“Abraham was old, advanced in years. The LORD had blessed Abraham in all [things].—The Numerological equivalent of the word “all” is 52, [meaning] “son”. Inasmuch as Abraham had a son [Isaac], it was necessary to arrange for him to marry.”—Rashi, commentary to Genesis 24:1
“The [Rabbinic] schools of Hillel and Shammai debated each other for three years, the one saying, ‘We are correct” and the other saying, ‘We are correct’. But… they allowed their sons to marry the daughters of the members of the other School.”
Our Jewish community, like so many other Americans, has just endured the recent nasty, even vicious, presidential election, only to find ourselves no less deeply polarized, now that it has concluded. Both sides have offered brave words of unity, but the substantive difference in vision of America remains, so we remain deeply divided.
Stepping back from this place and looking at it through the lenses of Torah and Jewish history—we can marvel at how “American” we have become, so that for the Blue Jew, the Blue Gentile seems closer than the Red Jew, and likewise, for our own Reds. (Piquant, that until just a few years ago, “Red” meant Communist, and now it means quite the opposite!). We Jews have had deep divisions in our past, but the emotional distance between right-wing and left-wing Jews in America has grown to the point where adherents of each camp scarcely even think of those who disagree with them as being in the same family. It is an ironic commentary on how fully American we have grown, that we can identify primarily with our American political allies.
This is a tragedy. We still have Holocaust survivors in our midst, and so how dare we forget that all Jews are Jews, first and foremost? There were communists and capitalists, Hasidim and atheists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, suffering and dying together, in the ghettos, and transports and the camps, only because they were Jews.
Being Jewish means being a family. All families have their disagreements, and some of those are deep and enduring. But we recognize the sadness, the waste of our parents’ hopes for us, when our disagreements tear apart the family ties that ought to endure.
In the Torah portion we turn to this Shabbat, in all synagogues, both progressive and traditionalist, Father Abraham attends to the problem of finding a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He was concerned that Isaac’s wife be the sort of person who could continue to nurture the spiritual revolution that he, Abraham, had passed along to his son. In those days, the social consensus being that love was a consequence of, not a precondition for, successful marriage, parents took the lead in finding their children’s life partners.
That social reality—still familiar to us through the Jewish world of Fiddler on the Roof—also explains the rabbinic quotation about the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai. Those schools were the Blue and the Red of their day. Their disagreements were the stuff of legend. An adherent of one didn’t simply reach different conclusions from an adherent of the other. It was a deep divide between haves and have-nots, between the hard-boiled and the hopeful, between philosophical stances. The one called to move the fulcrum more in the direction of Justice; the other, in the direction of Mercy. Shammai said that a person whose balance of good and bad deeds was exactly 50-50 needed to go to Hell for at least an instant, to pay in pain a fraction of his guilt, and only then be admitted to Heaven. Hillel said that the 50-50 man enjoyed a tip of the scale from God’s Attribute of Mercy, and could enter Heaven as he was.
And yet, the rabbis report, these staunchly opposed camps never denied the underlying unity of the Jewish people—of their common identity. There’s a lesson there for our time!
Imagine the following conversation: “Julie! Why are you calling so late? Is everything all right?”
“Mom and Dad: I have great news! Max and I are engaged! We’re going to be married as soon as he graduates from law school!
Beat.… Mom? Dad? Are you there? Did our connection drop?”
“Oh, honey, we want to be happy for you.… But isn’t this the same Max who belongs to College Republicans? Are you sure you can be happy with such a man?”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I thought you would be happy, or at least relieved, that he is Jewish.”
Hillel and Shammai were not Pollyanna. They never denied the differences that divided them. But they also never forget that those differences did not completely define them.
It’s time for us, as American Jews, to do the same. As Dr. Seuss might have put it:
A Jew might be Red
A Jew might be Blue
Or slightly purple, instead;
But let it always be said,
A Jew is a Jew.
—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel