Out of Many, One

I’m in Israel this week, visiting with my family and enjoying this beautiful country. I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport late Monday night and got into a “sheirut,” a shared taxi, for the ride to Jerusalem where I am staying. A sheirut is an inexpensive way to get where you’re going from the airport. Each vehicle seats 10 people and leaves only when it’s full. When you exit the airport, it’s common to be greeted by the driver asking if you need a ride to Jerusalem in a sheirut, or even by other passengers eager to depart. The disadvantage of traveling in a sheirut is that once it arrives in Jerusalem it makes stops along the way and your stop might be last on the line. But the advantage is the opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories.

On this trip, the sheirut was filled with two Israeli businessmen returning from a trip to the USA, three Americans (including me) visiting Israel, and five ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis. The businessmen were clearly secular people who don’t wear a kippah or participate in any form of organized religious life. The two other Americans were Reform Jews from somewhere in the Northeast, affiliated with a synagogue but not practicing Jews. The ultra-Orthodox Jews were young men headed back to their families and their routines of study in the Yeshiva (I don’t know what they were doing abroad). I wondered what I have in common with my fellow passengers.

Clearly, we have a common heritage. We share an identity of being Jewish, though the three types of Jews in the sheirut express their Jewish identity quite differently. I think I have a reasonably common language with the secular businessmen, and certainly much in common with the couple affiliated with the Reform Movement. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox lead a very insular life, virtually shutting themselves out from the influences of the outside world. It’s common for ultra-Orthodox Jews to prohibit watching television or connecting to the world through the internet (though most seem to use a cell phone for communication). The ultra-Orthodox stress the study of the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash and the codes of Jewish law, while minimizing the study of secular subjects like math and science (the majority of kindergarten students in Israel are ultra-Orthodox, raising fears about the next generation of Israelis preparedness to continue Israel’s success in developing a technological society). There is little or no interest on their part in discussing the diversity of the Jewish world. I’m a Conservative Rabbi—what on earth would they want to talk about with me? I was curious about their lives and their values. But I was reluctant to strike up a conversation, mostly because I sensed no interest on their part to talk, a veneer of distance between us. What would I say? “Hi, I’m Mark Cooper, the Rabbi of Oheb Shalom Congregation, a place that practices Judaism in ways that you regard as sinful and a desecration of God’s name. How was your flight?” And what would they say to me? “So, how is the Triennial Cycle for reading the Torah working out for you?” We see the origins of Torah from vastly different perspectives, and we practice Judaism in vastly different ways. What do I have in common with the ultra-Orthodox?

There is no doubt that the Jewish people possess great depth and diversity, a consequence of being exiled from the Land of Israel and living productively in the Diaspora (on this trip to Israel I saw a thrilling new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum on the Jewish community that developed in Babylonia 2,500 years ago…but more on that in a future post). Can we create a unified whole out of the disparate parts? Do the various segments of the Jewish people see themselves as part of a greater whole?

This week’s Parasha, Yitro, gives us a hint and some encouragement toward that goal. Spanning chapters 18-20 of Exodus, Yitro describes God’s revelation to the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, a foundational moment in our history. Rabbi Neil Gilman, one of the great Jewish theologians of our time, taught that all of Jewish theology and everything practical that flows from it, turns on how one interprets these passages of Torah. Early in chapter 19, we read that “Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain.” Interestingly, the Hebrew uses the singular form of the verb (he, not they, encamped). Rashi, the great medieval scholar, notes the odd use of the singular verb to describe a multitude of people, and says: “In that moment, the Israelites were united with one mind and one heart.” Apparently, the experience of meeting God united everyone.

Can we make one out of many? Do we, progressive, Conservative Jews, have anything in common with the ultra-Orthodox? Do we have any common language? Is there such a thing as one Jewish people? Being here in Israel, observing this colorful, multi-faceted Jewish society, it’s hard to believe otherwise.

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