Having lived side by side for nearly 30 years, in July 2003, Iranian-born Ladan and Laleh Bijani, conjoined twins connected at their heads, chose to undergo a high-risk surgery to pursue separate lives. Neither of the sisters survived.
In her Rosh Hashanah sermon this year, Am Yisrael Chai, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, responding to the current growing divide she and many American Jews feel about Jewish Peoplehood, used the conceit of conjoined twins to describe the Jewish people. She referred to the Jewish communities of Israel and America as a two-headed twin sharing one body. Her criteria for using this analogy was based on a story about one twin feeling pain or suffering when their twin is physically hurt. Her test of Jewish unity, the oneness of Am Yisrael, came down to her belief that one “head” (an American or Israeli Jew) feels the suffering of the other.
The metaphor of conjoined twins, a “body with two heads”, can travel in a different direction and toward an opposite conclusion regarding Jewish peoplehood. There is no doubt that the Bijani twins felt, or in the very least felt for, the pain and suffering of their sister. They chose surgery to separate, risking death, because they wanted to live independent lives based on the differing interests they wanted to pursue. They felt that staying as “one” would not allow them to fulfill their individual aspirations.
Let us take this metaphor further by imagining a fictional set of conjoined Muslim twin sisters, the Ibrahami twins from Iran, who in addition to having different interests held opposing beliefs and values. One twin was religious and the other secular. One twin wanted to pray to Allah five times a day while the other twin refused to enter a mosque. One twin insisted on eating Hallal meat while the other twin had an equal insistence on eating only vegetarian. One twin wanted to date only Muslims and found it repulsive that her twin sister had fallen in love with a Jew. These twins shared family, ancestry and religion but their opposing core beliefs would engender an even greater impetus to not live in one body. They would be motivated to choose separation and allow each other to head in different directions.
While she creates a polarity between the Jews in America and Israel, Rabbi Buchdahl characterizes the divide as one between liberal versus orthodox and universalistic versus nationalistic ideologies within and between those two Jewish communities. The differences are so significant, including differing views about Judaism, that she feels that “we no longer remember what connects us.” Despite the recognition of the differences and opposing core ideologies, Rabbi Buchdahl and many other leaders in the Jewish community want to hold onto the notion that the Jewish people are one body, one heart and one soul. Separating that body into distinct bodies, no matter how different the ideologies of the two “heads” are, risks, in their view, the integrity of the whole.
Yet it is imperative to ask: Is a surgical intervention even necessary? Has the separation not already occurred for Jewish peoplehood? While genetically identical twins will still feel the pain or suffering of their separated twin they need the opportunity to create their own identity, to be self-determined and autonomous. Each independent “head” cannot be defined by the other. Independence of thought, freedom to live by one’s own beliefs are essential for each twin, for each cohort in the Jewish community. Recognizing our interconnectedness with other Jews and for that matter all people is not a contradiction to accepting that we want to express and define Jewishness differently. Perhaps the greater risk is to hold onto the construct of Jewish peoplehood as one body with two heads. Instead, we can begin to view the desire and necessity for each person or each “people” to live with integrity and head in the direction they prefer, separately.