Friday, January 27, 2023

Judaism's Dual Mission


The Angel of Death and the First Passover, 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster

In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued a major statement on the Catholic Church's attitude toward Jews and Judaism. The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (otherwise known as Nostra Aetate, or Our Time) condemned antisemitism, and renounced previously held views that Jews had been responsible for Jesus’ death and rejected by God. This change by the church was revolutionary; and many Jews, who before would have been reluctant to do so, were now willing to engage with their Catholic counterparts. At the time there was an outburst of interreligious dialogue, and not just with Catholics; Jews and Christians were spending more time together than ever before. The well-worn genre of jokes about “a rabbi, a minister, and a priest walked into a bar” dates back to this time, as new friendships developed across religious lines.

Within Orthodox Judaism, the response was different. In March 1967, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote his cousin, Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik, about interreligious dialogue, and outlined his concerns:


Regarding some of the young rabbis, who are trapped in the snare of the Head of the Priests in the Vatican (Pope), which is called the Ecumenical Council, whose intent is to cause all the Jews to convert to their faith, God forbid. The cardinals and the bishops have been ordered by him (the Pope) to establish connections between priests and rabbis through committees in every locale, and also conventions. This act of Satan has succeeded, as a number of rabbis have engaged in such associations on the basis of a horaat heter (a permissive ruling), that, although they may not speak on matters of faith, they may speak regarding social issues. Yet, aside from the fact that nearly every issue becomes one of religion, and the priests will have a different view … it is obvious that any association with them, even on quotidian matters, is a prohibited act, at all times and every instance...

Rabbi Soloveitchik never responded, because he was the one who had granted the permission for interreligious dialogue in the first place.

The specter of interreligious dialogue was actually quite troubling for Rabbi Soloveitchik as well; like Rabbi Feinstein, he had good reason to doubt the sincerity of the Vatican Council. They both had firsthand experience, in Europe, of Christian antisemitism. And they were well aware that inside the Vatican Council, there was serious pushback against issuing Nostra Aetete, and leading priests had offered explicitly antisemitic criticisms of it.

In the early 1960s, Rabbi Soloveitchik had condemned Jewish involvement in the Second Vatican Council; he pointed out that Cardinal Bea, who was in charge of drafting this statement, had said in an interview that he couldn't understand why the Jewish community wouldn’t accept Jesus. Soloveitchik felt that for rabbis to lobby the church for changes “with crooked knee and hat in hand” was an affront to Jews; it was the Catholics who needed to reach out and apologize first.

Yet at the same time, Rabbi Soloveitchik was developing a larger philosophical response to interfaith dialogue, which he outlined in an essay entitled "Confrontation." In it, he relates the theology of interreligious dialogue to a far more profound question: What is a Jew's place in the world? Are Jews meant to be a light unto the nations, and deeply enmeshed in the larger society, or are Jews meant to be a nation that dwells alone, pursuing a unique destiny on their own terms?

This question is directly addressed by this week’s Torah reading. The first Passover Seder in Egypt, which is found in Parshat Bo, is seen by the Talmud as an act of conversion, the point when the Hebrews in Egypt become Jews (Yevamot 46a). It follows then that the Seder rituals carry a foundational message about Jewish identity. But what is that message? The two primary rituals of the Seder have dramatically different meanings, one that emphasizes universalism, the other particularism.

Matzah commemorates how the slaves, rushing out to escape Pharaoh's rule, did not have time to let their dough rise before baking. The Seder is meant to be a classroom of freedom, and Matzah offers a vision of a future free from tyranny.

The lessons of freedom are meant to be put into practice, and not just for other Jews. The rights of strangers are to be protected so that no new Pharaoh can enslave them; one must “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) Shabbat, the day of rest, also commemorates the Exodus; therefore, every person, even foreign-born servants, are freed from service and work. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the God of freedom asks nothing less of his covenantal people than that they shape a social order of universal freedom, in which the basic requirements of human dignity are available to all.

This quest has transformed the world. Michael Walzer, in his book Exodus and Revolution, points out that virtually every freedom movement has drawn its inspiration from the Exodus story. Revolutionaries such as Cromwell, Savonarola, Calvin, and Knox constantly preached about the Exodus; and the American Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, liberation theologians, and a German peasants revolt, among others, all found their inspiration in the Book of Exodus. The search for freedom begins at the Seder, and the matzah carries a lesson for all of humanity.

