You’ve probably heard this one before.
A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks her profusely and offers to give her a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”
Our little story builds on the idea that we Jews are particularly contentious, always debating and disputing with one another, deeply divided. Division, rift, even schism, are the words of the day, all of them common descriptions of either the state of the Jewish people and/or the relationship between American Jews and Israel. 25 years ago, a teacher of mine put out a book called “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America” and just this week a new volume called “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel” arrived.
Truth be told, we live in a moment of rather extraordinary division, both as Jews and as Americans. You don’t need me to detail really; it’s all around us. American politics; Israeli politics; Fox vs MSNBC; globalists vs patriots; environmental activists and climate change skeptics and deniers; etc. etc.
The story is hardly a new one. Even a cursory reading of the book of Exodus reveals deep divisions among the Israelites, a pattern repeated over and over again in the Bible’s narrative of national life in, and outside of, the land of Israel. And in the post-Biblical world, rifts and schisms abound – Hellenizers and Maccabees; Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes; Rabbis and Priests; Rabbinites and Karaites; Ashkenazim and Sefardim; Hasidim and Misnagdim – and that’s before we get to modern times (and my list is far from exhaustive!).
One way to read and understand the 3,000 year old story of the Jewish people is to recognize that division, rifts, and even schisms, are simply a fact of Jewish life. We debate and dispute, we separate and split off from one another, perhaps we reconnect and perhaps not, a predominant form emerges, and life goes on.
An added element of this tale is that we’re always worrying about it.
In a famous essay, first published in Hebrew in 1948, philosopher Simon Rawidowicz wrote of ‘Israel, the Ever-Dying People.’ “The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.” “The threat of doom” Rawidowicz calls it, “an end that forecloses any new beginning.”
One can sub-divide oneself out of existence. That’s today’s version of this age old Jewish worry.
I want to explore the divided-ness and consider some responses to it in two ways this morning. First, I’d like for us to learn a poem together.
Lea Goldberg ‘Pine’
.כָּאן לֹא אֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל הַקּוּקִיָּה
,כָּאן לֹא יַחְבֹּשׁ הָעֵץ מִצְנֶפֶת שֶׁלֶג
אֲבָל בְּצֵל הָאֳרָנִים הָאֵלֶּה
.כָּל יַלדוּתִי שֶׁקָּמָה לִתְחִיָּה
צִלְצוּל הַמְּחָטִים: הָיֹה הָיָה
,אֶקְרָא מוֹלֶדֶת לְמֶרְחַב–הַשֶּׁלֶג
,לְקֶרַח יְרַקְרַק כּוֹבֵל הַפֶּלֶג
.לִלְשׁוֹן הַשִּׁיר בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה
– אוּלַי רַק צִפֳּרֵי–מַסָּע יוֹדְעוֹת
– כְּשֶׁהֵן תְּלוּיוֹת בֵּין אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמַיִם
.אֶת זֶה הַכְּאֵב שֶׁל שְׁתֵּי הַמּוֹלָדוֹת
,אִתְּכֶם אֲנִי נִשְׁתַּלְתִּי פַּעֲמַיִם
,אִתְּכֶם אֲנִי צָמַחְתִּי, אֳרָנִים
.וְשָׁרָשַׁי בִּשְׁנֵי נוֹפִים שׁוֹנִים
Leah Goldberg ‘Pine’
Here I will not hear the cuckoo’s voice.
Here the tree will not don a turban of snow,
But in the shade of these pines
My entire childhood comes back to life.
The chiming of the needles: Once upon a time—
I will call the distance of snow a homeland,
The greenish ice that fetters the brook,
The poem’s language in a foreign land.
Perhaps only birds of travel know—
when they hang between land and sky—
This pain of the two homelands.
With you I was planted twice,
With you I grew, pines,
And my roots are in two different landscapes.
I first learned this poem from Achinoam Nini’s brilliant musical version. Hear it here.
Highlights of Goldberg’s poem:
Image of a bird that travels great distances – hanging/hovering between land and sky (eretz and shamayim) – earth and heaven.
