By Zev Gotkin
There is a lot of talk these days in the media about ‘polarization,’ especially within the context of politics. Often it seems as if being a ‘moderate’ is going out of style. Being labeled a centrist is to be seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or indecisive. Perhaps going to extremes makes people happy, because it means they don’t have to do too much thinking. When you see everything in black and white, you don’t have to worry about the shades of gray. I conjecture that this mentality is (and always has been) the reason behind why many exclusively hang around those who share their views and opinions. Dialogue poses a threat…especially to the insecure individual. Can we be friends with those who hold opinions and world-views that dramatically differ from ours? I venture to say that it is possible.
I remember when a few years ago that attention-loving, political pundit Ann Coulter made a comment on national television that Jewish people are “im-perfected Christians.” According to Ms. Coulter we Jews are ‘almost there.’ We just need to accept the man on the cross and salvation is ours. Even though Ms. Coulter wasn’t really saying anything new or original, but echoing the sentiments of Christianity since its inception, her statement caused quite the media storm. Naturally this not only offended many in the Jewish community, but rapidly became a subject of much discussion and derisive comments in the media. It is understandable why her comment shocked polite company as it recalled centuries of persecution Jews suffered at the hands of the Church and Christian regimes. However, if one is familiar with Christian teachings which clearly state that a person needs to have faith in Jesus being divine and/or the Messiah in order to attain salvation, one can almost see Ms. Coulter’s remark as her way of delivering a compliment to the Jewish people – if not a back-handed one.
At the time of this controversy a Jewish friend angrily told me how a mutual Catholic friend of ours told him point-blank that he agrees with Ms. Coulter. I privately took our Catholic friend aside and questioned him about it. “Do you believe I am going to Hell?” I asked. He stammered and sputtered before admitting that yes, he did in fact believe that I was destined for the underworld in accordance with Catholic doctrine. Of course it is hard to tell if this is in fact reflective of Catholic doctrine today as the Church’s position on this matter has done a bit of flip-flopping as of late, but you may wonder whether or not I became angry or upset with my Catholic friend.
The answer is no. I was not offended. This is my friend’s sincere religious belief and as long as he is not proselytizing me or trying to impose his religious views upon me, I can respect it. I actually like to occasionally discuss religion with this particular friend. As an observant Jew I feel I often see eye-to-eye more often with religious people of other faiths than I do with many Jews. My Catholic friend and I share many common values even if our theologies radically differ. I respect him the same way I would hope many of other religious or no religious affiliations would respect me.
Orthodox Jews have some customs and beliefs that seem strange to other people. I myself having become orthodox in my early twenties after having grown up in a secular Jewish home can understand why someone might find many aspects of Orthodox Judaism strange. While I seriously doubt I could be friends with someone who passionately hates Judaism and/or the Jewish people (I doubt they’d want to be my friend either), I don’t see a conflict between living in accordance with Torah and associating with those who do not share many of my values or points of view. In fact Judaism teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to be a good person or get to Heaven. The Torah teaches that a non-Jew who is an honest and ethical person and believes in the Creator will actually earn a share in the World-to-Come.
What about secular Jews? Surely, those heathens are going to Jew-Hell, right? Wrong. First of all while Judaism does have a concept of Hell known as Gehinnom, it is believed to be a temporary rest-stop to get the stains out of our souls before being moved into a blissful existence. We do not believe in eternal damnation (except for a select few, horrible individuals). Furthermore, most secular Jews today are not considered heretics by contemporary rabbinic authorities. Most Jews simply do not know enough about their religion to actively rebel against it and are therefore not liable to punishment. In fact even many Jews who grew up religious and abandoned it don’t usually go ‘off the path’ out of pure rebellion, but due to family problems or negative experiences in school.
Those of us who consider ourselves observant Jews must treat those Jews who self-identify as secularor non-orthodox with loving kindness in accordance with the dictum of our Sages that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Shavuos 39a). Our Sages also teach that “all Israel have a share in the World to Come”(Sanhedrin 11:1). Furthermore, Chassidic philosophy and Kaballa explain that all Jewish souls emanate from the same root in G-dliness. Plenty of my friends and family members are secular and some are even anti-religious or hostile toward my way of life. The best thing we observant Jews can do is increase Ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow), answer questions that are posed to us sensitively and honestly, and remember to love the person even if we vehemently dislike what the person says or does. This is not always easy and I don’t pretend to be flawless in this arena, but if we want to perfect the world and bring the Final Redemption it would be prudent to do our best.
Our Sages teach that we lost the Holy Temple due to senseless hatred between Jews. With senseless love we will rebuild it. Even though we can disagree and get into heated discussions about various topics we must work hard to make sure it doesn’t get personal and if it does to quickly apologize and make peace. It doesn’t matter who ‘started it.’ During the Three Weeks when Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple we should make an extra concerted effort to ponder these ideas and put them into practice.
Originally Published on 7/10/2012