The Passover sacrifice, or Korban Pesach, offers a very different message, one of separation. In Egypt, the Jews put the blood of the Korban Pesach on their doors, to receive God’s protection during the plague of the firstborn. Jewish homes were passed over; Egyptian homes were not.

It should be added that the plague of the firstborn symbolically represents the fact that Jews are a chosen people. When Moses is sent to Pharaoh, God informs him that ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son….But you refused to let Israel go, so I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23) The Korban Pesach is directly tied to the notion that the Jewish people are chosen by God.

Particularism becomes part of the laws of the Korban Pesach. "No foreigner may eat of it." (12:43) This sacrifice is a celebration of the covenant between the Jews and God, and only Jews may partake of it.

Although they could not be more different, Matzah and the Korban Pesach sit side by side at the Seder.

One could see this as confusing. But that is the very lesson of the Seder: being universalistic or particularistic is not an either-or proposition. Even if it is paradoxical, Jews must carry both responsibilities.

In Confrontation, Rabbi Soloveitchik offered a similar approach to interreligious dialogue, and explained: We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task: we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam….and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions...In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission - the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation.

In other words: Jews must both embrace their own unique destiny and love all of humanity at the same time.

In a letter written in late 1964, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains how the philosophy of double confrontation shapes his vision of interreligious dialogue. The unique covenant of the Jews means that dialogue can never extend to religious discussions such as “...Judaic Monotheism and the Christian idea of Trinity,... or the Messianic idea in Judaism and Christianity..” Dialogue on these topics would betray a lack of loyalty to one’s own mission. On the other hand, Jews must embrace their responsibility to all mankind, and engage in “dialogue on significant topics such as war and peace, poverty, freedom, man's moral values, the threat of secularism, technology and human values, civil rights, etc.” Being charged with a double mission demands a unique perspective. 

Undoubtedly, this dual mission is profoundly challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that most Jews have chosen one mission or the other; there are Jewish universalists and Jewish particularists, but few chose to take on both responsibilities. But when properly fulfilled, the double mission is a matter of beauty.

On April 14th, 2000, the New York Times wrote a moving article about an international bone marrow donation. Rabbi Ronald Barry had gotten tested in 1991 to be a bone marrow donor. A few months later, a match came up for him. There is a small risk to one’s life, 1 in 20,000, associated with giving bone marrow. It is a small risk, but it is a risk nonetheless, yet Rabbi Barry decided to be a donor. As his wife Miriam explained: How many people get the opportunity to say, 'I saved a life'? What a thing to take up with you at the end of days!

The recipient turned out to be a 9-year-old boy named Nicola Trevisan, from the village of Tonco in the Asti region of Italy. The families began to correspond, and then in 2000, the Barrys went to visit Italy for a day to meet Nicola’s family.


The Barrys were received like royalty, and taken on a grand tour, including to a nearby synagogue that had been built in 1599. In the guestbook, Nicola’s father wrote: This is the reunion of the Barry family of Brooklyn and the Trevisans of Tonco...


But then there was the matter of religious observance. The Trevisans, who had never met Jews before, took a crash course in Judaism. They brought kosher food in from Milan, and bought new pots, pans, and an oven so the Barrys could cook. The careful preparations even extended to their greetings. The New York Times wrote: Mrs. Trevisan embraced the rabbi's wife, but, having learned that some Orthodox Jewish men will not shake a woman's hand, held back from offering the rabbi hers. Instead, the boy's mother asked Mrs. Barry to hug the rabbi for her.


And that night, at the Tonco city hall, the entire village came out to welcome and thank the Barrys. ''We do what we can,'' the rabbi told his new friends, in a country no longer so foreign to him. ''But the outcome is a blessing from God.''


This was a moment when the universal and particular stood side by side, and the double mission of the Jewish people was on full display. And, if I might add, it was a moment that had been anticipated long before, at the first Seder in Egypt.

The Righteous Among the Nations, Then & Now


Bartolomeo Biscaino, The finding of Moses who is rescued from the Nile by

the maidservants of Pharaoh's daughter, 1650–57 

On August 15, 1942, a 12-year-old boy named Shmulik slipped out of the Bobov ghetto in search of a place to hide. The day before, all of the inhabitants of the ghetto had been taken into the woods and shot. Shmulik, who was still wearing his pajamas, managed to survive by hiding in a crawl space between the roof and the attic.

