Judaism, A House Divided Against Itself

There was a time when the Jewish community spoke with one voice. The Talmud records the role of the Resh Galuta, the head of the diaspora community, who was specifically appointed by the Jews to speak on their behalf to the powers that be. But that was almost 2,000 years ago and is certainly not the case today. We hardly speak with one voice today. This week the New York Times carried an article entitled “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews.” Jewish senators Boxer, Feinstein, and Schatz support the Iran deal, but Chuck Schumer does not. The mudslinging has gotten terrible on both sides. When Democratic representative Jerrold Nadler announces support for the Iran deal, there were threats against his life by fellow Jews. Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said, “We are on the verge of fratricide in the Jewish community.”

Is it true? Is the voicing of radically differing opinions tearing away at the cohesion of this minor people?

The vitriol stems from an attempt to own the Jewish voice; as it it were singular. But who really gets to speak for the Jews? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? His party won only 25% of the vote in the last election. The Chief Rabbis of Israel? What percent of Jews outside of Israel even know their names? When we pay attention to how Jews self identify, a diverse understanding of what it means to be Jewish emerges. It quickly becomes apparent that no one person can articulate a singular Jewish voice. When asked, what does it mean to be Jewish, those who self-identify as Jews responded as as follows:

73% said remembering the Holocaust. Only 43% said caring about Israel, about as many as said “having a good sense of humor (42%), and a scant 19% said observing Jewish law. –PEWFORM.

The actress Mayim Bialik recently said, “it’s never going to be trendy to be observant or religious in Hollywood circles.” Is there such a thing as “too Jewish” for the public sphere? And while the highest single-identifying marker of Jewish identity is remembering the Holocaust, some in the community find focus on the Holocaust as myopic. Natalie Portman recently made news when she voiced her opinion on the topic: “I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself is, how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things.” Does Natalie Portman speak for the Jews? Does J-Street? Does AIPAC?

Some people will see this political bickering as an existential threat to what it means to be authentically Jewish. Others, including myself see the splintering of voice into different opinions, political perspective, affinity groups, religious and nonreligious, pro or con the Iran deal, as a truthful and honest family portrait. We would be wise to remember that speaking with one voice, such as when a Resh Galuta was required of us by an outside power, was never a Jewish ideal. The story of the Tower of Babel was a cautionary tale about what God thinks of a humanity that speaks with only one tongue – we pervert the truth and go astray. On the other hand, the belief that when the Torah was given, each of us heard God’s word distinctly and differently, is lauded as a cornerstone of Judaism. Judaism is monotheistic but not monolithic. From the get go Jews have been radical pluralists.

Christian scripture teaches that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25), but a divided house is just a house – a very loud house. We never agree. And, because of that, no single person nor any single political group could ever rightly presume to speak for the rest of us. When we remember that we have never spoken with a singular perspective, the vitriol will end. It would be nice if we took it even further, actually listening to one another, but even when we don’t, there is beauty in acknowledging the diverse, pluralistic Jewish family. God’s voice in the world is diminished by those who purport to speak for all of us.

The most authentic Jewish voice is that of radical pluralism. Remembering that deep wisdom is at the heart of being descendants of the prophets, each of us sharing God’s voice – heard by each a bit differently, each with only a partial truth, but also from each perspective, holiness.

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