Being Tribal is Noble

Ben Hecht – journalist, writers, comedian, screenwriter par excellence – also stands as one of the early, and great Jewish American Zionists (when time permits, Google him with the words “Perfidy”. It is quite a story…). When the young State was struggling to get on its feet, Hecht made his way to the office of a Jewish Hollywood mogul to raise needed dollars for Israel.

 “I am not interested in Jewish political problems,” Selznick told Hecht, according to Hecht’s memoir “A Child of the Century,” when he was raising money for Jews in Palestine during World War II. “I’m an American and not a Jew. I’m interested in this war as an American. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I’m a Jew.”

 Ben Hecht responded without hesitation; “Here’s the deal. I want you to pick up the phone and call ten non-Jewish friends and ask them, ‘Am I Jewish?’ If just one of them says no, I’ll leave your office.” The mogul wrote a check.

Jews are known (and accused of) for a distinct sense of collectivism, of having more than just a “sense” of shared history and destiny. There are lots of ways of giving a name to something like this but perhaps one would label Jews as tribal. Humorously, and seriously Jews watch movie credits and wonder who on the passing list is a “M.O.T.” (member of the tribe)? Jews are encouraged to pray together, socialize together, build communal institutions together. The most powerful moments in human life, what sociologist called liminal moments, are also among the greatest community moments for Jews; for both in mourning and in celebration Jewish tradition urges that our homes and banquet halls be open to the entire community.

This idea further stretches back to a fascinating story that bears truth through the archaeological record: the passageways of the Temple itself. One set of steps, a set of 2 passageways, was used as an entry to ascend to the Temple Mount. There was a second set of steps, to be used as an exit that had 3 passages. It was that staircase that the ancient rabbis used to recall the story of a woman named Huldah who gifted the people of Israel with that a tri-parted gateway along the southern wall. Of these two different steps the ancient rabbis teach that people mourning, people suffering, and people celebrating would enter the Temple Mount using the steps on the Southern Wall – Huldah’s Gate – even though everyone else used them as an exit.

The rabbis wondered why this was so. The answer: because people would be forced to ask why are you going up this way and not from the usual gate? By doing so the community is forced to see those people who live on the outer edges of normal life, both in sadness and in happiness we are drawn into their circumstances.

The idea of ‘all Israel’ being a woven fabric of connectedness fills not only the rabbinic view of Jewish life, but it is also seen in the Biblical record as well. The Torah shows us that G-d explicitly moves from the individual to the collective, of having chosen relationships with a few individuals to throwing G-d’s and our future into the hands of the many. So G-d moves from choosing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to choosing a people. And not just that people, but all the people who were to come from that people – this covenant is what created the eternity of the Jewish people, as we know it.

The sense that Jews feel a distinct connection with one another, of not only a shared history but also a shared destiny seen in tradition, and language, is seen in another more modern reality: the State of Israel. The events of this past summer, with a deeper foreboding that there may be no immediate resolution to the problems in Gaza, along with anti-Semitism nearing viral proportions in Europe, and the growing movement to alienate the Jewish State only deepens this near genetic coding Jews share with one another: of ‘belonging-in’ to a body larger and greater than myself.

This isn’t to say that such bonds prohibit criticism and disagreement – nothing could be more un-Jewish than that! But this is to say that when life and limb are in harms way something preternatural rattles inside us and we hear a call to raise our defenses, offer our prayers, pass emails of encouragement, and sound the siren to raise funds.

I think this is a good working definition of our sense of peoplehood, and what would put someone outside of it. In a curious twist, the Hebrew word for a people, Ahm, is etymologically the same as the Hebrew word for with, Eem. In other words, we find who our people are by seeing who is with us. In happiness, and in suffering the ‘staircase’ we travel is a shared one.

About the Author
Aaron Flanzraich is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, Canada and the author of “The Small, Still Voice” an argument against Jewish fundamentalism.