Friday, October 28, 2011

Unity or Uniformity?

Last night I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Berel Wein at a wedding where he officiated. I have been an admirer of his for a long time. Although we both attended and received Semicha from the same Yeshiva, we had never met. We were not there at the same time. Those who frequent this blog will know that I often reference him in my posts. In fact my strongly held view of what the Orthodoxy of the future will look like is based largely on his perception of how we are currently evolving – a perception that I share.

I call it the ‘New Centrism’ where moderate Charedim and right wing Modern Orthodox Jews live similar lifestyles in combined communities becoming one large social grouping. And this is not the only thing which we share a common outlook. I do not recall ever disagreeing with him.

An article by Rabbi Wein in Jewish World Review (sent to me by an alert reader) is once again virtually identical to my own way of thinking. It speaks of unity of the Jewish people underscoring that unity does not mean conformity. In fact it means the opposite. Unity means that we are diverse but united by the common bond of the Torah. Unity means that we respect each other’s views even if we don’t see exactly eye to eye on things; that we are a united and loving family; that we care for one another as Jews and as human beings; and that we strive to project a positive image to the world in the sense of being a ‘light unto the nations’.

Yesterday I wrote about Jewish unity. I feel very strongly about uniting as a people regardless of whatever denomination we identify with or our level of observance. But Orthodox Jews have an additional aspect of unity that unfortunately is not shared with the greater Jewish population – the commitment to observe all the Mitzvos of the Torah and a belief system that basically encompasses the ‘13 principles of faith’ as outlined by the Rambam.

Chazal point out that there are Shivim, Panim LaTorah… seventy facets to the Torah. That means that are many legitimate Hashkafos. That is what diversity among the Orthodox is all about. And yet there are those who only understand unity as conformity... sameness.

One often hears certain segments of Orthodoxy speaking about unity. What they really mean is uniformity. They see only their own way of life as legitimate. What about Shivim Panim LaTorah? They will explain that it doesn’t apply to the differing Hashkafos of today. That Hashkafos like TIDE and TuM are illegitimate. The only true Derech for them is the one they belong to. TIDE they will say is B’Dieved and TuM is entirely illegitimate.

Their desire for uniformity is obvious. But their understanding of it is in my view questionable. Walk into any Beis HaMedrash and see how their students dress. That will give you a clue about how they see unity. It is not unity. It is uniformity And that is wrong. Diversity is our strength not our weakness. Uniformity is a form of tyranny and could lead to evil. Rabbi Wein makes this point based on this week’s Parsha:

The generation of Terach, the father of Abraham, was ruled by a tyrant, Nimrod. It was the dor haflagah, — the generation that ultimately divided itself into many different languages and cultures.

That generation, fearful of another disastrous flood that would destroy it, resolved that by unifying all in executing a grand and all-encompassing project — the building of the great tower — it would be able to prevent divine punishment from striking it. Unity of people was necessary to even begin work on such a project.

So the world's peoples spoke only one language and spoke only of one way and one goal. This unity, which at first glance always appears to be so desirable, soon sank into a cold, ruthless and murderous conformity. Big Brother Nimrod controlled everything and everybody and anyone who dared to express a dissenting opinion — such as Abraham — was immediately consigned to the furnace of destruction.

Nimrod and the dor haflagah, is representative of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Kim's North Korea, the mullahs of Iran, Mugabe's Zimbabwe and all of the other dictatorial regimes that plague our planet. The drab conformity of imposed purpose, the stifling of the human spirit and the exploitation of the millions for the fulfillment of a cockeyed impractical ideal always lead to death, destruction and tragedy. The world needs many Abrahams and far fewer Nimrods.