A visit to a doctor may turn out with two kinds of statements: descriptions and prescriptions. The medical description is a diagnosis. The prescription might entail following a course of treatment or, for so many of us, being told simply to watch what we eat and exercise more. In a medical setting, we generally find it easy to differentiate between the description and the prescription. In other walks of life, we often confuse the terms.
Let’s apply this distinction to the concept of Jewish unity. Is it intended as a description or a prescription? In discussing Jewish unity, are we describing a current or past situation, or are we prescribing behaviors necessary to achieve a goal? If it is descriptive, then, possibly, we Jews are who we are. We are not monolithic in our practices, beliefs and backgrounds. This diversity may be hard to accept, but it is reality. Diversity will be found in any country or people, any religion or ethnic group. We value shalom bayit (peace in the home), yet the very need for the value concedes that our families are not always perfectly unified.
It takes work to keep a family, a community and a people together.
If Jewish unity is prescriptive, we are being reminded that this oneness is a goal. We must understand that communal life is not perfectly smooth but comes with divisions that sometimes appear deep and at other points are less troubling. The prescription of Jewish unity often appears to be raised by those who are troubled by the lack of full accord within Judaism. “Be mindful of Jewish unity” is the kind of response directed at those raising minority or unpopular opinions.
Rabbi Leo Baeck, the great 20th-century German Jewish thinker, taught: “The history of this people is also a history of boundaries, of eras that divided it deeply. … At times, there existed a tension between the parts, but the parts never broke apart. In the end, the tension had the strength to create strength.”
Rabbi Baeck was encouraging us to be mindful of Jewish unity, but to understand that connections among our people, are not simple. After thousands of years of history, living through highs and lows, and interacting with countless other languages, cultures, lands and historic eras, how could Jewish unity be simple?
Description? If we are willing to understand that unity doesn’t mean that we will agree on everything but that we do value our interconnections. Prescription? If we are encouraging our fellow Jews to remember their joint responsibilities and connections but are not trying to quiet the diverse and lively debates that have long been the hallmarks of Jewish life. May we draw strength from this millennia-old dilemma, even if the language and vocabulary have evolved over time. May we draw strength from the tensions involved in exploring Jewish unity.
Rabbi Andrew Busch is spiritual leader of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform temple.