David Lerner

Are Jews a People?

While there were many challenges I encountered as a Conservative Jew
attending a modern Orthodox high school, there were also many things I loved.  Walking into the school on important days on the Jewish calendar was amazing.

On Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new month, everyone got dressed up and after more spirited and song-full services than usual, there would be brunch and festive dancing with live music.  You could feel the holiday and the joy of the community.

On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the school was draped in black, the lights dimmed with six large yellow candles burning in the lobby.  The mood was somber and everyone felt it together.

On Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, the school was quiet; we listened to those who had lost family members in Israel’s wars or terrorist attacks.  Tears flowed as we learned of their losses.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, we held a great celebration with food, music and festivities.  One year, a commander who fought in the Six Day War spoke of the battle for Jerusalem and the euphoria he felt when they liberated the Kotel.

Rabbi Shmuel Goren blowing the Shofar near the Western Wall in June 1967. Photo by David Rubinger

Beyond supporting Israel, the major issue for Jews in the 1970s and 1980s was the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.  We attended rallies and sent students to Russia to smuggle prayer books and sets of tefillin into the Communist controlled country.

One thing I was taught well it was a sense of Jewish peoplehood.  We were taught – Am Yisrael Hai – the Jewish people lives.  Especially, after the Shoah (the Holocaust) and the Yom Kippur War, we were filled with a sense of pride that the Jewish people had survived these tragedies.

We were also taught the famous Talmudic dictum: Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – all of the people of Israel is responsible for one another.  There was never any question – Jews take care of Jews.  End of story.

While you might daven with a mehitzah (a divider separating men and women) as the Orthodox do and I do not, we are still sisters.  While you might be an atheist and I, a believer, we are still brothers.  While you might believe in settling the West Bank, and I do not, we are still cousins.

While you might be a Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jew and might even deny my rights to be Jewish in Israel and I oppose you forcefully, we are still relatives.  While you might be from Yemen, speak Arabic, have darker skin and a totally different education and perspective and I, light-skinned, English-speaking from the US, we are still part of the same family.

Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another.

Whatever disagreements and differences we have, and we do have them, we are still one people, one nation, one family.  Am ehad, le’um ehad, mishpahah ahat.

* * *

Fast forward thirty years.  While that innate, reflexive and axiomatic sense of Jewish peoplehood may have once solidly bonded us one to another, it is no longer the same.  The bonds have frayed.  The feelings are muted.

This was driven home for me over the last week since the kidnapping of the three teenage boys: Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah.  May they be returned speedily and safely to their families.

While much of the Jewish world has rallied behind these boys and their families, some have used this terrible situation as an opportunity to make political points.  A few on the right have utilized the kidnapping to advance their political agenda and a few on the left have used this as an opportunity to blame Israel for the morass of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The former politician and current Israeli commentator, Avram Burg published an article in Haaretz where he claimed that the kidnapping parallels Israel’s “kidnapping” of the Palestinians by arresting them for terrorist involvement.

Avrahum Burg

I have to say while he raised many interesting points, this comparison was both inaccurate and not well timed.  While he may have many claims – some may be legitimate – against the Israeli government, Burg’s using this moment to further his agenda felt terribly insensitive and inappropriate.

And then this week, I followed a discussion among a group of current and future Jewish leaders.  Here, I have to say how I was taken aback by a few of the reactions.  Some shared their experiences in Israel over the last week – the sense of shared communal anxiety for the fate of these three boys and how they are praying for the welfare of these kidnapped youths.

They asked what we were doing in the US?

I and others told how we have been adding prayers for these boys at every minyan – something we have been doing and just did here at Emunah.

But some jumped into the conversation to question Israel and question our need to be so supportive of Jews.

One person wrote: “It troubles me that people seem to be upset because the boys are Jewish.  From both a moral and an emotional perspective, I cannot (or perhaps will not) place a comparatively higher value on Jewish life and wellbeing in comparison with non-Jewish life and wellbeing.

“It troubles me that so many of us insist that Jewishness must include that kind of familial bond. The deployment of family metaphors in politics, to me, seem most often like ethno-centrism and radical nationalism in sheep’s clothing. It scares me.”

When I read this, I was truly saddened.

