May 24, 2023 – ה׳ סִיוָן תשפ”ג – Erev Shavuot – ערב שבועות
ויחן שם ישראל. כאיש אחד בלב אחד, אבל שאר כל החניות בתרעומות ובמחלוקת
רש”י על שמות י״ט:ב׳:ב~
“And there Israel camped as one person and with one mind — but all their other encampments were made in a murmuring spirit and in a spirit of dissension” (based on the Mekhilta)
– Rashi on Exodus 19:2:2
How important is Jewish Unity?
I often find myself in situations in which I am asked to compromise “for the sake of unity.” Frequently, at meetings of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Zionist Movement, and more, our liberal movements are asked to compromise on our values in order to not be divisive. For example, during this year’s extra-ordinary World Zionist Congress, a member of the ultra-Orthodox party stood up and said that if we push forward a resolution supporting the LGBTQ+ community, they would not be able to support, we would be guilty of being divisive. Never mind what the Torah says about treating human beings – even if they behave in ways that are abhorrent to others – we are being divisive.
And the lack of unity will inevitably lead to… weakness.
Tonight, on Erev Shavuot, we get to reimagine that moment of standing together at the foot of the mountain and receiving Torah. It is a transformative revelatory moment when our collective memory and nostalgia tell us that we all stood together as one. The Book of Exodus (19:2) relates that we were all camped together in the wilderness. Rashi, commenting on the perceived redundancy of the Israelites being “encamped in the wilderness” and “encamped there in front of the mountain,” suggests that this phrase hints that the Israelites were כאיש אחד בלב אחד” – like one person with one heart.” In this moment of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, the people were united in a way that they hadn’t been before and haven’t been since.
Let’s not pretend that we have always been so unified throughout our history. Our tradition teaches us that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed because of internal issues rather than from outside enemies. When we think about the last time we had sovereignty in our Land over two thousand years ago, we know that there was deep infighting. For instance, during the Great Revolt against Roman rule, during which the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the rebels split into three rival camps. Everyone was fighting everyone else: the rich vs. the poor, the moderates against the rebels, the Sadducees against the Pharisees, and the zealots against everyone else.
In another incident in the year 4 BCE, just after the death of King Herod, riots and violence broke out as the people took advantage of a mass assembly in the Temple to pour out their grievances, demanding lighter taxes, the release of prisoners put in chains by Herod over many years, and the replacement of the high priest appointed by Herod shortly before his death. Fierce battles broke out throughout the city as disorder was suppressed only by sending in the cavalry, which massacred three thousand Jews. The unrest which erupted in Judaea peaked on Shavuot of that year reminding us of how divided we were.
In more contemporary times, we think back to this season 75 years ago, weeks after the State of Israel was established. David Ben Gurion issued a decree to unify the various pre-state armed forces into one IDF (Israel Defense Forces), the Irgun brought in a ship known as The Altalena carrying arms and weapons to be used in fighting the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion was adamant that Irgun leader (and future Prime Minister) Menachem Begin surrender and hand over all the weapons and cease his separate activities.
“If he does not do so,” proclaimed Ben Gurion, “we will open fire! Otherwise, we must decide to disperse our own army.”
Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the Altalena. One of the shells hit the ship, which began to burn. Although the captain flew the white flag of surrender, the automatic fire continued to be directed at the unarmed survivors. Begin, who was on deck, agreed to leave the ship only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated just weeks after the modern Jewish State was established and we were killing our own.
Indeed, Jewish unity is not the hallmark of Jewish history. Often, these calls for unity are insensitive and patronizing. It often feels like gaslighting when we are told:
“For the sake of unity, would you just compromise on all of the values that you hold as being sacred and at the core of who you are as Jews and as humans?”
What if this so-called “Unity” is not the right goal? The aspiration towards some sort of false sense of unity, some appearance that we are all of one mind, have become problematic and has led to toxic relationships among us. Rather than pushing for אחדות or unity, we should push for a shared and accepted set of values and principles that can be the basis for further interpersonal relationships. Just as unity doesn’t necessarily mean uniformity, it is also the case that equity is not synonymous with equality.
The value of the Torah was that it was given without interpretation or commentary. Over the years, centuries, and millennia, it was our job, as adherents of Torah, to interpret and adapt it to our lives. Of course, rather than being unified or even uniform in our understanding of Torah, we took it and said that there are 70 faces of Torah, meaning that there are many interpretations of the same classic text. We taught that as long as we keep the Torah at the center of our lives and as our foundation, we can disagree on how it should be interpreted, applied, and followed.
Our tradition teaches something more. We have learned that even before the Torah was given there was derekh eretz (proper behavior). Before we turn to the Torah we must establish civility, respect, good character, and yes, proper behavior toward one another.
On this issue of derekh eretz, we are reaching a tipping point in Israel. Tonight, many of us will stay up all night studying Torah. A couple of days ago, the Knesset pulled a “Tikkun-Leil-Takziv” pushing through an all-night legislative session to pass the 2023 and 2024 budgets. This means that the far-right and ultra-religious coalition of PM Netanyahu will be stable until early 2025 (elections are slated for a full 4-year term in the fall of 2026).
However, the budget that passed this week reflects the opposite of Derekh Eretz. It takes funding from marginalized communities and puts it squarely in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-nationalist sectors.
The rift in Israeli society can be broadly delineated along these lines, as David Rosenberg explains. There is the “first Israel,” which is liberal, secular, educated, worldly, and wealthy. Then there is the “second Israel” (religious, less educated or yeshiva-educated, isolationist, and less tolerant, if not intolerant). This coalition’s current agenda reflects the extent to which Israeli society is deeply divided. The largest current sources of tension are with the Haredi population and their growing political power (which we discussed last week), which is driving a self-serving agenda. The Haredi “economy” is no longer sustainable, not just for the rest of Israel that supports it but for the Haredim themselves.
Today we’re seeing a clash of the pro-democracy camp vs. the Coalition – which is tearing the country and the Jewish world apart. Our job today is to protect the victories we have previously won – such as upholding recognition for Reform and Conservative conversions and funding Reform rabbinic salaries and programs promoting pluralism. More broadly, our challenge is to stave off civil war and avoid situations such as the Jewish people have suffered in the past.
It is our job to remind the Jewish people and the world that our revelatory moment when we received Torah at Sinai did not bring holiness because of a sense of unity and collectivity, but rather because of the values the Torah taught us. Those who adhere to the Torah have the responsibility to act with civility, respect, good character, and yes, proper behavior toward one another.
The rest, my friends, is commentary. Let’s go and learn.
Shavuot Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.