far from exhaustive -- there are further subdivisions. The Hassidic grouping alone comprises at least 50 strains, traditions, loyalties and world outlooks. Each one has its own rebbe/leader, its own set of customs and even its own uniform (though to an untrained eye, all appear to be dressed alike).

The same can be said for all the other Orthodox groups I have listed. The Orthodox world is constantly changing and re-forming. Yeshivas that were dominant a few decades ago have fallen back, and other institutions have replaced them at the top. In the realm of education and ideas, there is enormous competition.

The Orthodox world is also very noisy. There are many strongly held opinions on almost everything, from the nuances of ritual to how to confront the societies we live in, and a different authority figure for each of the Orthodox subgroups. This has led to a great deal of discussion, often vituperative, within Orthodoxy. There have been more than a few lapses into self-righteousness and overzealous responses to differing opinions and leaders.

But it is this very diversity, these differences in outlook and tactics, that provide Orthodoxy with checks and balances that are so lacking among other groups of Jews. One can be certain within Orthodoxy that one's opinion on almost anything (especially if it is expressed in a newspaper column) will be challenged by other Orthodox Jews, and thus one must always be prepared to refine and defend one's thoughts.

It is this process of constant debate and argument that has preserved the Jewish people with its Torah.

But what binds all the Orthodox together is the belief in the divine origin of the Torah and the unwavering faith in Jewish history and destiny as presented to us by Jewish tradition.

We do not believe that our grandparents or their grandparents before them were liars.

Much of the criticism of Orthodoxy from the non-Orthodox world is based on ignorance --- ignorance of the true nature of the Orthodox community. It stems from an inability to recognize all the different streams that feed the river of Orthodox Judaism. It defines Orthodoxy in the mode or appearance of the subgroup the critic finds most distasteful, and then tars all of traditional Jewry with that brush.

That is unfair and self-defeating. The secular camp in Israel can only benefit from having contact with religious Jewry. But if it demeans all of Orthodoxy, if it confuses the religious political parties with Judaism, then it is unsophisticated and wrong.

Some fascinating newspaper columns and op-ed pieces written about the Lieberman nomination were by Jews who, having "made it big" in their chosen fields, now regret having jettisoned much of their Jewish heritage and observances in the process. They are openly jealous of Lieberman, not because of his success, but because of his Shabbat.

So they write with nostalgia about their childhood Shabbat, which they felt compelled to discard in their pursuit of worldly dreams.

The non-Orthodox Jewish world has always had as its prime axiom that Jews and the Jewish people and the Jewish state could never succeed in the modern world if it was burdened by the commandments, strictures and customs of Torah and tradition. Lieberman's greatest achievement, no matter what the result of the election, is to put to rest that false premise, which has led to so much Jewish tragedy. Within the diversity of Orthodoxy there are many different answers to the problems of modernity. But in this respect, Orthodoxy has never presented itself well.

Lieberman's nomination is an enormous boost for the true understanding of how timeless Judaism really works in our tense and complicated times.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2000, Rabbi Berel Wein