The Tragedy Of Impossible Pluralism


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:38 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 16:1-20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz);
Ezekiel 20: 2-20 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 8:41 p.m

This week’s Torah reading introduces the recounting of the Yom Kippur service by referring to the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu [Lev. 16:1]. Rashi understands that as a warning to Aaron and all High Priests that the mishandling of that service would lead to a similar demise. This is the first kind of tragedy the Torah inextricably links to the highlight of the Temple year, the service that provided atonement for the entire Jewish people.

The Talmudic recounting of how Second Temple Jews enacted Yom Kippur procedures shows that the service became a flashpoint of a another, more intractable kind of tragedy, a kind still with us and still stubbornly resistant to solutions. Mishnah Yoma 1:5 gives us the first glimpse of the problem. At a late stage of the High Priest’s preparations, we are told, the Torah scholars who had been reviewing the service with him would exact an oath that he would perform it exactly as they had discussed.

After he swore, the Mishnah tells us, he and the scholars would turn their faces and cry. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that they worried that the High Priest was a secret Boethian, a sect that disagreed with the Pharisees about how the High Priest should enter the Holy of Holies. The tears were both the scholars’ and the High Priest’s expressions of sorrow at the need for suspicion.

Nor were those fears ungrounded, as the Yerushalmi shows. It tells of one Boethian High Priest who performed the service as he thought right. When he finished, he upbraided his father and the other Boethians for having always been too timid to act on their convictions.

What he teaches us is that the disputants on both sides were sincerely certain they were right, even as both sides agreed that only one of them could be right. Neither the Pharisees nor the Boethians would have accepted that both versions could be acceptable; they all were sure God had prescribed one way to enter the Holy of Holies, and that anything else was wrong. A wrong Temple service, they again agreed, could be well intended, but it couldn’t be the fulfillment of God’s command.

Today, we avoid and try to deny there are such absolute situations. Our stubborn search for the positives in different approaches to life often pays off handsomely, in that our more pluralistic world has expanded our horizons, professionally, culturally, intellectually, and socially.

Even when we disagree, we have found many ways to do so respectfully, making room for other points of view, just as we expect others to make room for ours. That translates into a healthy tolerance, and spurs us to work to build a society that makes room for as many views as possible.

Where Jews (and non-Jews) have always gotten stuck is where we agree that there is no room for a wrong answer, but cannot agree about what the right answer is. In Temple times, both sides agreed that a wrong performance of the Yom Kippur service would hurt the entire Jewish people. Readers today might bristle at the idea of a God who would not accept a sincere service whatever the details, but the key point is that back then they were sure that the details mattered. It is their struggle with how to handle being at loggerheads around a vital concern that should resonate today.

Because we have the same problem, in many areas. Intra-Jewish examples are probably too sensitive to allow for dispassionate discussion; let me instead cite from the broader society. Some Americans see the right to unrestricted access to abortion as fundamental to a woman’s humanity; others see it as close to condoning murder. For some, homosexual rights are a perversion of society’s sexual morality; others see those rights as being as basic as the ones to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Depending where you stand on those issues, my characterization of the side you disagree with probably sets your teeth on edge. Judging from public discussions, your “answer” to the impasse is to insist that the other side learn the truth of your view. Your political strategy, experience suggests, is to ram through as much legislation that echoes your view as you can, and damn the benighted ones on the other side who cannot see your truth.

The tragedy of the Yom Kippur service that stays with us to this day, then, is that it shows us places where we agree there’s only one right answer, and that any other answer is intolerably wrong. We just don’t agree about those answers, and we don’t yet have any real clue as to what to do about that.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein’s most recent book is “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.”