Achdut – Jewish Unity

Many aspects of our life here and now in the State of Israel are not in our hands. We play games of economics and foreign policy; we argue, rave and fight about these and related issues. But in truth, most of these and other matters are determined by greater outside forces, while we can affect them only minimally. Still, there are some areas – even if they seem more restricted – in which we have significant influence and power, and in which we can have considerable impact; for example, social and educational issues, the responsibility for which is, to a very great extent, our own.

One of these matters – which has possibly been the “hottest” topic of the past few years – is Unity. Everyone, both in and outside of Israel, writes and speaks about the problems of Israeli society, its internal differences and rifts. Many also make all sorts of attempts to create unity. I sometimes think that just all the different organizations and institutions working for unity could make a sizeable crowd. Yet despite all the love that each of them harbors for fellow Jews, they do not seem to be able to unify with each other. Although those who strive for unity are so many, their actual influence is small, for many reasons. One simple reason has to do with the very definition. Of course everyone wants unity; yet in most cases, this aspiration for unity is defined as follows: Everyone knows that I am right; once everyone else accepts my views, the Jewish people will be unified. Since it is this kind of unity that each individual and group speaks about, it can be easily understood why it does not grow forth from among them. This is one problem.

In addition, not all the fights that occur here are about vain things. It must be remembered that some of the issues about which we argue and fight are indeed serious and painful ones, and it would be wrong to state that none of the differences of opinion is of any importance. We fight over questions such as, what should the borders of the Land of Israel be, what is the ideal character of the State of Israel, what should the Sabbath and Yom Kippur be like. It is precisely because these matters are significant that there are disagreements about them. Questions such as – will Mr. So-and-so will be appointed to this or that senior position, these are unimportant matters. But questions such as, what kind of a life are we going to be leading here – in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, in Kiryat Shemona or in Migdal HaEmek – are real problems, which cannot be subjected to any kind of simplified solutions. Much of the talk about “loving our fellow Jews” and about bringing all the Jews together may also be attempts to plaster things over, to paint everything in monochrome, and to behave as if no differences exist.

Yet differences do exist, and they are not only real and painful, but also bound to remain with us for a while. Needless to say, I always take into account the possible arrival of the Messiah, when all our problems will be solved. Incidentally, I believe that today, both the Jewish people and the entire world are much more ready to receive the Messiah than ever before, which is a significant improvement. Yet when we speak not about the eventual coming of the Messiah, but rather about our present problems, we are speaking about a culture war. True, to the extent that there is a culture war here, it is not a very cultural one. Nor is it one single war: rather, a number of wars are taking place here simultaneously – over culture, policy, and social structures. Some of these wars are very quiet, but nevertheless they do exist and go on.

So long as we speak about different camps, and even about rival ones – including people who throw stones at, and are willing to harm, each other – it is still within the norm of our national existence. Jews have always lived with controversies. Psychologically and sociologically speaking – and this also has sound theological basis – Jews behave as a family; and in a family siblings always fight with and beat each other, often until they actually bleed. Does this mean that they cease to be siblings? Not at all; such fights are part and parcel of the family entity. Families are based on the great closeness among their members. Because family members are so close to, as well as in such close proximity with, each other, they often fight. Thus, differences of opinion do not remain a distant, theoretical matter, but rather lead to discord and even violence. It even is a law of nature: all the world’s creatures wage their fiercest wars against members of their own kind; it is so with cats, wolves, even moose. Is this an idyllic picture? Possibly not. But even the prophet Isaiah, who promised that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” (11:6), never promised that two lambs will be able to coexist peacefully.

Yet however unpleasant, or even dangerous, this may be, it is still within the norm. Quite often, though, our internal fighting slides toward a point which I find both dangerous and frightening. I am not making this up. I have seen such statements in newspapers, and even heard them from individuals – some of them people who are not considered extremists – from all walks of Jewish society. Everyone – those with the earlocks and those who go bear-headed, women with kerchiefs and women whose garments reveal more than they hide – speak in exactly the same manner about the “others.” They say, “What have I got to do with them? We have nothing in common.” I have heard people make statements such as, “Nothing in the world ties me to those religious people; I feel much closer to the Arabs” – along with parallel statements from the other side: “Those secularists, they are just like the gentiles.” Similarly, “settlers” and “left-wingers” may consider each other total strangers.

