If They Can Die As Jews, Can’t We Live As Jews?

In June of 1812, Napoleon led hundreds of thousands of French troops in an invasion of Russia. The proclaimed goal was to liberate Poland from the threat of Russian forces. The fate of the largest Jewish communities of the time hung in the balance. Many Polish and Russian Hassidic masters supported the French who only a few decades earlier, in the wake of the bloody revolution, emancipated the Jews living there.  The French, they said, offered the Jews freedom from the grip of the anti-Semitic Russian Czar. One of the most influential Hassidic Rebbes disagreed with this assessment fearing of the very freedoms hailed by the others. Near the end of his life, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi penned the following words:

Should Napoleon be victorious, wealth among the Jews will be abundant… .but the hearts of Israel will be separated and distant from their father in heaven. But if our master Alexander will triumph, though poverty will be abundant. . . the heart of Israel will be bound and joined with their father in heaven. . . And for God’s sake: Burn this letter

As the first Rebbe of Lubavitch suggested, it is easy for Jews to find common cause when confronted with anti-Semitism and other adversity.  When Jews huddled in the barracks of concentration camps or when Israelis are fired upon by foreign missiles, those all too common barriers seem to break down and disappear. Jewish peoplehood and unity come to the fore and we often find the will and the way to bridge gaps, to lend a shoulder to cry on and a hand to lift each other.  This doesn’t mean that all boundaries and disagreements disappear, but somehow, they play a less prominent role and fade to the background when life and death come to the fore.

Many of us have spent lifetimes building borders and fences to separate us. We have created organizations and movements, groups and boards, all to exclude as much as they are meant to include.  Yet, as a people, we also have a common history and fate which we, try as we mistakenly may, cannot escape.  As Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the issues:

“The principle of unity expresses itself in two ways. First the unity of Jews as members of a spiritual community, as a congregation which was established through the conclusion of the covenant and Mt. Sinai: “You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”(Ex. 19:6). The unity of the Jewish people as a community based upon the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life as practiced by us – a Torah existence.  What ties the Yeminite water carrier in the streets of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Boston?  A uniform Orah Hayyim, the Shema Yisrael, Shabbat, Kol Nidrei night, the Seder night, kashrut, tefillin…

Secondly, unity manifests itself in our unique political-historical lot as a nation.  We are unique not only in our way of life, but also on our historical transmigrations and in our paradoxical fate.” (Community, Covenant and Commitment p. 144)

The Rav, as he is called by his students, famously divided between the Jewish-Legal realm of life and the Jewish-Peoplehood aspect. Jewish law provides one definition of Jewishness while Jewish history and fate provide another. To be sure, the Rav suggested that Jewish law draws lines which must divide communities especially on issues of a uniquely legal or spiritual nature; however, he presents an altogether different approach regarding issues of communal urgency,

 “When we are faced with a problem for Jews and Jewish interests toward the world without, regarding the defense of Jewish rights in the non-Jewish world, then all groups and movements must be united.”

Unity in times like ours is not only not surprising, but demanded. We must act as one and speak as one and join like one when confronted by the horrible renewal of anti-Semitism which has reached a new height with the murder of 11 Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

But here’s the thing. This past Shabbat many Jews throughout the world recited the blessing for the upcoming month of Kislev which begins on Friday :

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, to renew for us this coming month for good and blessing. Grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a live of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life marked by reverence for heaven and dread of sin, a life without shame or disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we have love for the Torah and reverence for heaven, a life in which our heart desires are fulfilled for good. Amen Selah.

May He who performed miracles for our ancestors and redeemed them from slavery to freedom, redeem us soon, and gather our dispersed people from the four corners of the earth.


Let us say Amen.
(Koren translation with my own changes.)

Obviously, this prayer makes many theological points which those of us with a traditional theology will find comforting while others may question. Yet, the critical part for this discussion is the line, “ALL ISRAEL ARE FRIENDS”.  The Jewish calendar is officially dependent on the Jewish people. That is why on Jewish Holidays, the traditional closing blessings are “the One who sanctifies Israel and the Festivals.” In a sense, the declaration of the Jewish calendar is a process joining the fate of the entire Jewish people.  In the process of holy time, we are one entity.

This is not a negation of Jews being part of the family of humankind; however, just as membership in a family extends one’s self, so too partnership in a group:  in this case, the Jewish people.  And what is critical here, is exactly that – the Jewish people. When the shooter cried, “Kill all Jews”, as many have written, he didn’t say this type or that type of Jew – just all Jews. The people who share the holy time called the Jewish calendar.

So here is a humble proposal: if the shooter can drop the label, why can’t we? Maybe just until Rosh Chodesh on Friday or even through the whole month of Kislev culminating with the Chanukah lights. Let’s drop the labels.

This is not a “halachic” position but rather a social one. Rav Hutner, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin and one of the more creative Jewish thinkers of the past century, suggested an interesting framework. In his writings, Pachad Yitzchak, he suggests that the service of God is divided into various realms — each consisting of its own logic and thought process. Using Rav Hutner and Rav Soloveitchik’s approaches, can we not say that in the realm of communal relations we drop the labels for a period of time? Can’t we be just Jews?

In cyberspace, appears a quote attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (and several other thinkers) to the affect that “labels are shirts, not people.” And indeed, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Dati Leumi, Zionist etc. are all modern inventions whereas the Torah is ancient. Perhaps, at least for a little while, we can let the Torah speak to us and just treat every Jew as a Jew.  Can we do it for a week? For a month? Who knows?

It shouldn’t take the Czar’s boot or the gunman’s bullets to bring about Jewish unity. As we approach the month of Chanukah let them tell us that the word “Jew” is the darkness and we will say “Jew” is the light.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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