By ADINA LEWITTES
The call for contemporary ethnic consciousness and mitzvah consciousness to reengage in substantive dialogue with one another in order to ensure that the breadth and depth of each category – that of what binds Jews to one another and that of the content of Jewish life – creates robust Jewish paradigms in North America and Israel is timely and challenging – in a positive, meaningful way.
To these categories of Jewish consciousness I would add human consciousness, a dimension urgently in need of redefinition in both Israel and North America.
What is the role of a Jew in the human family? How do we understand our relationship to those outside of the Jewish community? Is our relationship to other human beings only social or political?
Is there a deeper theological or ontological basis upon which to consider our place in human civilization? How do the claims and needs of our fellow human beings figure into the claims and needs of our own tradition and culture? How do ethnic consciousness and mitzvah consciousness shape human consciousness, or is it, perhaps, the other way around?
These questions are not new; Jewish wisdom has addressed them for millennia. Sacred texts offer us a hierarchy of obligations and responsibilities, with those to our fellow Jews traditionally – and understandably – assuming priority. However, the world in which we live today is shaped not by hierarchies, but by networks and collaborations; it’s defined not by exclusion, but by access. Even the binaries which once mapped the landscape of identity, the “either/or’s” which we once used to name our place in the universe, have given way to blended, inclusive, individually curated selves. A rethinking of our relationships to others and the intrinsic nature of our connections is in order.
Today’s growing presence of people with other identities in our families, congregations, and communities in North America as a result of intermarriage and the increasing participation in Jewish life of those unrelated to someone Jewish who are inspired by Jewish spirituality, wisdom, and values necessitates a rethinking of the conceptual boundaries that historically distinguished Jews from others. Even the Jewish content needed to invigorate American Jews’ commitment to tikkun olam, often perceived as banal, will only succeed if it articulates a framework that understands how bound we feel to the rest of humanity in a way that reflects the reality of our contemporary experience.
In Israel, the future of our relationship to a people who are other to us, a people with whom we share a place known to both of us as home, may well rest upon our ability to restate the essence of what binds us as human beings, an essence that transcends land and history. Perhaps a renewed Jewish understanding of human consciousness can help reframe and reignite the relentless struggle for peace, both with our enemies and within ourselves.
Each morning, Jewish prayer provides us with blessings to express our gratitude for the gift of our lives. We begin by offering thanks for the rooster who knows the distinction between night and day, and then acknowledge the Divine image in which each human being is created. Many have offered compelling insights into the rooster’s power to discern not daylight itself, rather the imminent arrival of the sun, crowing as it does while it’s still dark. Its power lies not in its ability to declare what is, but to declare what is coming.
Similarly, “Who is wise?” asks the Talmud, and answers, “the one who sees hanolad, that which is being born.” Like the rooster announcing not what is but what’s emerging, Jewish wisdom has much to offer the unfolding of a new Jewish paradigm that’s predicated not on otherness, but on distinctiveness, not on the gulf that divides Jews from others, but the growing bridge that binds us all, human consciousness. For this bridge to carry forward the story of the Jewish people, we indeed need a deeper articulation of what links every Jew who traverses it, ethnic consciousness, and the purpose for which we risk crossing, the meaning of our living and loving those in our own family and those beyond, mitzvah consciousness.