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Friday, November 28, 2014

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Let’s try a different kind of unity

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At one time, the slogan for the Combined Jewish Appeal was “We are one.”

That line struck me at the time as being, well, a bit disingenuous. Just for one example: the experiences of North American Jews over the past 100 years could not be more different from, say, those of Jews in the former Soviet Union. We lived in peace and democracy, they under hardship and dictatorship. We lived in a world that recognized the freedom to believe, or not, as you pleased. They lived in a world where to enter a place of worship could mean a quick trip to the gulag.

If the slogan for the United States dollar is “E pluribus unum,” “Out of the many, one,” ours is the opposite: “Out of the one, many.”

We delude ourselves if we keep saying “We are one” and then refuse to realize that we’re not – not now, and not in the past.

Israeli Jews are not one. Israel is going through a grave internal crisis, including not only a growing rift between secular and dati, but also a battle between Orthodox-Zionist and haredi. Reading about the haredi “Mod[esty] Squad” attacking “immodest” Orthodox Jews on the street in Beit Shemesh makes you wonder if you’re reading about Islamist extremism.

Israeli and Diaspora Jews? Israelis are more divided, more nuanced, while the organized Diaspora tends to be hardline, often ignoring other Israeli voices in the centre. As well, those of us in non-Orthodox congregations want our Judaism acknowledged and supported.

North American Jews are not one. What we call modern Orthodoxy has, in its approach to the role of secular education and the role of women, widened the gap between itself and the haredim. The latter see the study of Torah as the only meaningful way to live a Jewish life. Modern Orthodoxy finds itself under pressure, not to say attack, when it articulates its approaches to secular education, role of women, and the “outside” world in general.

We haven’t been one since Emancipation in Europe, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing in North America, finally reaching eastward. And even before that, Jews in Europe had different experiences than Jews in Muslim lands.

Ancient Israel? After David and Solomon, it split into two kingdoms, Judah and northern Israel, who fought with each other and with each other’s enemies. Go figure. The slogan would not have applied to them at all.

Certainly, Jews who, in the 13th century and beyond, argued that the works of Maimonides should be banned – with sad consequences – were not feeling at one with his philosophy. Jews who tried to get Chassidim arrested by Czarist police were not feeling at one.

Slogans such as “We are one” rely on a Jewish past where we all lived in harmony and goodwill, all prayed in the same shul, all observed the commandments in joy and song. It was a very comfortable past – and totally mythical.

How can we begin to make us one, when we’re clearly many?

Why not start with the past? I quote Prof. Tina Loo of the University of British Columbia in Canada’s History magazine (February/Marach 2013): “Although we use ‘history’ and ‘the past’ synonymously, they’re totally different things. History isn’t chronology or past events; it’s an interpretation, an argument [my emphasis] about the past. That means it’s inherently contentious. It will alienate and inspire – and we should expect and welcome that.”

We can’t expect to get the present right if we live with a past that’s inaccurate. What is that wonderful saying? “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”

When I taught Jewish history, I tried very hard to make it uncertain. There was no inevitable outcome: “They tried to kill us, a miracle occurred, we were saved, let’s eat.” Jewish history, if it teaches us anything, tells us that we struggled as much among ourselves and between our respective communities as we did resisting the dangers of the outside world.

Now most of us are inside that world, once so forbidding. We have a chance, never before offered us, to enrich both worlds. If some reject that chance, they can certainly give the rest of us the opportunity.

Surely after all these millennia we can live without assuming we are one and respect our differences. It’s a different kind of one-ness. Let’s give it a try.

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