Why Jews Are Divided by Politics and Religion
This essay explores the psychological underpinnings of why it’s so hard for us Jews to get along.
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We, as humans, have evolved to live in moral matrices, which bind us together around sacred values — and we enliven these values through terms like mindset, morality, politics, culture, lifestyle, faith, and spirituality.
When it comes to the Jewish People, no small group is more diverse ethnically, culturally, attitudinally, and religiously.
“Diversity is a sign of strength — not weakness,” the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote.1
As Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein offered in his 1884 book, Aruch HaShulchan, Moses doesn’t use the word Torah in the last of the 613 commandments. Rather, he proclaims the Hebrew word shirah (song) because, in this respect, Torah is like music: Its greatest beauty lies in complex harmonies. And, as the Netziv wrote in his commentary on the Tower of Babel, uniformity of thought is not a sign of freedom, but its opposite.2
Yet, despite sharing the same prefix, unity is not uniformity. If uniformity asks, “Can we all agree?” then unity posits:
“Can we all get along?”
Following the death of King Solomon, circa 931 BCE, a civil war divided our ancestors into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The prophets foretold that, in Messianic times, we would reunite into a single nation again. The Ten Tribes of Israel were “lost” in the Assyrian exile, and we are descended from Judah, which is why we’re called Jews.3
When our modern state was founded in 1948, we didn’t call it Judah; we called it Israel, representing our spirit of unity.
“Separated by civil war, hundreds of years as separate nations, thousands of years lost in exile, yet they are still our brethren, for whose return we long,” Rabbi Steven Burg wrote. “If we can feel so united with brethren so far removed, can we accomplish the same with others we face on a daily basis? Can we recognize that all Jews are our brothers and sisters, regardless of what they may or may not wear on their heads?”4
Does family come first?
Dr. Erica Brown, the Vice Provost and Director of Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University, grew up as an Ashkenazi Jew in a predominantly Sephardic New Jersey town. She doesn’t look Syrian, but when people asked Brown if she was, she would joke about being a “wannabe.”
“It was not because I saw myself ritually or materially like the Jews around me, but I saw something in the Syrian culture that made me very envious,” Brown wrote. “The community had a certain kind of intimacy, an easy sort of connectedness that allowed people with very different customs and behaviors to sit at the same Shabbat table without judgment.”5
At the time, only a small percentage of the Jews in her town were really Sabbath observant, but almost everyone Brown knew kept a kosher home, enjoyed Friday night dinner, and observed the Jewish holidays in some way. Rumor had it that every woman even went to the mikvah.
“As I grew older and became more of a student of Jewish history, I understood that this kind of acceptance was common in other Sephardic communities,” she wrote. “Certain commandments were central to maintaining the integrity of one’s Jewishness, but the bonds of family and community were even stronger than any distance created by differing ritual practices or levels of observance.”
Unity was paramount, Brown said, and in order to achieve it, certain individual predilections had to be compromised for the ultimate sake of the community’s wholeness.
“The community is your family, and everyone in a family does not look alike or behave alike, but there is room at the table for them all,” she wrote. “I was not seeing that in most of the Ashkenazic communities I lived in or visited. Often very small differences of ritual practice created what seemed like untraversable distances among Jews. The Ashkenazi air always seems thick with judgment: too much to the right of me, too much to the left of me, not close enough for friendship. Family? Forget about it.”
Brown was quick to point out that she was not offering a sociological study of religion, but simply her “naïve childhood observances” of the way different communities function and achieve (or miss) the goal of unity.
“Even so, I still believe the only way unity and true ahavat Yisrael can be achieved is to believe in one’s heart and to illustrate through one’s actions that family comes first,” Brown wrote. “We are immensely lucky to be part of an extended family that is thousands of years old. Religion is a critical glue in keeping family together, but we have to remember that it is not the only glue. I mean this as no heresy. Being Jewish is a faith, a nationality, an ethnicity, and a layer of identity. Whichever layer you choose as your outer garment determines much of what lies beneath.”
Introduction to Moral Psychology
Morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilization — and as an extension, Judaism — possible. It also made two of the most important, vexing, and divisive topics in human life: politics and religion.
“Etiquette books tell us not to discuss these topics in polite company, but I say go ahead,” wrote Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. “Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together.”6