What do all Jews owe each other?

Not that one.

Not that one.

Not that one.

Not that one.

This one. This is the group that we support.

It was this July, and my cousin Eldad had just walked me past a dozen different organizations opposing Prime Minister Netanyahu and his efforts to curb the power of the Israeli judiciary. After finally finding the one with which he agreed, we got some swag, donated some money, and got on our way to join 150,000 people for a protest in the heart of Tel Aviv.

We chanted, yelled, danced, and sang Israel’s national anthem. But it was unmistakable that we were not a coherent whole, so much as a mixed multitude.

As another cousin reflected to me that evening, Israel had once again become a country in which even the Jews were divided into 12 tribes across three spiritual boundaries:

  • Ashkenazi and Mizrahi
  • Secular, Traditional, and Ultra-Orthodox
  • Wealthy and disadvantaged

This suggests that the protests, counterprotests, and even the democratic upheaval in Israel may be symptoms of division more than underlying causes. It feels like the State of Israel and the Jewish People are wrestling with fundamental questions about what we have in common and our obligations to one another. Even to those with whom we disagree.

The Torah provides guidance on how we might navigate these differences in Numbers, chapter 32.

After almost 40 years wandering in the desert, the Israelites nearly have reached the Promised Land. They are preparing to conquer it when the tribes of Gad and Reuben announce to Moses and his fellow leaders that they no longer wish to settle in it at all.

Instead, they hope to remain in the fertile land on the far side of the Jordan, sustaining themselves as cattle herders rather than farmers tilling and sewing the Promised Land.

God is incensed, viewing the request of Reuben and Gad as an act of defiance. But in time, Moses helps God soften in stance and articulate three principles of common cause that all Israelites must maintain, even across geographic and ideological divides.

First, open communication and critique. Moses shares openly of his upset that the leaders of Gad and Reuben seem more interested in financial opportunity than in realizing the dream that they have shared with the other tribes since before the Exodus. His chastisements are not, however, intended to sever ties so much as to clear the air and enable them to find a way forward despite their real differences.

Second, Moses requires the tribes of Gad and Reuben help conquer the Promised Land, even if they return to tend their flocks outside of its borders. They must share equally in the burden of military service, even if they reside elsewhere.

Third, the tribes of Gad and Reuben affirm a common cause and loyalty to God while forming the first Diaspora of our people. They do not worship other deities or take on practices that run counter to the core beliefs and values of the other Israelites.

Gad and Reuven affirm in Numbers 32, verse 31:

The Gadites and the Reubenites said in reply, ‘Whatever God has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do.’

The lessons from this passage abound for our own time. First, for how long have we, as American Jews and Israelis, repressed their misgivings about each other for the sake of presenting a united front? Open dialogue is overdue between homeland and diaspora – much as it is within Israel itself and across streams of American Judaism. The absence of difficult conversations has proven more harmful than even the tensest interchanges might be. Our promise to each other must be dialogue.

Second, no matter how critical some are of the current Israeli administration, we must not lose sight of the real and significant threats that Israel faces in an ongoing, existential way.

American Jews should openly express views about how the American government can best curb Iran’s direct and proxy threats against Israel while supporting the positive diplomatic efforts underway between Israel and Saudi Arabia. We do not need to agree on the specifics of these and other positions but cannot sit on the sidelines when Israel’s well-being is at stake. Our promise to each other must be protection.

Relatedly, note how all the ancient tribes of Israel were required to perform military service. I am not suggesting that American Jews sign up for service in a foreign army, but rather that American Jews support universal military or national service among Israelis. Our promise to each other must be equal service, however it is customary to serve in each population center.

Finally, we need to resurface and rearticulate that which does bind us together in higher purpose. It might not be a shared notion of God. It might not be the commemoration of historical tragedies. It might not be shared values. But perhaps it can be the open-ended rabbinic conversations that have continued for over two millennia.

What it means to be Jewish today cannot be delimited by simple doctrine. It is more akin to participation in the conversation, wrestling with ancient teachings and modern contexts, and learning from masterful teachers who passed away centuries ago but whose words live on in us.

In leaving unresolved our greatest conversations, we have created space to renew our dialogues about Jewish higher purpose today.

The tension between Israel’s tribes is real, present, and painful. It calls for our response. But it also lays bare the fact that we face an underlying need to explain what it means to be Jewish and why we remain steadfastly loyal to our tradition and our kin, even in Diaspora.

American Jews are of the modern-day tribes of Reuben and Gad. We are proof that not even the Promised Land can answer all the needs of all the people. But we also embody the hope that from literal and metaphorical places of difference, we can renew the dialogue that binds us together.

May we deepen our sense of common cause in this New Year.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon.

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