We Are (Not) One

One of the most overused slogans in Jewish institutional life is “We are one.” And while it often is true, it is just as often not true. Indeed, it is sometimes both true and not true concerning the same event.

This idea came to mind as I thought about the reactions to that horrific morning in Pittsburgh just a few short weeks ago. In synagogues the world over we were reading the Torah portion of Vayerah, which ends with the story of the akeydah — the binding of Isaac. I struggle with that story; no matter how many explanations, essays, sermons, or lectures I read or hear that attempt to grapple with its mysteries and try to explain its lessons, to me it’s still a black hole.

Some describe this story as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom; just as Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son in compliance with God’s command, so too Jews throughout millennia have been prepared to sacrifice — and indeed have sacrificed, and sadly are forced to continue to sacrifice — their children for our God, our people, our religion, and our land. And yet, despite the psychic toll the akeydah must have taken on Isaac, no one was martyred. The angel stayed Abraham’s hand, a ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, and Abraham, after being blessed yet again, and Isaac together descended the mountain they had earlier ascended together.

In Pittsburgh, though, there was no angel crying out to the devil incarnate, wielding his assault rifle: “Do not raise your hand against Joyce and Richard and Rose and Jerry and Cecil and David.” There was no ram offered in lieu of Bernice and Sylvan and Daniel and Melvin and Irving. None of the 11 who died that morning al kiddush Hashem — in sanctification of God’s name — returned from the synagogue to their families and loved ones as they had left, full of life, vigor, and love of God, Torah, and the Jewish people. There was no blessing. Just curses and evil and bloodshed and death erupting from that satanic gun.

And in many ways, in important ways, our reaction to this horror did exemplify that “we are one.” Jewish communities across our nation and throughout the world mourned together, held vigils, gave charity, uttered prayers — as one. People who did not know those killed nonetheless attended funerals, paid shiva calls, and recited kaddish — as one. Tears were shed, hearts shattered, spirits bent to the breaking point (though not broken) — as one. To paraphrase Amos, if Jews are massacred in a synagogue on Shabbat in the midst of prayer, will our nation not weep? And so we wept — as one.

But the aftermath of Pittsburgh, as well as the American elections that followed on its heels, taught us that in some ways there is a significant rift in the Jewish reaction to Pittsburgh, just as there is a rift in American polity. It showed us that we — Jews and Americans — are not one. I won’t dwell here on the rift in American society; the new split in national governance tells that story clearly enough.

But even regarding Pittsburgh, we were not one. Tens of thousands of American Jews signed a letter asking the president not to come to that city, which was then still drenched in tears, and yet two Israeli politicians did more than their ostensible mission of reciprocating American Jews’ empathy to Israelis in times of crisis and sadness. Rather, unlike many of the Jewish mourners and almost all Pittsburgh politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, who did not greet the president upon arrival, they stood shoulder to shoulder with him and were among his prime validators. We are one? Not quite.

The broader American Jewish community, while acting as one in mourning, was also not one in the lessons to be learned from the Pittsburgh tragedy. Was it caused in part — and only, of course, in part, since it was mainly caused by hundreds of bullets from a legal gun, the trigger pulled by a hater with a gun license — by the dog whistles and steady drumbeat of inflammatory rhetoric from the President? By historical anti-Semitism? By right-wing anti-Semitism? By left-wing anti-Semitism? There is an almost tribal split among Jews as to which of those questions are answered yes and which no. And we give these different answers vocally, loudly, sometimes with an understanding of those on the opposite side of the divide and sometimes without that understanding.

As one we could, and did, answer amen to kaddish recited in memory of these kedoshim. As one we could stand next to each other at vigils in Jewish community centers, shuls, and village greens, holding candles, with tears rolling down our cheeks. But when the last amen was recited and the candles flickered out, after we left the shiva house and the vigils, we often were not one. We were quarrelsome, angry at the murderer and his enablers and angry at each other, with accusations of blame and different views of the world. We are one? Not quite. Not by a long shot.

Yet in some ways, that too is part of who we are. “We are one” is often simply a slogan, good for fundraising and sometimes spirit-raising but superficial and without nuance. We’re frequently not one because we have different views of Jewish history and tradition, different beliefs about Jewish practice and theology. We have different opinions about God and heaven, or, indeed, whether there is a God or a heaven. We belong to different religious denominations and political parties, or to none, which in our diverse and sometimes rough-and-tumble democratic world makes life vibrant but also can lead to division and divisiveness.

I’m aware that I’ve fallen back on a number of “on the one hand, on the other hands.” But as Tevye loved to say, there is often yet one more other hand, and it’s with such a final other hand that I conclude. We’ve been taught that before there was a Jewish people about whom to say (or not say) we are one, there was a larger group with a critical unifying ingredient, a core oneness. We’ve been taught that all humanity was created betzelem elokim — in the image of God — whether you believe that literally as a Torah truth or metaphorically as a human value.

So when we confront anti-Semitism or racism or any other type of group hatred, it is that essential oneness that we must remember and cherish, in the hope and prayer that one day the world will learn to live under its standard.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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