B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Unity and Rebuke

What AI thinks 'unity and rebuke' looks like (image generated by me)

A belated kavanah on last week’s portion, Ki Tissa. The quoted commentary is from Artscroll Interlinear Chumash. And a prefatory note: in this post I critique a letter signed onto by many admired (by me!) Jewish Atlantans. None of this is intended as a personal criticism of any of the signatories of the letter I refer to, several of whom are my very dear friends, many of whom I have long admired, all of whom are doing very difficult jobs in very difficult times.

The portion Ki Tissa begins with a pronouncement that Jewish people should not be counted. This prohibition is derived from the commandment that everyone, rich or poor, give a half-shekel for the Tabernacle. The task to avoid counting Jews “in the ordinary manner” (Artscroll commentary on 30:11-16) comes up quite frequently in determining whether a minyan of ten Jewish adults is present. Even there, we must find workarounds like the syllables of “Ma To-vu O-ha-le-cha Ya-a-kov.” (Not to quibble, but might Ya’akov be unwittingly counted as two syllables and not three? I digress.)

Various commentators have explained this arguably quirky rule’s purpose in various ways. A big part of it is to remind us that the Jewish people is one. Counting us implies we’re separate. Having to go out of our way not to count ourselves reminds us that, says Artscroll:

[t]here is great power in the unity of a nation striving toward a common goal. When everyone joins in a constructive cause, the spiritual merits of all the individuals become merged, as it were, so that not only their funds, but their personal attainments come together to assist one another. A solitary human being can seldom survive Divine scrutiny; what person is free of sins and shortcomings? But when a nation becomes one, it ascends to a higher plane, because all its individual members merge their virtues with one another. As a result, the national collective is judged far more benevolently.

One might be reminded of such a sentiment when one reads this letter about a recent Atlanta clergy and Jewish professionals’ group trip to Israel, entitled “Unity and Resilience.”  The letter is signed by what appears to be all of the trip’s attendees. It kicks off describing “a diverse group of 22 Jewish professionals” who attended the trip and “found that what connects us is greater than what separates us.” It recounts various stops on the tour, then draws to a close along the lines of the above commentary to Ki Tissa: “We are even stronger when we are united.” The letter is unequivocal about the “we” here: “As Israelis and Americans, we felt connected as one people – the Jewish People.” Tracking this commentary, then, in Ki Tissa the people contributed to build and maintain the Tabernacle. Here, now, what similar “common goal” does our unity elevate us and merge our virtues to achieve?

The letter continues: “Israel is our ancestral homeland. The State of Israel is the only Jewish State in the world. We will always call it our homeland with pride and love. Because it is part of us, and we are part of it.” (Note the capitalization of “People” and “State” here.)

So according to this letter, it is the State of Israel–Israel’s Jewishness and its Statehood critical components–that this group considers to be our present-day Tabernacle.

Back to Ki Tissa–the census isn’t even the most well-known plot point in that portion. That honor would probably go to the golden calf. That is, when the Jewish people miscalculated Moses’s promised return based on ambiguity in his initial statement, and he was literally one day later than they thought he said he would be, some folks freaked out. In their fear and need for a security blanket, they immediately formed a golden calf and worshiped it as an idol.  Some interesting points of commentary that don’t always get mentioned:

  • The calf was conceived of as a stand-in for Moses, not G-d.
  • The Egyptian converts started it.
  • Just a tiny minority actually worshiped the calf as an idol.
  • Aaron only participated because he thought they’d kill him if he objected, and all the stuff that looks like his participation in the text is really stuff he was trying to do to mitigate the damage.
  • G-d was REALLY mad, and after a ton of back and forth with Moses, he agreed not to destroy all of the Jewish people, but trust, the actual idol worshipers were to be executed.

The survivors were deemed worthy of the chance to live on and atone, but (as we know) the collective consequences were tragic. The way in which the idol worshipers were executed was that the Levites volunteered to do it (remember, they were placed in Temple service in part as a result of their bloodlust following the rape of Dinah). They had to kill every single idol worshipper, even close relatives. Even after destroying each and every one of the extremists who actually engaged in idol worship, G-d recognizes he’s gonna still need some space from us. G-d calls the Israelites a “stiff necked people” a bunch of times, and says, with painstaking clarity, He can’t be in their midst because He’s so sure they’ll go astray again and it will piss Him off so much he might wind up destroying them out of angry impulse.

Perhaps none symbolizes the irreversible spiritual downgrade of the entire Jewish people resulting from the golden calf episode more than Moses’s smashing of the first set of tablets. Rashi says this act, a destruction of something Divinely created that is otherwise unthinkable, was justified because, “surely a nation of heretics [meaning the masses of the nation that stood by complacently in the face of organized idolatry] cannot be given the entire Torah.” In other words, “not only the sinners were at fault, but those whose failure to respond had made it possible.”  (Artscroll Ch. 32, notes on v.22-25.)

This conclusion of collective responsibility echoes our earlier message about the census: unity of the Jewish people.  In unity we rise; in unity we fall. Right?

