Thirty years ago, American Jews were divided in their attitude toward the legendary Nelson Mandela. Many rallied to his support, eager to be “on the right side of history.” Others, even if sympathetic to his goals, refused to align with Mandela due to his advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his close relationships with terrorists and dictators, including PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Like Mandela, we are compelled to entertain alliances in all aspects of our lives. Though no individual, group or movement is perfect, occasionally we encounter a prospective ally that is particularly unsavory, sometimes even repugnant. Our initial reaction is to recoil and to presuppose that aligning ourselves with such an individual or cause is unworkable, and perhaps even forbidden by the Torah. Sometimes, however, the relationship is truly critical and, despite the obvious deficiencies, superior to any alternative.
When grappling with the choice of whether or not to enter an unsavory alliance, we recognize that there is certainly precedence in our tradition of righteous leaders entering alliances of that nature, such as that of Yehoshua and Gibeon (Yehoshua 9,10) and King David and Achish (1 Shmuel 27). Forging an alliance with a less-than-virtuous non-Jewish ruler has been an ongoing practice throughout history, including Mordechai and Achashverosh, Abarbanel and King Alfonso V of Portugal and beyond. Moreover, extenuating circumstances have led rabbinic leaders to form interesting alliances with Jews whose personal lifestyle and behavior were antithetical to Torah values.
A fascinating example is the remarkable role assigned to Jacob Israël de Haan, an author and journalist who arrived in Jerusalem from Denmark in 1919. De Haan engaged in well-known promiscuous behavior (referenced in his early novels and conveyed more explicitly in a book of poetry he published shortly before his assassination). Nonetheless, he was a confidante of one of Jerusalem’s greatest early twentieth-century rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who appointed the erudite de Haan as the spokesman and representative of Jerusalem’s Chareidi community and Agudath Israel. While Rabbi Sonnenfeld opined that associating with secular Zionists was forbidden and would not lead to positive results, apparently, he viewed associating with de Haan as worthwhile. Though these two positions appear inconsistent, perhaps Rabbi Sonnenfeld felt a distinction should be drawn between an individual—who should not be defined by personal weaknesses—and a community, movement or institution whose essence is defined by the positions and goals adopted.
In reaching such painful decisions, we often struggle with when to appropriately apply these nuanced distinctions: Do we swallow hard and pursue an alliance despite grave reservations or do we forfeit an otherwise compelling relationship?
As a community and as individuals, this tension has always been, and continues to be, prevalent.
Should we support a politician whose key positions, such as support of Israel, are exemplary but who embraces social policy or personal behavior that is insufferable?
Can we align with a social justice movement that seeks to advance goals that we passionately embrace, but which advocates, or at least tolerates, anti-Semitism or efforts to undermine the broader societal norms that our community relies upon for its stability and safety?
And as an Orthodox community, how do we address the painful dilemma of determining how and when we can align to advance mutual goals with communal organizations whose members we love and cherish but whose theological agenda is antithetical to our core values? To what extent can we associate with institutions that seek to advance a form of Judaism that is antagonistic to our central life’s purpose?
On novel or community-wide decisions of this nature we turn for guidance to our rabbinic leaders. As in all areas of halachah and Jewish life, however, we aspire to learn from the mesorah of our masters and thereby become capable of making decisions on our own when application of their teachings is clear, while seeking further guidance from our rabbinic leaders when necessary. While the practice within certain segments of the Orthodox community is to pose all decisions of this nature to rabbinic leadership, they too seek to understand the nuanced and sophisticated bases in the Torah and our mesorah upon which such decisions are made.
Unlike as is common in other complex areas of Torah study, however, traditional rabbinic leadership and Torah scholars have not recorded extensive discussion and analysis of public policy decisions on such alliance choices. While general approaches can be extrapolated from well-known decisions and practices, the variances and details that necessarily informed such decisions are less accessible. Perhaps the discussion and questions posed herein will result in the publishing of such writings.
1. Repercussions of aligning with an odious ally
A first step in assessing whether to associate with a questionable ally is to identify potential concerns and risks. They fall within at least three broad categories:
Impact on the alliance: A dubious ally may undermine the effectiveness of the alliance. Just as a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, the prospects of an alliance’s success is weakened by an unreliable, corrupt or compromised partner. Moreover, an objectionable ally may result in other valuable partners refusing to join the alliance. Finally, and significantly, siyata d’Shmaya, Divine assistance, upon which every effort relies, may be compromised if the alliance includes an unworthy partner.
Impact on self: It may be both spiritually and pragmatically damaging to associate with those whose behavior or attitudes are improper. Thus, the author of Tehillim admonishes (Psalms 26:4-5): “Lo yashavti im misei shav . . . saneisi kehal merei’im,” “I do not consort with scoundrels . . . I detest the company of evil men . . .,” and Avos D’Rav Nosson (9:1) counsels, “Al tischaber la’rasha,” “Refrain from being connected to an evil person.” In addition, the partners you choose impacts your own reputation, and may affect whether others will be receptive to joining with you in future alliances.
Implications for others: As I will elaborate on further, associating with questionable groups or movements may thereby legitimize them, and invariably influence people’s perception of unacceptable positions or behaviors. Simply put, allying with a wrongdoer may validate wrongdoing.
2. Balancing need with severity of flaws
Alliances typically involve a reciprocal cost-benefit analysis. Benefits may be in the form of profit or power, prestige or protection. Costs may imply financial, behavioral or emotional obligations or simply the forfeiture of alternate opportunities.
