Torah from Around the World #174

by Rabbi Alan David Londy, D.Min.,

New Reform Temple

, Kansas City, MO

Zionism was always intended to bring Jewish unity. The Zionist movement has its roots in our ancient vision of a messianic reunification of the dispersed Jews throughout the world. This ingathering of the Jews is more than bringing all Jews to one place. Reunification also has to do with Jewish interconnection.

Klal Yisrael

(the unity of the Jewish People) is an expression in Jewish thought, describing and promoting a shared community and destiny among all the Jews of the world.

A people cannot survive without dreams. However, the preservation of Jewish unity is more fantasy than reality. Jewish existence has always generated fractures:  Hanukkah’s intricate story describes the division within ancient Israel between the traditionalists and the Hellenists. Jewish sectarianism during the period of the Second Temple leading to its destruction by the Romans in the second century of the Common Era. The 18th century rift between the


and Hasidim not only created a split in the meaning of Jewish identity but also remains a fault line in contemporary Judaism. This little history lesson is not to diminish our longing for Jewish cohesiveness but to illustrate the difficulty in maintaining it.

What was the biblical dream of Jewish unity? Our double portion of


provides us with one version. As the Israelite wanderings are coming to a close, the overwhelming success of the Israelites in their battle against Midian is recorded.  But a fascinating development arises which seems to emerge from nowhere. The Reubenites and the Gadites were highly success cattle raisers on the lands of Jazer and Gilead, located beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. They asked permission to settle in these luscious lands and not seek land across the Jordan River in the Promised Land. Initially upon hearing this, Moses is furious. “

Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Eternal has given them

?” (Numbers 32:6-7) Moses fears the cultivation of Israelite disunity similar to the story of the 12 spies. This episode of the 12 spies leads to the forty years of wandering. The Reubenites and the Gadites suggestion were seen as having a similar catastrophic impact on Israelite unity.

However, it turns out that Reubenites and Gadites wanted something quite different. They would build settlements for their land and cattle where they had requested.  But, when the battle occurs for the settlement of the land, they will be leading the fight. They will fight until Israel is victorious in their conquering of the Land and then return to their homes. Upon hearing this statement of intention, Moses acquiesces. Conflict is prevented from arising.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of this event, this episode offers a unique typology of Jewish unity. All the Jews are responsible for each other especially in times of crisis, but there seems to be room for divergent paths. As long as the divergent paths do not create major rifts within the Jewish nation, those divergences do not necessarily have to lead to the disintegration of the common destiny of the Jewish people.

Our portion is always read in the weeks prior to the Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. In the rabbinic search for some kind of historical causality, explanations are offered to explain how the loss of the Temple and of Jewish sovereignty was possible. One of the most prominent explanations comes from the Talmud:

Why was the First Temple destroyed [586 B.C.E.]? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed… But why was the Second Temple destroyed [70 C.E.], seeing that during the time it stood, people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed (BT Yoma 9b).

Judaism is woven together in a meticulous manner. It cannot be coincidental that the story of Reubenites and of the Gadites pledging allegiance to the common needs of the survival of the people Israel is juxtaposed with the story of Jewish enmity revealed in the rabbinic explanation of the destruction of Second Temple and the loss of Jewish self-governance to the Romans.

What is the lesson to be drawn? Jewish unity is essential to Jewish survival but it comes only through recognition that unity is not uniformity. The approach of the Reubenites and the Gadites was to see their obligations to

klal yisrael

(the unity of the Jewish People) but also to affirm their need to find a Jewish path that reflected their individuality and their own reading of the Jewish present. The correctness of their approach is proven in the results: the Israelites remained united.

When is Jewish unity unworkable? When different groups within Judaism, instead of seeing the holiness in the other, fight over their differences and cannot see the forest from the trees. Today, world Jewry is threatened by its sectarianism and hatred among various groups within Judaism. The tragic result is disrespect and distrust that threatens the Jewish future. We, Progressive Jews, should not apologize for our dual desire for Jewish unity and Jewish diversity. The story of the Reubenites and Gadites is a road map that we can never give up teaching. The Jewish future depends on how eloquently we teach and live this message. No religious teaching is more central to our future than this.

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