Perhaps the most revolutionary halachic decision of the 20th century was reframing the concept of non-observant Jews in the orthodox community.
Historically Jewish law, halacha, always held an extremely intolerant position in relating to and engaging with heretics; people whose lives were lived contrary to Jewish values and laws. These recalcitrant rebels were excommunicated; excluded from being counted in a minyan, excluded from being buried in a Jewish cemetery and generally completed excluded from any meaningful Jewish life.
These “apostates” were undermining the law of God and they might encourage others to abandon it as well. The establishment could not tolerate their ideas and therefore there was no space in the community for them either.
By the mid-20th century, 200 years after the reformation, most non-observant individuals were oblivious to the ideological roots and history of secularism and legal reform. The average Western Jew was four generations removed from Torah scholarship, two generations removed from Torah observance and had developed into habitual Jews; proudly committed to community and tradition, but textually ignorant of Judaism- for better or worse.
This realisation led to the important question of how do we treat the modern secular Jew? People whose observance of Judaism, or lack thereof, was habitual rather than ideological.
The leading Rabbinical sage of the era, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz-the Chazon Ish, popularised an approach that created a new paradigm in religious-irreligious relations.
The Talmud questions the status of a child, born of Jewish parents, but adopted and raised by gentiles. Is the child’s lack of religious observance define them as heretical or ignorant as per their intent?
The Chazon Ish insisted that the modern Jew no longer carried the status of heretic, but rather that of a “Tinuk she’nishba”, literally a baby that was taken captive (by gentiles). Non-observant Jews were now to be considered ignorant rather than evil. Tolerance could now be extended without fear of strengthening the hand of the heretic.
Although the idea of being called ignorant of Judaism, rather than a heretic may be equally offensive to the recipient of such a title, never the less it created a workable paradigm for the orthodox community to engage with the non-Orthodox. A heretic cannot be included in a minyan but an ignorant Jew can. The heretic cannot receive synagogue honours, but an ignorant Jew can even be given a position of prominence within the community.
This vignette can be useful in framing conflicts that span generations, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. The standard political paradigm seeks to malign the opposition, to demonise their positions and their intent. But perhaps the question needs to be reframed; are those who stand opposite me evil or just ill-informed? Do the radicals share a well developed philosophy and a well thought out policy derived from the facts of history or are we dealing with an emotional response built on generations of personal narratives and subjective experiences? The facts have become irrelevant.
A paradigm shift, even if it entails a slight bit of condescension, allows us to create a framework for working with those we diametrically disagree with. Our perception of them can be altered from evil to wrong.
But it necessitates that we are open to the fact that we too may be similarly wrong.
Do we cross the road to avoid the “heretics” on the other side or do we create a platform to dialogue our differences?
Most of us have never embarked on an neutral study of the Middle East conflict. Our source information has been communal channels and we have subsequantly built a philosophy based on that information. We have created a narrative to make sense of our surroundings; one that justifies our positions of being both moral and just.
The reality is that most of those on the “other side” have done similarly, they just have different channels and different narratives.
The average Zionist and the average Palestinian do everything in their power to avoid the facts. They follow news sources that confirm their prior held views; sources that expose them only to their specific narrative and conveniently excuse their side’s misbehaviour.
Mediating conflict begins with the assumption that both parties have come together in good faith; with a genuine intent to create a peaceful resolution. One of the prerequisites to that intent is each party being open to the possibility that they are not the sole arbiter of the truth. Each part holds, at best, part of the truth, even if it is their total truth.
So long as I view my opponent as the enemy, and I view them as pure evil, we are wasting our time talking. I need to create doubt in my mind; perhaps they are not evil they are living the world in accordance to their narrative.