Orthodox factions are united against themselves

For a brief moment, Jewish unity was in the air. As the beat of the music grew increasingly louder, the circle of wedding celebrants out on Long Island danced with ever more vigor, enveloping the groom and his family in a ring of energetic merriment.

With sweat pouring down their faces, the guests comprising this human dance chain looked like a microcosm of modern-day Orthodox Jewry. Businessmen sporting knitted kippahs held onto yeshiva students wearing velvet yarmulkes, while men in large black fedoras moved in tandem to the music alongside those who had only recently embraced religious observance.

And so, for a few short hours at least, all the various ideological and political disputes plaguing the Orthodox community were set aside as those in attendance joined together with just one aim in mind: to celebrate the creation of yet another faithful Jewish household.

But the ease with which these disparate members of Orthodoxy came together belied the growing fissures that threaten to divide them. In the United States, Israel and elsewhere, a troubling tone of stridency has taken hold, sharpening the rifts as never before.

Indeed, it was 50 years ago this month that something ordinary happened in the life of the Orthodox community which, when viewed through today’s lens, now appears to have been nothing short of extraordinary.

In February 1956, the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America held a conference that included among its speakers Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, two of the most renowned and prominent sages of the yeshiva world.

At first glance, this might appear to be a historical footnote. But the sad fact is that the divisions within Orthodoxy have grown so pronounced in the intervening five decades, it almost seems fanciful to conceive of a similar event taking place in our own times.

As the RCA’s own journal, Tradition, noted in a symposium on the state of Orthodoxy several years ago: “It is fair to say that today such invitations to luminaries of the yeshiva world would neither be issued nor accepted.”

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 it is time that resolute action be taken to stem this dangerous trend.

Centrists and right-wingers snipe at each other, while religious Zionists and haredis are often at odds, even as various Chassidic groups find it difficult to get along.

The underlying fact that these groups all share so much in the way of fundamental beliefs and practices, from Sabbath observance to Torah study to traditional family values, is either overlooked or swept aside, replaced all too often by mockery, scorn and downright contempt for those who do things ever so differently.

To be sure, there is nothing inherently new in the fact that different groups within Orthodoxy find themselves at loggerheads with one another. The birth of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century, and the opposition it engendered, is just one of many such examples. Other key events, such as the rise of political Zionism and the Enlightenment, also became flashpoints for competing views among Orthodox thinkers.

Prominent rabbis throughout the ages were also not immune to fierce opposition from their colleagues. In the 13th century, Dominican monks burned copies of Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” after the great philosophical work was 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.

But while today’s divisions within Orthodoxy may not be any more vehement or pronounced than those which preceded them, there is one very salient factor that makes it far more hazardous — the context in which it is taking place.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, which devastated European Jewry, Orthodoxy has succeeded in reviving itself and its institutions, providing the Jewish people with a strong core that is committed to preserving tradition.

But even as assimilation, intermarriage and other threats hover perilously over the collective Jewish future, Orthodoxy has failed to close ranks, instead expending a great deal of precious energy and resources in internecine conflict and endless disputes.

One simple, yet concrete, example: 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.

And nowadays? Only visionaries or dreamers would speak of establishing such a joint list.

Another case in point: Many modern Orthodox Jews feel their community is under assault from the right, complaining about a “creeping haredization” that is taking place. Sociologist Samuel Heilman has described it as “an ongoing struggle for the heart of Orthodoxy in America; a battle, which has become more intense over the last 20 years, to define what sort of Orthodoxy will best ensure Jewish continuity.”

An “ongoing struggle”? A “battle”? Have things gotten so bad that we need to borrow terms from the combat arena to describe internal developments within Orthodoxy?

Apparently so. Orthodoxy, it seems, is united only against itself. And this must not be allowed to continue.

There are several steps that could be taken to address this situation, all of which essentially boil down to learning to respect other paths within Torah Judaism.

Imagine, for example, if religious Zionist and haredi yeshivas held periodic exchange programs where young scholars from the two communities would together study Talmud, and only Talmud (no politics allowed), thereby learning to appreciate and value each other’s way of life.

And what if the leaders of the different groupings organized joint public meetings, sending a clear message about the importance of maintaining unity and refraining from infighting and strife?

At a time when so much of what Orthodox Jewry holds dear is coming under fire, from the land of Israel to the role of religion in public life, there has got to be a way to bring the various elements together for the sake of the common good.

Beyond just the dance floor, that is.

Michael Freund is chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.