As he wandered out of the ghetto, he found his way to the home of Polish peasant woman, Balwina Piecuch, who had treated his family kindly in the past. When he arrived at her doorstep, Balwina immediately took Shmulik in, locked the door, and hid him in the attic. After a few days, Balwina decided that Shmulik needed to be moved; too many people in the area knew who he was. So, she gave him a new name, Josek Polewski, and taught him how to pass as a Polish peasant child looking for work. He found a job on a farm in another town, and moved there; all the while Balwina sent her son StanisÅ‚aw to check on him and bring him supplies, under the guise that they were “brothers.” The rest of Shmulik’s family perished in the Holocaust; but because of Balwina he survived.

What motivates people like Balwina and Stanislaw to risk their lives to rescue others? Certainly, it is not education or choice of profession; more than half of all German physicians enrolled in the Nazi party, surpassing all other professions. Here was a simple peasant woman and her son endangering themselves in order to save a Jew, while so many of their intellectual superiors were among the persecutors.

Years later Shmulik would search for an answer to this question. After emigrating to the United States, Samuel P. Oliner became a professor of Sociology, and the lead author of a groundbreaking study entitled "The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe." Oliner conducted extensive interviews with 406 rescuers and identified three primary types of motivations that the rescuers had: empathy, strong ethical principles, and loyalty to a group that was committed to rescue. Oliner found that rescuers’ upbringing often had a profound impact on them. Parental values played a significant role; the parents of rescuers educated their children through reasoning instead of physical punishment, and they emphasized independence and empathy for others.

The story of these exceptional rescuers is now considered to be an essential chapter in Holocaust history. The founding charter of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Center, tasked the new institution with commemorating those "high-minded Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews" as one of nine founding principles. These rescuers were awarded by Yad Vashem the title “righteous among the nations,” a term borrowed from rabbinic literature. Since 1963, nearly 28,000 non-Jews have been recognized by Yad Vashem as such. Balwina and Stanislaw are two of those honored.

At first glance, the decision to include the “righteous among the nations'' as a central component of Yad Vashem seems strange; while their heroism was extraordinary, it affected a very small percentage of European Jews. But the decision to do so has substantial precedent in the Tanakh, at the very beginning of this parsha.

Right at the beginning of the enslavement, two narratives are told about prominent Egyptians who refuse to participate in Pharaoh’s decrees. First, there are the midwives Shifrah and Puah (hameyaldot haivriot) who are tasked with quietly killing all the male children; but they resist and refuse Pharaoh’s orders.

It is unclear from the text if the words meyaldot haivriyot is meant to be interpreted as “midwives who are Hebrews” or “midwives to the Hebrews.” The grammar of this point is debated by the Rashbam and Bechor Shor. While Rashi and several other commentaries say that Shifra and Puah were Jewish midwives, the simple reading of the text would indicate otherwise. As Abrarabanel points out, it would seem very improbable that Pharaoh expected Jewish midwives to kill their own kin.

Pharaoh’s daughter was the most significant resister. Bathing at the side of the river, she sees a basket with a little boy, whom she correctly identifies as a Jew. Yet Pharaoh’s daughter decides to raise the boy as her own, even hiring the baby’s mother to be the wet nurse.

This was a dramatic act of defiance. As the Talmud in Sotah (12b) says, her servants were shocked that she would even entertain adopting a Jewish child. They turned to her and said: “Our mistress, the custom of the world is that when a king of flesh and blood decrees a decree, even if all the world does not fulfill it, at least his children and members of his household fulfill it; and yet now you are violating the decree of your father!”

Much like the rescuers during the Holocaust, the heroic Egyptian women in our parsha have varying motives; the midwives are deeply principled, God-fearing women, who refuse to commit murder. Pharaoh’s daughter sees the weeping baby, and “she had compassion on him.”

What exactly motivated her is unclear; some, like Malbim and Seforno, say that she detected that the baby had unique qualities, and for this reason chose to save him. But the obvious interpretation is this: her heart broke when seeing this unfortunate child, crying and alone. Empathy leads the daughter of Pharaoh on a heroic path.

