Recovering a Community of Ethical Controversy

October 1, 2003
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By Brad Hirschfield

To the extent that consensus indicates a mutu-ally agreed upon conclusion or definition for the entire Jewish people, or at least as much as possible at any given moment, count me out. In fact, I think that we spend far too much time, effort, energy, and money pursuing a goal that is not even good for the Jewish people. Healthy spiritual communities are marked not by the degree of consensus that they achieve but by the extent of ethical controversy that they can maintain. The test of success lies not in the number of agreements that can be reached between participants in any given conversation but in the amount of time that they will participate in that ongoing conversation as their differences arise.

Of course, there is nothing radical about this approach; it was pioneered by the talmudic rabbis who opted for the establishment of a community of ethical controversy. We should do the same. They understood that even the rabbis with whom they had profound disagreements continued to be addressed as rebbe because even (or perhaps especially) when we disagree, we can be each otherps teachers. They accepted that even the most impossible disagreements, those for which one was separated from the community, were generally to be revisited after 30 days, because no position is so absolutely right or true that it does not need to be reexamined regularly. They preserved multiple opinions and positions within their own system because they acknowledged that what is right for today may be wrong for tomorrow. Imagine if we invited each other to participate in a community that was guided not by its search for agreement but by its adherence to those norms of engagement.

There are times - primarily in issues of life and death - when agreement must be, and is, reached, when coordinated action by an entire community is needed, and a common policy is sought. But it’s our search for agreements that do not occur naturally of which I remain suspicious - moments when we are told that we must agree for the sake of Jewish unity or the future of the Jewish people. While I strongly believe in the unity of the Jewish people, the term is misused by people who fail to appreciate the difference between unity and uniformity. Rav Kook taught almost a century ago that real unity comes from recognizing the necessity of precisely those opinions and opinion-makers with whom we appear to be in conflict.

The challenge lies not in convincing people to see matters uniformly but, rather, in looking at our own responses and asking why we do not recognize the connections that, even if elusive, exist. Our task is to know our own Jewish boundaries - on issues of intermarriage, Israel, or what constitutes Jewish philanthropy - and take steps to reach across these boundaries, if only by a margin of 10 percent. With whom are you prepared to talk though you disagree and have not spoken over time? The purpose of such reaching is not to adopt the other personps idea or stance but to understand how he or she makes a particular contribution to Jewish life, one that could not be made from your own current perspective.

I find especially useful the image of many people spread across a wide territory - each person has his or her own well, his or her own bucket. It would foster little good to force everyone to gather at the same well or use the same devices for drawing water from the ground. There would be crowding and disagreements about to whom the well belongs. Instead, we should create as many well diggers as possible and remind each as a part of their training that, whatever well they choose to build and however they bring up their water, they are all drawing from the same shared aquifer. They may not even see it, but they should always remember that fact and treat both their wells and each other accordingly.

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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is Vice President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and most recently co-author of Embracing Life and Facing Death, A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care.

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