הכאב של שתי המולדות…
the ache of two homelands…
שורשי בשני נופים שונים
my roots ‘on both sides of the sea’
Current big divide within the Jewish people – American Jews and Israeli Jews – relatively new. Turn the clock back 150 years (a mere second in the long stretch of our history!) to 1880. Then, 3% of the world’s Jews lived either in North America or in the land of Israel. Today 80% or more of the world’s Jews live in one of those two places. And both of those communities are amalgams, mixing religious, cultural, secular, Sefardi, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi, in distinct ways.
Daniel Gordis, whose new book ‘We Stand Divided’ I referenced a few minutes ago, labels these two large Jewish communities as distinct ‘projects’ each with its own underlying assumptions and trajectories. In his shorthand, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” describes the American Jewish ethos, while the opening word’s of Israel’s declaration of independence – “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” – points to Israeli Jewry’s central purpose. American Jews – universalistic – Israeli Jews – particularistic – that’s the difference in a nutshell. Gordis’s binary is too neat and clean in my view. Both expressions of Jewishness are complex and both communities are replete with myriad internal divisions. I know plenty of Israeli Jewish universalists and plenty of American Jewish particularists. And as Leah Goldberg’s resonant poem suggests, more than a few of us have roots on both sides of the sea.
I like Gordis better on the remedy side of the equation. What’s needed, he writes, is “an overdue conversation between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, to deepen our understanding of each other’s differences, successes and vulnerabilities, in the hopes that we can learn from the best that each has to offer. In a world that is darkening for the Jews once again, we need each other now more than ever.” Hear, hear. Not original – Rav Kook called for the same 85 years ago; but well said.
The same is true within each of our large and complex communities as well. Fania Oz-Salzberger in a brilliantly creative piece imagines a sextet of early Zionist thinkers on a road trip in contemporary Israel. Herzl, Max Nordau, Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson, Bialik, join Ahad Ha’am on a ten day tour of Israel’s cultural centers and periphery. Ahad Ha’am – the leading voice of cultural or spiritual Zionism is able to see that his writings are still being studied by groups of young people in Jerusalem and even in Tel Aviv, in classes and informal gatherings, “with kipot and without them.”“He might be pleased to know this,” Oz-Salzberger imagines, “but more than he would be pleased, he would be disconcerted by the rainbow of Jewish types parading through the streets of the capital, the one having nothing to do with the other, and no love lost between them. And he would worry.”
God knows, there’s plenty to worry about.
My love letter to the Jewish people would include these lines –
שורשי בשני נופים שונים – my roots are on both sides of the sea…
לקה אחד מהן כולן מרגישין Just as a ewe feels pain in all parts of its body when one part is hurt, so does all Israel feel it when one Jew is hurt…[Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai]
Let us be known by the general name of the people of Israel, not by the name of a party or a camp. Let us know that in each camp there is much to be mended, and much light and good that one can receive from the other. [Rav Kook, 1933]
(נתודע איש אל אחיו בשם ישראל הכללי, לא בשם מפלגתי ומחנתי. נדע שיש לנו בכל מחנה הרבה מה לתקן והרבה מה לקבל מהאור והטוב זה מזה…)
Lay aside anger, learn to look at each other, party to party, with the eyes of compassionate brothers cast together into great trouble, willing to unite for one sacred goal: the common good, its dignity and sacred service… [Rav Kook, 1935, his last public letter]
(הרפו מאף, התלמדו להביט איש אל אחיו, מפלגה על מפלגה, בעינים של אחים חומלים, הנתונים יחד בצרה גדולה, והמוכנים להתאחד למטרה קדושה אחת: עזרת הכלל כולו, כבודו ומשמרתו.)
לְעִנְיַן הִתְחַזְּקוּת לְבַל יִפֹּל הָאָדָם בְּדַעְתּוֹ מֵחֲמַת רִבּוּי הַפְּגָמִים וְהַקִּלְקוּלִים שֶׁקִּלְקֵל עַל־יְדֵי מַעֲשָׂיו, עָנָה וְאָמַר: אִםאַתָּהמַאֲמִין, שֶׁיְּכוֹלִיןלְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִיןשֶׁיְּכוֹלִיןלְתַקֵּן
On the topic of hitchazkut (encouragement)—that a person should not fall into despair on account of the many blemishes and harm his actions caused: If you believe it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair!
If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, believe that you can heal. (Check out this spectacular presentation of Nahman’s teaching courtesy of Oren Kaunfer!)
I believe that we can fix; I believe that we can heal. Let’s get to it.