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the daughter of Pharaoh. Because of her, the redeemer of Israel lives; and Moses’ very name, “because I drew him out of the water,” places her legacy at the very center of the redemption from Egypt.

Including the vignettes of the heroic Egyptian women at the very beginning of Sefer Shemot sends a powerful message: this is a moral battle between those who enslave and those who come to save. Yes, the exodus represents national redemption, and the beginnings of the Jewish people; but it at the same is the earliest call for freedom and a universal redemption. And the rescuers, both in Biblical and contemporary times, answer this divine call for goodness and freedom.

Unfortunately, too few hear the call. Elie Wiesel points out that the deeds of the righteous among the nations remind us that such heroism is possible. Unfortunately, as he points out, that leaves all of humanity with a troubling question: “Why were there so few of these exemplary and valorous people?”

Until we answer this question, the world will remain unredeemed.

Friday, January 06, 2023

The Purpose of Pessimism, The Practice of Optimism


Jacob Blesses His Sons; illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by

Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others

Complacency has a habit of making intelligent people look like fools. In 1909, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which, (to quote John Keegan) "had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end." Five years later, the bloodiest war in world history (until that point) would take place. Yet even the World War was not enough to bring Angell's thesis into question; in 1933, he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this book, the only one ever presented to an author. Hope often triumphs over experience.


Angell was a firm believer in progress. But others are far more skeptical of utopian narratives because life is too unpredictable and human nature too erratic to expect unending progress.


Right now, sunny optimism seems out of touch. The last decade has ushered in extreme political polarization, a new Cold War, a ground war in Europe, and a pandemic; pessimism is beginning to make a lot more sense. In September 2021, Niall Ferguson challenged Steven Pinker to a wager. Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, had written The Better Angels of our Nature, which argued that humanity has become progressively less violent. Ferguson, a historian, rejected this thesis, and bet Pinker that "by the end of this decade, Dec. 31, 2029, a conventional or nuclear war will claim at least a million lives." Tragically, Ferguson’s wager doesn't seem all that ridiculous anymore.


Jews sit uncomfortably at the crossroads of progress and pessimism. Judaism emphasizes hope and the possibility of a better future. It requires one to seek repentance and self-improvement, and believes in the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption of humanity. The continued existence of the Jewish people itself is the product of optimism; as the Talmud points out, having a Jewish baby during periods of persecution was a supreme act of hope.


While optimism is wonderful in theory, Jewish history has repeatedly taught the lesson of pessimism. In the years before the Holocaust, too many Jews took comfort in the status quo and thought they could simply wait Hitler out. A major Jewish charity event took place at Berlin's Cafe Leon on January 30, 1933, the day when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Among all the representatives of Jewish organizations that spoke at the event, only the Zionist Rabbi Hans Tramer spoke about Hitler. Saul Friedlander, in Nazi Germany and the Jews, quotes a newspaper report that Tramer’s "speech made no impression. The entire audience considered it panic-mongering."


The Jewish leaders at Cafe Leon were blinded by their own optimism, and couldn’t see the danger right in front of them. In her book on Jewish humor, Ruth Wisse relates the following quote: "We used to say that there were two kinds of German Jews: the pessimists who went to Palestine, and the optimists who went to Auschwitz." There are times when pessimism is important.


Balancing pessimism with hope is the theme of Parshat Vayechi. On the surface, the end of Genesis is upbeat; Jacob’s family is growing by leaps and bounds, becoming wealthier and entrenched, and Joseph is the Viceroy of Egypt. If one could stop right here, the story of the Jews in Egypt would conclude as one of comfort and contentment.


When Jacob passes away, he is mourned for 70 days by all of Egypt, and given a hero's funeral. The Torah describes at length the scene at Jacob’s burial in order to emphasize the elevated status of the emerging Jewish community. A large leadership delegation, including a military guard, accompanies Jacob's casket from Egypt into Canaan (which was presumably an Egyptian vassal state at the time). Then, "they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, and they mourned there with a great and very solemn lamentation….and when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, 'This is a deep mourning of the Egyptians.' Therefore its name was called Abel Mizraim…" (Genesis 50:10-13) The Egyptian funeral for the patriarch of the Jewish people is so large and dramatic, a city is named for it. Isn't this the very definition of success?


