Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Wondering who to vote for? Consult the High Priest’s breastplate!

If you’re one of the many Israelis lamenting that you don’t know who to vote for in the forthcoming election, I have a suggestion.  Consult the High Priest’s breastplate.

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The garments of the High Priest. (Library of Congress)

Wait, you’re probably objecting, it wasn’t the High Priest’s breastplate but the Urim and Thummim that functioned as oracles. Read on.

The reason so many Israelis are struggling with the coming election is that they can’t bring themselves to vote for the parties they’ve supported in previous elections.

On the Left, there’s Meretz, a party that’s disappointed its voters and anyway may not make the cut. And Labor, driven off course by a leader who doesn’t reflect the values of its traditional voters.

On the Right, there’s Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), which threw in its lot with extremists that are an anathema to many Jewish Home voters (read more here). And there’s Likud.  I have yet to meet a Likud voter who isn’t experiencing inner conflict between a desire to vote Likud and desire for a change at the top.

And just in case any Arab List voters are reading this, I should note that the Arab parties have suffered similar fates to all mentioned above.

If you’re one of these disenfranchised voters, I sympathize. I too lost my electoral home. But thanks to the High Priest’s breastplate, I have no problem switching my allegiance to another party. I don’t feel unrepresented.

We see elections as an opportunity to express our core identity. We choose the party that most closely represents us and our values and wear the T. shirt. Switching allegiance is not just betraying our party, it’s betraying ourselves.

We’ve made the big mistake – I include myself in this – of seeing political parties as kind of tribes.

Here’s a 3-minute lesson, or more likely a refresher, in everything that’s wrong with tribes. Enjoy!

Yes, the Jets and the Sharks are gangs not tribes. But gangs, tribes, clans, houses, dynasties and so forth share fundamental characteristics – life-long loyalty; inbuilt hostility; simmering violence; empty bravado; and total identification.

It’s a sign of the proximity between gangs and tribes that the Jets and Sharks are based on the feuding Montagu and Capulet families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet, Ford Madox Brown , 1870.

The Jets and the Sharks, like most gangs, are men-only. But women are always hovering in the wings when tribes and gangs are around. If young, marriageable women enter the scene, it usually heralds a lesson to would-be boundary crossers – a suicide pact (see Romeo and Juliet) or perhaps an honor killing (see below).

When older women, especially mothers, enter the scene, it usually heralds loss and bereavement – think The Godfather or see this recent film about the Colombian drug trade (see review article here).

Film still from Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) (image courtesy of The Orchard)

Back to the High Priest’s breastplate. The High Priest’s breastplate as described in the context of the Mishkan (Exodus 28 and 39) functions, I think, as a symbolic memorial for the twelve tribes. The tribes will live on symbolically in the Miskan, the Temple and a few other significant locations, but in practical terms, they’ll soon be irrelevant.

Think about it. The twelve tribes of Israel feature in popular imagination mainly with respect to their absence. Other than the tribe of Levi – which remains relevant for its ritual roles and was in any case de-tribalized when God prohibited Levites from owning land – we’re more likely to be interested in the lost tribes than tribes who never needed to be found.

The tribes exist for us are decorative symbols in synagogues and other Jewish spaces.

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Murals At Ades Synagogue, Jerusalem Getty Images


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Chagall Windows at the synagogue of Hadassah hospital

But unless they are Levites (see above), or can trace their ancestry to King David, almost no Jews can name the tribes from which they are descended.  They’re more likely to know their birthstones than their tribe.

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Why did the tribes cease to be significant for Jews? The answer is not that we stopped caring about tribes when we lost our land. Exile and long-term diaspora didn’t stop us from caring about the Temple and agriculture-based festivals.

The death knell of the tribes is in the Torah itself.

Think about it. The book of Leviticus’s rare (sole?) reference to a tribe is to identify the man who profaned God’s holy name (Leviticus 24:11)

Although tribes are extremely prominent in the book of Numbers – the ‘numbers’ of the title refer to membership of tribes – tribes often have negative connotations.  Indeed, the very act of counting is deemed problematic; it’s offered as an explanation for why David didn’t get to build the Temple (1 Chronicles 21).

