By RABBI J. ROLANDO MATALON
The biblical tribes of Israel shared powerful formative experiences: the exile and servitude in Mitzrayim, the drama of the Exodus, standing together at Sinai, building the mishkan, the years in the wilderness. Although their journey was not one of a permanent "k’ish echad b’lev echad" ("as one people with one heart"), the encampment of the tribes around the mishkan and the absence of significant intertribal conflict are testimony to the degree of cohesiveness, self-understanding and vision they shared. The frequent references to God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demonstrated a connection to shared memory, as well as to a common destiny.
The shared formative experiences of our people are central to our collective memory and our national consciousness, but they have a claim on us to different degrees: they are present and operative for some, distant and tenuous for others, and not at all part of the baggage of a growing portion of us. Our sense of common origin and shared formative experience has been replaced to a large extent by the particular idiosyncrasies of each group.
In our long history, we have been shaped by the different lands we have inhabited and their cultures. We carry different memories, we have suffered different tragedies, we hold different understandings of our identity and of our connection to the Jewish people and to Israel, and we have divergent visions of the future and sense of destiny. And that’s not to mention that 20 percent of Israelis – the Palestinian Arabs – do not share in the national narrative of Israel or the Jewish people and have an altogether different story which is taboo for Jews.
Yes, something still holds us together. Our plurality and our diversity are tremendously rich, and they constitute a potential source of strength. But unlike the Israelite tribes of Torah times, we lack a center, an idea, a vision to hold us together, to inspire us, and to propel us forward. Our allegiance to our own group seems always greater than our allegiance to the larger collective. We are fragmented, directionless and trapped in a zero-sum, ruthless competition.
We fight over exclusive control of Israel’s ethos, its official story, its future, its national budget, its public spaces, etc. If one group wins, the others lose. Is the re-creation of a shared dream at all possible, a new covenant in which every group wins? Must we continue to count on external threats, war or anti-Semitism to hold us together and give us a common sense of purpose?
The concept of "tribes" as an organizing principle for the diverse communities that form Israel’s mosaic may serve as a legitimate aspiration, a reminder of our kinship and of the cohesion we enjoyed for a short time during our nation’s biblical beginnings. But its use in the context of the present masks and minimizes the enormous challenges before us. The most intractable of those challenges seems to be precisely our tribal mentality.
J. Rolando Matalon is rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City and a regular participant in Shalom Hartman Institute programs.