Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Don't I Feel the "Unity"?

I was reading the Jerusalem Post over Shabbat, and I found a writeup about a conference which took place in South Africa a few weeks back called the "Sinai Indaba" (indaba being Zulu for "business" or "matter"). The conference, arranged by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, featured an array of international speakers "from almost every walk of Torah-faithful Jewry".

Let me start off by saying I'm sure it was a productive, stimulating, enjoyable conference for all involved. It sounds like a great event, and I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the conference per se. That said... Let me quote from the Post:

The inclusive nature of the Indaba is a core element of Goldstein's aim to replicate the unity experienced by the Jewish nation at the foot of Mount Sinai, described by the sages as being "like one man with one heart." This unity is understood to be a prerequisite to the proper acceptance of the Torah, and is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing today's Torah world, in which partisan allegiance to particular brands of Torah often creates great schisms in Orthodox Jewry.

To overcome this challenge, Goldstein looked for the core commonality underlying the various groupings, around which he built the Indaba. He explained: "The common feature uniting the rich array of topics and speakers is the acceptance of the basic tenets of Judaism as defined by the 13 principles of faith set out by the Talmud and codified by the Rambam [Maimonides]. At the heart and soul of the Sinai Indaba is the principle that God gave us his Torah for all times, all places and all circumstances; and, therefore its breadth and depth are limitless, as is its capacity to inspire, enlighten and guide Jews in every generation."

A few reactions to this. First off, I have to admit I don't quite know what to do with the idea of "unity". It obviously has a powerful emotional appeal. I'm a sucker for tearing up when thousands of people are singing the Star Spangled Banner or Hatikva - it's something about people from different backgrounds coming together to stand for something, to express gratitude, affiliation, and yes, unity. And I recall very well the first few days following 9/11, there was a feeling of unusual goodwill among Americans, strangers on the street. People were more polite, more considerate - it was a sense of being "in it together". Of course this is a generalization, but the positive sentiment was palpable. That's a unity based on acute awareness of there being an "other" - which happens in times of war. Israel has had that kind of "unity" thrust upon it all too often. It's the one silver lining in the dark cloud of war.

Speaking of clouds, it would be easy to envision the Israelites feeling unified at the foot of Mount Sinai if indeed they all experienced the clouds and thunder, the ground shaking and fire consuming the top of the mountain, with the voice of God booming out at them. (Forgetting for the moment about the historicity of the story.)

Yet unity is something that makes me nervous. Unity can mean group-think. It can mean a North Korean-style "common purpose" whereby the value of the individual is based almost solely on their contribution to the collective. It's a kind of totalitarianism, like the Tower of Babel, where what looks like great unity of language and purpose ends up being the very thing that destroys them. I recall Dennis Prager once saying that we should be extremely wary when we hear people make calls for "unity", since too often what it really reflects is a person's desire for everyone to "unify" around their own position - "Things would be so much better if everyone would just think like me!"

My experience is that it's actually diversity, not unity, which makes us strong. That thought is expressed in the Torah tradition as well. For instance, R. Nachman of Breslov talks about "machloket" (disagreement) as the "ikkar briyat ha'olam" - the main ingredient for creation. Disagreement keeps us sharp, helps us refine our thinking. Diversity keeps us from being a homogeneous blob. The key is how you deal with that disagreement, how you live with that diversity. To me, that's where unity comes in.

So now let me get to the other part of the quote. What is the unifying factor of the conference, according to the Chief Rabbi? The "acceptance of the basic tenets of Judaism as defined by the 13 principles of faith". Well I feel positively left out! Not only don't I believe in all the 13 - I don't believe in any of them! Now, if there were God, I suppose I'd believe that God was "first and last". And I'd probably believe God has no body. But since I'm not particularly inclined to believe in God - and certainly not "with perfect faith", it pretty much puts me out of the running on any of the 13. So despite the fact that I'm an observant Jew, enjoy learning Torah, and am positively steeped in Jewish life and identity - I can't join the club. Unless I check my particular mind at the door and adopt this set of beliefs, I'm "michutz lamachaneh" - outside the camp.

Now of course, I'm sure the Chief Rabbi and others would have let me join the conference if I really wanted to go. I give him that benefit of the doubt. I have a feeling the "13 principles" notion represents an "official" atmosphere of belief that he hoped would permeate the event. But still, the notion of supernatural belief as a unifying principle is something that gives me pause. Especially when there is so much more within Judaism worthy of believing in - values of life and compassion and justice, freedom and peace and mutual responsibility, the list goes on and on. And I would imagine that in all likelihood it was precisely these kinds of values - and not belief in the supernatural - which comprised the actual core of the conference.

So I leave you with the following questions:
  • Do we really need a belief in the supernatural to be able to believe in and strive for all these other values? 
  • Does Judaism really fall apart without it?
  • Is unity of belief the right kind of unity to envision, or is it unity despite differing beliefs?


  1. Strangely enough, although I am not really Orthodox, I believe in most of Rambam's 13 Principles:
    1.-5. absolutely for sure
    6., 7., 8. yes, if you interpret this loosely.
    9. yes
    10., 11. absolutely
    12. yes
    13. yes, if one interprets this is as spiritual resurrection (which arguably Rambam does at one point).

    1. Dave, thanks for giving your take on the "13".

      As much as I'm taking an "atheist" line here, I actually appreciate there being a variety of beliefs out there. That's obviously not the Orthodox view however. And so they'd be much more sympathetic to you, being a believer even if you're not Orthodox in practice, than they would be to me, being a practicing non-believer - even though my non-belief isn't coming at all from a place of "defiance". It's just where I'm at, where my experience has led me.