Jews of all denominations tend to talk about ourselves in collective terms: ‘Progressive Jews’; ‘Liberal Jews’; ‘Reform Jews’; ‘Reconstructionist Jews’; ‘Orthodox Jews’; ‘Chassidic Jews’; ‘Secular Jews’; ‘Cultural Jews’; ‘Socialist Jews’; ‘Radical Jews’ … Some of these terms connect with actual organisational structures – like the ‘World Union for Progressive Judaism’. Meanwhile, ‘Chassidic Jews’, for example, encompass dozens of different sects, and ‘Secular/Cultural/Socialist/Radical Jews’, embrace millions of variously identified individuals.
And then there are those even larger global catchphrases: ‘The Jewish People’; ‘The People Israel’; ‘K’lal Yisrael’ – ‘All Israel.’ Perhaps, our attachment to these particular all-encompassing terms has its roots in those Torah tales that relate the formation of our ‘people’. We read in the Book of Exodus that the Eternal entered into a covenant with the recently liberated slaves huddled together at the foot of Mount Sinai, and as a result, the rabble became ha-am, ‘the people’, speaking together with one voice (Mishpatim – Exodus: 24:7).
Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant [seifer ha-b’rit] and read it in the hearing of the people [b’ozney ha-am], and they said [va-yom’ru]: ’All that the Eternal [YHWH] has spoken; we will do and obey [na’aseh v’nishma].
By contrast, in this week’s parashah, Nitzavim, which opens with a re-enactment of the covenant moment, the scene pictures a diverse company (Deuteronomy 29:9-14). Here is a literal translation: Atem nitzavim ha-yom kull’khem lifney Adonai Eloheykhem – You are stationed today, all of you, before the Eternal your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and your sojourner, who is in the midst of your camp, from those who chop wood to those who draw water; to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God and into His oath which Eternal your God is making with you today; in order that He may establish you today for Himself, as a people [l’am] and that He may be for you as a God [leilohim] as He spoke to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I make this covenant, and this oath; but with those who are standing here today before the Eternal your God, and also with those who are not here with us today.
Atem nitzavim – ‘You are stationed’. The Hebrew root Nun Tzadi Beit, implies, not simply the physical state of standing up, but standing in readiness. We might picture a unit of soldiers standing to attention. But the particular use of the language here also implies everyone’s individual responsibility to stand themselves’ up, as well as a collective endeavour. In the second half of the verse, the message, kull’khem – ‘all of you’ – is underlined by setting out a list that suggests total inclusion of all those who are part of the ‘camp’, including those who are not Israelites. Atem [‘You’ – plural] nitzavim [‘are standing in readiness’], kull’khem, [‘all of you’] – that is, each one of you. A closer reading, however, reveals that ‘all’ are not equal. It is clear that the plural subjects, Atem, ‘You’, who are being addressed, are the male Israelites: ‘your little ones, your wives and your sojourner’ (29:10).
So, kull’khem – ‘all of you’: each and every individual – but not on equal terms. This is not surprising. The text reflects a patriarchal, hierarchal society. The passage repeats the word today – ha-yom (29:9; 11; 14) four times. But that ‘today’ was over 3000 years ago. Nevertheless, we are pulled in to the moment: the Eternal is making the covenant with those ‘who are standing here today’, and also with those, ‘who are not here with us today’ (29:14). We are included – whether we like it or not. But some of those who read this passage today, here and now, may not feel included, and will read accordingly. The passage assumes that women are ‘wives’. What about those women who do not have a husband, or who do not have children, who are single or widowed or divorced or lesbian? The passage also assumes that men are husbands. What about men who don’t have wives, or children, who may be single, or may themselves have husbands? And those who do not fit into the gender binary: who are transgender, gender queer or gender fluid? And those who do not fit into narrow definitions of Jewish status: patrilineal Jews and Jews who are married or partnered to non-Jews. Do those who are not heterosexual men with two Jewish parents – or, at the very least, a Jewish mother – feel that kull’khem, ‘all of you’ includes them, too?
Individuals matter. Since the Age of Enlightenment, individuals have taken centre stage. Individuals, decide whether to opt in or to opt out of existing communal structures, such as synagogues. But those communal structures can make a difference to the decisions that individuals make. They can be inclusive of a diverse range of individuals or focus exclusively on the needs of a narrow constituency.
In Between Man and Man, Buber distinguished between collectivity and community (Collier Books, Macmillan, New York, 1965, p.80, p.31):
Collectivity is not a binding but a bundling together: individuals packed together, armed and equipped in common … But community … is the being no longer side by side but with one and another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude … experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the other, a flowing from I to Thou.
Community is where community happens.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah is currently rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue and a rabbinic tutor at Leo Baeck College, UK.
The above was formerly published as #289 in our Torah from Around the World series.