To Separate or Engage: an Age-Old and Contemporary Question

by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb

As we observe our Jewish community today, we are struck by the impact of two distinct energies that emanate from different camps. One Voice is the voice of caution and careful deliberation in the face of an ‘awe’ (Yirah) that is transmitted within their gates. This voice gets translated into an emphasis on particularism. Another Voice is the voice of expansion (Ahavah) and outreach into the outer society to interact with its challenges and contribute to its growth and healing. (l’taken olam b’malchut Shakai). This gets expressed as a universalistic impulse within Judaism.

This dynamic is the topic of a forum I will be moderating on Sunday, March 20th, featuring influential rabbis and thinkers from across the spectrum of our faith. It is also a question Jews have struggled with since Abraham first communed with G-d. In our biblical text, we are charged to be a ‘Holy People,’ (kedoshim tihyu, Lev. ch.19) we are asked to become a ‘holy nation, and a Light unto the world.’

But how does one become a light unto the world?

Some choose to separate themselves from the outer society, remove its base influences, and develop a holy, insular community that will become a venerated example to the outer world. Others see the label of ‘holy nation’ as a charge to enter into the society that we live in, bringing the values of our tradition to the world, improving the world through our actions, and thus influencing the progress of the world through our behaviors, and bringing the glory of G-d’s name into the world as a result of our holy interaction.

Which of these voices should we, as Jews, follow?

It is clear that Judaism is not monolithic and both of these valid energies represent strong voices. Are they mutually exclusive or can they live side by side strengthening each other? If our communities live separately from each other with little interaction and intimate dialogue, the tendency is to strengthen one’s own natural way of seeing the world, and perceive negativity within the outer group. If there is an openness to different groups there is a greater chance to see the positive qualities of the other, even while disagreeing with their ideology.

Instead of seeing the ‘caution’ of one group as a negative, we understand the reasoning behind it and affirm its importance. Likewise, rather than stereotyping the more ‘universal’ group as naive and lacking in boundaries, we may appreciate the good intentions and trusting nature of this group as a bridge-builder that expands positive feelings towards each other, leading to more ethical behavior and community building.

Sometimes the tensions, if they are integrated, lead to greater creativity and insight as they expand our initial perspectives. Our traditions and communities can be enhanced by this inner and outer dialogue. But if the boundaries are too tight, and no communication is allowed or experienced across them, we tend to become more extreme in our beliefs and often split off and create new communities. We have seen this in our recent Jewish history, with the creation of the Hasidic movement, the Mussar movement, started by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, and the rise of the different denominations (and post-denominations) in modern Jewish society.

The way of Joseph and the way of Judah

In the Rabbinic tradition, the Maharal explains these two energies in relation to how we are to create the Messianic world of the future. One strategy is to embody the behavior of our ancestor Joseph ‘the Righteous one.’ When Potiphera attempted to seduce him in his master’s house, he responded by running away from her. His attitude in perfecting the world and achieving holiness was to separate oneself from evil temptations and practices, and thus achieve holiness by erecting a barrier between himself and unholy influences.

Joseph’s brother, Judah, behaved in a different manner in order to introduce holiness into the world of outsiders. Rather than fleeing from Tamar who appeared darkened in his eyes, he entered into a relationship with her which resulted in a revealing of her inner holiness and both were uplifted in the encounter. Interacting with people who appear to be on a different level of holiness, may reveal the innate holy potential that resides in every human being and can become manifest through our loving relationship with them. And we too are elevated in this encounter, and this brings holiness to our world. Both the ways of Joseph and Judah in actualizing holiness are authentically honorable and effective, and different temperaments choose the innate proclivities that they are comfortable with.

“Any way can be a way, as long as you make it a way” 

Our challenge is to see the latent ‘image of G-d’ that resides within every human being, and thus not judge the motivations of different paths to holiness. Instead we must accept their ‘difference’ as an additional way toward holiness.  As the Kotzker once said, “Any way can be a way, as long as you make it a way,” or as the founder of the Musar movement taught, “Rather than worrying about another person’s spiritual level, and your own physical needs, worry about another person’s physical needs and your own spiritual level.”

Some of the questions that we will deal with in our upcoming forum are:

Is it possible for us to bridge the gap, to open communication between disparate communities, or is the tension already too great? 

Can we resurrect the notion that the unity of the Jewish people is so vital to our survival and creativity that we must make a greater effort to learn to love our fellow Jew (and indeed all G-d’s creatures) in all their uniqueness despite our intellectual disagreements?

What are the methods and strategies that we must pursue and master to promote healing and greater harmony in our communities, and see ourselves as a part of a larger Jewish community despite our different practices and beliefs? 

What kinds of practice can enhance our self-awareness, especially in examining our prejudices?

How can we understand the dynamics of group behavior that can create habitual stereotyping of those outside of the group, resulting in our discouraging differing opinions?

Our distinguished panelists will confront and discuss these and many other pertinent questions. You won’t want to miss this most exciting discussion!  Put it on your calendar now.


Rabbi Mel Gottlieb 2011Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD, is President Emeritus of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the former Dean of its Rabbinical and Chaplaincy programs. He currently serves as Mashgiach Ruchani, advising AJRCA students in their spiritual development. Rabbi Gottlieb teaches a variety of courses including Kabbala, Hassidic Commentaries, Spiritual Dimensions of Biblical Texts, Rav Kook, and the Mussar Psychoethical Masters. He is also the Co-Founder of Claremont Lincoln University. Learn more about next month’s forum here

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