Some will tell you that it was Torah and they would be right. Others will tell you Tzedakah or G'milut Hasadim, and they would also be right; yet others will tell you it was a sense of community and guess what...they would also be right. Few, however, look at another important factor in Jewish survival...
The Talmudic discourse is a way of thinking that has greatly influenced Jewish people for many generations, and at its core is the concept that no idea is ever truly lost. Even when an opinion is defeated, it is preserved. Why? - to put it in simple term, an idea that doesn't work, doesn't work...Today; tomorrow it might...
This Jewish penchant for preserving minority opinions an even sometimes use them to stir additional discussions on this or that topic, is what kept Jewish thinking flexible and inclusive. This flexibility and inclusiveness was never at the expense of diversity of opinions. In fact, that very same diversity of opinion is what guaranteed the flexibility and inclusiveness of Jewish thinking.
America posed a definite challenge to Jewish Identity, since Jews had to learn to take “yes” for an answer, and that had some deep consequences. Jewish Identity was, for most of Jewish history, defined along ethnicity and cultural lines and left religious argument as an internal affair. America demanded a new paradigm; the American paradigm that emerged in the latter half of the XX Century is one in which ethnic lines gets blurred and ideological lines become sharper. Groupings are done, increasingly, along ideological lines, not only religious but also political and cultural. The “Jewish Unity” began fragmenting along those lines, same as the rest of American society.
The Internet phenomenon accelerated the process, encouraging individuals to group with like-minded individuals even if they live on the opposite side of the moon. While in past times this would have been impractical, the Internet makes it not only possible, but a fact. The need to compromise on personal opinions for the sake of community becomes less urgent and the very sense of local ethnic community is eroded in favor of the new ideological communities.
Specific organizations are not immune to this process, and over the last couple of decades many organizations have underwent an “homogenization” not just of their leadership, but of their very membership. Through, there is still some diversity in any organization, but not in the ideological foundations.
Our speaker at the Annual meeting quoted Dershowitz when he said that as a community we seem to be spending 90% of our time arguing about the 10% of issues we disagree on, and there is something to it. The new modality of ideological grouping demands that we define new boundaries between “us” and “them”, and those boundaries will of course be in the areas where we disagree, not in the ones we agree.
Yes keeping dissenting voices within the community tent and promoting healthy argument has been that forgotten factor I mentioned at the beginning which help Jews survive as a collective of some kind; not by erasing our internal differences, but by utilizing them to strengthen who we are; by forcing us to explore the issues from multiple perspectives rather than the myopic view of ideological homogeneity.
The lack of internal discussion has other consequences as well. Honest discussion on alternative ideas or proposals for action, energize the community not only in the search for common ground but also in the development of different, “out-of-the-box” ideas to solve new problems and face new situations. The discussion with people with different perspectives allow us to see a broader horizon.
Not having such discussions, on the other hand, leads to a sense of comfort...we comfortably settle into a well defined set of ideas and actions and it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond them, because those around us do not challenge them, so we have no reason to challenge them ourselves. The organization become ossified in their perceptions and in their action.
I remember a not very popular science fiction movie called “Core”, in which a group of scientists must go down to Earth's core to restart its spinning by using Nuclear bombs, because the stopping of Earth's core was affecting the magnetic field that protect us from radiation. While the movie uses “scientific jargon”, a similar idea can be applied to Jewish community and Jewish identity.
We need to restart the core of who we are...the very thing that makes us Jewish; what my grandparents would have called “Yiddishkeit” or “Dos pintele Yid”. We don't have to do it with nuclear devices – we need to use something infinitely more powerful: the Human mind. We need to open up to discussion and argument within the community and within the organizations to build on the 90% we agree rather than focusing on the 10% where we disagree. We don't have to give up our differences of opinion – we need to learn to make them work together for a common goal. We need to learn how to compromise in order to become stronger.
As I've been known to say in the past, let me repeat my definition of Jewish Consensus:
“Jewish Consensus in something nobody is happy about, but everybody can live with”, and it is on that foundation that community action can be build. If we relearn how to do it there is no limit to what we can achieve.