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Believe You Me

Believe You Me

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The more similar people seem, the more they find to argue about.

I have never had an argument with an Episcopalian. Truth be told, I don’t really know what Episcopalians believe.The less we have in common, the less I care There is a Bahai temple somewhere near Haifa, which I’ve heard is famous for its gardens. Other than that, I know nothing about the Bahai faith or modes of worship.

I remember reading Anne of Green Gables as a kid. I was intrigued by the references to infighting between Methodists and Presbyterians described in book, which was set in Prince Edward Island, Canada. I used to wonder how two such seemingly similar creeds could inspire such enmity between neighbors and friends. I still couldn’t tell you the exact differences between the two, but I bet a Methodist or Presbyterian could.

The main reason why I care so little about doctrinal differences between faiths other than my own, is because they are relatively irrelevant to my life. As long as they don’t directly attack me with anti-Semitism or proselytizing activity, I can afford to be blasé about them. If anything, the less we have in common, the less I care.

Within Judaism, however, I am less indifferent. The philosophical differences between various sects and streams of Jews bother me greatly. The fact that Reform and Orthodox Jews, for example, probably agree 90% of the time, just brings the remaining 10% of issues into starker contrast.

The most bloody wars are always the so-called civil ones, pitting man against countryman and brother against brother. When people agree 99% of the time, that 1% matters all the more. You can only imagine the enmity occasioned by a 0.1% doctrinal distinction between those who have 99.9% in common.

The Talmud relates that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died unnatural deaths in the time period between Passover and Shavuot because of a lack of respect they demonstrated to each other. Many commentators have pointed out the seeming incongruity of this tragedy. Their teacher, Rabbi Akiva, was famous for his absolute love and devotion towards every Jew, to the extent that his foundational principle in life was love thy neighbor as thyself. How could his students have got it so wrong?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe posited that rather than suffering from a lack of affection for their peers, this sinful lack of respect was an expression of their essential love towards their fellow students, articulated in a misplaced manner.

As students of Rabbi Akiva, they no doubt cared deeply about their mentor’s teaching and devoted their lives to disseminating his views. However, as unique human beings with diverse minds and dissimilar modes of understanding, each one of them would inevitably have his own subtly distinct, individual understanding of their teacher’s philosophy.

Imagine how off-putting it would have been to know that the teachings to which you have devoted your life were being misinterpreted by others. And not just any other, but a peer, a colleague, a fellow student. A man who looks like you, talks like you, sits next to you in lectures and, nonetheless, has got it all wrong.

Had they not cared about each other so deeply, it would have bothered them less. Like the old joke about two divinity students who are constantly arguing about a certain theological premise until one of them turns to the other and suggests a compromise: “Why fight? Let’s agree to disagree. You serve G‑d your way, and I’ll serve G‑d HIS way!”

But the students of Rabbi Akiva had too much love and affection for their fellows to just let it go. It was vitally important to them and their worldview that others also appreciate the truth, as they understood it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to share your ideology and version of truth with others. In fact, an unwillingness to engage is often more a sign of uncaring than a demonstration of respect. If I truly believe in my way of life and path to happiness then, out of love for you, I seek to offer you too the opportunity to see the light.

You wish to share your version of truth with me? Please do! In fact if you hadn’t tried to persuade me, I’d have assumed that either you don’t really believe in what you do, or you don’t care about me. A convivial, collegial meeting of the minds is in everyone’s interest, and there is nothing wrong with trying to convince other people of the rightness of your cause.

The problems start when the other person is not convinced by your persuasion, when they stick to their position and refuse to yield to the force of your arguments. What do you do then? You’ve given it your best shot, but they refuse to buy in. Do you accept themA collegial meeting of the minds is in everyone's interest absolutely, respect their decision and remain friends, or do you fail the test and reject them? Will your friendship survive this test, or will you withdraw in a sulk? Even if you maintain a relationship, but it is somewhat inhibited, then you are showing a lack of respect for them and their right to their own opinions.

This was the “sin” of Rabbi Akiva’s students: not that they didn’t care, but they cared too much. They were so similar, sharing so much in common, that the subtle, minor distinctions between them came to seem so important. Out of love, they tried to sway their fellows to their own way of thinking, and when that failed their love and respect decayed.

Our challenge, especially during these days of Sefirah between Passover and Shavuot, is to work on our affection and acceptance for others, to reach out in friendship to all and offer to share our beliefs and passions with them. Concurrent with this is an absolute obligation to acknowledge and accept people, no matter their reaction, and to maintain that friendship and respect.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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