An interesting asterisk: at some point (commentators disagree on exactly when, but after the first tablets were smashed), Moses sets up the Tent of Meeting “so it was that whoever sought Hashem [kol m’vakesh HaShem] would go out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside of the camp.” (Chapter 33, verse 7, Artscroll translation, emphasis mine.)  Artscroll’s commentary:

Like the Tabernacle, Moses would be available to any Jew who sought the word of G-d. The nation as a whole had been ostracized, as it were, but no individual Jew could be without the opportunity to approach G-d…This verse demonstrates that one who seeks to study Torah should be ready to go into exile to find it. (Baal HaTurim)


There are some within the Jewish people that see the State of Israel less like the Tabernacle and more like the golden calf. I’m not predisposed to this view, but when I come across letters like the one about this Israel trip (by happenstance on the same morning I am cramming Ki Tissa after a week away from Torah study) … I start to worry about it.

From My Jewish Learning: “To the extent that idolatry is much discussed anymore at all, it is largely modern forms of worship that draw condemnation under the idolatry rubric: worship of the state, money, power and the like.” Another important point about the prohibition is that it explicitly encompasses the worship of lesser holy beings such as angels, or the luminaries like sun and moon.

Only the one G-d may be the object of Jewish worship. Worship of anything else, even something that possesses some genuine divine energy, is idolatry.

From this letter: “The State of Israel is the only Jewish State in the world. We will always call it our homeland with pride and love. Because it is part of us, and we are part of it.”

The dreaded (to me) Israel litmus test. Such litmus tests have been ubiquitous since October 7. To these authors’ credit, this particular litmus test is more of a positive self-expression as opposed to expressly calling out IfNotNow and JVP by name, then denigrating their “commitments” as “outside the framework of Jewish communal respectability.”

I recently learned another word to express the “litmus test” concept, “boundary marker.” As  explained in Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith:

When a community is faced with a threat, the threat itself fosters a sense of mutuality and a feeling of unity among the people of the community by supplying a focus for group feeling…this same sense of bonding is engendered and fostered when a community faces secession by members who engage in what the community considers deviant acts. The deviant actions function in the same way as [] floods or fires do; they foster a sense of mutuality and group feeling among those who are committed to rejecting the deviant activity. The deviance makes the normative community members more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to the values that constitute the ‘collective conscience’ of the community.

Berman’s book has little to do with Zionism – it discusses how the Thirteen Principles of Faith were deployed as a boundary marker through history in response to threats, notably Christianity and Islam. Judaism has deployed lots of boundary markers, denominations and Shabbat observance being one key example. But this passage and this concept helped me understand the genuine “boundary marker” function of Zionism, and to coagulate my objection to it: I don’t think Zionism is a useful boundary marker, at least not anymore. In fact I find it a very harmful one.

I prefer this letter’s version of unity, but it’s still problematic for the same reason: although embedded, it uses a hardline formulation of Zionism as boundary marker. From the letter:

“[We are] a diverse group of 22 Jewish professionals from the Atlanta metro area…including rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations of Judaism…Our skin is not the same color. Our religious beliefs and political opinions vary”

(Link in the block quote is to the group photo… look if you so desire.)  In emphasizing the group’s “diverse” nature, this letter implies that it represents the whole of the Jewish people, and that therefore, the whole of the Jewish people agrees with the highly nationalistic sentiments expressed in the letter.  But of course, this group does not represent the whole of the Jewish people. The Jewish People includes IfNotNow, JVP, B’tzelem, and other Jewish grassroots organizations that have gained significant support since October 7.  The Jewish People includes individual Jews within the congregations represented by the signatories. consider themselves anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or simply uncomfortable with the toxicity some forms of Zionism has taken on.

The letter’s declaring the bounds of the Jewish people via Zionism and quietly erasing dissenting voices that do not conform to it continues a longstanding trajectory.  To be expected; as Emory Professor Geoffrey Levin says in the introduction to his recent book, winners get to write history. But the letter goes further down the path of a toxic nationalism of which I am wary: it excludes G-d and Torah from its framing of Jewishness.  Instead of G-d and Torah, this letter describes “shared peoplehood, a shared history, and a shared destiny.” Its examples of what is “shared” invoke the boundary marker function very clearly and graphically: “Iron Dome missiles fired to intercept enemy rockets,” “countless Jewish towns and villages in Europe attacked by antisemites over the centuries,” “murdered,” “terrorists,” “horrific attack,” “Holocaust,” “traumas from our past,” “expulsions from countless countries” … and volunteerism to support war efforts. The closest the letter comes to HaShem is a single mention of prayer just once, as a part of a dramatic and graphic depiction of the horrors of October 7 to which the group “said prayers and cried.”

To be fair, it’s certainly not a better idea to rely explicitly on a biblical claim to land or even peoplehood in 2024. Certainly the Jewish people, whatever we are, are not solely defined based on religious practice. So it’s not so much the simple act of leaving G-d and Torah out of this missive that unnerves me. It’s the combination of the absence of those concepts combined with a contemporaneous absence of any limitation or caveat upon an eternal loyalty (the letter says “always,” though it does not use the word “loyalty”) that this group is proud (it does use the word “proud”) to embrace in the name of the State. The letter is a proclamation of fealty, implying that absolutely nothing that Israel could ever do would squander our support.

