Parashat Va’etchanan (Nachamu)

I’m writing this drash in the week of the Wall: the week when the Israeli government decided to freeze its promise, negotiated through the good offices of the Jewish Agency over 18 months ago, to legalise freedom of religion at the Kotel by permitting egalitarian worship in a specially marked section. Though that section, the Wall’s southern expanse at Robinson’s Arch, has been used for egalitarian worship services for several years, the agreement would formally incorporate it into the Wall precinct and at the same time protect it from a rabbinical takeover.

I’m hoping that by the time these words are published, the government would have reconfirmed its commitment to the promise it made. But, whichever direction the politics has taken, there are still matters of principle that remain pertinent.

The greatest principle is the one enunciated in the Shema, which is found in this week’s Torah portion Va’etchanan: “Hear, O Israel! The Eternal our God, the Eternal [is] one/alone/unique [echad].” The doyen of Biblical commentators, R. Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), separates the two phrases that refer to the Eternal, YHVH. He says that Israel knows YHVH and in this regard YHVH is “our God”. Though the other nations may not know YHVH, nonetheless YHVH is in reality the only [echad] God, and some day they, too, will recognise YHVH’s unique existence. When that day comes, despite the differences that will always distinguish nation from nation and people from people, an overriding sense of unity will bring humanity together in peace and harmony.

Paramount to Rashi’s understanding is that Israel, the people who know God, themselves form a single entity through their realisation that YHVH is “our God” and that our God is in reality the only God, Creator of all. The oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of the Jewish people. That’s ultimately the reason why Jewish unity is so important. It mirrors YHVH’s unity in Creation. Though the other nations may not yet grasp this, it is the true state of affairs. Eventually, as they experience the unity of God reflected through the unity of the Jewish people, they will also come to appreciate that “the Eternal alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (this passage is also in Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 4:39, and it is quoted in the Aleynu prayer).

Rashi sees that there is a gulf between the present time, in which Israel truly appreciates God’s oneness but the other nations do not, and the future time when all nations will appreciate that God is one alone, bringing together all creation. This vision of the future is captured by the verse from the prophet Zechariah that concludes the Aleynu: “On that day the Eternal shall be one, and [the Eternal’s] name shall be one.”

In keeping with the prophetic tradition, it’s clear Rashi doesn’t mean that in the future all the nations will become Jewish. Heaven forbid! The nations will retain their cultural and religious diversity, their differences ways of expressing their pursuit of the Divine. But they will all recognise that there is one God alone, and the one God unites all peoples. The oneness of God is represented by the name YHVH. Though the nations worship differently, they will all be worshipping YHVH.

The possibility of oneness despite differences, the vision of unity across diversity, thus becomes the hallmark of the Jewish people. It is our greatest gift to global civilisation. The key to that gift is the unity of the Jewish people. In the face of all our differences, says the Shema, we are one people worshipping the one God.

What we’re after, as is often remarked, is unity, not uniformity. But that’s not easy to achieve. In our day the unity of the Jewish people is hard to find. It is experienced more in the breach than as a reality. Segments of our people seek uniformity, not unity. They would force all Jews to live life in the same way. In their eyes, to be a Jew means to live according to their understanding of Torah. For those who think this way, there is no diversity in Judaism.

If this is true, our declaration of the oneness of God no longer unites us. We each seem to mean something different when we recite the words of the Shema, “the Eternal is our God, the Eternal [is] one.” “Our God” is not their God. Spiritually we Jews are about as disunited as we have ever been throughout our long history.

Nowadays we look not to our sacred texts but to physical objects to express our unity. For some, tefillin is such an object. For others, it is the Kotel. The Prime Minister intoned, “One Wall for one people.” But that elegant expression only works if the people make the Wall into one; if they consciously seek to build of the Wall a unity. If the aim of any part of the whole is to claim possession of the Wall for themselves, excluding those who would worship differently, then the oneness of the Wall is shattered. That’s precisely what happened when the government gave into the national religious parties in the coalition by reneging on its promise to provide a place at the Wall for those who practice an egalitarian form of Judaism.

Some have argued that it’s only a wall, so what’s the fuss? We have more important things to think about. The reality is that this wall, the Kotel, has immense symbolic significance. The massive outcry from so many sections of the Jewish community around the world demonstrates the symbolic weight that the Kotel carries.

I do wonder sometimes if the Wall can bear such a weight. Many years ago Professor Isaiah Leibowitz z”l warned that the Wall was in danger of being turned into an idol. In the light of the divisive stand that the Haredim take regarding the Kotel, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein recently reminded us of Leibowitz’s warning. It is precisely in order to protect us against the destructive divisiveness of idolatry that the Shema declares, Hear O Israel! The Eternal our God, the Eternal [is] one! Maybe it’s time for us to take a step back from both the Wall and the Shema, to rethink what they are really about and to reconsider our relationship to both.


About the Author:

Rabbi Fred Morgan AM, Movement Rabbi UPJ Australia, New Zealand, Asia