Culture, Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

Fearless Judaism: on affirmative Jewish unity

In response to Naomi Adland’s incisive piece Fear, Fearlessness, and Forward Movement, we have started a series in which different writers articulate their visions for affirmative Judaisms.  We very much welcome your voice to the mix and invite you to submit entries to [email protected]

Fear. It’s what stops us from imagining and building a better world.  The deficit model of Judaism can no longer sustain itself.  Too long we have been comfortable articulating what we seek to avoid and escape, but the time has come to embrace a Judaism with the vision and audacity to be about something worth believing and embodying.
As we know all too well from the devastating events of last week in Ferguson, fear fuels a viciously unjust legal system which perpetuates the subjugation and silencing of countless Americans.  The subject of Ferguson merits its own treatment, and I look forward to hearing more progressive Jewish voices speak out against the systemic injustice and inequality.
Especially in light of the current news, part of me feels like writing about a fearless Judaism right now veers uncomfortably to the parochial. But upon further reflection, I am realizing that refining our own self-definition and collective visions will enable us both to grow internally and also to help others break from the shackles of their own limiting, stultifying, and potentially dangerous fears. For me, an affirmative Judaism has the drive and confidence to be proud and rooted in its particularism while also embracing vibrant difference and growth.
I was at the GA which Naomi describes in her post.  One talk which felt a bit different than the others was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ keynote plenary address. In it, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the imperative of Jewish unity and accountability for each other. What struck me about his language was the refreshing optimism and opportunity for forward movement which he offered.  I was especially excited because much of the  vision of Jewish unity he advocated resonated deeply with what I wrote for the Yom Kippur sermon I delivered at Anshei Chesed of Cape Cod this past season. Below, I will share an excerpt from my sermon:


