One of the most distinctive qualities of Jews everywhere in the world has always been our ability to disagree and remain in dialogue. That is, we argue but stick together. Jewish families are typically loud, contentious, and verbally energetic. Jewish organizations are active, engaged, and often contentious. But we have an ability, after thousands of years of overcoming adversity, to pull together in spite of our many, many differences. Most of the time.
I was reflecting on this fact of Jewish life the last few days. In truth, both in our homes and in our organizational life, we often sound like we are engaged in something closer to courtroom combat than the loving and harmonious lives that we aspire to living. This friction is something typical of every Jewish group I have ever had the privilege of being a part of, and to someone not initiated into the verbal thrust-and-parry natural to Jews it can seem that there is real animosity when the situation is quite different than that at heart. It’s just that in Jewish life everyone considers himself or herself to be an expert on, well, everything, and when you get more than one maven in a room at the same time he or she is each certain to be certain that they are right about everything, or at least whatever it is you are talking about at the moment.
This verbal vigor is a great shock to those not raised in loud Jewish homes, and it inevitably leads some people to conclude that Jews are the most difficult, contentious lot ever formed by God. And that’s not counting how it is to be part of a Jewish organization or organizational leadership, which frequently seems a great deal like herding cats…
But the real point is not that we Jews can argue; everyone knows that. It’s that in spite of these arguments we are able to overcome our differences and work together to accomplish really great things. And that underneath the dispute of the moment we fully understand that we are not really fully breiges with anyone, that we intend to remain in conversation and dialogue and community no matter what we may say in the heat of the moment. Real Jewish identity means understanding that we can disagree and yet remain connected.