One Big Conversation
“We are One,” say the United Jewish Appeal campaign signs. A friend and colleague remarks, “Really? Isn’t it God that is ‘One’?” So I wonder, is there a connection between the oneness of God and achdut Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people?
Evidence of our disunity abounds; achdut Yisrael is apparently not descriptive. We have no consensus, let alone unity, of belief or behavior. “She’ma” is not a unifying mantra, nor do we share in behavioral norms, observances and customs — religious, cultural and lifestyle choices that often reflect divergent values.
Perhaps achdut may be found in the realm of belonging. We belong to something extraordinary: one big conversation across time and place, encounters over the same texts, material culture and customs and the ultimate questions about life, what is good and true, important and meaningful, and especially how to live. We have inherited and belong to that conversation and exploration.
Or perhaps we belong to the same narrative (our master story from Lech l’cha to Egypt to Mount Sinai to Jerusalem and continuing on to a not-yet-achieved land of promise/Israel). We share a story, an identity and, for some, even a trajectory and purpose that helps locate us in history and in the world.
We affirm our belonging in the opening blessing of the Amidah: we belong (either biologically and/or by choice) to the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (and all the rest). We continue the living they started, their questions, struggles, yearnings and attempts. They provide the steppingstones for us to live more fully in covenantal relationships with others and the world, happier and wiser, more connected.
Another friend and colleague suggests that the overarching value of “unity,” if understood as unanimous voice and action, has served its purpose, and we are now strong and secure enough to revel in diversity and pluralism, to relish the variety of practices and beliefs and expressions, interpretations and opinions. We now can understand our diversity not as weakness on the part of a vulnerable people, or straying from covenant or as something less than legitimate or authentic, but as a strength, a positive virtue.
Which leads us back to God or Godliness. Connecting with Godliness through one of 70 faces of God, or 70 languages of Revelation, we are diverse and may embrace that diversity, l’shem Shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven.” As long as we have respect and mutuality, we may differ and disagree yet stay in the same conversation, enriching ourselves and our inherited traditions, advancing holiness in the world. “One” does not mean “same.” Uniformity is impractical, unnecessary, and stultifying.
Achdut must be prescriptive: When we love each other as ourselves, when we are responsible one for another, when we are mutually respectful of everyone’s place at the table, then we may reflect the connectedness, the oneness, which we associate with God. Achdut is a potentiality, an aspiration, an ideal. The learning here is less about what we do or think and more about remembering who we are and how to be together. Then might we merit, and experience, achdut.
Rabbi Geoff Basik is spiritual leader of Kol HaLev Synagogue, a Reconstructionist community.