When Jews Attack Jews

When Orthodox rabbis insult other communities, it desecrates God's name and reinforces stereotypes of an intolerance that lacks intellectual rigor and religious depth.

It's ironic that while American rabbis were ruing the results of the Pew Report and scrambling to work out how they could attract disaffected young Jews back to their communities, some British rabbis were doing just the opposite. Faced with a similar epidemic of assimilation and handed the opportunity to teach at Limmud, Britain's largest gathering of Jews, their response was to condemn, to criticize and to decline.

These Orthodox rabbis eschew any educational opportunity which might involve interaction with the non-Orthodox; they won't place themselves in any environment that might make them feel uncomfortable, threaten their core beliefs or bring criticism from their peers.

I respect the reasons why these rabbis might caution their flocks against going to Limmud, and I identify with their need to take a firm stand defending traditional Judaism.

But it is precisely because we face terrible splits in the Jewish people that rabbis and teachers must build whatever bridges we can - without compromising our beliefs - to ensure Jewish unity for as long as possible. Where we wish to express our disagreement with others, we should do so decently, intelligently and with sensitivity.

Each time we insult another community, we reinforce all the stereotypes of harsh, intolerant Orthodoxy that lacks the intellectual rigor and religious depth to debate the arguments. That is a desecration of God's name which distances people from Orthodox Judaism.

The Rabbis who attend Limmud are not "fig leaves" covering some terrible sin, but courageous teachers of Torah whose love of God and the Jewish people means that they refuse to miss a single opportunity to share their passion for our traditions with other Jews.

Perhaps, like me, they also draw inspiration from the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who would literally go anywhere and everywhere - from Buddhist retreats and gatherings of the Moonies to Woodstock - to find Jews with whom he could lovingly and respectfully share Torah.

Though lecturing and learning at Limmud, with its warm atmosphere, its buzz of intellectual discussion, endless supplies of Beth Din certified kosher food, regular prayer services and an eruv for Shabbat is really no great sacrifice!

At Limmud, there are people with whom I disagree profoundly, but they are all warm, intelligent people and as a fearless and committed Orthodox rabbi I relish the debate. In fact, I still wonder why we left the floor wide open for so many years, allowing everyone else to influence, inspire and recruit while we fumbled about deliberating whether we dared speak there or not.

In Israel, Jews cannot afford the luxury of such boycotts. Our children must serve and fight alongside soldiers who do not share our most precious beliefs. Our governments are made up of coalitions of Jews from across the spectrum who have to negotiate policy on how to run our Jewish country.

Outside of government, there are more exciting partnerships. Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion (where I studied) and Dr Ruth Gavison, a well-known secular academic, sat together for three years to forge a joint platform on the nature of Shabbat in Israel, so that both secular and religious Israelis could enjoy the day without overly inconveniencing one or offending the other. Indeed, no one went further in exploring how different types of Jews could live together than my teacher, emeritus British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, through his early writings and his establishment of Jewish Continuity.

While there is plenty of room for debate about our principles, attacks on Jews who attend Limmud are totally out of place. Our people are not always perfect, but Judaism does not like us to speak badly about them. A Midrash relates how Resh Lakish and Rabbi Abahu once visited the city of Caesarea. It was a place of mixed reputation and Rabbi Abahu clearly felt uncomfortable. He turned to Resh Lakish and asked, Why are we going to this city of cursers? Resh Lakish promptly disembarked from his donkey, shoveled up some sand and stuffed into the mouth of his fellow scholar. When Rabbi Abahu recovered from this assault, he asked his companion why he had acted so savagely. Resh Lakish replied; God does not want you to slander the Jewish people! (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:6)

It's easy to engage in heresy hunts, but before attacking others, Orthodox Jews should get on with "perfecting the world according to the Kingship of God." We have yet to inspire most of the Jewish people with Torah, let alone inspiring the world with our beliefs or dealing with the numerous problems that haunt our universe. Each time we gripe about others, we take away precious time from that mission and show ourselves to be mean-spirited instead of visionary, exciting and dynamic.

If we cannot find ways to sit down with our fellow Jews, learn Torah and mend the world with them, that should be a source of deep distress and soul searching, not an excuse for squalid triumphalism.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel He also serves as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He wrote his Master's thesis on the dilemmas of Orthodox rabbis participating in pluralist events and will lecture on the subject at next month's Limmud Conference in England. 

Shirli Kirschner