YK 5775: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh
Earlier this summer, our youngest nephew, now just over a year old, uttered his first sentence:
“Go, go go!  Boom boom boom!”
His first sentence was not inspired by watching a gangster film or a Western, or even by watching his older siblings play-fight.  Our nephew’s first sentence reflected his immediate reality. Just barely a year old, our nephew was already an expert in responding to air raid sirens.  He had learned fast that the siren meant running as quickly as possible to his family’s sealed room for shelter.  My oldest sister (his mother) and her family live in Rehovot, in south-central Israel.
This past summer I kept thinking about what it must mean to grow up under such circumstances and I worried deeply, especially for my Israeli niece and nephews for whom such threats had become commonplace, daily occurrences.  What do you even say to a child experiencing such violence?
I imagined how terrifying it must be for my sister and her husband to send their children to day care and to school each day, hoping that their teachers can round up all of their young charges quickly enough in the probable event of another air raid siren.
And I thought of the ultimate horror—how must the parents of the three kidnapped and murdered boys feel? How are they dealing with this Yom Kippur without their beloved sons? I cannot even being to imagine.
Back in the U.S., I found myself especially surprised and disturbed by the responses of others in the Jewish community to the unspeakably tragic kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, may their memories be blessed.   Repeatedly, I heard fellow Jews cite this tragedy as a moment which finally united Jews worldwide together.  I was profoundly distressed by the “silver lining” line of reasoning many invoked in response to the horrors of this summer. Hearing other Jews say, “It was terrible what happened, but at least we are now unified,” made me shiver inside.
What disturbed me so deeply about this response was the implication that it takes a tragedy to unite the very disparate streams of Jews around the world.  I found  myself asking:  Do Jews unite only around tragedy?—and felt very troubled by this question.
The concept of Jewish unity around suffering appears multiple times in rabbinic sources. For example, the first Century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai likened Israel to one body with one soul, “when one of them is injured, they all feel pain.”  Multiple times throughout the Talmud, there is the notion that we mark our collective history through crises (Sanhedrin 101a, Bava Metzia 85a, etc).
Perhaps the most famous line about Jewish unity is the ancient rabbinic maxim, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” which is usually translated as, “All of Israel is responsible for each other.”  The origin of this phrase appears also to refer to a darker moment—
In Leviticus 26:27 we read, “A man shall stumble for his brother” – the Talmud in the tractate Shavuot 39a understands this passage to mean that each man shall stumble morally because of the sin of his brother. From this, the Talmud asserts, we learn that, “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh baZeh – all Israel are ‘co-signers’ one for the other.”  In this context, the word “arevim” invokes the language for fiscal and moral liability, as it is understood as meaning “is surety for”— we are presented as guarantors for each other.  While the concept in the Talmud refers to sin and not to the same kind of inexplicable tragedy as the murder of innocent youth, thinking of each other as guarantors for each other still feels like a deficit model for Jewish unity and thus not quite satisfying spiritually.
I would thus like to propose a slightly different reading of “kol yisrael arevim zeh baZeh,” “all of Israel is responsible for the other”—an understanding of this ideal of unity that stems from a place of hope, affirmation, and respect instead of fear, punishment, and loss.  To do this, we can begin by considering the alternate meanings of the Hebrew word “arevim.”
While the Hebrew word “arevim”  as used in this Talmudic passage is ordinarily translated “is as “being responsible for” or “being surety for”, there is another commonly understood meaning of the root of the  Hebrew word “arevim”, which might allow us to read another element into this passage.   This alternate translation of “areivim” is “mixed” (as in the “mixed multitude” [or “erev rav that left Egypt with the Israelites.]  This translation of areivim allows us to understand the Talmudic “kol yisrael arevim zeh baZeh” as emphasizing our mutual responsibility in light of our “mixedness” – or our differences as a people.  How can we affirm and support each other, despite our sometimes very significant differences—between communities, between families, and sometimes even between friends?  While this too might initially sound like a “deficit” model of Jewish unity, I believe this particular meaning of arevim as “mixed” offers us tremendous potential for a distinctly positive ideal of Jewish unity.
We can be beautiful in our difference. How? We learn from Bamidbar Rabbah (bamidbar rabbah 13:15) that there are “shivim panim ba’Torah,” there are “70 faces of the Torah.”   In other words, the Torah is a powerful lens through which we each refract our own inner light and, thus, lends itself to multiple interpretations.  Such is the enduring power of Torah, that it can continue to inform and enlighten according to each different community and generation—across oceans, and across time.
Of course I am responsible for those around me, those who are like me. But the moral ideal and principle of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh truly gains traction only when all Jewish communities—each and every one of us—is seen as a legitimate and important potential contributor to the ever-growing collective truth of Judaism. While kol yisrael is a concept traditionally invoked in rabbinic literature to speak of debts owed and accountability for sin, this concept offers profound transformative potential for how we relate to our fellow Jews worldwide—how we feel for them and when we feel for them.  With an open mind and a pure heart—with genuine curiosity and empathy—we can make it our goal to connect with our fellow Jews across ideological and geographical boundaries.
Our thoughts, beliefs, practices, and personalities are many, but our love is one. We see this kind of areyvut, or responsibility, even before the giving of the Torah, according to the Mekhilta d’rabbi Yishmael.  In the verse, “Israel encamped opposite the mountain,” (Ex.19:2) the Torah uses the singular verb (“va-yichan”).  The Mekhilta  (Yitro, masechta debachodesh, parasha 1) comments, “כאן השוו כולם לב אחד, לכך נאמ’ ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר”—explaining that the people of Israel were likened to one heart to underscore their unity and responsibility towards each other. The great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanel Levinas further explained, “All who cleave to the divine law, all men worthy of the name, are responsible for each other.”
The image of all of Israel accepting the Torah as one unified heart resonates deeply as an epic moment of Jewish pride and potential.  The foundational moment of our people was not a death, not a war, but the Divine presentation of eternal ideas to a united collective.  Imagine Jewish unity as a massive celebration of the strength, commitment, values, and creativity of our people.  Though today, we are scattered across the four corners of the earth and will likely never literally stand in celebration with the entirety of the Jewish people in one specific place and time, we each have our own opportunities to connect with our fellow Jews in a spirit of love and respect.  Fortunately, with the continuing revolution in telecommunications, we are blessed with the more ways than ever before to connect with virtually anyone, anywhere.   While all too often emphasis on the differences that separate our communities from one another predominates, perhaps it is not too much to hope that we can strive as individuals and as a community to use the means at our hands to build bridges rather than drawing boundaries.  Bridges not only to other Jewish communities that may be separated from us ideologically or geographically,  but also, on a more personal level bridges to individuals from whom we have become estranged or separated.
Jewish unity can come from many different places, but I believe it should always begin with love and real emunah. We love each other, not because we are threatened or are retreating together in the proverbial foxhole, but because we have chosen, as free people, to love each other and have ample reason to love each other. We love each other, because we are strong in our vulnerability and because we know we can build together.
True unity is the unity which is big enough and strong enough to hold all of us, with all of our differences. True unity is the unity which emerges from our celebration of each other and each of our complex identities.  Understanding and accepting our responsibility for each other requires maturity and sustained strength, but unless we make this choice we are as incomplete as Adam was in the Garden of Eden when G-d asked him, “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” G-d didn’t ask for G-d’s sake, but for Adam’s, because Adam didn’t know where, or who, he was. We are the inheritors of the Covenant between G-d and Israel, and every day we are challenged to accept its consequences. On this Yom Kippur, we ask not only our individual selves “where are you?” in our quest for spiritual betterment, but we must also ask, “where are we?”  And, in response to this question, we must devote ourselves to building and reinforcing the bonds that bind us to one another through love and kindness and mutual respect.

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