Congregation Beth Israel
Tuesday, September 11, 2018 | 2 Tishrei, 5779
What do you think of when you hear the word “tribe?” Do you picture Native Americans dancing around a bonfire? Do you imagine the Maasai of Eastern Africa? Do you think of the Cleveland Indians? Or do you picture Jeff Probst, at the end of an episode of Survivor extinguishing a torch and saying “the tribe has spoken.” Most often, when we hear of tribes today we think of things that are either old, isolated, or both. It seems to be distinctly out of place in the modern world, representing something primitive that we have moved beyond. But on hearing the word tribe, we also think Jewish.
We know that in the times of the Bible our people were divided into 12 tribes, each representing the descendants of Jacob’s children. The Israelites marched through the wilderness in an order determined by their tribe, they were allotted territory in the Promised Land by their tribe, and after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, we talk about the 10 lost tribes of Israel. After the Babylonian exile, the tribal system basically vanished as everyone became associated with the surviving tribe of Judah – hence our name Yehudim, Jews. In recent years though, the term tribe has become popular again, maybe even cool. Communities have named their Young Adult groups “the Tribe”, and the phrase “Member of the Tribe,” or MOT if you’re texting or typing online, has come to represent a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way of referring to someone as Jewish.
But it also begs us to ask the question, is Judaism still a tribe? Do we still look at ourselves in the same way? The word itself is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect.” There are many ways in which we can see this to be true. Judaism certainly consists of families and communities linked by social, economic, religious and cultural means. For many of us, this is what is so unique and special about Judaism. The ways in which we are all linked together within our own Jewish community as well as with Jewish communities around the world. That you can travel 6,000 miles and never feel more at home, is explicitly because of these unifying tribal aspects. We are a people that stick together, we are a people that support and protect each other, we are a people that maintain a united front. (Sometimes)
But consider the tension this also creates. If we strive to be so united amongst ourselves, we can at the same time isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Tribes are primitive, they are uncivilized, they aren’t around anymore. When we hear the word tribe, we oftentimes think “insular,” focused only within, and that idea goes against so much of the Judaism that we know. So much of who we are as Jews encourages us to look at the greater world around us, and helps inform the view of what we see.
The prophet Isaiah tells us we should be an Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations. We can’t exactly shine our light if it’s only on in a closed room. For that light to shine, there must be a focus outwards. Many of our mitzvot place the focus squarely outwards onto others. Chesed, lovingkindness; Tzelem Elohim, the idea that all people are created in God’s image; Lo Taamod Al Dam Re’echa, don’t stand idly by the suffering of others; Ger Lo Toneh, you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you too were strangers in Egypt. All of these mitzvot, commandments that we view as central to our Jewish identity, portray a Judaism that is focused outward, on the world around us.
So which is it? Is Judaism a tribe, that is focused on the particular, or is it a religion that looks outward, towards the universal? This debate, this anxiety between the universal and the particular is the fundamental question of any number of Jewish discussions and has been ongoing for centuries. We can even phrase this historical debate with the help of Pirkei Avot, the collection of favorite teachings of our ancestors.
הלל אומר: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי?
Hillel the Elder taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what good am I? And if not now when?
If we are not for ourselves, if we do not take care of our own families and our own tribe, who will? But if all we do is look after our own tribe, what is our purpose?
This tension, this conflict of values, rang especially true for many of our discussions of Israel this past year. Since we gathered together last Rosh Hashanah, Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of her founding; the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem; continued to offer humanitarian aid in places such as Zambia, Papua New Guinea, and Guatemala; as well as many other events we can look at with pride. And even these events that we celebrate, can be viewed through the lens of this discussion.
For example, this past May, Israeli singer Netta Barzialli was Israel’s representative at the Eurovision song contest. Reading about her in advance of this major competition, I’m fairly certain it was the first time I had ever heard of her, and the first time I heard her song, “Toy.” Yet as she celebrated her victory I could not help but feel a sense of pride myself. Did I think her song was amazing? Not really. But in that moment I didn’t care. My tribal instinct took over as I too celebrated a victory for a member of my own tribe. אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? – If I don’t root for Israel in international competitions, who will?
