Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
We Jews insist on asking questions, and debating the answers. Throughout Jewish history our inquisitiveness, our unwillingness to simply accept that which we are told, our insistence that we be heard and that the ideas of others are deserving of our respect, whether we agree with them or not, have been a mainstay of what makes us a people.
But what happens if those who hold certain ideas or beliefs become so certain of their rightness, that they are unwilling to accept the possibility they are wrong, in whole or in part? What happens if ideas become ideologies, with a sense of permanence that does not allow for change or rebuttal? What happens if certain ideologies become the basis of movements which exclude the possibility that there may be a better way, a different approach, or an adjustment to the initial idea which may make it better?
When that happens you have stagnation. You have intolerance, anger, frustration, and sometimes violence. You lose that which is valuable about humanity because you lose the ability to grow, inquire, and evolve. And you may end up with political movements that can do a good deal of harm to others.
Unfortunately, there are an increasing number of examples of this type of ideological stagnation in the Canadian Jewish community. During last year’s federal election, anyone who did not support the Conservative party was seen by many as being a traitor to fellow Jews. For too many, there was no question to be debated or discussed – there was just the Truth.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the political process has produced a crop of ideologically based politicians who, in almost every case, are supported by followers who are so sure of the rightness of their candidate’s position (even those politicians who appear entirely unclear in their positions) that they will brook no compromise, and will yell, scream, spit or fight, in support of their Truth.
And then there is the ongoing divide in the Jewish community between those more traditional in their style of religious observance and those less traditional. The debate, of course, is a fair one, and offers much to teach for both positions. But to the extent that one side treats the issue as closed, and consequently degrades the other, we again have stagnation and a weakening in the social fabric of our community.
As we mark Israel’s independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we remember both the miracle and the human sacrifices which led to the formation and ensure the continued survival of the Jewish state. But perhaps we should also remember that the ongoing debate which preceded Israel’s independence, and which continues to be at the underpinnings of Israel’s vibrant democracy, has led to a steadily evolving Israeli society, an evolution which is necessary in order to beat back both the internal and external challenges of statehood.
Without doubt, the Jewish community needs people with strong convictions and the willingness to speak out. We need passion. We need the desire to approach a question and to come up with an answer that makes sense and can be supported. But we will all most benefit if those people who would lead or be strong followers would also be open to the possibility that their research may have been flawed, that some of their assumptions may have been incorrect, or that their conclusions may lead to negative outcomes they had not considered.
We have all heard versions of the same joke: Stick 10 Jews in a room and you’ll end up with 11 opinions. For our community’s thought leaders, whether here in Canada or in the United States or in Israel, to be fully valuable, they need to demonstrate the humility which comes from recognizing that the “truth” is seldom static, that answers constantly evolve, and that we can be the best we can be only if we are open to listen to others, and to the respectful debates that can only lead to better outcomes for all of us.