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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Pluralism IV

Galilee Diary #302, September 10, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

One of the leaders of pre-state Orthodoxy in Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (known as the “Chazon Ish”) is famously reported to have said to Ben Gurion: “When two wagons meet head-on on a narrow path, the empty one must yield the right of way to the one that is heavily laden.” This metaphor is supposed to describe the encounter between the religiously observant community and the non-observant majority in Israel – and we often apply it, without thinking about it, to decisions of religious policy in many contexts, including Diaspora ones. Needless to say, the image is offensive to non-Orthodox Jews. Why must we be compared to an empty wagon? Why should we be considered less complete, less spiritually “laden” than any other type of Jew? Why are we any less deserving of respect, of the right-of-way, than a person who happens to have a different view of the authority of halacha? And more disturbing: why do we ourselves, consciously or sub-consciously, accept this distinction? Why are so many Reform Jews supporters of movements and institutions (e.g. Habad) that deny our own authenticity? How is it that we, ourselves, seem to accept that the Orthodox are indeed the “keepers of the flame,” the drivers of heavily laden carts - implying that our own carts are empty and less worthy?

The sympathetic interpretation of Rabbi Karelitz’ comparison is that since for the Orthodox, the adherence to the system of mitzvot is perceived by them as compulsory – they have no freedom to compromise – while for the non-observant, the mitzvot don’t really matter, then those who don’t really care should yield to those who care very much. Therefore, for example, the Israeli army maintains only kosher kitchens, based on the assumption that someone who doesn’t keep kosher can always eat kosher food without having to compromise his/her principles, while someone who keeps kosher doesn’t have the option of eating non-kosher food. This principle governs many areas of public life in Israel and in many Diaspora communities (e.g., communal Jewish schools in North America, even if most of their students are not shomrei Shabbat, don’t do school trips on Shabbat).

The unsympathetic interpretation, of course, is that the image of the wagons implies that non-Orthodox Jews are lacking in principles and/or knowledge and/or commitment. This makes us angry, as we believe that our knowledge of and commitment to freedom, humane values, a historically conscious relationship to the Jewish tradition, spirituality, social justice – these make our wagons very heavy indeed – perhaps even heavier than the load of ritual mitzvot that weigh down our Orthodox fellow travelers. And if so, why are we the ones who always have to give way?

Perhaps the solution (to the extent that there can be one) is not in weighing the wagons, but in widening the road, so there is room for both. What we need is not more complicated traffic laws, but more courteous drivers, who are sensitive to the needs of others on the road. Thus, while even flaming secularists may have to serve in a Spam-less army (!), by the same token those who are deeply committed to Shabbat may have to accept a Jewish state in which those who want to can go to the movies on Friday night. Finding such symmetries may sound easy, but implementing them can be tricky: for example, if there is to be public transportation available for those who want it on Shabbat, how can we assure that Orthodox would-be bus drivers do not suffer discrimination for their refusal to be available seven days a week?

I think it is easier to praise pluralism than to implement it in real life. It seems that our individual freedoms do not exist in a vacuum, but impinge on those of other people. Building a society which balances conflicting commitments and freedoms – and the need for common denominators – is a messy process, involving politics and religion, power and principles. It has been a central challenge of Zionism for over a century, and it doesn’t look like we are going to “solve the problem” any time soon.

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