September 26, 2009
by NATAN SHARANKSY
For centuries, Jews have begun the Yom Kippur prayers with a curious declaration. Just before Kol Nidrei, the cantor stops and says something strange. He declares that, by the authority of the Heavenly and the Earthly courts, it is permissible to pray with wrongdoers.
What is the meaning of this? Why say it at the onset of the High Holiday prayers? I must say, for me, this has always been the most emotionally arresting moment of the Days of Awe. Coming from the Soviet Union, representatives of the State would always seek to weed out the undesirables; to arrest ideological unwanteds and do away with them. It strikes me as a point of pride that we don't do that. We proudly declare - on Judgment Day, no less - that we stand hand in hand with wrongdoers. We won't give them up. We won't disavow them. They are part of us, and that's just the way it is.
Think of what we are saying to God when we make this declaration. We are essentially telling Him that this is who we are - take it or leave it. And, I think, we are saying something more. We are saying that our willingness to pray hand in hand with those we consider wrong is not a liability; it is an asset. It is, on some fundamental level, what gives us a right to stand before God as a community. A community is not homogeneous; it consists of many parts, each of which provides something vital to the whole.
THE NOTION that we are enriched by the presence and inclusion of those we might intuitively shun, that our ability to stand before the King comes from our willingness not to disavow those we disagree with or disapprove of, is something I find personally inspiring. I think this is the essence of what we're talking about when we say we are "one people."
Being "one people" makes for a good slogan, but it is up to us to make it more than that. Israel today is caught between Arab terror on the one hand, and the pressure of living as a Jewish state in a "post-identity" world on the other. These are not easy threats to confront - but if we are to face them squarely, we must do it together. That doesn't mean we all have to agree on policy. We can disagree, and we will. But when we do disagree, we can't insinuate that our opponent is "outside the camp" of self-respecting Jews. We need to remember: We are supposed to confront God - and the world - hand in hand with those we think are wrong.
If this is true for individual Jews, it is all the more true for Jewish communities. There are two great Jewish communities on the face of this earth - Israeli Jewry and Diaspora Jewry. A bridge connects us - and however convenient it might seem to occasionally turn our back on this bridge, we must not do so. Each community must engage the other - and understand that our own, continued existence is bound up in the continued ability of the other community to flourish alongside us.
For Jews living in the Diaspora, this means recognizing that San Francisco, San Paulo and San Diego are not self-sufficient Jewish oases; they orbit around a center, and that center is Israel. The more they recognize this, the more they are themselves enriched. It is no accident that, according to a recent study, Birthright participants - youth who've spent ten days in Israel on an intensive trip with peers - are at least as likely to remain Jews as those who've had years and years of Hebrew school education, but no contact with Israel. To encounter our national homeland is to encounter the Jewish People, writ large. The land is a wellspring of Jewish identity; our shared history seeps from its every rock. It is a land that is truly "home" for all of us - not only for those living here, but for those living abroad as well.
For Israeli Jews, the existence of this bridge means living with a kind of humility, with an understanding that we can learn from Diaspora Jews. Israelis, who chatter in Hebrew without even thinking about it and soak up symbols of Jewish culture from sources as ubiquitous as billboards and television advertising, can learn from those who choose to remain Jewish when that is not the default choice, when that choice means swimming against the cultural tide.
For Israelis, living with the bridge also means understanding that, no matter how stupendously aliya might succeed in the future, Jews will inevitably live in the Diaspora. It means realizing that Jews who live abroad are not inherently less committed to Jewish life for doing so, and that the continued vibrancy of Diaspora Jewish life must be a priority for us all, Israeli and "hutznik" alike.
More than anything else, the two communities need to look with pride upon each other. They need to admire each other, even when they disagree; indeed, even when they consider the other to have done wrong. We need to be able to point to our brothers on the other side of the aisle, or on the other side of the ocean, and say: "Whatever their politics, whatever their beliefs, whatever their religiosity - they are a part of me, too, and I would be less without them." When we can say that and really mean it, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry will have achieved something remarkable. For many Yom Kippurs to come, we will be able to stand before God and say, "This is who we are. We are one. We do not shirk from facing each other - and therefore, we have the strength, pride and self assurance to face You as well." •
The writer is chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. This is the first in a series of three articles on Israel and Diaspora Jewry.