While I was leading a congregational trip to Israel this past June, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua passed. He was a dynamic person and novelist. And he liked to create dialogue and debate. For example, I recall him once saying, “Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel ... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all.” Needlessly arrogant and provocative? Yes! Interesting premise to start a discussion and debate? Yes!
For Yehoshua, Israeli nationality represents the sole factor of the Jewish future, predicting that Diaspora expressions of Judaism will fade to oblivion. My experience as a pulpit rabbi in the Diaspora suggests otherwise. I have met countless numbers of Jews with a deep commitment to explore meaningful religious observance even as they express deep concern for the welfare of Israel. Furthermore, my recent trip to Israel also brought me in contact with many Israelis who expressed heartfelt thanks for our dedication to their community and heartfelt interest in learning more about our Diaspora streams of liberal Judaism.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, responding to Yehoshua, wrote, “To be a Jew is to be a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish religious tradition. The interplay of religion and peoplehood is complex, but both pillars are essential to any individual, community or state that aspires to be and to stay Jewish. And the Jewish significance of the State of Israel … rests precisely in the fact that in Israel alone, where Judaism’s entire pulse is collective, societal and communal, can national consciousness and religious consciousness develop fully ... [Our task] is to advance the partnership of the Jewish people and to insist that all Jews who care must view the Jewish people as a single entity, however diverse.”
This need not be an either-or equation. The communities of Israel and Diaspora can exist harmoniously, perhaps even symbiotically. Each serves an important purpose and each faces unique challenges. I recall a college student who came into my office to interview me for a term paper she was writing. She asked me what the greatest challenge to liberal Jews is today.
I told her: Diaspora Jews feel more acutely the threat of assimilation into a majority non-Jewish culture and the spiritual pitfalls of material prosperity; Israeli Jews must confront the effects of a Judaism stripped of religious expression, even as they confront extremist Orthodox policies that threaten to alienate them from their Judaism.
This week’s Torah portion provides a Jewish standard for deciding when diversity is legitimate and when it degenerates into divisiveness. The tribes of Israel are preparing to cross the River Jordan and to enter the Land of Israel. Our national history is about to begin. At the river’s edge, the tribes of Reuben and Gad remind Moses that he had agreed to permit them to retain land east of the Jordan, where they would build towns and establish settlements for their families. Unlike the rest of Israel, their God-given inheritance was to be on the east side of the Jordan River.
This first assertion of Jewish diversity troubled Moses, but when he inquired of God, the Holy One confirmed that what Reuben and Gad proposed was permissible. The two tribes had particular needs that differed from those of the other tribes. Finding a way to meet their own needs was a healthy response to the richness of human variety.
Recognizing the distinct needs of Reuben and Gad and not considering those needs as a threat to the larger group, required Divine revelation. God was able to see that human variety need not lead to anarchy or hostility.
Even while recognizing the value of diversity, God and Moses realize that diversity is not the only value. There are limits to how far diversity can go while remaining a Jewish value. For example, Moses instructs the two tribes that they may build settlements for the women and children but the men must fight with the other ten tribes until all of Israel has received its inheritance.
Diversity is legitimate so long as each Jewish group keeps the well-being of the entire Jewish people in mind. We are all limbs on one body. As the rabbis saw it, “all Israel are comrades.”
When Moses affirmed the right of the Reubenites and Gadites to dwell in Diaspora, conditional on their support for their brothers and sisters in Israel, he affirmed the legitimacy of both communities, interdependent, each strengthening the other.
So as long as we understand that our Jewish self-interest requires us to care for, and to be involved in, the defense and love of all Jews, our particular understanding of how to be Jewish or what Judaism may mean can only enrich our larger Jewish community. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.