We hear the word ‘unity’ everywhere nowadays. Politicians promise to unite the country in almost every speech. Rabbis encourage their congregants to develop greater Jewish achdut, unity. One of the greatest buzzwords of our era is certainly unity. What do we mean when we call for unity? Are we overusing the term and do we really mean something else?
R. Bahya ibn Paquda (11th c.) authored one of the most important works of medieval Jewish philosophy, Hovot Halevavot or Duties of the Heart in English. The book was originally published in Judeo-Arabic and later translated into many different languages. R. Bahya brilliantly incorporates many disparate schools of thought, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and weaves them together into a masterful work of Jewish wisdom. The book is organized into gates and the first gate is dedicated to the concept of Divine Unity and within it he says something remarkable:
“Regarding how many ways the unity of G-d is conceived, I will answer as follows: Since the word “unity” spread among men… they became accustomed to using it frequently in their tongue and speech, until it became an expression of amazement whether for good or for bad. And they use it to express their dread of great calamity, and to exaggerate it and to express amazement on it, and they don’t put to heart to understand the true matter of what passes through their tongue…” (Translation offered by Rabbi Yosef Sebag)
In other words, R. Bahya already noticed an overuse of the word unity in the 11th century!
When we talk about unity today what are we really trying to achieve? R. Bahya devotes a great deal of ink to discussing the unique unity that is God’s unity. We live in a world of multiplicity created by an utterly unique God. Unity is the not the same as the number one for R. Bahya; unity transcends a numerical figure and comes to mean much more than that. It is about bringing together all the ways of seeing, hearing and understanding into one indivisible entity. For humans it becomes impossible to achieve that sort of unity in our lifetimes. I would argue that not only is it impossible but it is actually not desirable.
Instead of striving for unity in our country and in our communities, I would rather see us strive for harmony. The Cambridge English dictionary offers the following definition of harmony:
“notes that are played or sung with the main tune and that make the piece more complicated and interesting”
What a splendid way of viewing the organization of society and of our faith communities! First we need to delve deeply into the question of what our central organizing principles are. What are the core big-tent values that we can agree upon? Then, a harmony approach would invite us to think of the ways that each of us — in all of our differences — can contribute to community in ways that make it more “complicated and interesting.”
Unity asks us to limit our individuality in pursuit of a single way of behaving, belonging or believing. Harmony invites us to bring our differences and come together around large big-tent shared values and each play our own part. I don’t think we are seeking in our politics or our communities for unity but rather we are striving for harmony. May we all come to make something both “complicated and interesting” together.