This same conversation even applies to some of the more complex issues Israel faced this year. Beginning this past April, Israel braced for ongoing protests along its border with Gaza. Called by Palestinian organizers “the Great March of Return,” the protests demanded that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to land within Israel. While many of the protests were peaceful, many were not, with armed combatants and terrorists storming the border, forcing Israel to defend itself with deadly force. As protests and violence raged, so too did debate and discussion of who was justified in their actions. Israel has a moral obligation to protect herself and her citizens. If Israel did not respond to these provocations, Israeli lives would have been lost.
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי – If I don’t stand up for myself, who will? But at the same time, the people living in Gaza suffer through terrible conditions, limited electricity, limited food, and limited water. Isn’t it our obligation to help those in need? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? If I am only for myself, what good am I? The debates went back and forth just like the protests did, and even continue, albeit at a smaller scale, up to this day.
Last year on this occasion I spoke about issues of religious pluralism in Israel and working to create more acceptance of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. This past year did little to alleviate those concerns and even raised many more. Progress remained stalled on enhancing an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, conversions outside the Orthodox rabbanut still remain questionable, and then, in perhaps the most troubling moment of the year, this past July, Rabbi Dubi Hayun of a Masorti Kehilah in Haifa was awoken by police one morning and called in for questioning about his performing weddings outside the jurisdiction of the Israeli rabbinate. This was immensely frustrating for many as our calls to have the Jewish state welcome multiple identities of Judaism remained unanswered. But at the same time, this represents the schism of classical thought. The rabbanut, for better or worse, seeks to protect its own religious values – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. But how can it be that the one Jewish state does not recognize a great number of Jews וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. Here too this conflict of values leads to tension in practice today.
Finally, just a month ago, the Israeli government passed the so-called “Nation-State Bill,” a bill that sought to specify the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This seemingly simple idea became very controversial over its seven year legislative journey as many felt the law was unnecessary, formalizing a fact that was already widely accepted, and that through its emphasis on the nation-state of the Jews, the law would delegitimize non-Jewish citizens of Israel and thereby question its democratic character. This is perhaps the ultimate example of the tribal-universal conflict. Seeking to legally identify Israel as the Jewish state is our tribal impulse. אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי If Israel is not the Jewish state, who will be? But at the same time the universalists within us recognize the many people who call Israel home. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי Israel needs to be more than “just” the Jewish state.
Wherever we may side on any of these issues, whether we connect more with our tribal or universalist impulses, whether we prefer the מִי לִי or the מָה אֲנִי, it’s vital to remember that this debate is never actually resolved. Not really at least. Hillel, our great sage included both clauses in his statement without giving deference to one or the other and allowed them to coexist in tension. Perhaps it is exactly this tension that allows both positions to thrive. Each supporting the other, helping to keep each other standing, to keep the other from going too far. Architecture teaches that all supports must be balanced in a perfect tension to keep things standing, and so it is with these two powerful world-views.
Both viewpoints are part of who we are. They are naturally embedded within us. The tribal impulse has made sure we protected ourselves and our own kind. It has enabled us to survive. The universal impulse has made sure we do not remain isolated. It has enabled us to thrive.
But each philosophy is also not without its faults. Individuals and groups can be so committed to universalism that their outlook towards anything else becomes almost tribal. Anything short of a complete buy-in to a universal perspective is then deemed inappropriate and unreasonable. This leads to the limiting of conversations to only the narrowest perspectives. Ironic, considering it happens as a result of commitments to universal understanding and acceptance. Essentially a tribal universalism.
The challenges, although different, remain from the alternate perspective as well. The tribal impulse to prove ourselves correct at all costs can leave us unwilling to consider alternative options and viewpoints. In many instances it leads to an all-or-nothing mentality, the idea that if we reject a piece of something, we reject the whole. Can we support a progressive candidate if don’t like where they stand on Israel? Can we support a conservative candidate if we don’t like where they stand on climate change?
Both perspectives, it seems, lead us to similar results – a lack of tolerance and understanding of those with a different viewpoint. And when we arrive here, we lose sight of another of Hillel’s powerful teachings when he says “אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים.” (Eruvin 13b) “These and those are the words of a living God.” Multiple opinions and outlooks can and should co-exist, as they work together to sharpen and clarify our greater understandings.
Does this observation – that we can acknowledge multiple perspectives, that we can still support institutions even without supporting every statement – does that make us non-committal? Or does it just mean we can see a bigger picture around the flaws? Yesterday I spoke about removing our filters and seeing for ourselves, with our own eyes. Can we do the same here and find the best in something even while recognizing the worst?
This sums up most of what I feel towards Israel at the moment. There are a number of flaws with certain policies of the current government, but I am comfortable recognizing those as disagreements. Even during the instances where my universal side calls into question some of Israel’s tribal actions, I know that the whole of Israel is something to believe in. Just as we as individuals need our tribal instincts to survive and our universal instincts to thrive, so too does Israel need to survive and thrive.
That’s why I’m so proud that we as a community have continued to show our support for Israel in a variety of ways. Just 33 days from today, 46 members of our CBI community will be traveling to Israel as part of the Community Mission of Greater MetroWest Federation. There is no better way to see all the ways that Israel embraces its opportunities as well as its challenges than by experiencing them first hand. It’s a trip that spends time with the IDF, but also emerging communities. We’ll visit religious centers of spirituality as well as the secular economic and high tech sectors. Over just one week we’ll have a taste (in more ways than one) of the many aspects of Israeli culture and Zionist perspectives of what Israel can be. And of course we’ll be ready to share it all with our community here when we return.
Likewise, we continue to participate in a drive for Israel Bonds. We heard many of the important reasons for supporting these bonds earlier and thank Jess Geller for his leadership in this project. I’ll only add to his words that this opportunity creates a guaranteed way of putting our money where are mouths are, and still seeing a return. We can support the State of Israel – literally, you actually make out your check to State of Israel, which I think is kind of cool – and help show our perhaps tribal support.
And alongside that, we can also support organizations and ideas that push Israel to embrace our universal traditions. I am proud to support Masorti Judaism, the partners of our Conservative Movement in Israel, and have tried to keep us informed of Masorti’s ongoing projects, both the areas where it has excelled as well as its opportunities for growth. By supporting Masorti alongside Israel Bonds as well as many other worthy organizations we can continue to embrace both sides of the same coin that is before us.
As much as we talk about these conflicting impulses pulling at our heads and our hearts, our tradition does not stop with only these two statements.
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what good am I? And if not now, when?
If not now, when? This phrase is our call to action. To put our words, our beliefs, into reality. But which words? Well, all of them. Both of the phrases that came before it, both our tribal and universal impulses. It reminds us to embrace all of these tendencies as we embrace the lone Jewish state in any variety of ways. For those who are getting on a plane with me in 33 days, amazing. We’ll see so much of what we’ve talked about first hand. For those who pledged their support for Israel Bonds, or other organizations, thank you for doing what you can from afar. Even for those of us who sometimes shake our heads at Israel’s actions, that’s fine too, just as long as we shake our heads at the actions and not at Israel as a whole. However we are engaging and embracing, whether from close or from afar, אִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי is our reminder that whatever we do to keep our connection to Israel strong, now is the time to do it. If hearing the phrase “If Not Now” leads us to anything other than engaging with Israel, it’s not being used the right way.
The modern State of Israel, at 70 years old, remains one of the great miracles of the 20th and 21st centuries. Built through ideas, through dreams, through sweat and tears, the fact that Israel stands as it does today just over 120 years removed from the First Zionist Congress is a testament to the commitments of its visionaries and its supporters. Israel remains at the heart of so much of what we do as Jews as we turn to her in prayer from wherever we are in the world. As Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem reminds us,
עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ, הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם, לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ, אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם.
“This hope is not yet lost, for it has been with us for 2,000 years. To be a free nation, in our land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
We yearn to have Israel for ourselves, as the homeland of our people, of our tribe. Yet at the same time, we acknowledge that Israel is not only our home, but is a place many others turn to with their hearts as well. We can hold on to all of these truths even as they exist in tension with one another, because it is exactly that tension Hillel spoke of. Keeping us strong so that we can survive, but at the same time looking outwards so that we can thrive.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what good am I? And if not now when?”
To be Jewish is to acknowledge multiple obligations, to embrace tribal and universal worldviews, and to live with the tension of conflicts. Our world, our hearts, and our minds are wide enough to hold on to all of these at once.
Sovereign of the Universe, accept in lovingkindness and with favor our prayers for the State of Israel. Open our eyes and our hears to the wonder of Israel and strengthen our faith in Your power to work redemption in every human soul. Grant courage, wisdom, and strength to those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny. Be with those on whose shoulders Israel’s safety depends and defend them from all harm. Spread over Israel and all the world Your shelter of peace, and may the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) (Adapted from Mahzor Lev Shalem)
Ken yehi ratzon. So may it be for us. In this year of 5779, let us work to make these prayers a reality.