Judaism does not place a higher value on a Jewish person’s life than anyone else’s.  At the same time, Judaism does not see itself solely as a religion.  It is a civilization encompassing the notion of a people.  Jews are not merely a set of ideas, ideals and practices, we are a family.  A small family – when one of us hurts we all hurt.

* * *

I was sitting with my son Ari this week watching the now-classic E.T.  I was struck by the bond that Elliot, the young boy, and E.T. form.  When one hurts, the other is hurt.  When one is drunk, the other gets drunk.  They share a bond – a bond of friendship, a bond of caring, a bond of love.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial movie poster

How beautiful that is!  How precious and fragile it is….

Those bonds can easily be broken.

Today, young people are taught that all people are equal and therefore, Jews are no better than anyone else.  And that is true, we are all humans, equally human, and therefore, at the core, fundamentally the same.

As the rabbis of the Mishnah write, every human being is created in God’s image.  And therefore, every person is of ultimate value.

But it does not mean we all feel the same.  It is OK to feel closer to our children than to someone else’s children.  It is OK to feel closer to our family.  While we should treat everyone with equal respect, when we have to choose among competing needs, we can choose to take care of ourselves and our own.

The Mishnah teaches that our community’s needs take precedence.  That is not because we are superior.  That is simply because we start with ourselves, followed by our family and then our community and then, we reach out beyond that to all humanity.

As Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of the land of Israel in the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote in his poem: Shir Meruba – a four fold song, the ideal person sings to themselves, their people, all humanity and all creation – all at the same time.  Therefore, we should reach beyond the circles closest to ourselves, nonetheless, they are closer; that’s where we start.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

Aniyei irekha kodmim – we take of the poor of our city, of our community before others.  That’s because that’s how families work.  For some, it might be nice to imagine a fantasy world where we all loved all people equally, caring for everyone identically, but that is not our world.  (I happen not be drawn to that world, no matter how logical and fair it might be.)  Our world is one where we love those around us more than those further away from us.  We have families – we are not married to everyone.

It is OK to say Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another.

It’s OK, because otherwise, who will care for us??

The world has not always been such a good babysitter to the Jewish people!

* * *

This notion of Jewish peoplehood is raised by our parashah.  Korah brings his complaint to Moshe; it seems reasonable and fair.  We want to share the leadership with you.  But our tradition sees Korahas removing himself from the community and promoting himself.

Korah’s claims that all the people are holy.  Again, quite legitimate.  But while that might be true in a purely rational world, human beings are not computers.  We are not Spock.  We are not pure justice.

We are our emotions.  We cannot separate ourselves from our emotions – try as we might.  Our justice is tempered by rahamim – mercy.  We love.

Love is not always a great thing.  It’s messy.  It’s overwhelming.  It can cause you to do some crazy things.  And it can fall apart and that can leave a bigger mess in its wake.

But love is what makes the world magical.  Love builds the bonds that people need to live and to thrive.  We have evolved to love.

Watching ET with Ari and crying, feeling the love that is displayed there, reminded me how essential it is.  Yes, we cannot have love without boundaries and without guidelines, but we can and we should love.

Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another.

This is not merely an after-school club or an affinity group; this is a family – one that stretches back in time almost 4,000 years; one that has brought the world ideas that sustain the world and ourselves.

It is OK to love your family and care about your family.  And when they are hurting, you take care of them first.

It’s not only OK, it right and just.

In my eyes, sadly, many young Jews don’t feel that same sense of peoplehood, that intrinsic sense of connection.

How can we restore it?

It will take a profound effort – from all of us – to create enough peoplehood experiences, to teach our people’s history, to feel that rhythm of the Jewish calendar and Shabbat, to immerse ourselves in serious Jewish learning, to connect to strong social networks, to feel bound once again to the unique destiny of the Jewish people.

* * *

Later on in the narrative about Korah, the firepans that the rebels used are taken and hammered as plating for the altar.  I always thought this was a particularly redemptive moment – even though there had been a major rupture, these critical pieces, the mahtot – the firepans are reunited with their sacred purpose.  While the Torah claims that this an ot – a sign, perhaps a warning, I prefer to see it as a symbol of the Jewish people – even though the people are torn apart, we can heal those rifts and become one people, one nation, one family again.

Kein yehi ratzon – may God’s will and ours help it come into being and let us say Amen.


About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.