Such statements are already beyond fighting. They express some kind of acceptance, but a very threatening one: it is acceptance of the same kind that comes after death. I cease to fight because there is no one to fight with anymore. The other party has changed, has become a stranger. Seeing the other not as an enemy, an opponent to be fought against, but rather as a stranger, seems to me the greatest, most terrible threat to our existence. So long as I assume that I am right and the other party is wrong, we are still in one group, we still belong to the same body. I can say that so-and-so is a wicked person and an unbeliever, and should be put to death in all the four forms of capital punishment – and still feel that a non-believer is closer to me than a righteous gentile. Losing the feeling that we are one, that we are one body, is graver than any controversy, even more than a civil war.

A simile can help us understand this. Diseases of the auto-immune system have become more and more widespread nowadays. The basic point about these diseases, which is also their mystery, is that cells begin to treat certain parts of the body as foreign bodies. Every living organism has something that defines it; the body knows itself. When a part of the body is hurt or wounded, the body always feels: this is I, whatever is now causing me pain is me. In the auto-immune diseases, the “I” ceases to identify itself; the picture of the “I” becomes partial, stilted, reduced. And then, some of the cells begin to do what they would do against any foreign body: they try to eject it. They become incapable of perceiving the former complex “I.”

All of these diseases, which are horrible diseases, are not caused by a germ or a virus; they take place within the body itself. Like in the case of AIDS, the apparatus that triggers this response can be created spontaneously, or due to external stimuli such as foreign blood, or relations with people with whom we should not have any relations. But at any rate, the reaction is similar: the body ceases to recognize itself as a single unit, and begins to perceive parts of itself as strangers. Such a situation is not just scary: it is an encounter with death itself. So long as the Jewish “I” knows that a Jew is a Jew – however much he may fight with him or be willing to cast him to hell – that is a different, much more intimate and personal case; it is my own self, a part of my “I.” It is like the attitude that exists within a family. I can be angry with the bad boy, or with the delinquent brother; I can even throw him into jail. Still, I know that he is “my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14), even if we argue, even if we tear out each other’s hair. So long as he is I, a part of my “I” – the “I” of the individual or of the family – we both can exist. But this disease – in which the “I” ceases to recognize itself as a unit, a comprehensive whole, and is willing to recognize only certain parts – is a state beyond repair. Such a situation is not just a partition, it is not just pain: it is death.

The feeling of “I” is natural and self-understood. Every baby begins, at a very early stage in life, to try to coordinate the various parts of its body – even when it is not quite sure yet what should be done with each one of its limbs. When a baby is born, it possibly knows nothing; but unconsciously it feels that there is one “I,” however dim and vague, from the tip of its toe to the top of its head. This “I” includes all kinds of limbs and parts: some beautiful ones and some foul ones. These parts fulfill various functions, some that I am interested in and some that I am not. Yet all that is “I.” So long as this unified perception is there, there is existence; once it falls apart, existence ceases.

When we examine the referent – the state of the Jewish nation – we see that this simile has both theoretical and practical implications. It is not just a statement made on the spiritual, ideological level: it also has practical conclusions. I am not talking about creating unity. Unity is a grandiose thing, a supreme cause, and God willing, the time will come in which we shall attain it. I am talking about something closer, which is also more essential: pulling out of the syndrome of this incurable disease, in which I cease to feel my “I,” which includes the other as well. I may have a very negative view of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionists – but all of them are I. I may argue with all those people whom the late Prof. Leibowitz termed “desecrators of the Sabbath, who have sexual intercourse with ritually impure women, and eat non-kosher food” – but still, they are I. So long as this joint “I” exists, we have life. It is this all-inclusive “I” of the Jewish people – not a unified Jewish people, but a people that has an “I” of its own, that includes all its members – that we must not lose.

This essay is adapted from a speech delivered by Rabbi Steinsaltz, at the Annual Aleph Society Dinner in 1999.