Rabbi Matt Adelson
Many Jews have difficulty with faith. I am no different.
I was relieved a decade ago to read in the Encyclopedia Judaica — in a passage authored by the early 20th-century Reform scholar Kaufmann Kohler — that “only in medieval times did the word ‘emunah’ (faith)” become paramount in Jewish thought.
The original category — as the Psalms demonstrate — is trust. I’ve always liked that but, recently, I found my way back to faith through one of faith’s sibling words: faithfulness. Faithfulness means loyalty. Having faith, then, really means being loyal.
Parshat Ha’Azinu is Moses’ song to the Jewish people. His song — consistent with Shabbat Shuvah — is one that calls for us to return — not just to our God — but to each other.
We’re having some faithfulness issues in the Jewish community — not along the lines of antisemitic canards; rather, we’re struggling to practice loyalty with each other. Just as in ancient Israel, we inhabit a tribal reality, and when the tribe comes before the people, then our covenant is stunted. To practice faithfulness does not require discarding your tribe; but your people must always be the object of your transcendent efforts — even as you belong to your tribe.
I belong to a tribe within Israel. We have the tribe of the Jews who are Democrats and the tribe of Jews who are Republicans; we have the tribe of the Jews who are intermarried and those for whom halakah is the primary point of orientation. We have the tribe of Jews from the former Soviet Union and the tribe of the mizrachim (Jews from North Africa, Syria, Iran and Iraq).
In life, we must be faithful; we must be loyal to one another. Can loyalty and pluralism coexist? Absolutely! That’s the modern innovation that we hold so dear. Loyalty is often cast as provincial, unthinking and susceptible to fantasies of absolute (human or ideological) authority. Our task — as modern American Jews in Philadelphia, across the United States and the world — is to admit the reality of our tribes yet strive to be the best version of amcha we can be.
A warning! When we hold the truths of our tribe to be self-evident, then we have succumbed to moral relativism. We declare — seven times — as Yom Kippur goes out: “Hear O Israel … the Lord is One.” Monotheism and moral relativism cannot inhabit the same house, this House of Israel.
Why should we dedicate ourselves to the faithfulness of which I preach? The early Zionists declared: “There is no choice” (ein breira). They said this to each other, and they knew — as they said this — that each of them had chosen to come to eretz Israel to create an opportunity for Jewish sovereignty. The paradox of ein breira has always been that to affirm it, you must choose it.
We have no choice but to practice loyalty with each other, to affirm our tribe yet transcend it to be a people, a people worthy of being in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.
And God surely has a part to play in the new year. The American-Israeli scholar Hillel Halkin reports that the 19th-century Chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev “held a trial at which God was the absentee defendant, accused of having inflicted undeserved suffering on His people.”
We have what to demand from God. We have what to demand of God as long as we are good on our end.
This requires that we not give up on each other, that we try extra hard in the year to come to approach our fellow Jews – no matter to which tribe of Israel they belong — with caf zchut (benefit of the doubt). The choice to “have no choice” — but be faithful — is eminently sensible.
Rabbi Matthew Abelson is a Conservative rabbi who is a member of Adath Israel. He is the executive director of Rabbis United, a division of StandWithUs. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.