I deeply appreciate the work of Rabbis Without Borders. My attendance at the Fall 2013 student retreat was a tremendous experience for me. And I truly do want to see more cohesiveness in the Jewish community.
The RWB blog on MyJewishLearning.com has a post wondering about whether Jews can unite. Its starting point is what’s dominated news in the Jewish community: the Bring Back Our Boys effort in the wake of the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students near Hebron. And let’s be clear: whatever your position on Israel, the Palestinians, the settlements, SodaStream, PCUSA’s divestment decision, or anything else, kidnapping students is a horrendous thing to do and not something that will resolve anything.
But reading the RWB blog post, something else drew my eye. The author of the post relates that one of the speakers at an event in support of these efforts, an Orthodox rabbi with a personal connection to the kidnapped students, spoke thus:
“Why,” continued the speaker, “did God choose these three boys to be kidnapped?”…
The speaker answered his own question. “God chose these boys in order to bring about the unity of the Jewish people. All over the world, Jews are gathering to pray for them. It doesn’t matter to us if they are someone else’s children; we will pray for them as if they are our own.”…
In various places through this narrative, the author interposes her thoughts:
I found this question jarring, and absolutely alien to my theology. I do not believe that God directs daily events, tweaking here and there to meet a Divine goal, using us as puppets in the plan. Nor do I believe that God chooses specific people to be harmed in order to bring about a mysterious greater good. Instead, I believe in free will, knowing that many people use it badly, harming others intentionally and unintentionally. I believe that God has gifted us with intellect and imagination, so that we may see the results of our actions, and create positive alternatives. As I reflected on the speaker’s question, it began to dawn on me that, while we share a religious tradition, we do not share a theology….
His good intention spoke to my heart. Yes, I thought, even if we don’t share religious beliefs, we are part of an ethnic group, a single nation spread across the globe, and we must work towards unity.
I don’t want to say unity is a pipe dream. But it’s difficult to conclude otherwise at times.
We may be “part of an ethnic group, a single nation spread across the globe”–I don’t think that’s fully correct, but the referred-to ethnic group is within the bounds of the Jewish people as we understand it in Secular Humanistic Judaism. And it’s one thing to make common cause in specific situations; it’s another thing to recognize that the people with whom you make common cause might, on another day, be willing to circumscribe you out of their vision of the Jewish people.
What, then, to make of these events where one side seeks unity for unity’s sake, and the other asserts that a horrendous tragedy occurred to create unity? How do we square these truly opposed ideas with the dictum of Rabbi Hillel that one not separate herself or himself from the community? (Avot 2:5.) Who, in that case, separates from the community? In the face of tragedy, should we paper over very deep differences for the sake of a fragile, perhaps non-existent unity?
I don’t have answers; I’m not sure they exist. I, like so many others, want to see the students returned home unharmed (though I think even a physical return unharmed will not be a complete psychic relief for them). But I remain deeply concerned at how easily we sometimes are willing to set aside defining issues on both sides.
Let’s continue to hope that Gil-Ad Shayer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah are returned home safely, and soon.
A thoughtful essay; thank you for writing it.
“Within the bounds of the Jewish people as we understand it in Secular Humanistic Judaism.” – How does Secular Humanistic Judaism define those boundaries? And if I am interested in becoming better educated about SHJ, who or what should I read?
Hi Rabbi Adar,
Thank you for your kind comment.
We understand the Jewish people as a cultural entity; so the traditional bounds of ethnicity as we understand them are within the bounds of Jewish peoplehood. But we are also more broadly accepting of those who would claim Jewish identity so that those willing to throw in their lot with Jewish cultural identification are, from our view, Jewish and accepted into our communities and congregations, without regard to parenthood or religious conversion ceremony–something akin to Ruth’s self-designation as an Israelite.
Starting points for learning more are the movement websites: Society for Humanistic Judaism, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and Association of Humanistic Rabbis. Each has FAQs, and IISHJ includes links to course syllabi for rabbinic and other training courses. SHJ and IISHJ are member organizations of the Congress for Secular Jewish Organizations, of which organizations like the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s Circle are also members.
Rabbi Adam Chalom, dean of IISHJ in the U.S. (there’s an Israeli branch, Temura), blogs at http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com, and is congregational rabbi at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Illinois. Rabbi Jeffrey Falick is rabbi at the Birmingham Temple, the first SHJ congregation, and blogs as The Atheist Rabbi.
Thank you! I look forward to becoming better educated!
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