Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson
Unity and conformity in the religious society



Rabbi Berel Wein

I believe that there is a great deal of difference between unity and conformity. Unity signifies a basic agreement upon principles, accepted values and a willingness to cooperate with others in spite of differences of opinion regarding particular details, tactics and quirks of personality. Conformity, on the other hand, demands complete agreement on details and an acceptance of outside authority that overrules individual initiative and expression. Conformity as expressed in the coarse vernacular is "my way or the highway!" Of course there are many personal considerations that demand conformity. The Talmud records for us that the wicked Yeravam ben Nevat spurned the Heavenly offer of repentance and respect because he would not even then enjoy precedence over King David in the immortal Garden of Eden. "Who should go first?" is a potent issue in all human affairs. Many times it is what drives people to leave the camp of unity and insist upon conformity. This is especially true when positions of authority and political or religious exercise of power and leadership are concerned. The Talmud records for us the statement of one of the great rabbis of the time that originally when offered a position of authority he was most reticent to accept it but once having achieved that role and position he cannot be dragged away from it no matter what. It is true that power corrupts and the use of unchecked power in any family, community, or nation eventually leads to a rigid conformity, which by its very nature corrupts that family, community or nation.

It would seem self-obvious that faced with all of the problems and attacks that rain on the religious Jewish society here in Israel, a modicum of unity between the different factions within that society is a timely necessity. However the bitter truth is that each of the factions that make up religious Jewry are much more interested in conformity than in unity. I believe that for mainly personal reasons, which are always cloaked in ideology and differences of detail and nuance, this goal of unity has never been achieved here in Israel. The inner disputes in the religious camp over leadership, patronage and personal advancement dwarf any basic ideological differences that may truly exist. This in turn leads to impossible demands of conformity from one group to another so that in turn this defeats any true possibility of unity from arising.
To me it is pretty obvious that unity requires people of flexibility, tolerance and the willingness to put aside purely personal considerations of honor and reward for the general public good. And that apparently is a lot to ask from people who have clawed their way to top positions in their group or party. "Who walks first at the head of the line?" is a powerful impediment to unity.

A leading American politician once famously said that all politics are local. To a great extent all politics are also personal. The history of Israeli political life is one of bitter personal feuds. This has always been an impediment to a sense of unity in the country. While I certainly agree that it is difficult to overcome human nature, which turns all tactical disagreements and ideological differences into personal feuds, nevertheless we should expect – even demand – a certain greatness from our political and religious leaders that can counterbalance this all too human weakness. In Jewish history we have the example of the Bnei Beteira who relinquished their rule in favor of Hillel in order to advance and unify the people. Because of their example we find that the later disagreements between the houses of Shamai and Hillel never turned personal. These great people achieved a sense of unity within Israel by avoiding the temptation of trying to impose conformity. And when the personality differences are ignored or mitigated, conformity will not find any nurturing soil in which to grow. The entire premise of the Mussar movement in nineteenth century Lithuania was based on the reduction of ego and personal disputes as the basis for achieving unity and not conformity in the Jewish world. Perversely, as all dictators have shown, it is easier to enforce conformity than to achieve unity. Nevertheless we should pursue the goal of unity in all areas of our individual, family, communal and national lives.
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