As my first name suggests, I was born in France. The France I grew up in offered only one Jewish denomination, one form of practicing Judaism: Orthodoxy. For French Jews like my parents, practicing Judaism was virtually an all-or-nothing endeavor. My parents were uncomfortable — to say the least — with most Jewish Orthodox practices. As Jews firmly grounded in modern French secular culture, they restricted their Jewish celebrations to Passover and Yom Kippur, the purpose of which was to get together with extended family twice a year.
As a good rebellious teenager, I decided to embrace Orthodox Judaism, to the utter dismay of my entire family. I practiced modern Orthodoxy through my teens and into my 20s both in France and, later, in Israel, where I emigrated after graduating from high school. Jewish Orthodoxy was not only all I had ever known, it was all I ever knew existed.
You can imagine my surprise then, when, having moved to the U.S. in my late 20s, I discovered numerous denominations available to American Jews. I was stunned! I found myself wondering, “How would Jewish life have been different for my parents — for French Jews in general? Would they have found it easier to attend synagogue had such diversity been available in my youth?”
It soon became apparent, however, that the pluralism I had found so refreshing does not necessarily foster harmony. Many conversations taught me that the norm of existing discourse within the American Jewish community is that of discord. Members of the more “liberal” denominations disparage the more traditional ones, while the latter criticize the practices — or lack thereof, in their opinion — of the former. Those in the liberal camp are accused of being accomplices to the growing number of intermarriages — raising the specter of Jewish disappearance — while those in the Orthodox camp are decried as being anachronistically patriarchal and stuck in an irrelevant isolationist past — raising the same specter.
The list of grievances continues from all sides, ad nauseam. Ultimately, everyone believes his or her particular way of practicing Judaism is the correct and authentic way. Most — in the name of political correctness — would not publicly admit as much; nevertheless, our Jewish Home is deeply divided.
Where might this divisiveness lead us? The Talmud offers us one particularly dark possibility: “Why… was the second Temple — wherein the society was involved in Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness — destroyed? Because gratuitous hatred was rampant in society.” [Yoma 9b]
We have yet to reach this level of contention. Thankfully, even amid great internal rumblings, the House of Jacob is not on the brink of collapse. We might be displeased or uncomfortable with the ways others choose to practice Judaism, but that is a far cry from hatred. Perhaps in our generation we have the opportunity to offer an alternative ending to that of the Talmud’s; we can seed a different vision for the unfolding of the Jewish story, if we heed a profound teaching gleaned from of this week’s Torah portion: Bamidbar.
Bamidbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, “the Eternal spoke to Moses… saying: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…’” [Num. 1:1-2] There, through the census, every tribe is accounted for, each one given a place in the composition of the community as it is about to march through the wilderness. The metaphor of the wilderness, itself, is most telling. Here is a space welcoming of all and belonging to no one. In this space we are able to receive Torah, or metaphorically speaking, to awaken to the most fundamental teachings. This is the spiritual space all of us always travel through. The marching tribes of our ancestors could represent, in our days, both the multiple denominations of modern Judaism, and those of us non-denominational Jews; all wandering through the midbar together. If we are to pay attention to this aspect of this week’s teaching, not only do all of us, affiliated or not, need to be counted as part of the “Israelite community,” but all of us need the unique space we take up in the arrangement of the tribes — in the breadth of Judaism — to be recognized and affirmed by all others, as we march through the midbar as one people.
Trouble begins when we believe we own The Truth. No one does. Rather, each of our denominations expresses a whole but partial truth. By “whole” I mean that, deeply grounded in our convictions, steeped in our unique form of practices and worldview, we hold an absolutely valid and necessary form of Jewish expression — a whole truth. But our truth is also part of a greater whole, the whole we call Judaism. And therefore, it is a partial truth on the spectrum of truths that make up Judaism. This is why I believe all the denominations are needed.
The congregation I personally gravitated toward, and of which I now lead, is Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue. Though founded by a Reform Rabbi — Rabbi Ted Falcon — Bet Alef is an independent congregation. As a Jew, I am blessed with being able to find a community that matches my current spiritual orientation and preference. Not only that, but as an evolving human being, I am also well aware that different times in my life may call me to different forms of practice, and, therefore, to different denominations.
In our Torah portion, the Hebrew words usually translated as “take a census,” literally mean: “lift the head.” By accounting for the entire range of denominations, by counting us all as integral whole-parts of the modern Israelite community, we restore the pride and sense of belonging of all Jews, and allow all to hold their heads up high. As we wander through the wilderness, each other’s presence enhances the remarkable experience of being Jewish. May we be able to find within our hearts the benevolent love that will unite our people in the essential acceptance of our differences, here in America, and most critically in our time, in the land of Israel.