If all of Jacob’s sons could live in peace together at the end of Jacob’s life, despite their feuding, even though 11 of the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, even though Jacob had clear favorites, and despite generations of familial infighting and jealousy, why is it that the Jews of different denominations in northern New Jersey can’t seem to sit together at the same proverbial table? Why is it that the area has to have two separate boards of rabbis, the non-Orthodox North Jersey Board of Rabbis and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County? Why is it that there is so little official interaction between rabbis of different streams of Judaism, even though we are all Jews?
That’s what Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Englewood’s Orthodox Kehillat Kesher wants to know.
While meaningful cross-denominational discussion is rare for Jews everywhere, Fox says he feels the problem is exacerbated here because of the strength of the Jewish community.
"The Jewish community views itself as self-sufficient, and the Orthodox community especially views itself as self-sufficient," said Fox. "We don’t need other people. In Teaneck, you can be in a Jewish community, and you don’t need to be part of a broader community. That can lead to insularity. There is an assumption that we can rely on our own communities. The Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform tend to stick to their own."
So how is it that Jews can achieve shalom bayit, peace within their own house?
"Do we treat other denominations as black sheep, or as the middle
child gone wrong? Or even as members of the same family?"
Fox, who will explore the issue with a six-session course, "Peace, Peace, to the Far and Near," at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, starting Monday, says that the answer lies in exploring the microcosm of the individual family, figuring out how to make the smaller unit work, then applying those lessons to the broader community.
And the recipe for getting along is all provided in the first book of the Torah, Bereisheet, says Fox.
"If you take the opening narrative of the Torah, even before you get to Abraham, and you see how the first couple of families, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, deal with each other, you learn the basic principle that when you treat a person as your peer as opposed to someone you control as long as it is not in a non-hierarchical relationship then everything goes well."
But when a husband, for instance, treats a spouse as a child, you run into trouble, as in the case of Adam and Eve, says Fox. According to midrashic explanations, Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge because Adam, instead of giving her the direct order from God not to eat the fruit, told Eve not even to touch the tree, lest she die. When the serpent pushed her into the tree, and she did not die, she assumed she could eat from the tree and be safe as well. Adam did not treat Eve as his equal, which led to a miscommunication, which got them both expelled from the Garden of Eden.
"If we fast-forward to today, when you relate to fellow human beings, do you recognize them as creations of a great and infinite God, or do we treat them differently?" asks Fox. "When you treat them as equals, Jews and non-Jews, you can bring the messiah. And within the Jewish community, the question becomes, how do we treat each other? Do we treat other denominations as black sheep, or as the middle child gone wrong? Or even as members of the same family?"
Fox will use the first several classes at the JCC to explore the human relationships in the Bible, to look at the positive and negative examples. In the last few classes he will look at how those lessons can help intra-familial relationships, and how those lessons could be used to map out peace among all people, especially among Jews.
The key, he said, is learning to respect the other, no matter whether you accept the other’s truths as true for yourself.
"For 90 percent of American Jews, what goes on in my shul is not relevant," said Fox of Kesher’s Orthodox belief system. "But if not for [that 90 percent] the Jewish community would be nowhere. Everybody needs to be able to respect each other not necessarily believe that they are correct, but believe that they have value in the world. We need to respect the good that they do."