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You say ‘tribal’ like it’s a bad thing

I'll keep the noisy, generous, caring, demanding Jewish people that mourns together for families most of us never met
At the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival, "flash mob" dancers perform an Israeli folk dance medley as part of the biennial outdoor event, which included music stages, art and craft fair, kosher food, children's activities and was attended by over 20,000 people during the day, in Morton Grove, IL, on June 8, 2014. (iStock)
At the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival, "flash mob" dancers perform an Israeli folk dance medley as part of the biennial outdoor event, which included music stages, art and craft fair, kosher food, children's activities and was attended by over 20,000 people during the day, in Morton Grove, IL, on June 8, 2014. (iStock)

Ever since last weekend’s horrific plane crash in Costa Rica, my social media feed has overflowed with heartbreaking tributes to the Steinberg and Weiss families.

That crash took the lives of Ilene and Bruce Steinberg, their sons, Matthew, William and Zachary, and Leslie and Mitchell Weiss, their daughter Hannah and son Ari. Two other Americans and two crew members perished as well.

I never met either the Steinberg or the Weiss families, but it doesn’t matter. Everything about them is familiar. Both families were active in their Jewish communities. The kids remind me of every teen I ever taught. The parents look like the people I exchange a smile with at Jewish communal events. The kind of people that — if we stopped to chat- we’d find one degree of separation within five minutes.

So, I don’t know them, except that I do know them. Because they are members of my tribe.

Do you recoil at that word? Then substitute “family” or “people.” Because that is what we Jews are.

Jewish leader and scholar Avraham Infeld wrote this in his book, A Passion for a People:

A tribe is essentially an extended family, and today when I talk and teach about the Jewish People, I focus on the notion of family. The metaphor of family is a core idea for understanding the collective identity of the Jews: we are a diverse, multi-faceted family with many different branches, who, nevertheless, remain linked in a deep and fundamental way.”

Being part of a family means arguing sometimes, with all the noise and messiness and drama that this entails. It means working through periods of friction, while seeking solutions to deeply held differences. It means bearing the shame of people such as Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein, members of the family who are a disgrace.

Infeld continues:

Being a family and seeing ourselves as a family is a way of explaining the connection Jews feel for each other; the ties of empathy and even irritation and anger. It reflects a reality in which we can both love each other and argue with each other at the same time. The capacity to love someone you have never met and truly care about their welfare can only be explained by the notion of family.”

Therefore, when two Jewish families are wiped out in a plane crash, the tribe is mourning too. Relatives of the Weiss and Steinberg families will surely be comforted by the people they know personally. But there will be many others, like me, who are shaken by this tragedy —  strangers, yet members of the Jewish family writ large.

Being part of the Jewish family means caring for our own, but never to the exclusion of others. A very well known member of the family made that clear about 2,000 years ago, saying “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Judaism is filled with teachings that help us strike a balance between the particular and the universal.

Adhering to Judaism’s moral code can help us avoid tribalism’s worst impulses, as described by David Brooks, reflecting on our political and cultural moment:

From an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy.”

I won’t jettison being part of the Jewish tribe just because the concept, like everything, can be taken to an extreme. Fire can burn your house down… but it will also keep you warm. Water can drown you…but you’d die without it.

Give me the tribe — the noisy, demanding, generous, caring family that is the Jewish people. The tribe that mourns this week for two families most of us never met.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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