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Parsha Vayigash: The Problem of Other Jews

The covenant of destiny is the foundation of Jewish religious identity. However, after emancipation, this covenant became a source of division.";td_smart_list_h";h1
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December 30, 2022
Photo by Montes-Bradley/Getty Images

A rabbinic colleague of mine was introduced to Jimmy Carter at a cocktail party in the early 1980s. Carter spoke with pride about all that he had done while President, on behalf of Soviet Jewry. My friend, who has a bit of chutzpah, turned to Carter and asked him: “and what did you do for the Pentecostalists in the Soviet Union?” Carter was stunned by the question and simply changed the subject.

Carter is an evangelical Christian, and the Soviet Union had imprisoned thousands of evangelical Christians. One would imagine Carter would have taken a particular interest in his fellow evangelicals; instead, because American Jews had mounted a massive campaign on their behalf, Carter put Soviet Jewry at the top of his foreign policy agenda instead.

But the real question isn’t about Carter, and what he did or didn’t do for Soviet Pentecostalists; it’s about the Jews. What is it that motivates one Jew to do so much for their fellow Jews, even though they are total strangers? Why were there massive campaigns in the United States for Jews who lived thousands of miles away?

This attitude is not new; through the centuries of exile, Jews extended caring and benevolence to fellow Jews around the world. In the medieval era, Jewish communities came to the aid of the brethren around the world, and undertook significant fundraising campaigns to ransom captives and support refugees. Maimonides explains that this unique bond is based on Jewish self-image. The Jewish community sees itself as a family writ large, as a group of brothers and sisters; therefore, one is obligated to give generously to charity because “if a brother does not show compassion for another brother, then who will have compassion for him?” (Matanot Aniyim 10:2.)

With the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century, solidarity became a nuisance. Jews were granted rights, but still craved acceptance; and in order to do so, they had to prove their patriotism. Too much fervor for foreign Jews led to accusations of disloyalty. French Jewish advocacy for the Ottoman Jews who had been imprisoned in the Damascus blood libel brought a harsh response from critics, who saw this as an act of disloyalty to France. Julie Kalman of Monash University notes that to French critics, “it was a crime simply that French Jews should publicly show sympathy for the accused Jews of Damascus.” (Yes, accusations of dual loyalty against Jews predate the State of Israel.)

In this environment, many Jews were tempted to look inward, and let go of their global family. The leader of the German Reform movement, Abraham Geiger, wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Dernburg regarding the Damascus blood libel that (whether) Jews in Prussia may have the chance to become pharmacists or lawyers is much more important to me than the rescue of all the Jews in Asia and Africa … (It should be pointed out that Geiger did advocate on behalf of the Damascus Jews on humanitarian grounds.) When one believes that they must choose between being loyal to their Jewish brothers or to the German fatherland, the worldwide Jewish community can seem like too large a burden to bear.

In many people, this challenge eroded a true sense of Jewish kinship. The early 20th-century German-Jewish novelist Jakob Wassermann wrote about his discomfort with Ostjuden, the Jews from Poland, Hungary, and Russia, whom he saw as peculiar in their dress, language, and names. Wasserman viewed the Ostjuden as foreigners, explaining that if I spoke with a Polish or Galician Jew and tried to understand his way of life and thinking, I could stir myself to feel compassion or sadness, but never a sense of brotherhood. He was entirely strange and, when individual human sympathy was lacking, even repulsive.  Wassermann explained that the Ostjuden and German Jews were so different that one could say: Are those not two distinct species, almost two distinct races, or at least two distinct modes of life and thought? Anxiously grasping on to their newfound freedom, some Western European Jews abandoned their brothers and sisters in other countries.

A different problem with Jewish solidarity arose in the Orthodox community. Almost overnight, Orthodox Jews became a minority of the Jewish population in Western Europe. This shocking change left them worried about the future of Judaism. Rav Saadia Gaon, the 10th-century Jewish philosopher had declared our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah; one could argue that those Jews who had left the Torah were leaving behind the Jewish people as well. Some proposed a complete divorce between the Orthodox and Reform communities. The Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, argued that just as the Pharisees had separated themselves completely from the Sadducees, so too should Orthodox Jews completely separate themselves from those in the Reform community; marriage between the two communities should be forbidden. The Chatam Sofer’s student, Rabbi Moshe Schick, offered a more disturbing metaphor, saying that in multiple areas, the Reform community should be treated as non-Jews in the eyes of Halakha.