While weighing the strengths and weaknesses of entering into an alliance is always part of the calculation, certain atrocities or extreme behaviors or attitudes may strike us as so damning as to absolutely foreclose the possibility of an alliance. Alas, such absolutes are rare. Even the most horrid ally may prove to be tolerable when considering the urgency of the need.
There are few regimes in history as evil as Stalin’s Soviet Union. More than 14 million people passed through the Gulag (Soviet labor camps), and some estimate that at least 15 million people were killed through Stalin’s reign of terror. And yet, few objected to Winston Churchill’s July 1941 decision to ally with Stalin during World War II. The existential urgency of defeating Nazism clearly outweighed the repulsiveness of allying with Stalin. In explaining this decision, Churchill is famously quoted as saying; “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
On the other hand, however justified, allying with evil is costly, inevitably impacting one’s moral sensitivities, at least to some degree. For example, as documented in the writings of Nikolai Tolstoy, the influence of associating with Stalin may well be displayed in the seriously questionable morality of the British and Americans in conceding to the post-war forced repatriation to the Soviets of Russian POWs, most of whom were predictably massacred by Stalin.
In Torah we also learn of questionable alliances that were adopted. Throughout Tanach, in various times of crisis Jewish leaders aligned themselves with tyrants and despots. In some instances, the Torah indicates that Hashem was displeased with such alliances and the leaders were admonished, but at other times not. Subtle and nuanced differences often determined when circumstances justified otherwise inappropriate alliances.
3. The legitimacy conundrum
Does aligning with a questionable movement confer legitimacy upon the group and its troubling conduct or views? Should this be a concern when considering whether or not to form an alliance? This question currently arises in many contexts but the one that is at the heart of a prominent divide within Orthodox Jewry is whether, and under what circumstances, to associate with Jewish institutions or movements that do not share Torah beliefs and commitments.
While such debates between Orthodox leaders tend to be widely publicized, the underlying principles of disagreement have been shared only in general, sweeping terms. Nuanced considerations due to distinctions in facts and circumstances are rarely, if ever, articulated and studied. For example, the sweeping pre-1948 divergence between Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld regarding allying with secular Zionists is widely discussed. Far less studied are the subsequent distinctions in approach toward the State of Israel embraced by various non-Zionist Chareidi leaders, and the equally fascinating divergences in attitude taken by varied Religious Zionist leaders.
In North America, post-World War II Orthodox Jewry witnessed similar divisiveness regarding non-Orthodox communal relations, centering most prominently on whether Orthodox organizations should be members of the now-defunct, cross-denominational Synagogue Council of America. Whether the circumstances, fears and risks of the 1950s and 60s regarding interdenominational relations still apply today is a question raised only by those more courageous than I.
Orthodox Jewry is not unique in being concerned with the concept of association granting legitimacy, as illustrated in the Papacy’s ongoing reluctance to have the Catholic Church officially join the World Conference of Churches. International diplomacy also recognizes the powerful impact of acknowledgement, as reflected in the fanfare associated with President Nixon’s 1972 trip to Communist China; the British readmitting the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Fein, into the Northern Ireland peace talks; and Anwar Sadat’s Jerusalem visit and accompanying address to the Knesset.
To clarify, lest the inter-Orthodox divide be misunderstood: in actuality all camps within traditional Orthodoxy agree that it is improper to grant validation to the religious dogma and practices of non-Orthodox movements. The dispute lies in what constitutes the type of acknowledgement that actually grants validation, and what circumstances compel exceptions.
Hardliners suggest that the more accommodating Orthodox leaders are theologically ambiguous and are consequently comfortable granting legitimacy to non-Orthodox ideologies. The accommodating factions, on the other hand, dispute this accusation and assert that their interactions with non-Orthodox institutions are limited to engagements that do not constitute acknowledgement or validation. They further argue that their associations with non-Orthodox groups result in invaluable advances for Torah Judaism, and that the refusal of others to similarly engage with the non-Orthodox movements alienates Jews who identify with such movements, thereby compromising the chances of such Jews or their children engaging in Torah study or otherwise exploring authentic Torah Judaism. Hardliners counter that even limited associations represent an assault on the authenticity of Judaism by implying that Torah axioms and principles of faith are open to debate—an offense that outweighs any alleged benefits that might be achieved.
4. Implications of non-reciprocal alliances
Alliances are typically reciprocal, each member having concluded that the benefits of the alliance outweigh the costs or obligations that will be incurred. An alliance that advances idealistic goals, however, is arguably joined solely for altruistic reasons, without concern for personal benefits or costs. Seemingly, alliances advancing a noble cause should be embraced even with a questionable ally, so long as its flaws do not impede the core ideal being pursued.
Arguably, however, even battles for justice cannot be waged without regard for the resulting casualties. No cause should be pursued blindly, and every ideal must be judged against the potential consequences that may result, even indirectly, from its pursuit. Perhaps even the most idealistic alliance requires a cost-benefit analysis.
Ironically, Nelson Mandela’s own view of alliances was in line with those Jews who spurned him. Mandela viewed all alliances even those addressing truth, ideals and justice as purely transactional. He explicitly expressed this view when asked how he could support international rogues. Quoted in AP, June 22, 1990, Mandela said: “Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country toward our struggle.”
Whether we recognize it or not, each of us continually makes such critical decisions about whom to support and with whom to align. Too often, in both personal and communal decisions, not enough recognition is given to the guidance embedded in the Torah and in our mesorah on how to assess dubious alliances. Nowadays, such guidance is more necessary than ever.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.