Torah teaches us that diverse routes lead to the truth

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Rabbi James M. Bennett, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth

Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t everyone else see things the way I see them?”

It is so obvious. Or so we think.

We remember it as if it happened yesterday:

“Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and God drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22)

None of us was there, yet our collective memory as members of the Jewish people reminds us daily that this is our story. The sea was split, and we walked through on dry ground, moving in that moment from oppression to freedom.

We are still enslaved, though. Our myopic vision of history, believing that we walked through as one, monolithic people, all sharing a single path, binds us to a view of unity and peoplehood that threatens to oppress us still.

Ironically, the imagination of the rabbis of old offered a different way to remember this journey. For in the commentaries and midrashic memory, the story was very different. The voice of these scholars suggests that there were 12 paths through the waters of the sea, one for each of the tribes to follow. Countless commentators echo this image: one people, divided into many factions, each following their own path, unified in their division.

In this retelling of the story, our tradition suggests that the sea, or God, or history, understood that we will never agree. There is never just one way to solve a problem, never just one way to get from here to there, never just one point of view that is correct.

Yet we often act as if there is a single and correct perspective.  Particularly when it comes to our faith and the ideas that emerge from it. Our tradition, however, begs to differ. Our people has rarely been unified and never free from dissent. Those who seek to silence the voice of those who disagree, or diverge, or to take a different path, or to offer an alternative narrative, are sadly contradicting the ancient and still relevant voice of Jewish history. We are unified in our diversity. We thrive on our disagreements.

As long as they remain civil.

Had the ancient Israelites not merely chosen to follow the path of their own tribes but instead criticized and even sought to block their fellow Jews from following their own hearts, they might have all drowned like the Egyptians bearing down upon them. Had one tribe or one faction publicly shamed another, they might all have been destroyed.

Yet in our own time, we see such divisiveness and rancor over and over, within Jewish communal affairs, in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora, and in the civil and uncivil discourse of our nation. We hear talk about the possibility of civil war. We see evidence of one faction claiming to hold exclusive rights to the truth.

Think about it. How often do we read of someone shaming another for holding a position with which they disagree? How often do we read an op-ed, or a social media post or another public proclamation seeking to “cancel” the voice of someone with whom we find fault?

Those who hold power are not satisfied to hold their own opinions, to follow the teachings of their own faith or the convictions of their hearts. Rather, they seem destined to impose their will on others, to legislate their morality for all others, to make their faith not only theirs but that of all.

If the ancient story of the crossing of the Sea, enshrined in the Torah, teaches us anything at all, it should remind us that there are many paths to truth and we must strive to make room in our lives and in our hearts for many truths. As the rabbis of old put it:

“Make for yourself a heart of many rooms and enter into it the words of Beit Shammai and the words of Beit Hillel, the words of those who declare a matter impure, and those who declare it pure.” (Tosefta Sotah 7:12)

Rabbi James M. Bennett is the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the dvar Torah for the Jewish Light.