For a few fleeting days this past week, some much-needed Jewish unity was in the air. As Israel reeled from the Meron disaster on Lag Ba'omer that claimed 45 precious souls, the highly rare yet immensely valuable commodity of Jewish communal solidarity was readily on display.
Over and over again, the same refrains were uttered: "We must unite," "We all share the same fate" and "We must learn to live together with one another despite our differences."
As refreshing as it is to hear such sentiments, we all need to ask ourselves a blunt yet pressing question: Why does it take a catastrophe, war or a pandemic to bring us together?
Sure, to unite in the face of tragedy is better than not at all. But it pales in comparison to unifying on a daily, ongoing basis.
The schisms within Israeli society are manifold, the fault lines are well known. But the division I find truly mystifying is that which exists within religious Jewry, in particular between religious Zionists and haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
After all, they believe in the same creator, observe the same Shabbat and study the same Torah. Sure, their pronunciation might differ, the size and fabric of their yarmulkes may vary, their attitudes toward the state are dissimilar, and their preference for facial hair might diverge. But they strive for the same sanctity and await the same redeemer. Shouldn't that be enough?
But alas, it is not. Far from it.
Indeed, it sometimes appears as if the rifts are sharpening as never before. Consider one salient fact: In 1949, in the first Knesset, four religious parties ran together on a joint list called the United Religious Front, which comprised Mizrachi, HaPoel HaMizrachi, Agudat Israel and Poalei Agudat Israel. Yes, you read that correctly. Haredim and religious Zionists politicking with each other, rather than against one another. And nowadays? The very idea is inconceivable.
That is a depressing thought, and it reflects a reality that needs to be addressed in an urgent and decisive manner. The fault lines within Orthodoxy today are extensive and growing, and resolute action must be taken to reverse this trend.
To be sure, there is nothing inherently new in the fact that different groups within Orthodoxy find themselves at loggerheads. The birth of the hassidic movement in the 18th century and the opposition it engendered in Lithuania and elsewhere is just one of many such examples. Other key events, such as the rise of political Zionism and the Enlightenment, also became flash points for competing views.
Prominent rabbis down through the ages were not immune to fierce opposition from their colleagues. In the 13th century, Dominican monks burned copies of Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed after it had been denounced by a handful of French rabbis. And in the middle of the 18th century, the great Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz came under harsh criticism from Rabbi Yaakov Emden, who accused him of being a follower of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, provoking huge controversy among German Jewry.
Whether today's divisions within Orthodoxy outweigh those that preceded them is an interesting question, yet it is one that is best left to historians.
Our task, our immediate, urgent responsibility, is to find a way to mend the fissures and repair the breach.
The failure to do so until now is rooted in an uncomfortable truth with which we must contend. Based on previous experience, we know that disasters such as Meron, like other catastrophic events, are unlikely over time to bring about real change in how we relate to one another as Jews and as human beings.
Sure, for a week or two it imbues us with that comforting thought that we are one people, but like a summer breeze, it dissipates all too quickly in the face of heat, whether of the verbal, political or atmospheric kind.
AS A RESULT, we find ourselves reliving the same patterns year in and year out. Mockery and malediction briefly give way to thoughtfulness and appreciation only to revert back once the crisis has passed. Anyone more observant than his fellow is deemed a fanatic while someone less punctilious is viewed as a heretic.
In a sense, then, Meron and similar incidents present us all with an important opportunity to seize the moment and to bring about real change, change that extends beyond sloganeering.
But moving past mere lip service requires us to acknowledge that the idea of unity is just that: an idea. It is a concept, an abstraction, like love, compassion or gratitude. To invoke unity as a necessity without offering concrete steps for achieving it is the equivalent of saying that one needs to eat while failing to take measures to fill one's stomach.
Hence, I think it is essential to begin by redefining our terms and, more importantly, our goal.
In Hebrew, the word for unity is "achdut," based on the word "echad," or one. Rightly or wrongly, unity often implies unanimity, leaving little room for the diversity of opinions and beliefs that exist among all human beings. And it is those differences, or to put it more accurately, the unwillingness to tolerate such differences, that leads to so much strife.
But there is another, far more profound way to define achdut by focusing instead on its first two Hebrew letters: Alef and Chet, which spell ach, or brother.
In other words, perhaps we should view our collective goal not as promoting unity per se, but rather a sense of fraternity. What's the difference?
Well, in a family setting, no one expects siblings to think, look or behave alike, and yet there is an unbreakable bond that ties everyone together. Brothers come to each other's aid, love one another and support each other regardless of the distinctions among them.
If we embrace this ideal and begin to implement it, real change might be possible.
So here is a simple, practical step that can be taken to revive the sense of brotherhood within religious Jewry. Imagine, for example, if once or twice a year, religious-Zionist and haredi yeshivas held joint programs where students from the two communities would sit and study Talmud together, poring over the text, imbibing the wisdom of Rashi's comments and elucidating the novellae of the Tosafists. They could trace the development of the Halacha (Jewish law), grappling with the opinions of the Rishonim (early authorities) and navigating their way through the Acharonim (later authorities). Imagine the impact it would have upon the young and budding scholars to discover that they share a passion for truth and a pursuit of the sacred despite their differences. This isn't about convincing one another, it's about embracing a brother, even if his path in Torah may differ.
Of course, the obstacles to launching even such a simple program are numerous, be they ideological, theological or political. But that only underlines just how bad the situation has become. If learning Torah together across the haredi-religious Zionist spectrum is fraught with so much difficulty, what does that say about the current state of religious Jewry?
There are certainly many other creative ideas that can and should be explored. But the key is to take action now and restore some much-needed fellowship.
The events in Meron were a painful reminder that death is the great unifier. No man or woman on earth can escape its clutches. To be united when confronting death and watching scenes of funeral after funeral on the news is no difficult task. The greater and more important challenge is to carry that feeling over into our day-to-day existence, while we are still among the living. And the time to do so is now.