There is an old joke that asks how many Jews it takes to change a light bulb, to which the response, of course, is that it takes several multiples of Jews: one who actually changes the bulb and several others to argue over the various different ways of how to actually do it.
Clearly, this one-liner serves as a reflection of the divided reality of the Jewish world in which we live, where Jews of different denominations and ethnic and cultural backgrounds try to co-exist, but it is not always easy. Yet the fear of a divided a Jewish people was always something that has preoccupied our rabbis since the time of the Talmud. Interpreting a commandment from the Book of Deuteronomy, the rabbis in the tractate Yevamot cautioned against the forming agudot, factions, when it came to political, social, and particular religious issues of the time. Naturally, our sages recognized that there would always be some disagreement in the manner in which Jewish communities operated, but it was understood that when it came to the actual implementation of practice, there was always the aspiration of unity for the sake of Am Yisrael, the “nation of Israel” or Jewish people.
When I lived in Israel for a year, even in the microcosm of Jerusalem, it was very easy for me to see the ways in which Israeli society stratified. And having just followed the Israeli electoral process, it is further tempting to contemplate the way in which the process may have further stratified Israeli society. During the Israeli elections themselves, there were over thirty political parties on the ballot from which voters could choose. The incoming Knesset itself will feature twelve different political parties, some of which seem to the casual observer to only share minute differences from each other, rendering them unnecessary. The campaign itself was hard-fought, with sometimes rather harsh, ethnically and religiously offensive political advertising.
Can all of this infighting be good for the Jewish people? Could the Israeli system of so allowing so many agudot, factions, to compete, even violate the spirit of halakha, Jewish law?
In his farewell address, America's first president, George Washington, warned about the danger of political factions becoming “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People.” In America, we see this kind of behavior taking place all the time in a broken system that has as of recent become more about grandstanding than legislating. Our electorate has been stratified into “red states,” which refer to Republican Party/conservative states, and “blue states,” which are Democratic Party/progressive areas of the country, even though most of us probably fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, for Americans who do not fit into neat political boxes, our current system deceives partisan leaders into believing they have a mandate rather than sensing the needs of a varied electorate – just as Washington foresaw. With its lack of variety, the American electoral process at times denies the people its true voice, leaving most Americans today pessimistic that, due to factions in our country, any work will get done.
Whereas in Israel, counterintuitively, I find just the opposite: that more parties ultimately create more unity. Like America, where very few Jews fit into the neat rubric of our two-party system, Israelis also share a wide variety of opinions and values about any host of issues, and the fact that there are so many factions allows everyone to theoretically find a niche or an issue that matters to them and voice it on the ballot.
From the outside, twelve political factions may seem inefficient. But in the Knesset this system forces compromise. Each time that an elected prime minister must seek out a coalition without a clear mandate, a process of soul-searching takes place where the government must do its best to try to understand the soul and intent of the Israeli electorate. It is a process in which political rivals must join together in unity, so that it may speak with a clear voice for the good of the Jewish state and Jewish people. It is a system of which our sages of blessed memory would be quite proud.
In Israel, the process of changing a light bulb may take dozens of Jews and agudot to complete, but that is because there is a recognition that we are all in this creative process together. Sometimes, sitting in the dark while the coalition tries to form and trying to follow the diversity and flow of Israeli politics can induce headaches. Yet the American electorate could learn a lot from the Israeli model that does a much better job of forcing unity and consensus than ours. In America, we are still sitting in the dark.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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