5758 - #4


The Challenge of Jewish Unity

The scene of Yaakov's sons gathering around their father's death bed[1] to hear his final words to them, presents a most powerful vision of unity.[2] It represents an ideal to which the Jewish nation has, throughout its history, aspired. Yet it was an ideal that was only accomplished through turmoil, deep introspection and pain. In fact, even as we read about this picture of oneness, the unity of the brothers is actually not complete. In Bereishit 50:15, the brothers who sold Yosef into slavery express their concern that, now after Yaakov's death, Yosef would treat them harshly. Perhaps, they thought, Yosef's attachment to them arose solely from his desire to please his father, not from true bonds of connection to them.[3] To paraphrase the definitions of love presented in Avot 5:19, perhaps the unity was dependent upon a specific factor and thus would end with the removal of this factor. In spite of the picture of solidarity presented during Yaakov's final moments, the brothers were still unsure if this was true unity or only a temporal unity dependent upon pleasing Yaakov. Pictures of togetherness and pledges of fellowship may be nice but they do not reflect the essence of the challenge that unity presents. True unity is actually very difficult to accomplish.

While unity may have been our nation's aspiration, Jewish history clearly indicates how difficult it has been to achieve. Our past is marked with numerous rifts within our people. On one level, it is not surprising that the existence of the first group of Jews - the sons of Yaakov - should be marked by internal dissension. Yet, it is precisely because they were Jews of the highest order that unity was so problematic. Avraham Avinu was called ivri because he stood apart;[4] his values, his belief in Hashem separated him from the rest of humanity. It was this same commitment to values that initiated the battle between the brothers.[5] Their strong commitment to their views, their understanding of Torah, produced friction. Unity is so much easier to achieve when there is disagreement on matters of little significance. The value of unity simply overrides, demanding that the other values be ignored. But what is to occur when these other values are not of little significance? Is the value of unity always to be most significant? A highly respected Reform scholar is noted as saying that if Jewish unity was the prime consideration, there never would have been a Reform movement. The reformers believed that the values they were expounding were more important than Jewish unity. This statement is especially notable in a world climate that attacks Orthodox leaders for placing other values above Jewish unity. Indeed, Eugene Borowitz made this statement as a critique of those who attack Orthodoxy for not placing Jewish unity above all else. True unity cannot be achieved by simply placing it above all other concerns. This is simply not the truth. Other values can be and are primary. The lesson of Yaakov's sons - a lesson that was only learned with much difficulty - was how to achieve unity with strength of commitment.

Realistically, though, this is not always possible. As distinct as each of the brothers were, as powerful was their disagreement,[6] they did share strong areas of agreement. At some point, differences amongst members of a group may inherently indicate that they no longer can form one group. A grouping inherently means some common familiarity; when there is no point of connection then the formation of two groups from the one is but a formality. The challenge, though, is to determine the point of connection, to create a unity that is as broad as possible rather than limited. There are those who advocate a narrow definition of unity. They would demand such homogeneity that any difference in itself would represent a challenge to the group. There are those who advocate the broadest form of unity. The value of unity is placed so far above all else that there is no other commitment beside unity. Ultimately, what Yaakov's sons teach us is that there is another definition of unity - a unity that only can be achieved by actively working for it.

True unity is not accomplished by attempting to ignore issues, by not wishing to discuss matters in contention. Exactly the opposite is what is demanded. Unity itself is a concept that needs to be explored. Why is unity significant? What is the objective of unity? What is its basis? The question is not only if it is possible for the various sub-groups to join together but whether there is purpose in maintaining this wholeness of the body. For a group to exist, there must be a purpose for the group; it has to represent something. To ignore all other values except unity will result in a lack of group meaning - a unity of no purpose. The demand for unity with meaning is to determine how the heterogeneous nature of the group has purpose - in fact represents the very foundation of the group. This is in fact what Yaakov did when he brought together his sons to hear his final words. He stressed the heterogeneity of the Jewish nation - and in fact found, not in its homogeneity but in its differences, its very meaning. It was not simply tolerance: that the Jewish people accepts diversity. It was a meaning of direction, that the singular purpose of the Jewish nation is served by these distinctions. To determine this concept is a demanding task, but without a singular purpose there can never and should not be one group. This is ultimately the challenge of Jewish unity.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


[1] Bereishit, Chapter 49.

[2] See, for example, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 49:1.

[3] See Rashi, Bereishit 50:15. See, interestingly, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 50:15 who wishes to interpret the verse in a more natural way, without reflecting any previous hidden animosity.

[4] Bereishit Rabbah 42:8. See, specifically Perush Maharzav.

[5] See Siftei Chachamim, Bereishit 37:2, note nun.

[6] The most powerful ethical debate may have actually been between Yaakov and Shimon & Levi in regard to the treatment of Shechem. See Bereishit, chapter 34. Even in his last breaths, Yaakov enunciates his objection to the actions of these two sons. Perhaps, this is, in fact, indicative of the entire issue of connecting dedication to values with unity.

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