BY RABBI ARI ROCKOFF
The Jewish community has always faced challenges – of demographics, internal dissension, and our uncertain prospects. Through all these, we have always understood about ourselves what outsiders rarely grasped: that Jews are not merely a religion or nationality. We are, rather, a people that began as a large family of twelve tribes, each with its own flag, distinct characteristics and particular weaknesses and strengths.
Over time, the twelve tribes evolved into Am Yisrael, the Jewish Nation. After we left Egypt for the desert, the tribes received the Torah, a monumental moment we celebrate each Shavuot. Receiving the Torah in the desert, a harsh and desolate environment, allowed the fledgling nation to achieve spiritual communion with G-d while far from the materialism and corruption of dense, urban society. In this way we became am echad b’lev echad, one nation with a single heart.
As our people grew and developed through the millennia, the tribes took on different roles within the community, reflecting disparate and diverse points of view. Each faced different challenges and developed unique ways of responding to them. To this day, like any family, we – the descendents of those tribes – form rivalries and different points of view. At the same time, the tribes of Am Yisrael continue to share a common past, unified present, and a unique destiny.
For us, internal diversity is not a modern innovation; it has been part of who we are since our tribal beginnings thousands of years ago. Our arguments for the sake of Heaven and our people have assured our resilience and survival through millennia. We exceed the sum of our collective parts; we have to.
What would our Avot and Imahot think of our American Jewish community today? We at Mizrachi think they would be proud of the new Pew findings showing how the American Orthodox community, marked for extinction in the middle of the last century, is growing fast and taking a leadership role in the broader American Jewish community.
In some respects, we have much that our forefathers would be proud of: affluence, high educational levels and widespread Jewish learning and Torah study. Most significant, of course, is the miraculous establishment of the modern State of Israel, only a dream for millennia, a home for many Jews and a home away from home for all Jews. And the accomplishments of the State itself are astounding: in a few short decades, Israel has become the start-up nation, a global economic power with formidable defense forces and a young, vibrant, and growing population.
Yet our founders would also see a community and nation splintered into often-warring denominations and organizations. With our common history and shared destiny, how did we become so divided and polarized? Is our Jewish family a dysfunctional one?
Some might argue that the modern denominational model of our nation matches the ideal and ancient model of twelve tribes, allowing for differences of opinions, roles, and practices. But is that actually the case? Although each tribe has its own definitive strengths, do our opinionated and clashing tribes actually add up to more than the sum of their parts? Or are we simply a splintered and broken people, with diminishing returns?
We all recognize that these past two years have been difficult ones. COVID isolated us from each other and our communities, emphasizing our tribal divisions to an unhealthy extent.
Perhaps this is a time for us to reflect and take stock. Perhaps it is time for us to think less about our narrow tribal interests and more about our unified mission and destiny. Maybe the time has come to open our minds and broaden our efforts on behalf of Jews everywhere, to finally fulfill our destiny as a light unto the nations.
The challenges are real, but also bring a silver lining. The threats to Israel and the security of Jews around the world, the dreadful catastrophe in Ukraine and the rise in antisemitism here in the US and abroad force us to think about our roles and responsibility as individuals, communities, organizations, and, most importantly, as a people.
Although we began as tribes, we are much more than tribes. We are more than our divisions and differences of opinion. While celebrating our diversity, we must also emphasize our unity of purpose. With this balance, we will maximize our cohesiveness as a people – and emerge as one nation, with one heart, am echad b’lev echad.
Rabbi Ari Rockoff is the Executive Vice President of RZA–Mizrachi.