Forget About Jewish Unity? Not so fast.

Rabbi Yosef Landa is the Regional Director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.

By Rabbi Yosef Landa

Should we just throw in the towel and abandon our aspirations for achieving Jewish unity? It seems like such an unrealistic, unattainable, pie-in-the-sky goal. Wishful thinking. We Jews are just not in the habit of agreeing with each other about much of anything. We euphemistically call it “Jewish diversity,” but it seems like we’re just hard-wired with a penchant for discord.

There’s the well-worn quip about two Jews having at least three opinions, which really is not very far from the truth. What’s more, it has been this way going back to the hair-splitting Talmudic debates between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, and even before then. The Talmud seems to even suggest that this is the way it is meant to be. “Just as their faces are not alike, so their opinions are not alike,” the Talmud states. 

What is so utterly baffling about this phenomenon is that at the same time we relentlessly squabble with each other, we deeply and sincerely long for and crave Jewish unity. We moralize to each other about it. We wring our hands in despair when unity eludes us (and then we blame each other), and conversely, we exult over any fleeting manifestation of Jewish togetherness. We get a spiritual high — goose bumps and all — when we experience a coming together of Jews from differing persuasions, or from varying denominational affiliations or modes of practice.

So what gives? How can a people so divided into multitudes of philosophical and behavioral groups and subgroups, schools of thought, denominations and what-have-you — each one dismissing the other as misguided — even talk about being an Am Echad, a unified nation? How can we be expected to live up to the mandate to “love our fellow as we love ourselves”? You mean that fellow whose views make me cringe every time he opens his mouth? The one whose Judaism I think is completely wrong? The one whose behavior I consider to be a shanda? The question truly begs to be asked: with such intense discordance how can we realistically aspire to Jewish unity?

Enter the concept of the Jewish Neshama, which Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad teaches is the enduring spiritual core of every Jew. The place of our permanent and indivisible Jewishness is the spark of divinity, which is identical within each of us. That is the essence of our being Jewish, and it transcends all the many differences of how we may think, speak or act Jewishly.

It is true that we differ about very important matters. We may be miles apart about the most basic, fundamental stuff of Judaism, G-d, Torah, mitzvot and all. But remarkably, those differences, as significant and fundamental as they are, don’t really define our Jewishness. What defines our Jewishness is the uniquely Jewish neshama, by which we are all essentially and equally G-dly. Despite our profound disagreements about how being Jewish is supposed to look like, and how our Jewishness ought to be manifested, our underlying Jewishness is the same.

Let’s apply this concept on the individual level: We all know (only too well!) that in our personal lives our Jewish performance has its ups and downs. On some days we just do better Jewishly than on others… But despite those variations in our “doing Jewish,” our “being Jewish” remains unchanged. Our being Jewish is unchangeable. It is a constant. It is who we are. Every one of us. All the time.

So how can we talk about Jewish unity? By realizing that as Jews our kinship is not the product of similar ideas or shared values, or even our commitment to Torah and mitzvot — all of which vary from time to time and from individual to individual. Rather, our unity is a reality that is far deeper, far more enduring and far more consistent and uniform than any of our ideas or behaviors. Ours is a oneness of the essence.

If we take the time to reflect on the lofty nature of every Jewish soul, we will surely find that the Torah’s imperative to “love our fellow as we love ourselves” is not, heaven forbid, an idealistic exaggeration or a poetic platitude. We will discover that the path to true Jewish unity is, to be sure, a challenging one to navigate, but one that can ultimately lead us to our desired destination. 

Otherwise, we might as well just throw in the towel.