Of Civil Wars and Jewish Unity (Ideas #64)

As Israeli society is undergoing great anguish about how to proceed with current plans to retreat from the Gaza strip, the lack of unity in our nation becoming painfully apparent. To disagree, even passionately, is normal and even healthy for democratic societies. What is less healthy is the lack of true dialog that exists when subgroups within a nation feel they no longer have anything in common with each other. The lack of common vision in Israeli society has led to the obvious next step, wherein some have expressed a lack of willingness to adhere to the rule of the majority. After all, one is only willing to follow a majority if one feels that he belongs to the same national community as the majority otherwise, the will of the majority is viewed as the imposition of a foreign will. To quote Abraham Lincoln, we are becoming a house divided against itself.

I understand the frustration of many of my religious neighbors with the secular majority. What I cannot understand is how it blurs their realization that all Jews are inextricably bound as one. Thus, it seems that this is as good a time as any to remind ourselves about the nature of Jewish unity.

Rav Kook points out the apparent dichotomy in the famous phrase Kol Yisrael, yesh lahem chelek le'olam haba (All of Israel has a portion in the world to come). On the one hand, the statement speaks about the Jewish collectivity as a unit (i.e. all of Israel), yet on the other hand, it refers back to the individual reward that can be expected by each of its composite parts.

Rav Kook continues to explain that on a truer level than we perceive, individuality and communality actually complement one another. I understand this to mean that each individual has a unique purpose corresponding to his or her portion. That purpose, however, since it is defined as being a portion only has significance in the context of a larger picture; the very nature of a chelek (a part) is that it cannot function on its own. In turn, that greater purpose is not fully developed unless the part develops itself to its own greatest advantage.

The need for individuality is manifest all around us. Advanced species have specialized organs. Primitive species do not. So too in the commercial world specialization allows the group to do a better job. Interestingly, the greatest benefit of individualization ends up being for the group.

Moreover, when thinking about ourselves as individuals, it is important to realize that the organic boundaries between one individual and another are not as hard and fast as we may think. In the very beginning of Sefer Bereshit, we are told how man and woman become one flesh. As with all developed species, two human beings require each other for reproduction, meaning the individual system is incomplete. That is to say, a person is actually part of a larger organic system made up of two people. Imagine if two people needed to come together to breathe. Could we really consider them two separate organisms? As religious Jews, we must realize that the natural world is not necessarily created in the most obvious ways. Rather, our complex physical nature seems to be a reflection of a deeper spiritual reality. If nothing else, sexual reproduction teaches us that our bodies do not create the final boundaries of our identities.

Indeed, Jewish tradition has often wanted us to think transcendentally and realize that we exist as part of a greater whole, and that this greater whole might be a more correct and accurate perception of our identity. In other words, our real importance comes as being part of the Jewish people, in the same way as a nose or a foot has little importance of its own and is only significant as a part of a larger organism. In this vein, the late medieval scholar Rabbi David ben Zimra (Radvaz) posits that even while our bodies are distinct and separated from one another, since all Jewish souls emanate from the same place, we ultimately only have one body, given that our primary identity is defined by our soul. (From his commentary on the Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Mamrim 2:4.)

Granted, there are times when a part of our body becomes so sick that it threatens the life of the entire body. At that point, doctors will prescribe that such a limb be amputated. Such was the situation after the golden calf, where Moshe called for the amputation of those who were not suited to be a part of the Jewish nation. Nonetheless, the comparison must be seen in full context like the amputation of a limb, dispensing with a part of the Jewish people should only be considered when the very life of the nation is threatened. As in the case of the calf, the very life of our nation is only threatened by the cardinal red line of Jewish identity active disloyalty to G-d as manifested by the worship of other gods. In all other cases, once we undergo an amputation, we will be crippled for life.

Jewish unity is not really a choice it is the nature of who we are. No matter how divorced secular Israeli society has become from our tradition, religious Jews cannot forget the essential unity of the Jewish people. Anything else would be a distortion of our very selves.