Yet behind the scenes, there are quiet whispers of skepticism. When Jacob requests to be buried in the family plot in Israel, he adds an additional phrase: “Please do not bury me in Egypt” (47:29.) Jacob rejects Egypt, even as a place of temporary burial. As the Ralbag points out, Jacob is profoundly disturbed by Egyptian society and wants to disassociate himself from it. At the very end of the Torah reading, Joseph hints more directly at the impending doom, and says, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land...” (50:24) Divine intervention will be needed to return the Jews back home.


A thought-provoking Midrash is cited by Rashi at the beginning of the Torah reading. It notes that Vayechi is the only Parshah that begins in the middle of a paragraph. Rashi explains: “Why is this Parsha totally closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed by the misery of the bondage which the Egyptians began to impose upon them. Another reason is because Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the date of the End of Days (i.e., redemption), but this vision was closed from him.” The middle of a paragraph is all closed up, with no window through which to see anything positive; and that is the ambiance of Parshat Vayechi, in which the gloom of exile slowly descends upon Jacob’s family.  


A closer look at the Biblical text uncovers the literary brilliance of this Midrash. The final words of the previous Parsha, Vayigash, are: "And Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired landholdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (47:27) In a sense, this report of prosperity is “edited out” of the Parshat Vayechi, which begins instead with the following verse that introduces Jacob’s impending death. The starting point of Vayechi declares: Here begins the tragedy. With Jacob’s death, the golden age in Egypt will come to an end.


Jacob’s family in Egypt live a split-screen reality, of outward success and inner fragility. It is the sort of situation where a pessimist will find plenty to worry about. Jacob's family has a relationship with Egyptian society that hinges on one man, Joseph; and they are also expanding rapidly, which will test the hospitality of their hosts. Eventually, in a bitter reversal of fortune, these aristocrats will become slaves, and endure exile in their adopted homeland.


So how does one prepare for exile? Jacob chooses an unusual method: He blesses his family. What makes this particularly odd is a fascinating biblical parallel. There are only two times when the tribes of Israel are blessed; once by Jacob before they enter exile, and then again by Moses before they enter the land of Israel.


Moses' blessing seems to be well-timed; blessings belong to new beginnings, to a people about to return to their homeland. Yet in Vayechi, as his family stands on the threshold of a 400-year exile, Jacob blesses them as well. And that is strange.


But Jacob's blessings are intended to extend hope. Yes, he recognizes that exile is about to arrive; but it is precisely during times of despair that one must practice optimism.


Jacob wants to offer a preview of the blessings that the twelve tribes will receive before they enter the land of Israel; he wants to ensure that they never forget where their home is, and never forget that they are blessed.


Parshat Vayechi carries a paradoxical lesson: in times of prosperity, consider pessimism, and in times of despair practice optimism. Pessimism is a necessary corrective to the irrational exuberance of heady times; optimism is a spiritual practice, which sustains the soul when one's blessings have otherwise evaporated.


In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, there is a story entitled "Fine Generations." It relates an anecdote about Bronia Koschitzki, who together with her two sons, aged six and three, were trapped in the Bochnia Ghetto. There was a Hasidic Rebbe in the ghetto to whom people came at all hours to ask for blessings. Bronia came with her two sons for a blessing as well. Initially, the Rebbe gave them a generic blessing “that God will help.” Bronia pressed for something better, and requested that the Rebbe offer her the blessing of “fine generations in the future.” The other people in the room murmured, thinking Bronia was insane; at a time when children were being rounded up and murdered, she was asking for a future of fine generations!


But the Rebbe obliged, and gave her a blessing for a fine future; and Bronia and her children did survive. As she was interviewed for the book, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she noted that “in a time of war, one has to organize everything, even a blessing.”


Jacob does this as well. As exile closes in, he organizes a blessing for his family, a beacon of hope that will carry them through a bitter exile. Pessimism has its purpose; but during the darkest of days, one must insistently practice optimism, and never let go of hope.

The Problem of Other Jews


Judah supplicates Joseph about the cup

(The Phillip Medhurst collection of Bible illustrations)

A rabbinic colleague of mine was introduced to Jimmy Carter at a cocktail party in the early 1980s. Carter spoke with pride about all that he had done while President, on behalf of Soviet Jewry. My friend, who has a bit of chutzpah, turned to Carter and asked him: "And what did you do for the Pentecostalists in the Soviet Union?" Carter was stunned by the question and simply changed the subject.


