The Jewish Civil War:
The Divided House of Judaism
by Mel Waldman
I am a Jew! Alienated from the religious aspects of my Jewish identity for many years, I return to my religion, at this introspective point in my life, longing for a deep spiritual experience. But I am saddened by a horrific discovery. Judaism, my precious religion, is a divided house, a schism between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox branches of the religion.
Historically, different groups and factions within Judaism have fought among themselves, including the 12 tribes 3,000 years ago (Falcon & Blatner). In the first century C.E., “the Pharisees fought the Sadducees” (Falcon & Blatner). Furthermore, some say that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans because of the civil war that occurred within Judaism.
“The Jewish resistance fragmented between upper and lower classes, the priestly caste and the masses, fundamentalists and progressives” (Freedman). Eventually, “as the Romans advanced through Judea, the Jewish forces guarding the holy capital of Jerusalem turned their swords against each other” (Freedman). Thus, “the Second Temple, Jews came to believe, was lost less to the Romans than to their own sinat hinam, pure hatred, groundless hatred” (Freedman 2000).
Some authorities “believe that there’s more open fighting between Jewish groups today than there has been in over 2,000 years” (Falcon & Blatner). Furthermore, “the biggest issue in Judaism today — bigger than anti-Semitism, or the Palestinian conflict, or even interfaith marriage — is the friction emerging between ultra-observant and less-observant parts of the Jewish community. These battles are emerging largely on American soil, though they’re becoming even more visible in Israel, as well” (Falcon & Blatner). Sadly, “each group is viewed as an enemy of Jewish continuity by the other” (Freedman).
Differences also exist within the non-Orthodox communities among Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular Humanistic Jews. However, the non-Orthodox groups “can still support intergroup communication” (Falcon & Blatner). On the other hand, “the ability of the ultra-observant to share with others is far more limited. In many communities, Orthodox rabbis won’t even meet with groups that include non-Orthodox rabbis” (Falcon & Blatner).
What saddens me the most is the violence between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox branches of Judaism documented by Freedman (2000). This violence is occurring in Israel and right here in America. Jews are attacking one another physically, verbally, emotionally, and spiritually. How can such abuse occur? I am horrified by such non-spiritual behavior. Such violence undermines the basic principles of Judaism. Have we shattered the concept of Klal Yisrael, the community of Jews?
We are truly in the midst of a civil war that is escalating every moment. Freedman (2000) predicts a Jewish Reformation. He states that “the divides between the existing branches of Judaism on both theological and social issues are growing so vast, so irreconcilable, that in time those branches, like Christianity after Martin Luther, will be divergent faiths sharing a common deity and a common ancestry.”
He prognosticates that American Jewry will reorganize into factions he calls “Haredi, Conservative, Reformative, and Just Jews.” (The haredi are the “Ultra-Orthodox” sometimes called “black hats.” For detailed explanations of the other factions, please read Jew vs. Jew.)
What shall we do? Can we deny the fact that we are in the midst of a Jewish civil war? (What do you believe?) Can we end the war? Can the different branches of Judaism sit at one table and rediscover unity? Can we recreate Klal Yisrael?
When Hitler murdered 6 million Jews, he did not ask them if they were Orthodox, non-Orthodox, or non-practicing Jews. All were sent to the gas chambers! Do we need a massive dose of anti-Semitism to reunite the different Jewish factions?
Hopefully, we can find a more positive bond to bring us together? But if we cannot accomplish this goal of unity, the House of Judaism may be forever divided.
Even within my own family, I have “Ultra-Orthodox” relatives who have distanced themselves from me and other less religious relatives. I do not know what they think of me. But it is my wish that they love and accept me although I hold different beliefs. And certainly I love and accept them as they are.
When I was a young Jewish man, I was an Orthodox Jew who observed a small-to-moderate number of the 613 commandments. Every Saturday I went to synagogue and sometimes I felt a deep connection to Hashem. In Hebrew school, my teacher noted my “gifts,” as did the rabbi of the shul. At some point, they suggested I go to a yeshiva and study to become a rabbi. However, I chose a similar but different path. I became a psychotherapist. And as a therapist, I have been, at times, a spiritual guide to my patients.
Now, I am a Jew who seeks spiritual nourishment. I am not a religious Jew. Yet I seek more of my religion now than I have in decades. I do not know the “correct” religious dose or spiritual dose that I need. But what I do know is that I wish to re-explore my religion and when I perform religious rituals, I need to feel connected to Hashem.
I cannot adhere to rituals simply for the sake of appearing religious. I need substance and inner fulfillment. My pious practices must contain a vast landscape of spirituality. I seek Hashem and I hope to find a viable marriage between my religion and my spirituality.
I ask my Orthodox rabbi to love and accept me as I am. I also ask him to love and accept all Jews, regardless of their beliefs and practices.
I suppose I share a belief in pluralism as espoused “by America’s non-Orthodox Jews” in which “any variation of Judaism must be accepted by everyone, no obligations required and no questions asked” (Freedman).
At this significant time in Jewish history, I beseech my Orthodox rabbi to sit at a table for Jewish unity and speak with non-Orthodox rabbis. Perhaps, you do not believe in the concept of pluralism. We do not have to agree about this matter. But there is violence within the Jewish community. It must stop! I believe it is time for unity! I believe it is time to love and accept one another.
Finally, I reach out to my Jewish and non-Jewish readers and ask you to share your thoughts and feelings. The current Jewish civil war is not unlike the civil wars and wars mankind has faced in the past and present and may face in the future. How do we get people or countries at war to negotiate a peace? How do we empower the two or more parties at war to agree to disagree and try to resolve irreconcilable differences?
In this complex world of multiple ideologies and world views, in which each culture, religion, or country may embrace a different Weltanschauung, it seems imperative that all of us learn to understand and respect other religious and cultural beliefs.
What do you think? What are your recommendations? The divided House of Judaism is in trouble. Yet in this mysterious universe, I suspect we are all connected by scattered sparks of divinity. And if we are all connected, how can we neglect the present crisis in Judaism without losing precious pieces of our souls?
Let us perform acts of tikkun olam! Let us repair the world!
Falcon, T., & Blatner, D., Judaism for Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2001.
Freedman, S. G., Jew vs. Jew. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Copyright © 2008 by Mel Waldman