On Jewish Unity and Diversity. Thoughts on Parasha Bamidbar

On Jewish Unity and Diversity

Thoughts on Parasha Bamidbar

Menachem Mirski

This week’s Torah portion contains a number of laws and regulations regarding the responsibilities of the representatives of each tribe of Israel in the Tent of Meeting. These regulations are only a part of the whole Code of Law which was supposed to ensure the harmonious co-existence of the tribes of Israel in Biblical times. The theme of harmony and conflict between the tribes of Israel runs through essentially the entire Hebrew Bible and it was very significant from the very beginning.

Of course it bears great importance today as well. Are we, modern Jews, a coherent and well-functioning society on a global scale? I won’t provide an answer to this question, since in essence any answer would be risky, for reasons I will discuss below.

First of all, we are greatly dispersed across the world and we are immeasurably more diverse than our biblical ancestors. This has a substantial impact on the diversity of our life-experiences, since we live within the structures of various societies which differ from one another. Our life, both in its Jewish as well as universal dimension differs depending on the place we live in; it is different in Poland, different in Sweden, different in Ukraine, in Russia, in the USA, in Israel etc., which also leads to differences in our mentality, our cultural identity, our moral and political convictions etc. Polish Jews are now substantially culturally different from German or Swedish Jews, and this is certainly true to a much greater extent when it comes to for example American Jews. We simply become imbued with the culture and mentality which surrounds us. In addition, there is also race-related diversity, although this also depends on the region of the world we live in. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, native Americans, Sephardim and Mizrahim – namely all the non-Ashkenazim – comprise nearly 20% of American Jews. Because of all this our definitions of being Jewish also vary in different parts of the world. Even if they seem to stem from the same, rabbinical root, in practice they are slightly different in Israel, Poland, Western Europe and the US.

The above mentioned global diversity with regards to our lives and experiences may not be especially visible in our everyday life, due to which our perception of other Jews is distorted – we look at them through the lenses of our own experiences and our own worldview, and we are also influenced by the illusion that there is cultural unity among all Jews. As a result of this we often judge inadequately the actions of our brethren who live on the other side of the world, in a different cultural, political or economic reality. Our modern globalized and digitalized world often makes us believe in the illusion that in essence we know everything or at least that knowledge about everything is within our reach. As a result of this we easily extrapolate our own experiences and we draw all possible kinds of analogies. The greatest illusion of all is probably the belief that the so called Western culture or civilization is in fact a unity or one cultural monolith. Even though as a whole it was built on the same foundation (Judeo-Christian values and Enlightenment values), this view is hard to uphold, since quite a lot of local diversity can be found within this civilization as well. The apparent similarities should not obscure the differences, especially the crucial differences. For example let’s take multiculturalism – this concept seems to mean the same everywhere; but its practical implementation and implications are different in California, in Western Europe or in Israel, so in practical terms this is not the same multiculturalism. We must be intellectually flexible in order to notice the differences, instead of being lazy, since it is intellectual laziness that is, unfortunately, the main reason for ignoring differences and focusing on superficial similarities, inappropriate analogies or overgeneralizations. So for example we should not automatically assume that the political solutions which we’ve implemented in one part of the world and which have proved effective in our situation will also be effective in another part of the world, in a different culture.

Therefore political solutions as well as remedies to challenges and problems such as for example anti-Semitism will vary in different parts of the world. That is why I would suggest caution in formulating definitive diagnoses, and especially in judging the convictions, decisions and actions of our brethren living in other parts of the world than we do. In a situation when we actually don’t know much about their every-day life and experiences it’s better to assume that they are completely aware of the reality which surrounds them and that they know what they are doing.

One of the challenges which all Jews face today is – especially in the Western world – the growing lack of recognition of the state of Israel as an integral part of Jewish life and Jewish identity. After 2000 years of a continuous spiritual connection with our ancestral homeland we are witnessing in our societies an increasingly widespread disappointment in this idea or permanent conflicts and antagonisms concerning this notion. As a result of this Diaspora Jews are more and more often distancing themselves from recognizing their ties with Israel, ties which are indispensable and in fact bear great significance.

Some of the reasons behind this state of affairs are – besides the tendencies I discussed above – our widespread quite schematic knowledge of history as well as – what often goes hand in hand with it – a proneness to form very simplified, one-dimensional, binary media narratives about the current political situation in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In spite of the global rise in anti-Semitism, the negative rhetoric surrounding Israel and also some other difficult issues we are struggling with in this context, Israel remains an eternal and integral part of Jewish life and of our identity. As it was adequately expressed by Elana Yael Heideman, PhD:

We don’t all have to have the same background, political leanings or opinions. Yet we are all part of the story of Am Yisrael. No geographical or political divide can diminish the significance of that.

This is true whether or not we actively embrace this. The magical thing is that, when we do fully embrace this, we become stronger – as individuals and as a community.

Whether we like it or not, we must recognize the state of Israel as an important, if not fundamental, element of our Jewish life, since our fate as a Diaspora community also depends on its physical existence. If an independent and sovereign state of Israel had existed before World War II, then either there would have been no Holocaust at all or a significantly lower number of victims would have perished in it.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we have to speak unanimously (this would in fact be unimaginable, considering our tradition) or be uncritical when it comes to ideological or political matters. I personally believe in the enormous unifying power of our history; this is not an unsubstantiated belief, as from time to time I have a chance to observe how that unifying power works in practice. In my opinion it counteracts various radicalisms and all kinds of decentralist tendencies. Our stories and the narratives of our religion are not only a source of our identity – but also of our unity. By loving our tradition we learn to love other Jews. At the basis of our internal diversity and multiculturalism there is something which unifies us – namely our common history – thanks to which despite our many differences we remain a unity. Our internal multiculturalism can be – and perhaps even should be – a model for other multiculturalisms across the world. Since in order for multiculturalism to persist over time it must have at least one modest, but at the same time fundamental narrative which everyone can understand, which unifies people of different cultures and which expresses the general structure of our common human values.


Shabbat Shalom.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Menachem Mirski

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