Carter is an evangelical Christian, and the Soviet Union had imprisoned thousands of evangelical Christians. One would imagine Carter would have taken a particular interest in his fellow evangelicals; instead, because American Jews had mounted a massive campaign on their behalf, Carter put Soviet Jewry at the top of his foreign policy agenda instead.


But the real question isn’t about Carter, and what he did or didn’t do for Soviet Pentecostalists; it’s about the Jews. What is it that motivates one Jew to do so much for their fellow Jews, even though they are total strangers? Why were there massive campaigns in the United States for Jews who lived thousands of miles away?


This attitude is not new; through the centuries of exile, Jews extended caring and benevolence to fellow Jews around the world. In the medieval era, Jewish communities came to the aid of the brethren around the world and undertook significant fundraising campaigns to ransom captives and support refugees. Maimonides explains that this unique bond is based on Jewish self-image. The Jewish community sees itself as a family writ large, as a group of brothers and sisters; therefore, one is obligated to give generously to charity because “if a brother does not show compassion for another brother, then who will have compassion for him?" (Matanot Aniyim 10:2.)


With the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century, solidarity became a nuisance. Jews were granted rights, but still craved acceptance; and in order to do so, they had to prove their patriotism. Too much fervor for foreign Jews led to accusations of disloyalty. French Jewish advocacy for the Ottoman Jews who had been imprisoned in the Damascus blood libel brought a harsh response from critics, who saw this as an act of disloyalty to France. Julie Kalman of Monash University notes that to French critics, “it was a crime simply that French Jews should publicly show sympathy for the accused Jews of Damascus.” (Yes, accusations of dual loyalty against Jews predate the State of Israel.)


In this environment, many Jews were tempted to look inward and let go of their global family. The leader of the German Reform movement, Abraham Geiger, wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Dernburg regarding the Damascus blood libel that (whether) Jews in Prussia may have the chance to become pharmacists or lawyers is much more important to me than the rescue of all the Jews in Asia and Africa … (It should be pointed out that Geiger did advocate on behalf of the Damascus Jews on humanitarian grounds.) When one believes that they must choose between being loyal to their Jewish brothers or to the German fatherland, the worldwide Jewish community can seem like too large a burden to bear.


In many people, this challenge eroded a true sense of Jewish kinship. The early 20th-century German-Jewish novelist Jakob Wassermann wrote about his discomfort with Ostjuden, the Jews from Poland, Hungary, and Russia, whom he saw as peculiar in their dress, language, and names. Wasserman viewed the Ostjuden as foreigners, explaining that if I spoke with a Polish or Galician Jew and tried to understand his way of life and thinking, I could stir myself to feel compassion or sadness, but never a sense of brotherhood. He was entirely strange and, when individual human sympathy was lacking, even repulsive. Wassermann explained that the Ostjuden and German Jews were so different that one could say: Are those not two distinct species, almost two distinct races, or at least two distinct modes of life and thought? Anxiously grasping on to their newfound freedom, some Western European Jews abandoned their brothers and sisters in other countries.


A different problem with Jewish solidarity arose in the Orthodox community. Almost overnight, Orthodox Jews became a minority of the Jewish population in Western Europe. This shocking change left them worried about the future of Judaism. Rav Saadia Gaon, the 10th-century Jewish philosopher had declared our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah; one could argue that those Jews who had left the Torah were leaving behind the Jewish people as well. Some proposed a complete divorce between the Orthodox and Reform communities. The Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, argued that just as the Pharisees had separated themselves completely from the Sadducees, so too should Orthodox Jews completely separate themselves from those in the Reform community; marriage between the two communities should be forbidden. The Chatam Sofer's student, Rabbi Moshe Schick, offered a more disturbing metaphor, saying that in multiple areas, the Reform community should be treated as non-Jews in the eyes of halakhah.


In short, after the enlightenment, religious differences and national loyalties divided Jew from Jew; and for the first time, Jewish solidarity was no longer a given. But what is remarkable is this: despite everything, the vast majority of Jews maintained a profound sense of connection to each other.


