In a previous essay on Tolerance, attention was drawn to the fact that personal conscience is of prime value and that one should not confuse tolerance with apathy. For this reason, Orthodoxy’s refusal to compromise on its own principles so as to appease the Reform and Conservative movements should only be honored and respected. Even unity cannot always be the final arbiter.
This does not mean, however, that no dialogue could take place between Orthodoxy and these movements. Objections may be raised that such dialogues could (and have) not been successful since the parties involved have too many ideological differences; that any reconciliation would be utterly impossible. This may very well be true, but it is not only the desire to find an ideological solution which makes a dialogue meaningful. There are several other important dimensions to a dialogue which should be carefully considered.
First of all, there is the purely psychological dimension. When two people bitterly disagree much animosity could be prevented by just making sure that they meet. Human experience shows that as long as two people do not physically meet, look each other in the eyes and see each other smile, they often create completely wrong images within themselves concerning their opponents. In that case, an important component for proper dialogue is missing. One should, after all, never forget that a dialogue is not only successful because of strong arguments but also because of the purely physiological impressions, such as a smile, a laugh or even the way one sits, how one looks at his opponent or how one lifts one’s eyebrows.
It may even be argued that both parties will come closer and start to understand why the other happens to stand for a very different point of view. On a significant number of occasions, Orthodoxy was able not only to explain its positions to the other parties and at least make the others respect its point of view, but also to convince the others of the Orthodox perspective.
It is most important to remember that all forms of pietistic obscurantism ultimately lead to one’s own defeat. We would do well to remember the wise words of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) who was perhaps the greatest thinker and defender of authentic Judaism of his day and whose words are studied by all those who believe in Orthodox Judaism till this very day. After quoting Averroes, one of the greatest Islamic philosophers and famous Aristotelian commentator, he writes:
“…It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you not (summarily) reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if (your adversary) does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. And even if such (beliefs) are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say (to your opponent), “Speak not, close your mouth.” If that happens there will take place no purification of religion. On the contrary, you should, at such times, say: “Speak up as much as you want, say what ever you wish and do not say later that had you been able to speak you would have replied further.” For one who causes his opponent to hold his peace and refrain from speaking, demonstrates (thereby) the weakness of his own religious faith, as we said. This is therefore the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is naught but the curbing and enfeebling of religion (itself)… ”
“When our Rishonim (the earlier Jewish sages up till the 15th century) found something written against their faith, they did not reject it (out of hand), for it stands to reason that (such opposition) ought not to be a cause for rejecting it and silencing a man when it comes to religious matters; for religion is given to all. This is especially so with regard to the written word…should there not have been a reaction against the books of the philosophers who, following their own investigations, repudiated (for example, traditional religious teachings) and asserted the eternity of the universe and thus denied the creation altogether? Nevertheless (the Rishonim) read their books and did not dismiss them. For the proper way to attain the truth is to hear (others’) arguments which they sincerely hold, not out of a desire to provoke you. Thus, it is wrong simply to reject an opponent’s ideas; instead, draw him close to you and delve into his words…”
“When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his (own) strength, he very much wants his opponent to exercise as much power as he can, so that if he defeats him his own victory will be more pronounced. What strength is manifested when the opponent is not permitted to fight?… Hence, once should not silence those who speak against religion…for to do so is an admission of weakness.” (The end of Be’er Ha-Golah, translated by Dr. Norman Lamm, Torah Ummada, Aronson, p. 57-58)
These words are in no way a concession, they are an “heroic assertion of self confidence in his faith as a believing Jew, one ready to meet all challenges…” (Lamm, ibid) It is important to remember that religious Jews have nothing to lose when confronting the truth and it may quite well be beneficial to hear the views of those who oppose traditional Judaism. It could only help to re-think and to re-formulate the traditional positions so as to make them more clear and intellectually sophisticated. ‘For souls in growth, great quarrels are great emancipations,” Logan Pearsall Smith once remarked. (Afterthoughts, 1993,1)
It is no doubt true that not everybody is able to confront heretical views and defeat them as the Maharal was able, but it would be a major mistake to believe that all dialogue should therefore be condemned. Only when the opponent is motivated by spiteful polemics should one refuse to enter into any discussion.