In short, after the enlightenment, religious differences and national loyalties divided Jew from Jew; and for the first time, Jewish solidarity was no longer a given. But, what is remarkable is this: despite everything, the vast majority of Jews maintained a profound sense of connection to each other.

The reason why this happened is because Jewish identity comprises both religious and national identities at once. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, explains that two foundational covenants created the Jewish people: the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate was enacted in Egypt, a place of shared suffering and shared redemption. The covenant of destiny was enacted at Mount Sinai, when the Jews took upon themselves the mitzvot and joined in a shared spiritual destiny.

The covenant of destiny is the foundation of Jewish religious identity. However, after emancipation, this covenant became a source of division.

But the covenant of fate is shared by every Jew. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that throughout history, Jews have endured the hatred of the world. Every Jew can empathize with the plight of their fellow Jews because they know that they themselves may one day be victims of antisemitism. Shared suffering has created a powerful bond of connection.

In recent years, the Talmudic phrase Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, “all Jews are guarantors for each other,” has become a common way of expressing this covenant of fate. On the face of it, it is an unusual choice to express national identity; Rav Soloveitchik points out that Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh is a narrow Halakhic concept, meant to explain that each Jew is responsible to ensure the religious observance of other Jews, much like a guarantor ensures that another person’s loan is repaid. So how did this become the slogan of Jewish solidarity?

I believe it is due to a passage in this week’s Torah reading, which very well could be the founding moment of the Jewish nation.

The sons of Jacob are grappling with a terrible crisis. They are desperate for food, which, because there is a famine, is only available in Egypt. The Viceroy of Egypt, (whom they don’t know is actually their brother Joseph,) has demanded that they bring their youngest brother Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob refuses to let go of Benjamin, frightened that he will die, just as his brother Joseph had. After much back and forth, Judah finally convinces his father to entrust Benjamin in his hands by saying: I will be his guarantor.

When they return to Egypt, Benjamin is framed for the crime of theft. As punishment, the Viceroy wants to take Benjamin as his slave. Then Judah approaches. He explains that he given a guarantee to his father that Benjamin would return home; he then asks of the Viceroy: please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers….

This moment changes everything. Judah has come full circle to complete repentance. It was Judah who suggested selling his brother Joseph into slavery in the first place; and now he’s the one who is willing to become a slave in order to protect Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Joseph, who is deeply touched by this repentance, breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. In the end, a broken family is repaired by a heroic act of solidarity.

Jacob’s family should have fallen apart, collapsed by the cumulative weight of lies, rivalries, and envy. But it doesn’t, because Judah shows us the importance of being our brother’s keepers. And at this moment, the foundation for a nation is set. Judah’s declaration that he will be his brother’s guarantor has inspired generations of Jews to do the same.

One final point must be made. One can imagine that Jewish solidarity is pragmatism, that banding together is necessary for survival; or perhaps it is just based on sentimentalism and nostalgia. But Jewish solidarity is more than that. It represents a glimpse of a profound unity that, one day, will hopefully belong to all of humanity.

Rabbi Sharon Shalom, (an Ethiopian Rabbi and author) related the following story to me. In the late 1970s, Sharon fled with thousands of other members of the Beta Israel community to Sudan. There, they lived in makeshift refugee camps, which were treacherous and dangerous.

Sharon and his fellow refugees were rescued as part of the Mossad’s “Operation Brothers”. The Mossad operated a beach resort called “Arus” as a front, and every few months would enter the refugee camps and smuggle out a group of children. They would slip onto the beach in the middle of the night, where Israeli commandos would take them to a waiting boat, which then sailed to the Sinai.

Sharon remembers how that night, he was picked up by a big Israeli commando, who hugged him tightly as he carried Sharon to the boat; and Sharon remembers how the commando had tears in his eyes.

Sharon was a young boy, and greatly respected those who were big and strong. He couldn’t understand why this brave commando would be crying.

Now he understands.

But the story continues. A few years ago, Sharon got a call from a member of the Mossad, who had been the commander of the operation that took Sharon to Israel. The Mossad agent said that his daughter was getting married, and he wanted Sharon to be the rabbi at the wedding.

At the chuppah, everyone had a good cry; the Rabbi, the Mossad commander, and the bride and groom. These were the tears of a big family reunion, a reunion that brought together Jews from around the world.

These tears are Judah’s tears. They reflect a Jewish commitment to stand in solidarity with other Jews, no matter how different and distant. And maybe one day, they will be a model of how the entire world can transcend their own differences.

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