Is Jewish Unity Still Possible?

Chai Society Season III Episode 4

This month’s #ChaiSociety Dispatch comes on 3 Tammuz, the Rebbe’s twenty seventh yahrzeit. To paraphrase the worlds of Rabbi Akiva, “What is mine,” what wisdom I have to impart, “and what is yours,” what wisdom you may glean from me, “is on account of him” — the teachings of the Rebbe which continue to speak so profoundly to so many.

💡 Think:

It seems as if we’re at some sort of inflection point.
As society has become increasingly polarized, so to have the markers of our Jewish identity. Who we are as a people, let alone if we even are one people, seems to be the very root of what’s tearing us apart.

Division is not new to the Jewish community. Debates and disagreements of near cataclysmic importance have torn through the heart of the Jewish world - from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and on.

Yet, for the better part of the last century, two major epochs in world history have shaped American Jewish Identity:

The trauma of the Holocaust showed the nadir of destruction, and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, especially after the Six Day War, to many showed its heights.

These two events, in turn, formed bedrocks of Jewish identity:

Tikkun Olam, the idea that social good, especially for the oppressed, was a foundational element of Jewish belief, and support for Israel.

This is not to say that here two there weren’t disagreements. Without a doubt there were. Yet among large swaths of the Jewish community, the idea that something profound united us crystallized. Even as we fought and struggled over the foundations of Jewish expression, the unifying fact that we were Jews remained. We were one people.

But something feels like it’s changed.

I for one admit to being an extremely online person. So the sense that something has changed in the discourse doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. But the data seems to support anecdotal evidence gleaned from doom scrolling: Young Jews seem pulled in two opposing camps. 

What is more, the two anchors of Jewish identity seem to be the source of the cleavage in unity.

Facing the trauma of destruction, past and at least conceivably present, do we view our Jewish survival in the hands of our particular tribe -- be in in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv?
Or do we strive to apply the lessons learned in Auschwitz to all humanity? To look to some profound universal call to all people and uplift them, and within that solidarity find refuge.

Simply put, are we Jewish particularists or universalists?

And as they battle it out, a third group, the Jews who fit in neither camp and stand trepidatiously on the side, are liable to say a pox on both your houses and walk away from the sordid mess all together, 

But there is a third approach.

In analyzing the words of the Tanya, the magnum opus of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, the Rebbe asks seemingly obvious question:

The Tanya states that “[f]urthermore, all Jews are actually equal, since we all have one father. It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called “brothers”—in the full sense of the word— only the bodies are distinct from each other.”

Surely though, there are higher, deeper forms of unity than mere fraternal bonds?
After all, aren’t the Jewish people compared to a single body? Is not the bond of one limb to the next, the essential energy and life force shared across the human form, stronger than the bond of brothers?

If, however, we view our unity as driven by the commonality of our shared singular form, our differences become highlighted. Is the head more important or the heart? Perhaps both are key, but by the same note, perhaps that Jew over-there —the one I disagree with— is merely a toe, or some other unessential limb.
Ultimately, if we have a ‘body first’ approach to our Jewish unity, our differences begin to erode that unity.

But viewing the world through the prism of Tanya, the Rebbe shared a ‘soul first’ approach: we need not worry about our differences. There’s a bond we share that transcends them. Two brothers may be incredibly different, they may pursue different lives, they may even disagree . . . Yet the spiritual bond they share, the absolutely equal connection they have to their father —their source— unites them on a level where the differences never even take effect. 

If our Jewish unity is based on that shared soul-deep bond we have, then the fact that we disagree can not shake our firm and rooted connection to other Jews.

Now this soul-bond-through-one-father stuff is all nice and fine, one may say, but what if I’m a universalist? What if I want to see my impact on this world transcend the confines of Jewish unity?

If the entirety of the Jewish experience remain confined to the particulars of our Jewish experience, the Rebbe argued, then we have missed the entirety of our purpose in this world.

Things could be great as Jews — we could bask in the warmth of an easy life, in large homes with the glatt kosher Texas-style barbecue ribs in the smoker and two Telsas in the driveway . . . and still something would be fundamentally broken. The world, until it can be truly uplifted, imbued with the sanctity of the divine in even its farthest corners, is unfinished. And that very reality should crush us, should shatter the comfort we have in the conformity of such mundane pleasantries.

Our particular Jewish experience can only be complete when it transforms the totality of the world around us.

It galvanizes us and compels us to uplift everything —from transforming the Internet from a den of trolls into an abode for the divine, to  helping those incarcerated experience freedom so that they too can once more lift up their heads and engage in transformative work. Until “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

And together, we can, and will do it.

📚 Read:

👨‍⚖️What Did the Rebbe Say to the Anti-Religious Chief Justice Who Came for Simchat Torah? A Lesson in Remaining One People Despite Our Differences

🗽 #ChaiSociety member Eli Rubin shares a fascinating look at the true G-dly potential for America: Did Chabad's Founder Envision an American Future?

📇 The Brooklyn Man Who Set Out to Track Every Jew Lost to Covid. He met his future wife, got married, traveled three continents and embarked on a project to track every Jew who died of the coronavirus.

🌎 11 Ways The Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed The World. How one man in Brooklyn shattered misconceptions and predispositions about Judaism and forever changed the world.

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