By RABBI DANIEL BOGARD
The Jewish world in the early 21st century is as varied and multifaceted as it has ever been. Reform Americans, secular Israelis, Religious Zionists, New York "Bagels and Lox" Jews; the list is endless. Yet the answer to the question, “What is the Jewish people?” is less obvious today than at any point in recent history. Scholars of religion have classically understood Judaism to be an “ethno-religion,” much like Tibetan Buddhists. But even here we see a division in understanding within the Jewish world.
For many Israelis, it is self-evident that when they say a “Jewish State,” they mean a state for the Jewish people; they are understanding Judaism first and foremost as an ethnic identity, not as a religious one. At the same time, for more and more American Jews it is the opposite; we understand our Judaism in religious terms. Just as our neighbors are Christian Americans, we are Jewish Americans. In a very real sense, we have entered into an identity where the “ethno” and the “religion” part of “ethno-religion” have split upon geographical lines. The old lens of “ethno-religion” no longer fits comfortably in our world today, so perhaps it is time to reach back into Jewish history for a different model of Jewish peoplehood.
When we look back at the greatest story of our people, our story of liberation from Egypt, of receiving the Torah in the wilderness, and of coming to the Promised Land, we find a Jewish world composed of differing–and often disputing–tribes, all bound together by a collective memory of having once been the family of Avraham Avinu.
We know by looking at the books of Kings that our ancient tribes had meaningful and deep differences in their worldviews and in their religious practices. The Southern tribes disdained the idolatry of the Northern tribes; the tribes of Reuven and Gad felt so separate that they chose to stay on the other side of the Jordan River rather than crossing over with the rest of our people. Yet for all of these important and meaningful differences, the tribes of Israel remained a part of Israel, by keeping at the very center of their worldviews a memory that no matter the differences between them, they were all once a part of the same family – that in a deep way, you are a part of us.
The differences among our contemporary "tribes" are real; how we understand Jewish observance, how we understand the role of a Jewish state, even our belief in a Creator. But it is perhaps because of these differences that the ancient image of "tribes" is a relevant lens through which we can better understand the contemporary world. There is the descriptive power of understanding the Jewish world today as being composed of tribes: it serves as a reminder to us that the divisions and differences that we see today are not new, that diversity of belief and practice has long been the norm of the Jewish world.
But the tribal image is also prescriptive: I may profoundly disagree with the way that Haredi Jews live their lives and understand our world, but the power in tribal identity is in our collective memory of having once been a family. As long as my particular tribe (American Liberal Jews) can keep the image of Abraham our Ancestor and his family as central in our memories, I am obliged to make room for all of the other tribes of Israel, my fellow family members.