It is not easy for the Jewish people to see themselves as one. They label each other heretics and fanatics, and deem each other guilty of undermining the welfare, identity, and religious underpinnings of the Jewish people as a whole.
Some have noted that unfortunately it often takes persecution to bring Jewish unity. Hitler for instance considered all Jews, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish, as part of the Jewish people. The Jew who lived a fully assimilated life in 1940’s Germany, the Jew who converted to Christianity, and the Jew who did not look Jewish and perhaps did not even know they were, were all equally Jewish in qualifying for extermination.
In several weeks Jewish people all over the world will celebrate the Biblical holiday of Shavuot. Though as described in the Bible this holiday is very much about thanking God for the wheat harvest, today a different aspect of the holiday, its commemoration of the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the whole Jewish people, is more central.
The Midrash, Judaism’s most ancient commentary on the Bible, writes that the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai together, “As one person with one heart.” Perhaps this upcoming holiday of Shavuot can be the day when we put aside our differences, and reclaim that Sinaitic sense of being “One person with one heart.”
Each time I study what someone else in Judaism believes and hear how they see the world, even though their ideas are different from my strongly held religious beliefs, I am pleasantly surprised. I may still think that their views are incorrect, but what I see, with fresh eyes, is their good intentions and their integrity. Each time it becomes clear that they see what they are doing as best for their community, for the Jewish people, and for the world. Jewish people and groups whom I thought were damaging the Jewish people, I found were actually engaging in what they saw as correct religious life and values, caring much more about the Jewish people than I could have imagined.
For instance, the liberal rabbi whom I thought was out to undermine Jewish tradition and herald assimilation turned out to be someone of deep faith and integrity, trying to the best of their ability and with good intentions, to engage the Jewish people in religious life and values, caring much more about Jewish tradition than I had imagined. Or the fundamentalist rabbi that I thought was out to separate the Jewish people entirely from other Jews and from the outside world, whom I imagined was trying to compromise much of the light that Jews are commanded to bring to the nations, turned out to be a loving, caring, understanding human being who was much more open minded than I had imagined.
The great miracle of learning about the other, of seeing through another’s eyes if even for a moment, is not only appreciation of their integrity, not only a greater sense of unity with them, but taking something productive away, learning something I did not know before that could relate to and deepen my own beliefs, no matter how different from theirs.
The common denominator of all the Jewish groups is their claim to the Torah. In the spirit of this unity, Jewish people from all denominations will come together to study Torah all night long this Shavuot, Tuesday June 7th, at 11pm at Bais Abraham Congregation. The event is sponsored by the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation, the Conservative Sharee Tzedek Synagogue, the Reform Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and many others. For more information call Rabbi Hyim Shafner 314-721-3030 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.