What Keeps Jews – a Divided People – Together?

The twin sense of belonging and alienation haunts so many of us. And yet we don’t give up.

Carlo Strenger has written a moving article about a striking inner tension. He says that he feels that he and his friends may be becoming “strangers in our own land,” as Israel lurches towards the right politically. While he feels that he belongs to this state and its people, it is the very people he belongs to that make him feel alienated.

I know plenty of Orthodox Jews with left-leaning politics (I am one myself). In so many circles, they feel alienated – both politically, from most of the people who share their religious beliefs, and religiously, from most of the people who share their political beliefs. They repeat the old adage that the people they pray with, they can’t have a conversation with, and the people that they can hold a conversation with, they can’t pray with.

The twin sense of belonging and alienation haunts so many of us.

One must wonder: Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he comes to America, feel a deep affinity to the Jewish people there? I image he does. I think he very much sees himself as the defender of global Jewry: the man ordained by history to save, single-handedly, the entire Jewish people from the catastrophe of a nuclear Iran or “another 20 Gazas in the West Bank,” should the Palestinians be granted statehood. I’m sure he enjoys the adulation he receives at AIPAC. And yet, he must realize that he has far more ideological support in America among the Christian-right than he does among the still resolutely Democrat-leaning Jews. Netanyahu sees the world though Republican, neo-conservative eyes. Most American Jews don’t.

Imagine if Netanyahu had have found himself in some grassroots hipster egalitarian Yom Kippur service in Manhattan this year. I’m sure he would have felt like “a stranger in his own community;” sharing in a deep sense of connected fate and fraternity – even feeling himself to be their leader – whilst feeling completely at odds with the political, cultural and religious compass of those Jews around him.

We are such a divided people. In Israel this comes out most strongly. Some Jews can’t even bare to look at other Jews, or have their children fraternize with other Jews. We elect parties into government that can’t bare one another, and can’t wait for the next opportunity to stab each other in the back. We are religiously, politically, culturally and even ethnically and racially divided as a people. And we have so much to be ashamed of, given high-profile cases of Jewish corruption, infighting, racism and lawlessness – in Israel and beyond. It would be very easy for each of us, each for our own reasons, to give up this embarrassing affiliation to a people that consistently let us down. And yet we don’t give up.

In each region of the Jewish cultural and religious map, we find people who share Strenger’s twin-sense of alienation and belonging, who have ample reason to give up on the rest of the Jewish people; whether it’s the “settlers” feeling they have reason to give up on the “Tel Aviv liberal elite,” or Reform Jews giving up on Orthodox Jews, or vice versa. But, for the most part, we don’t give up on each other. We continue to feel that sense of belonging in spite of the ongoing sense of alienation.

I think that, if only subliminally, this has something to do with Yom Kippur. One of the most striking features of the liturgy of the day is that we confess for our sins in the plural. We don’t just confess for the sins that we have committed individually; we confess all of our sins as a group, collectively. We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, etc.

At the end of one of the services I attended this year, the rabbi stood up to address the congregation. He reminded us that God doesn’t forgive us for the sins that we committed against other human beings unless we first of all receive the forgiveness of the people we have wronged. For that reason, he urged us to make a mental effort, and even to voice aloud, that we forgive all of the people that have wronged us, so that we shouldn’t be the ones to stand in the way of their receiving clemency from God.

I was still completing my prayers as the Rabbi was speaking. I was still beating my breast, in the midst of the confession. And I realised, that by apologizing collectively to God for the sins that we have been committing we are also, in a sense, forgiving one another. How can I apologize to God for our collective corruption if I haven’t also extended some degree of forgiveness to the co-accused?

In huge numbers, the Jewish people still observe Yom Kippur, in one way or another. In droves, Jews still go to synagogue on that day. They still confess their sins. And in doing so – collectively – they somehow extend a modicum of forgiveness to all of the Jews that have hurt them, upset them, or even made them feel alienated and a stranger in their own communities.

As soon as the day is over, we go back to our trenchant divisions. But for one moment a year, we seem to transcend that. Perhaps the peaceful stillness of that moment is part of what keeps us together for the rest of the year, despite our continuing divisions.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.