The men sent to spy out the land (Numbers 13) are drawn from the twelve tribes. That could have been otherwise. All but two of them are punished for their negative report of the land. It’s easy to reconstruct from which tribes these two came. But the Torah shows absolute indifference to the tribal affiliations of Caleb and Joshua.

The daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27) challenge God’s intention to maintain for all time the original tribal land allocations. God is persuaded by their claim that daughter should be able to inherit the land of fathers who had no sons, and he revises the law accordingly. The law requires further revision at the very end of the book of Numbers. If women inherited land, it would pass to their husbands. Intermarriage between tribes could thus destabilize the original land allocations. According to God’s second revision of the laws of inheritance, again prompted by human intervention, women who inherit land can marry, but only within their father’s tribe.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad (Numbers 32) ask to settle outside the borders of the Promised Land because the land is better suited to their occupation, cattle-breeding. Moses initially refuses, lest these tribes become role models for others seeking to avoid military service. Reuben and Gad strike a deal that seals the fate of their descendants.

The daughters of Zelophehad and the tribes of Reuben and Gad exemplify what’s wrong with tribes – they are inherently inflexible and create conflicts of interest that can be addressed case by case but never fully resolved.

The disadvantages of being a member of a tribe boil down to the drawbacks of belonging to a family. The Torah spares us nothing when it comes to those.

In stereo-typically tribal behavior, two of Jacob’s sons (Genesis 34) take violent revenge on all the men of Shechem because one of them raped their sister Dinah, or, as seems to me more likely, because Dinah ran away with one of them. Back to Westside Story.

Jealous of their younger brother’s elevated status in the family, Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him and end up selling him — ultimately into slavery (Genesis 37). More stereotypical tribal behavior.

It was predictable and even desirable that the patriarchal families morphed into tribes. During their years in Egypt and the desert, the tribal infrastructure was a valuable source of protection and support.

In a land of their own, however, the tribes would have interfered with and undermined more developed and sophisticated systems of governance and authority. This may explain why the priesthood had no tribal affiliations (Cohen is an inherited office, not a tribe), and nor did the legal system (Moses is a son of Levi, the de-tribalized tribe, but that’s almost never mentioned).

There’s likewise little emphasis on the tribes from which the kings of Israel emerged (other than with reference to David, but that concerns the Messiah), and the prophets are hardly ever linked to tribes. Once these institutions – created for the benefit of all Israel – were in place, there was no room for tribalism. Slowly but surely, the tribes were reduced to the symbols they have remained to this day.

It’s deeply disturbing, then, to see tribalism rearing its head – or should I say heads? – in the modern state of Israel. The Prime-Minister’s office presents an increasingly tribal face, with undue prominence given to family members (notably Sara), and competitors for the top job being brushed aside like over-ambitious sons. The failure to cultivate leaders and charges of corruption, another tribal characteristic, is why Likud is in its current state of emergency.

But the ugliest head of tribalism concerns the political scene in general. Desperate politicians seek to magnify and reinforce what already exists in the electorate as an unhealthy and self-destructive instinct: the identification of political parties as tribes, and, worse still, the tribes of Right and Left.

Forget these tribes. You don’t need them. Look around at the countries and cultures not so far from us where real tribes hold sway. You’ll see violence, corruption, the impossibility of progress, the inability to make change, ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and an extremely bleak outlook for women.

The Bible rendered our tribes symbolic so that this wouldn’t happen to us. Don’t let tribalism slip in through the back door. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by affiliations and loyalties that have failed to adapt to new circumstances. And don’t let others deceive you into thinking that your vote is pre-determined by membership of a tribe. There are no more tribes in Israel, or, better perhaps, the tribes of Israel have been reconfigured to reflect the unity of the father – Jacob/Israel – not the divisiveness of his sons.

Shabbat Shalom, Israeli voters!

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About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. My next book will be on the Bible and the climate crisis.
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