References to the “ancestral homeland” and “Jewish State (capital S)” in this letter loom large; in a world in which there is always a goal even if it is unstated or unconsidered, a reader could certainly be justified in interpreting this strong rhetoric as broad support for the Jewish settlement through warfare of “Greater Israel.” In the name of “unity,” these paragraphs carry no suggestion that any of the signatories would support Palestinian self-determination or a two state solution. In the name of “unity,” these paragraphs barely acknowledge Palestinian humanity. The only cursory mention that Palestinians exist, is made in the context of validating lack of compassion for them, hinting that it is the majority or default view within the group (“Some of us felt tremendous sorrow for the Palestinians in Gaza and for the tens of thousands who have been killed in this war. Compassion is also difficult for many of us.”).

Channeling Ki Tissa again, to close a letter like this out with a declaration of the Jewish people as collectively “moral” and “beautiful” seems a bit… stiff-necked? Finding compassion difficult, being “unapologetically” angry, is understandable after what has happened to the Jewish people. I struggle with it too. It is not, in my view, something I would juxtapose with what is “moral” or “beautiful” about us at this particular moment.

It is one thing to “stand with Israel,” but rhetoric of the sort leveraged in this letter has consequences beyond the pure and goodhearted Ahavat Yisrael that I can see was intended. When we dig our heels in on Israel as boundary marker in this manner, we effectively offer Israel our carte blanche to engage in … well, anything.  Even for those who would defend every single war decision Israel has made, should we sign over that sort of power to mortal humans, so as to turn off our critical thinking skills and go along with whatever the human decisionmakers in Israel decide on any given day? It is this latter notion that frightens me, even knowing that this was not the intended impact.

I am confident that this letter’s signatories aren’t among them, but increasingly worry that some within the Jewish People have crossed over into the territory of worshiping of the State as idol.

And if so, anti-Zionist Jewish sources–the ones missing from this trip (not necessarily because they were not invited; they likely would not have accepted any invitation)–are the ones consistently heeding the message of the golden calf story. They invoke Torah routinely, reminding us that all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, that the Jewish people should seek to be “a light unto the nations.”  Some show up and get spat on and jeered at (a friend in a facebook group recounted that someone in an Israel flag yelled at her “your family should have been gassed”).  The values they articulate for their views are decidedly Jewish, grounded in Jewish sources and concepts.

From what I’ve observed, anti-/ post- / non- / questioning- Zionist Jews seek to study Torah and are “willing to go into exile to find it.”  Meanwhile, sources classified as Jewish mainstream often default to messages like this one, relegating G-d and Torah as largely ancillary to Jewish identity, opting to set boundaries based primarily on victimhood and trauma and without the spiritual grounding those concepts originally engendered.

I truly agree with the sentiment that the Jewish people–elevated in collective as we come forward wholeheartedly with half-shekels in service of HaShem–are beautiful and moral. Ki Tissa portrays the power of Jewish unity, for good and for ill, and the very important limitations of it. When we lift ourselves up together, our merits and virtues are exponentially more. And on the other hand, the golden calf tale humbles us about “the power of crowd psychology, in which a mob is capable of [evil] excesses beyond the imagination of any of its individual members.” (commentary on 32:2.)  The takeaway is that the Torah says we cannot be complacent or go with the flow when it comes to idol worship, or adjacent behavior. We must rebuke, not because we wish to forfeit Jewish unity, but because that aspirational unity engenders collective Jewish responsibility.

That’s just a very complicated line to walk and I don’t claim authority over where to draw it. I have nothing but respect for the wonderful people who went on this trip and who signed this letter. They are some of the holiest people I know. (I on the other hand remain stiff-necked; the more I admire you, the less I hold back.) I don’t have answers on the war. I am in a time of learning and questioning; I have historically identified as Zionist; despite questioning some aspects of that ideology of late, I will always, like these authors, have a deep love for Israel. In the days after October 7, I was in a blind panic fearing that I might never be able to take my kids to the Israel I had experienced. I’m squeamish on second-guessing geopolitics or military strategy. I can see a lot of truths at play at once. I chair a group at one of my synagogues to advocate for Palestinian rights. I ghosted one of my racial equity organizations over antisemitism. I’m all over the place.

What I have stronger convictions about is that support for the ideology of Zionism should not be used as a boundary marker to be in Jewish community. Israel litmus tests remind me of blind nationalism; blind nationalism has perpetrated many horrible things on the world I believe we are called to repair; no group is immune from doing horrible things by mere virtue of having been on the receiving end of such horrible things. In fact, the Jewish experience on the receiving end of such horrible things is what inspires many non-Zionist Jews I know to cry and pray for Palestinians the way this trip’s group cried and prayed for Israelis.

The way we remain moral and beautiful is by remaining vigilant, by constantly seeking Torah and by being willing to “go into exile to find it.”

But I hope not to find myself exiled, because like the people who wrote the letter I’m unpacking, the Jewish People is everything to me.

Critical to authentic unity is capacity to endure rebuke.  Let the discussion continue, with even the most uncomfortable voices included.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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