One of the factors that has most plagued Jewish life in the last two centuries is the splits within the Jewish community. An idealized (and mistaken) picture of Jewish history would paint an image of harmony prevailing between different groups of Jews for much of the pre-modern past. According to this idea, there was only high tension between different groups of Jews at rare times in our pre-modern history, such as in the period of the late Second Temple. For most of the time, Jews have pulled together and their problems have come from the outside world.
The true picture is very different. In almost all periods of Jewish history there have been considerable tensions within many Jewish communities and between different communities. Sometimes these have been along ideological and theological lines; sometimes the origin of the tension rests with economical or social matters. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the last two centuries since the beginning of the onset of modernity have set new records in internal community tension. The confrontation with the modern world - with its philosophical pressures and social temptations - has split the Jews in many different ways and has created tremendous fragmentation in the community. It is impossible to paper over the differences: they are real and may be unbridgeable, at least in theological and philosophical terms.
Leaving aside those Jews who have opted out of any meaningful relationship with the Jewish community, and restricting ourselves to the Jews who consciously see themselves as part of the community, the situation is very difficult. At the extremes, different groups of Jews de-legitimize each other, seeing the opposite extreme as a threat to the health of the Jewish community. Some modern Jews consider traditional, ultra-Orthodox Jews as examples of an outmoded way of life that holds the community back from full integration and acceptance in outside society.
We see a classic example of this in Eli the Fanatic, a 1957 story by the American Jewish writer Philip Roth. The story revolves around the arrival of a small ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva in a middle-class Jewish community in America. The community is totally outraged that their well-balanced suburban Jewish lifestyle, achieved after many years of hard work and carefully cultivated relations with the surrounding non-Jews, is now going to be threatened by ‘outsiders.’ They ask Eli, a Jewish lawyer in the community, to try to limit the newcomers’ intrusion in community life by restricting them to their own grounds and not allowing them to appear in their traditional dress in the streets of the town. Here is an excerpt:
“This isn’t so simple, Ted. People are involved…”
“People? Eli, we’ve been through this and through this. We’re not just dealing with people - these are religious fanatics… Dressing like that. What I’d really like to find out is what goes on up there [in the newly opened yeshiva]. I’m getting more and more skeptical, Eli, and I’m not afraid to admit it. It smells like a lot of hocus-pocus abracadabra stuff to me… Look, I don’t even know about this Sunday school business. Sundays, I drive my oldest kid all the way to Scarsdale to learn Bible stories…and you know what she comes up with: This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God’s sake! You call that religion? Today a guy like that they’d lock him up. This is an age of science, Eli…They’ve disproved all that stuff, and I refuse to sit by and watch it happening on my own front lawn."
“Nothing’s happening on your front lawn, Teddie. You’re exaggerating, nobody’s sacrificing their kid.”
“You’re damn right, Eli – I’m not sacrificing mine. You’ll see when you have your own what it’s like. All the place is, is a hideaway for people who can’t face life. It’s a matter of needs. They have all these superstitions, and why do you think? Because they can’t face the world, because they can’t take their place in society…Look, Eli - pal, there’s a good healthy relationship in this town because it’s modern Jews and Protestants. That’s the point, isn’t it, Eli? Let’s not kid each other… There’s going to be no pogroms in Woodenton. Right? ’Cause there’s no fanatics, no crazy people - “ Eli winced, and closed his eyes a second - “just people who respect each other, and leave each other be. Common sense is the ruling thing, Eli. I’m for common sense. Moderation.”
The story, which eventually veers off into surreal humor, can be seen as both parody and parable. It parodies the Jewish ignorance and boorishness of the modern ‘acculturated’ Jewish community, and ridicules their paranoia. At the same time, it reveals the deep tensions and fears underlying much of the modern Jewish experience and so can be seen as a carefully constructed parable of modern Jewish life. For our purposes here, it illustrates the difficulty of talking about the educational level of the Jewish community in a fractured Jewish world. What for one part of the Jewish community stands for the highest educational values may be seen by others as the most backward of superstitions and representative of a past that, if not best forgotten, at the very least should not intrude into the present.
The picture is equally gloomy at the other extreme. Much of the traditional ultra-Orthodox community constantly de-legitimizes Jews outside of its own framework, seeing them as boors, ignorant of all Jewish knowledge or even as traitors to the Jewish heritage and future. Even the modern Orthodox are subjected to this treatment by some elements in the traditional world.
In this reality, we clearly need to ask whether this situation must always be accepted, or whether it is possible to build bridges between the groups in order to improve the overall situation in the Jewish community. It is to this subject that we now turn.