When I was 13, I went for a post-bar mitzvah trip to Israel with my parents. One morning my father shared with me what he thought was the most important thing Israel was meant to do. "We've been so far apart as a people," he mused. "Israel will bring in Ashkenazim, Sephardim, white, black, big small. They'll meet, their children will marry and within one or two generations there will once again be a single Jewish people."
I won't state how disappointed I am at how Israeli society has failed to reach that goal. Indeed, I'm not the only one to notice. There's a nice piece by Rav Emmanuel Feldman in The Jerusalem Post today that carries his thoughts on the subject. He manages to bring up a few very important observations, starting with his opening paragraph:
Fresh out of the yeshiva, I spent my first year in the rabbinate in a lovely American small town. My congregants were warm, fine people, but I was the only fully observant Jew. At the time, a veteran rabbi asked me if the experience had strengthened my Jewishness or weakened it. Without hesitation, I replied that it had been strengthened. The very need to explain and to respond to challenges had forced me to become a more alert and more knowledgeable Jew.
How often have we heard the exact opposite? People want their kids to attend schools and yeshivos where the population is homogenous and identical in looks and beliefs. They want to socialize with groups who are compatible with what they think is important. As a result, they forget how to interact with "the other". And after forgetfulness comes hostility. "I'd rather have my child in a class with other Ashkenazi chareidim" turns into "Don't let those Sephardim/Ethiopians into the neughbourhood."
And yes, as Rav Feldman points out, interaction with "the other" often has a beneficial result. In the free market of competing ideas or haskafos, for one to continue to hold their beliefs they must understand why they have those beliefs in the first place. This forces one to confront automatic behaviours or things one does "because my parents did it" and ask: how is this Jewish/ What is the root of it? How does it compare to the other values I am noticing?
No one is talking to anyone but like-minded people. Does a kippa seruga talk to a shtreimel? Does a black hat talk to one who wears no head covering - or to a kippa seruga? Does the lady with the sheitel and the woman with the uncovered hair ever communicate with one another? Do Belzer Hassidim talk with Breslov Hassidim? Do Ashkenazim talk with Sephardim? The insularity - even within groups who have identical beliefs - is palpable.
Insularity is the easiest way to protect onself from having to justify one's views. One can live in a virtual ghetto, never having to confront contradictions or competing ideas. Over time, one's views become entrenched, even twisted from the original because of the lack of confrontation needed to keep them understood. From this come the subcultures in Judaism that believe the strangest thigns, dress the strangest ways and turn around and look at the rest with disdain.
The biggest shame is:
And they might even learn from one another. The secular Jew might learn that the observant Jew is not a monster, that he is not engaged in religious coercion, and that although he observes Shabbat and attends synagogue daily, he is not a wild-eyed fanatic, but a very decent human being. And the observant Jew might discover that his secular neighbor, though he wears no head covering, is always ready to be a good neighbor, to help him in a thousand ways, and is a real mensch.
The alternative, avoiding "the other" means stating "I don't want to learn, to grow, to engage in new facets of Torah. I want to stay right where I am because where I am is perfect." What hubris! How much is this against what we call Torah which demands of us constant intellectual effort and spiritual growth.
I often shake my head when I read on other blogs about people who were coerced into being frum or who have been told that certain, strange chumros are part and parcel of being an Orthodox Jew. In the end, this is why I have chosen to live in a small Jewish community. Yes, where I live isn't a large area. Our frum community is so small we can't afford to be factional. We can't afford not to interact in every way with the rest of our brethren around. We have one shul, one mikveh, one kosher butcher and one community school. Yes, I wrote community. My children attend classes with the other Jewish children from our area who aren't necessarily that religious (or at all sometimes). As Rav Feldman notes:
They might even be strengthened in their Jewishness, like the young rabbi in our first paragraph. Jewish children who are secure in their own beliefs and practices can only be invigorated and fortified by meeting other Jewish children of different beliefs. If they ask their parents why this and why that, the theology of the parents could only be strengthened by the need to explain and to help their children - and themselves - understand who they are. In this way, children and adults would also learn how to live in the real world where not everyone is alike. They can be helped to grow by learning that there are differences, and to learn to tolerate and understand those differences.
One of the biggest reasons for Orthodox dropout amongst those who attend university is the inability of the Orthodox young adult to reconcile their lifestyles with the open lifestyles of their new compatriots, especially their Jewish ones. For some, it's the first time they meet other Jews, non-religious but still proud of their identity, and come to ask why they need to be frum to be good Jews when all around them are people who don't observe our holy laws but feel they're doing just fine.
Children raised in a setting where they can meet other kids learn to justify themselves, gain strenghtin their identity and this strength accompanies them later through life. They will be frum not because it's the only thing they know how to do or because they've been forced into it but because they've accepted the obligation of God's Torah willingly and happily. Their will be a secuar sense of Judaism which has no need to shut out "the other" to prevent contaminating ideas. They will be able to engage in the dialogue that is sorely lacking amongst our people and preventing our Moshiach from engaging in his final task.