Every once and awhile a Midrash (rabbinic interpretation) so perfectly captures the imagination of the Jewish people that it overtakes the original meaning of a Torah verse. This week contains such an instance. Our Torah portion reads:
You are children of the Lord your God, do not gash yourselves (lo titgodedu) or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. (Dt. 14:1, Translation JSP)
Yet, when our Rabbis read this verse they did not read the words “lo titgodedu” as imploring us to avoid self mutilation. Rather they saw the words as a plea toward communal unity:
“Lo titgodedu” meaning, “Do not make factions (lit. bundles). Rather, all of you are one group, and thus it says (Amos 9:6), “Who built the chamber in heaven and established his vault on the earth?” (Sifrei re’eh, piska 96, pg. 158)
The reason for this change is important. Starting in the second Temple communal unity became paramount. Sects such as the Essenes, the Qumran sect, the Sicarri, Samaritans, and Early Christians challenged the power of the Temple cult and later the aspirations of the early Rabbis. Professor Shaye Cohen writes, “members of a sect…remove themselves from the social mainstream and make themselves special…they arrogate to themselves the exclusive claim of truth.” (From The Maccabees to the Mishnah. Pg 165) And, of course, they question the exclusivity that the rabbis claim to truth. In light of this definition, it is clear why the rabbis would fear sectarianism. In addition to the zealotry that it might cause and resulting, worsening relations with the Romans, it also threatened the claims of “truth” that our ancestors were making as they legislated Torah for their community.
As time went on, lo titgodedu (do not make factions) found its way into central legal discussions among the Jewish people. The big question was: could more than one group in a locale claim that they had the right to behave in a different way than another? What is so wrong with factions? Could there be “two-sides”? Soon, two rationales began to emerge for why it was important that factions disappear and people behave in the same way.
Many commentators worried that factionalism within a community may cause fights to break out. The most famous articulation of this view came from Maimonides “There should not be two rabbinic courts in one city, one behaving according to one custom (minhag) and one according to another custom, for this thing causes great disputes as it is said, lo titgoddedu, do not make factions” (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 12:14). Here communal peace and safety were paramount. Could I follow a view a different than yours? Not if it would lead to violence.
The other set of commentators feared that multiple factions in a community would make the Torah appear relative. If I could have a truth and you could have the opposite one, then what would that do to the veracity of the revelation at Sinai? As one medieval legalist, the Meiri writes, “That which we say pertaining to the law of lo titgoddedu, that there is a scriptural understanding that one should not make factions, since it would then appear as if there are two Torahs.”
This week, in light of comments by our president that calls for “two sides” of a debate over the legacy of the confederacy and the place of Neo-Nazis in America, I have found myself thinking about these two criteria. It is no secret that Judaism values conflict in the pursuit of truth. We are, after all, the religion that permits two rival rabbinic figures, Hillel and Shammai to each have conflicting teachings that are “words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). We are also a tradition that believes in the value of discordant views, "Just as a knife can be sharpened only on the side of another, so a disciple of a sage improves only through his study partner" (Genesis Rabbah 69:2).
Yet, lo titgoddedu teaches us that there must be limits to our disputes and its two rationales can help us make determinations for where those boundaries lie. There can be disputes if and only if two criteria are met. First, neither side calls for violence against the other (the Maimonidean rationale). Second, the dispute does not distort the most fundamental ideas of Torah, making the Torah appear like an amalgam of double-speak rather than a platform for holy and ethical living (the Meiri’s views). For example, the Torah plainly states, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev 19:17). Any group that permits hateful rhetoric contradicts the Torah’s intention and invents a Truth that the Torah (and God) never intended. Truth and morality are not relative.
There is a place for healthy disagreement. But sometimes one steps so far outside the realm of healthy discourse that their speech must no longer be entertained. They turn from a helpful counter-perspective to destructive and divisive factionalism, one that threatens the safety of the people and the integrity of the tradition. At those times it becomes our sacred task to silence these voices and demand change.
As Elie Weisel teaches:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.