July 22, 2009

There are many commitments we renew as the Jewish calendar year goes round. And we’re sincere and serious about most of them. These include the commitment to repent every time Tishrai comes around, to remember the lessons of the Exodus every Nisan, to personally receive the Torah anew every Sivan. But there is one commitment on the annual cycle that is a near-total charade. We pay it reverent lip service, but few if any of us have any idea what we even mean by it. And we certainly don’t harbor any actual intention of following through on it. This is the commitment we renew every Av to achieving “achdus”, Jewish fraternal unity. And it’s probably the biggest farce of the year. 

It’s not that we don’t dream of all Jews getting along and serving God together. Our enduring iconic image is that of the children of Israel camped at the foot of Sinai “k’ish echad, b’lev echad”, as one person with one heart. It is rather that our Orthodox community has so vague a concept as to how “achdus” is to be achieved, that we more or less know that we are mouthing empty words when we rhapsodize about its importance every year.

Who exactly are we out to achieve “achdus” with? The most cynical and painful answer is “with other Orthodox Jews”.  This is a cynical answer, because it shrinks the exalted religious project of establishing Jewish fraternity, to a small fraction of itself – the fraction that requires the least amount of effort. It is painful, because it dismisses 90% of American Jewry as outliers to the brotherhood.

The more sincere response of course, is that we hope to achieve “achdus” with all Jews, and to together forge a meaningful, cohesive religious community. But the sentiment is exposed as an empty religious profession the moment we make any attempt to translate it into a practical course of action. Tragically, Jews who have lost or who have erased their connection to Judaism or to the Jewish people, have already signaled that they are not interested in being part of a cohesive religious community with us.  This then leaves the vast numbers of Jews who affiliate with the Conservative, Reform, or other Jewish religious movements. As someone who has lived his whole life inside the Orthodox community, including the last 22 years in the Orthodox rabbinate, I feel confident in saying that our community is generally not interested in “achdus” with Jews who are committed to practicing and believing and raising their children as non-Orthodox Jews. We don’t want to fight with them of course. We even want to cooperate on matters of mutual interest as long as there is no religious entanglement involved in the cooperation.  But we are most certainly not prepared to say that we are all part of one religious community. This would be considered a “granting of legitimacy” to non-Orthodox practices that we have been taught we must avoid. (And to say that we are all one religious community that consists of the Orthodox and “not-yet-Orthodox”, is not only wildly naïve and unrealistic, and not only offensive to the very Jews who we are proclaiming our “achdus” with, but is also not “achdus” at all. “Lying in wait” should never be confused with unity.)

I for one believe – and I know I am not alone – that we are at the historical moment when all Jews who love and who are connected to their Judaism, must learn to appreciate and admire the religious passion and commitments of other Jews. Of course we’ll disagree on all kinds of issues pertaining both to practice and to doctrine. But we together comprise the community that is holding fast to our Jewishness despite the lures of cultural assimilation and plain-old religious apathy. “Achdus” need not be a pipedream if we can let go of ideological battles that will never have any victories or victors, and instead embrace all of our comrades who are fighting the good fight to preserve, celebrate and sanctify Jewish life in this complex time and place.

Our month of Av commitment to unity and brotherhood need not be a farce. Our words need not be devoid of content. All that is required of us are some imagination, and a heart, like the Biblical Yosef’s, that truly seeks its brethren.

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