Mordechai Soskil

Different Sized Infinities

Famed author John Green makes the point that there are different sized infinities. Meaning, between the numbers 1 and 2 is .1 and .01 and .001 and .9 and .09 and .0000009 so on, forever. But there is also an infinity in the set of numbers larger than 2. So there are different sized infinities (and I know that my uncle-in-law, Uncle Paul the Mathematician, will probably tell me that this is technically not true, it still seems true and that’s good enough for right now.)

The same is true of achdus – unity. There are different types of being unified.

In my senior class, on the Friday before Sukkot, I referenced with the class the well-known thought that each of the dalet minim (lulav, etrog, and so forth) represents a different type of Jew. (With Torah study but no good deeds and good deeds and no Torah study and the rest of the Punit Square, as you know.) So, almost rhetorically, I asked the class what this symbolizes. I had expected “achdus” but one of my talmidot said, “pluralism.” For a moment we observed together that while the Venn diagram of pluralism and achdus has a lot of overlap, it’s not just one circle.  Then I asked the class, “Is Jewish unity still a value?” And for the next 35 or 40 minutes we had a very interesting and upsetting discussion about what is either the perception of 19 intelligent and interesting Jewish young adults of the status of Jewish community today, or what actually IS the status of the Jewish community today. One of the teens suggested that Jewish unity can be graphed on a bell curve. As you move further to the right or further to the left there is much less interest in any sense of togetherness or unity. That resonated with me.

In our tradition we have two metaphors that come easily to mind when we think of Jewish unity. The first is the lulav and etrog as I mentioned about. The other is the ketoret, the incense that was burned in the Beit Hamikdash. The ketoret was 11 different spices finely ground into a powder. All of the spices were required by the Torah to be well mixed together. In the end it had a very homogenous look; probably it all looked like very fine cinnamon.  One of those spices, chelbanah (galbanum, whatever that is) has a very strong and unpleasant odor. But it had to be part of this mixture that is, among other things, an important focus of the Kohen Gadol’s service in the Kodesh Hakadoshim on Yom Kippur. And while you might have thought that the Torah would prefer leaving out the malodorous spice, the Talmud unpacks the symbolism for us. We can’t have the ketoret without the chelbanah, and we can’t leave out the wicked when we gather as a congregation and pray. We have to have ALL 11 spices and we have to have ALL of Klal Yisrael together. Even the ones who smell bad.

I wonder if the different symbols of the ketoret and the lulav point towards the difference between “achdus” and “pluralism.” In the lulav, each plant keeps its identity but is equally critical in the ritual. In the ketoret, each spice lost its own individuality and became part of that homogenous whole. That said, the Torah is pretty clear what species belong together with the lulav and etrog, and if a person would say that they think that a rose is also beautiful and it’s symbol of love and love is so important in the Torah, and they would add the rose to the lulav bundle, that would be an actual sin (called “bal tosif – adding to a mitzvah in the Torah) not an enhancement of the mitzvah.

I doubt that one little blog post is going to do anything to improve the experience of Jewish unity in the 21st century. The people on the right side of the bell curve in Geulah and Meah Shearim don’t want to be in unity with the BDS-loving left side of the bell curve, and vise versa. That said, I feel compelled to mention that our enemies never distinguished between those two groups. They don’t hate liberal Jews any less than they hate conservative Jews. They don’t target shuls with cars that were parked Friday afternoon any differently than they do shuls where the cars were parked Shabbos morning. They smack Hassidim in Brooklyn and the terrorize Reform shuls in Texas. That said, I know that the Bad Guys Hate Us All the Same argument is not compelling. Shared date is not enough. We need a positive reason to strive for achdus.

In that same class with my seniors a students shared that during the summer he and a friend were in the airport waiting for a flight to Israel. They were dressed like American teens and not wearing kippot at that moment. Even still, a gentlemen came over to them and asked them to be numbers 9 and 10 in their minyan. Of course, they agreed, put on hats, opened up the siddur apps on their phones, and joined in. And they said that that moment felt like achdus. They felt the connection of shared history, Shared destiny, and the connection of family.  They could feel the small infinity in that moment.

Today I shared a version of this blog with a group of Juniors and several students made the point that even if they don’t feel connected to JUDAISM, they do feel connected to JEWS. They feel a kinship, a brotherhood (or sisterhood), with another Jew, even if they look like they observe differently. And I think that ultimately, that should be the goal of Jewish Unity. Even if we disagree with them, even if we disagree A LOT with them, they’re still family.  Maybe we can used fancy Soloveitchiky words like Fate and Destiny or Sacksian words like Community and Connectivity. But I don’t think that any of those words are as important as “family.”

Working in a community school for so many years one of the pieces of wisdom I have picked up is that achdus and inclusivity is often in the eye of the beholder. That is, they are different sized infinities. Let’s say a family that doesn’t keep kosher invites classmates who do to the 8-year-old birthday party. Knowing that the kosher kids can’t eat the cake or pizza that they are serving, but eager to accommodate all the children, they order one pie from Tov Pizza and some cupcakes from a kosher bakery. Is that achdus and community? Or does it feel like those kosher kids are “forced to sit at the back of the bus”? On the other hand, is it really achdus and community and Klal Yisrael to say that people who don’t keep kosher have to change their plans and expectations for what they want to do to accommodate a few kids? I’ve been part of those conversations for about 20 years. I know that sometimes the best solutions aim for creating an equilibrium of misery.

But isn’t that the way that families work? I don’t want to overshare, but sometimes isn’t the way to make sure that the family is together is to make sure that everyone is a little unhappy?  If every person is a world, then surely every family is its own infinite universe. Even if the infinities are different sizes.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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