Parshah Musings –
Parshah Musings –
When to cut and run, and when to stick around and fight
By Elisha Greenbaum
Politics is ugly business, small-town politics is feral and Jewish community politics can also be vicious. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly. Throughout history, many wonderful communities have been destroyed by the twin evils of gossip mongering and the pursuit of power.
People sometimes fight; we all know that and have unfortunately even come to expect it. Not everyone can or even should share the same opinion. There is a great big world out there that would be rendered pretty boring if uniformity of attitude became the norm.
But we do have a right to demand civility amidst disagreement and respect even towards our opponents. The Rebbe of Kotzk once interpreted the famous Talmudic phrase, "Just like people's faces are different, so too they have different opinions,"1 as a general reflection on the correct attitude towards interpersonal conflict: Just like it doesn't bother me that people have different faces, if anything it demonstrates my uniqueness and individuality, so too I should not be disturbed by the fact that they think differently than me or subscribe to another ideology.
I may often disagree with you, I may feel it my responsibility to persuade you of my perspective on the issue, I may be unready to be convinced by you of your opinion, yet there is almost no proponent of even the most foreign ideology with whom I should not be willing to meet for a private chat and to acknowledge their essential humanity.
That might all be true in theory, but in practice people do disagree, sides get taken, dissension grows, and feelings are hurt. It is sometimes tempting to just break away from it all, to take your own bat and ball and go home to sulk. How can I know when it's time to cut and run and when to stick around and fight?
It was just this dilemma that the Jews of a small Polish town were wrestling with. A huge fight had been swirling around town for months and all signs were pointing to a protracted dispute. Almost half the town had become Chassidim while those in the opposing camp counted themselves as Mitnagdim (opponents).
It is sometimes difficult for people to accept that erstwhile friends and neighbors could just abandon some of the traditions of their shared past for a new and more attractive way of life, so the Mitnagdim attempted to force the Chassidim to recant and return to the previous practices. Unfortunately the means they chose to employ occasionally crossed the line from persuasion to persecution.
At the end of their patience and tether, many of the Chassidim contemplated seceding from the established Jewish community and founding new institutions and synagogues in which they could live and worship in peace.
Before agreeing to such a drastic step they sought the advice of the venerable Rabbi Yisroel, the holy Maggid of Kozhnitz, the mentor of the regional Chassidic communities. To their surprise, Rabbi Yisroel strongly counseled them against abandoning the established order and advised them to stay within the community while respectfully presenting their viewpoint.
The Maggid pointed out that the Bible records many occasions of anger and disagreements; throughout our fractured history people were constantly sinning and being sinned against, and only once were we commanded to "separate yourself from these people."2 This directive was issued regarding Korach and his rebellious camp.
What was different about the argument of Korach and his co-plotters against Moses from all other rebellions and resistances? Why on this one occasion were the Jews advised to totally disengage and let G d deal with the problem? The answer is that Korach and his followers were arguing for the sake of argument. The sole purpose of their rebellion was to cause a rift between the Jewish people.3
When someone differs with me over ideology, religion or politics, I may feel threatened by his techniques or upset by his positional bargaining; yet there still remains some common perspective that should allow us to maintain a civil discussion while respectfully agreeing to disagree. Even if my opponent gets carried away during the argument and resorts to violence or abuse, I may defend myself to protect my beliefs and persuasion, but I will still recognize his right to his own opinion, even while deploring his tactics.
Only in those extremely rare occasions where I am convinced that the cause of our disagreement is that the other team just wants to fight me, with no true underlying ideological position underpinning their perspective, will I walk away from the fight with my head held high and without a backwards glance.
Counseled the Maggid: "We may strongly believe in the justice of our position, however our opponents are also motivated by their love for Judaism and an honest belief in the righteousness of their ways. They may have carried the argument too far and resorted to unfair practices and desperation tactics, yet at heart they are pure and there remains hope of reconciliation. You should remain within the established community, work to find common cause and hope and pray that with the passage of time the truth will prevail."
1. Berachot 58a.
2. Numbers 16:21.
3. See Targum Unkelos on Numbers 16:1.