In Order to Live Together, Both Religious and Secular Jews Need to Accept Discomfort

Those who wish to live in a society comprised of both religious and secular Jews must understand that there will be times when they have to compromise, even when it contradicts their values.

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I consider myself lucky that I spend a lot of time in mixed groups of self-identified secular and religious Jews. However, when it comes time to discuss sensitive issues, the mood always gets more tense. "Why do the secular always have to compromise our values to give in to the religious?" I frequently hear. "We shouldn't always have to revert to the frummest (most religious) common denominator."

As someone who identifies with both the religious and secular worlds in Israel, I am never quite sure how to answer this. On the one hand, I believe that true compromise means that all people involved need to give up something. On the other hand, it sometimes feels as though the secular are being asked to give up a luxury while the religious are being asked to give up a requirement. Shouldn't people be willing to compromise what they want so that others can do what they need?

Most recently this conversation came up regarding the opening of a new movie theater in Jerusalem. The movie theater is slated to be closed on Shabbat, which has led to an outcry from religious and secular Jerusalem residents alike. Those arguing in favor of the theater's being open on Shabbat believe that it will be one more attraction encouraging secular Israelis to move to Jerusalem. Those against the move may point to the particularly unique nature of Jerusalem as a city in which Shabbat defines the city from Friday evening to Saturday night.

In a desire to make their voices heard, secular residents of Jerusalem planned a protest against the movie theater's schedule for this past Saturday evening. Perceived a secular struggle against the religiously observant, the protest was originally planned to begin a number of hours before the end of Shabbat. Before long, religious Jerusalemites sympathetic to the cause asked for the protest to be postponed to after Shabbat so as to enable more religious people to join. The mostly self-identified secular residents involved in the debate pinpointed the major issue: it is not a question of whether one group's "needs" take preference over the other group's "wants" – after all, starting the protest later would not impinge on any "secular" values, while religious residents could walk to the protest - the question is over which group needs to give up their comfort.

This issue of comfort defines so many of the conflicts between religious and secular, and it also explains the secular frustration at why they seemingly always have to be the ones to compromise. The real question that they rightly ask, is "Shouldn't we share in the discomfort?" Nowhere was this dilemma more profound (and in my mind, more beautifully resolved) than in the case of a female rabbi who came to say Kaddish at an Orthodox synagogue. The Orthodox rabbi, Akiva Herzfeld, invited his colleague to lead services, even though it was against his understanding of Jewish law. "One of us had to be uncomfortable," he was quoted as saying. "Why should it have been her and not me?"

In any compromise, as Herzfeld demonstrated, both parties need to not only think about what they want, but also how uncomfortable they are willing to be. If a religious person invites a non-religious person to her house, she would certainly make her guest uncomfortable if she insisted that she not bring any food because the host does not trust her level of kashrut. Does this host's comfort take precedence over that of her guest?

Once a month, there is a public struggle for comfort at the Western Wall. Some men are made uncomfortable by hearing women's voices. Some women are made uncomfortable by seeing other women wear religious garb such as tallit and tefillin. For years the police enforced a policy of protecting those people's comfort at the expense of the comfort of the women who felt uncomfortable having their religious expression dictated to them by strictest form of ultra-Orthodoxy. Two judges recently ruled in favor of the Women of the Wall, stating that the police are not empowered to protect the comfort of the Women of the Wall's opponents, but rather to maintain the rule of law at the Wall.

Ultimately, the protest over the Jerusalem cinema began an hour and a half before Shabbat ended, and continued after Shabbat. Both the religious and secular accepted that they needed to be uncomfortable for the sake of the other and the sake of the cause in which they believed. This acceptance of discomfort represents a strong statement about the ideal society in which we strive to live. As long as we try to build a shared society made up of people of different values and practices, there will be moments of discomfort. Only when we are all willing to accept that we too will be uncomfortable will we enable such a pluralistic society.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Jerusalemites at a light rail stop near the city’s entrance. Credit: Emil Salman

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