Essays Print
Extremism in the Defense of Judaism is no Vice by Joseph R. Rackman
Extremism in the Defense of Judaism is no Vice by Joseph R. Rackman

Volume 4 , Issue 2

In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater ran for the Presidency of the United States against President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Senator was criticized for his conservative views (which would later become acceptable in the more benign Reagan form). Goldwater was criticized for being excessively anti‑communist and an ardent Cold Warrior. His response to his critics was, ?Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.?

The same philosophy seems to govern intra‑Jewish dialogue. The motto of the day seems to be, ?Extremism in the defense of Judaism is no vice.? The polemicists of the right and left justify their attacks on fellow Jews in the name of God or peoplehood or whatever banner they choose to rally around. Now, it is nice that Jews passionately debate their religious beliefs. It is only an ossified people that agrees upon everything (and the next step is for it to be encased in a museum display). Debate is synonymous with vibrancy. The problem is the stridency of the debate.

I understand that people are passionate about their religious beliefs. It comes from a determination to do God's will. One does not take such a task lightly and one will tend to be more passionate in one's statement about God than about, for example, George Steinbrenner ? though one can become passionate about him as well.

The problem is that people often confuse God's will with what is their perception of God's will. Those of us who believe in God know that He has a will, a certain destiny for the world. The problem is whether I correctly perceive His intentions. The knowledge that I am human and a mere interpreter (who may well err) of His will serves to temper the stridency of my tone.

There is a second critical mistake animating religious extremism. Even if we know (or believe we know) what Gods expects from us, this does not necessarily mean that God expects the same from everyone. For example, Jewish law is very clear that Jews are held to a different standard of behavior than non‑Jews. And God mandated distinctions between Jews. For example, in the time of the Temples, the role of the priest was distinct from that of the non‑priest, the Israelite. Even amongst the Israelites, there was the model of the wealthy (the Tribe of Issachar) supporting the scholars (the Tribe of Zebulin).

To take a more modern example, let us assume that all Israelis were right‑wing Orthodox and as many males as possible aspired to learn as much as they could all day in kollelim (schools of Torah learning where the students are supported by the community). Very quickly the rabbis would figure out that they need young men in the army and no one would tolerate a blanket exemption from the army for these students. It is precisely because, at the present time, there are others who will serve in the army (young Orthodox rabbinic students among them, it should be noted) that the right‑wing Orthodox world can advocate (and the rest of Israeli society accept) that these young scholars be exempted from the army.

If these two points are borne in mind, religious debate will change from an attack mode to advocating one's own position. Not only will this lead to greater Jewish civility, but it is a prescription for success in our current battle of ideologies. To prove this point, I suggest that one only look as far as the Lubavitch movement.

Critics of the Lubavitch miss the true appeal that this Hasidic group has outside its own circle. I have heard very sophisticated and bright leaders of secular Jewish organizations express envy for the fund‑raising abilities of the Lubavitch. One said, ?They're selling the afterlife. If you give enough money, those millionaires think, the Rebbe will get them into heaven.?

I do not think that this is the appeal which Lubavitch holds for many of its contributors. The key to the Lubavitch success is that they make people feel good about Judaism. The Lubavitch on the street who try to get Jews to put on phylacteries do not entice the Jews into the Lubavitch van, the Mitzvah‑mobile, by disparaging the Jewish practices of the person being spoken to. They do not say that you are a Reform Jew and are doomed. Instead, the Lubavitch invite him to try to experience yet another aspect of Judaism. The Lubavitcher does not attack the other side; he seeks to persuade by exposing his way of life to others.

Indeed, the one time the Lubavitch attacked the other side was when the ?Who is a Jew?? debate raged. Though the Lubavitch deny it, many other sources indicate that the Lubavitch sought a change in Israel's Law of Return, to deny validity to conversions performed by non‑Orthodox rabbis (and that these Jews who were converted by non‑Orthodox rabbis would not have status as Jews in the State of Israel). Lubavitch was not alone in seeking this change in the Law of Return, but the failure of this issue to again surface in Israel indicates that the Lubavitch, among others, have learned that there is a high price to be paid for attacking other movements.

Now the Lubavitch do not subscribe to my view that there should be variety in Jewish life, but they do appear to subscribe to the idea that attacking fellow Jews will not entice outsiders into their fold. And that pragmatic approach, even if not ideologically based, if uniformly adopted, would restore a large measure of civility to intra‑Jewish debate.

The unwillingness of the Lubavitch to tolerate diverse opinions within their group makes me uncomfortable, but that does not mean that I need to attack Lubavitch. If I and others have different philosophies to espouse, we should advocate them without the need to denigrate the other sides.

At the deepest level, the need to attack the other side is due to the consistent refusal to focus upon one's own failures. The Orthodox will not ask themselves why, for over a century, the vast majority of Jews have not accepted their rabbis as the leaders of the Jewish community. The fault must lie somewhere other than in our own camp, is the emotional response of the Orthodox. And so it is easier to argue that the Reform and Conservative movements have led Jews astray, rather than focus upon why eighty percent of American Jews feel Orthodox rabbis are not relevant to their lives. It is easier for the Orthodox to focus upon the remnant, the hard core of the faithful, rather than to focus upon the rest of American Jewry. Even if Orthodox outreach is so successful that half of all Orthodox synagogue members are baale teshuvah, it would still mean that the Orthodox were willing to consign four million American Jews to the ash heap of our history.

This critique works equally well when aimed at the Conservative and Reform movements. Were the Agudath Israel to suddenly reverse itself tomorrow and grant recognition to Reform rabbis as official leaders of a segment of Jewry, it would not prevent a single intermarriage from occurring. This rampant disease is unaffected by the theological games our rabbis are playing. But it is easier for a Reform rabbi to bash the Orthodox, than to increase synagogue and day school attendance.

Similarly, the Conservative movement's problems will not be solved by Orthodox recognition. Regardless of the behavior of the Orthodox, the Conservatives must demonstrate the ability to create vibrant communities which will keep hold of their best and brightest (who are often the products of their enviable summer camp programs). The failure of the Orthodox to recognize the Conservatives as halakhic Jews has nothing to do with this problem. But who cares; it is easier to attack Orthodoxy as being too rigid.

No, dear Jews, the faults lie not in the other camps, but in ourselves (to paraphrase a much better writer than I). There is much left to do in every camp. And I urge everyone to be passionate about his or her beliefs. Extremism in the defense of Judaism is no vice, provided one is advancing one's own position and not attacking the others. It is a relatively simple rule to follow and one to which most Jewish leaders would subscribe. Unfortunately, all too often the rule is observed more in its breach.

Joseph Rackman is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Lehrer.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011