Jewish survival is the greatest anthropological miracle of human history. How did a nation survive a two-thousand year exile, without common currency, flag or land? Scattered across a hostile Diaspora, we retained national fraternity and exhibited uncommon unity. What was the bonding agent of this solidarity?
Remarkably, the heavenly word of G-d provided an unbreakable bond which human history could not separate. The study of G-d’s Torah and the performance of His rituals and commandments created a common language and an unspoken bond between Jews across the globe. Bonded by common dietary laws, committed to the same Shabbat observance, and adherent to the same marital standards, it was obvious that we were one family. Without divine commandments Jewish identity would have withered and Jewish unity would have splintered.
Judaism proved to be a robust and portable religion as the word of G-d was powerful and hardy enough to preserve Jewish unity throughout centuries of exile. During exile, religious consciousness was based on one variable, and it was divine and all-consuming.
Upon returning to our land, this equation radically changed, as two new religious variables were introduced. In the state of Israel, in addition to divine commandments, we possess a divine mandate to settle our land and a divine mandate to rebuild our people and attend to the needs of every Jew. A sovereign Jewish state provides a shared Jewish commonwealth for every Jew regardless of religious orientation. Religion now incorporates three variables, not one, challenging us to juggle multiple values. It was easier when religious identity was pivoted on only one factor.
In religious terminology how do we balance between torah, peoplehood and land? Or, in Hebrew how do we balance between Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.
A Triangle or Line?
Many religious Jews arrange these three values as a triangle. The triangle metaphor implies inseparability, and also claims identical value for each component. In a triangle, each angle is equal, and each is necessary for the construction of a triangular structure. The values of Torah, land and peoplehood are indivisible and equivalent.
My teacher, Rav Yehuda Amital, altered this geometry by describing these three values as a line, or a timeline, rather than a triangle. The positioning of these values along the line reflects their chronological sequence. The genesis of Jewish peoplehood occurred upon our departure from Egypt, weeks before Torah was delivered at Sinai. Based upon this chronology, when necessary, the needs of the Jewish people supersede Torah. Halacha can never be violated, but, in broader issues, Jewish peoplehood is the paramount value.
Jewish nationhood and Torah each preceded our entry into the land of Israel. Consequently, both Torah and Jewish peoplehood supersede the settlement of the land of Israel. In the lineup of religious values, Jewish peoplehood emerges as the supreme value of religious consciousness.
Jewish peoplehood in the land of Israel is more challenging precisely because we share one common country. Outside of Israel each religious Jewish community can carve out their own independent communal space without infringing upon any other religious group. In Israel, we all share one country and must establish one common consensus. Ironically, pursuing Jewish peoplehood in the land of the Jewish people isn’t that easy.
Despite the difficulties, the supreme value of Jewish peoplehood creates a sacred partnership between every Jew. Religious Jews may sharply disagree with secular Israelis over issues of religion, but we all share one common agenda and are all partners in one common historical project of resettling our land. The supreme value of Jewish peoplehood creates a scared partnership which should never be broken.
It is precisely this issue which makes the current political climate so disturbing. Ignoring the merits or the drawbacks of the current reforms they have clearly incited national strife and deeply fissured our national unity. There are severe practical dangers to social disunity, especially in a country constantly facing security threats. Practical concerns aside, one-sided political maneuvers in contempt of even minimal national consensus ignores any sense of partnership. The fact that these changes were launched by religious people is even more troubling, because our sacred partnership is a religious value which should be specifically prioritized by religious people. Whatever larger religious needs these reforms will support do not justify the cost to our peoplehood and the demolition of our sacred partnership. Jewish peoplehood must take precedence. Again, Orthodox Jews can never tolerate even minor halachic violations for the sake of any other value. However, these reforms aren’t protecting halachic obedience but recalibrating the religious tone of our society at large. Sadly, the manner in which they are being enacted will come at great cost to Jewish peoplehood.
A Lost Narrative
How did we get here? Why was partnership and consensus so obvious to previous generations and why have recent governments attempted ill-advised power grabs rather than conducting consensus, partnership-based politics?
Part of the answer is political. We are 75 years into our experiment with democracy, and, like every democracy, we are currently struggling to properly calibrate the balances of power. Monarchies are easier to construct than democracies because they don’t require power balancing. Approximately 75 years into the history of the United States, a civil war erupted surrounding the balance of power between the federal government and states. We are experiencing similar political convulsions, which, to a large degree, are natural to the evolution of any democracy.
But there is an additional, uniquely Jewish layer to this crisis. Unity requires a common story and a common narrative. Our two centuries of bondage in Egypt provided a common narrative which unified Jews of every stripe as they journeyed through the desert. Regardless of social, religious, or economic standing we had all been enslaved and we all felt compelled to build a better and more ethical society, based upon the will of G-d.
Similarly, when the state of Israel was founded, we all shared one common narrative – our recovery from the Holocaust. Not every Jew was directly imperiled by the Holocaust, yet it was a national trauma for every Jew. Every Israeli felt compelled to build a Jewish homeland to prevent this horror from ever recurring.
In addition to the narrative of recovering from, and preventing a future Holocaust, every Israeli shared a second unifying narrative. We all faced hostile opposition to our presence in this land. As we jointly faced common enemies and a common threat, we were united in the struggle to assert our historical and religious rites to our Jewish homeland. Often these two unifying narratives converged into one super narrative: without a Jewish state the Jewish people were too vulnerable, and we teamed up to build and protect our state, our national heritage and the life of every Jew both in Israel and abroad.
These two narratives are each slowly fading. Unfortunately, but understandably, as time passes and Holocaust survivors themselves pass, the Holocaust becomes less of a defining feature of Jewish and Israeli identity. Additionally, as the state of Israel stabilizes its security situation and we no longer face existential threats to our state, we are less united in our heroic efforts to protect our state. Additionally, we have experienced economic prosperity and the pursuit of wealth is always a more individualistic endeavor rather than a common enterprise.
We are slowly losing our common story, and because of this politics have become extreme and polarized. National consensus is losing out to partisan politics and the partnership is fraying. Political solutions are insufficient to restore unity. We must also rebuild our national consensus, reaffirm our sacred partnership, and retell our common story. Pesach is a great opportunity for all this. Especially for religious Jews.
Maybe it is more important to check our commitment to Jewish peoplehood than to check other people’s bag’s for chametz.