As optimistic as I like to be, sometimes I feel like there is more that divides us than unites us. In the past decade, we have become politically polarized, religiously challenged, and sometimes emotionally disconnected from the people we once loved — all because their values are different from ours.
During the peak of the pandemic, I remember publicly condemning the actions of a group of Jews for gathering in a mass indoor space to celebrate a simcha with thousands of people. In my eyes, the potential of saving a life from covid outweighed the simcha. I guess you could say I was disappointed (actually, angry) that the choices of others might very well impact the health and safety of others in my community.
Members of my community called me out on my condemnation, sharing with me: “But we already have enough troubles and anti-Semitism in the world; why are you adding to it? They are fellow Jews — can’t we just all get along?”
I’m grateful for this feedback and, clearly, it still remains with me today. Because the truth is, it’s not that my fellow Jews were not acting from a values-based decision. It’s just that in their eyes, their value — the value of creating a simcha — superseded the values that were important to me. And in the process, because I felt a threat to the well-being of members of my own community, I was completely unable to see the value so important to them — a simcha in a world of uncertainty, faith despite the fear. Aren’t those beautiful things?
Parashat Nitzavim reminds us how we all started out as Jews at the same place. It reads:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 29:13) “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:13).
The fact that born-Jews, Jews by choice, the Israelites who journeyed throughout the desert, as well as Jewish babies who are yet to be born — all of us — were part of accepting the covenant of God together just warms my heart. There is something spiritually holy to know that despite how we became Jewish, despite how we are Jewish, we were part of the same sacred covenant.
Then why is it that even we Jews can’t get along?
Instead, we allow the beliefs of others to prevent us from seeing them as people worthy of our time or attention. We cancel them out. We unfriend them. Or we throw them into a special social media group of people we don’t like (anyone catch the Alex Edelman reference?). Whether it’s because of our beliefs on Israel, how we voted in the last election, or our choices during covid, society encourages us to disconnect instead of discuss, to condemn instead of question, to hate instead of embrace.
We might question whether it was fair for our ancestors to accept the covenant on our behalf. And while much of the covenant at Sinai is very much the same, I think it’s safe to say that because society has advanced, we have had to find ways of living out the covenant in our daily lives, in ways that were not clearly outlined in the Written or Oral Torah. Combine these adaptations of the covenant with cultural shifts in Jews’ choices and we end up with great variety in our Jewish community, a spectrum of observance, still stemming from the original Source.
I am a Conservative rabbi. And I am the first one to admit that I am grateful that not every Jew is like me. I am grateful for those whose observance is different than mine. I am glad there is a space for other Jews who place greater emphasis on different values than I do. I love halakhic Jews and cultural Jews. I love secular Jews and can even empathize with self-proclaimed self-hating Jews.
And yet sometimes, much like I vocally condemned the actions of my fellow Jews during the pandemic because I felt it was a threat to me, I’ve experienced how my choices as a Jew can feel threatening to other Jews. I remember, a mere 20 years ago, when I was on the path to becoming a rabbinical student. I found my way to the Kotel, with my bat mitzvah tallis and my father’s tefillin, which he purchased as a teen when he said Kaddish after his father died. I had heard about a women’s group that was meeting there. I had no idea at that time that it was Women of the Wall, and honestly, I was quite naïve about what my choice would mean for me. I just wanted a space to pray, with other women, in the way that felt comfortable to me.
Lo and behold, I was soon shaken by the actions of others. People began spitting at me and clawing at my siddur to rip pages out of it. I heard threats like “Deport her!” and in the end, I found myself throwing my father’s tefillin quickly into my backpack and running through the Old City, heading to safety, when all I wanted to do was pray.
We are all part of the same original covenant. That feeling brings me great comfort and connects me with other Jews. All Jews. And knowing that the covenant has morphed since that day when we all stood together, the challenge to our Jewish community is how we can balance our shared beliefs with the specific values we choose to emphasize in our modern world.
Is it possible to be part of the larger Jewish community, a vibrant and diverse community, while also staying in our own lane? Is it possible — despite our differences — to enact ahavat Yisrael, love and respect for all fellow Jews?