The reason why this happened is because Jewish identity comprises both religious and national identities at once. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, explains that two foundational covenants created the Jewish people: the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate was enacted in Egypt, a place of shared suffering and shared redemption. The covenant of destiny was enacted at Mount Sinai when the Jews took upon themselves the mitzvot and joined in a shared spiritual destiny.


The covenant of destiny is the foundation of Jewish religious identity. However, after emancipation, this covenant became a source of division.


But the covenant of fate is shared by every Jew. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that throughout history, Jews have endured the hatred of the world. Every Jew can empathize with the plight of their fellow Jews because they know that they themselves may one day be victims of antisemitism. Shared suffering has created a powerful bond of connection.


In recent years, the Talmudic phrase Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, "all Jews are guarantors for each other," has become a common way of expressing this covenant of fate. On the face of it, it is an unusual choice to express national identity; Rav Soloveitchik points out that Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh is a narrow halakhic concept, meant to explain that each Jew is responsible to ensure the religious observance of other Jews, much like a guarantor ensures that another person’s loan is repaid. So how did this become the slogan of Jewish solidarity?


I believe it is due to a passage in this week’s Torah reading, which very well could be the founding moment of the Jewish nation.


The sons of Jacob are grappling with a terrible crisis. They are desperate for food, which, because there is a famine, is only available in Egypt. The Viceroy of Egypt, (whom they don't know is their brother Joseph,) has demanded that they bring their youngest brother Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob refuses to let go of Benjamin, frightened that he will die, just as his brother Joseph had. After much back and forth, Judah finally convinces his father to entrust Benjamin in his hands by saying: I will be his guarantor.


When they return to Egypt, Benjamin is framed for the crime of theft. As punishment, the Viceroy wants to take Benjamin as his slave. Then Judah approaches. He explains that he given a guarantee to his father that Benjamin would return home; he then requests of the Viceroy: Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers….


This moment changes everything. Judah has come full circle to complete repentance. It was Judah who suggested selling his brother Joseph into slavery in the first place; and now he's the one who is willing to become a slave to protect Joseph's younger brother Benjamin. Joseph, who is deeply touched by this repentance, breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. In the end, a broken family is repaired by a heroic act of solidarity.


Jacob’s family should have fallen apart, collapsed by the cumulative weight of lies, rivalries, and envy. But it doesn’t, because Judah shows us the importance of being our brother’s keepers. And at this moment, the foundation for a nation is set. Judah’s declaration that he will be his brother’s guarantor has inspired generations of Jews to do the same.


One final point must be made. One can imagine that Jewish solidarity is pragmatism, that banding together is necessary for survival; or perhaps it is just based on sentimentalism and nostalgia. But Jewish solidarity is more than that. It represents a glimpse of a profound unity that, one day, will hopefully belong to all of humanity.


Rabbi Sharon Shalom, (an Ethiopian Rabbi and author) related the following story to me. In the late 1970s, Sharon fled with thousands of other members of the Beta Israel community to Sudan. There, they lived in makeshift refugee camps, which were treacherous and dangerous.


Sharon and his fellow refugees were rescued as part of the Mossad’s “Operation Brothers.” The Mossad operated a beach resort called “Arus” as a front, and every few months would enter the refugee camps and smuggle out a group of children. They would slip onto the beach in the middle of the night, where Israeli commandos would take them to a waiting boat, which then sailed to the Sinai.


Sharon remembers how that night, he was picked up by a big Israeli commando, who hugged him tightly as he carried Sharon to the boat; and Sharon remembers how the commando had tears in his eyes.


Sharon was a young boy, and greatly respected those who were big and strong. He couldn't understand why this brave commando would be crying.


Now he understands.


But the story continues. A few years ago, Sharon got a call from a member of the Mossad, who had been the commander of the operation that took Sharon to Israel. The Mossad agent said that his daughter was getting married, and he wanted Sharon to be the rabbi at the wedding.


At the chuppah, everyone had a good cry - the Rabbi, the Mossad commander, and the bride and groom. These were the tears of a big family reunion, a reunion that brought together Jews from around the world.


These tears are Judah’s tears. They reflect a Jewish commitment to stand in solidarity with other Jews, no matter how different and distant. And maybe one day, they will be a model of how the entire world can transcend their own differences.