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Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish Peoplehood



Jews are an argumentative people. We are the only civilisation, known to me, all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments.

The Prophets argued with God, the Rabbis argued with one another, and each of those arguments is canonised, it’s part of who we are. And we are people of strong views. We say “The Lord is my shepherd” but no Jew was ever a sheep.

I remember once having a dialogue with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and he began by saying, “I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks on everything, but then, on most things I don’t agree with myself.”

So we are ferocious arguers and that’s part of our strength. Our ability to argue, our sheer diversity, cultural and in every other way. But, when it allows us to split apart, then it becomes terribly dangerous. Because no emperor on earth has ever been able to defeat us, but we have on occasions been able to defeat ourselves.

It happened three times:

In the days of Joseph and his brothers when, the Torah says, “They could no longer speak peaceably together.” They sold him as a slave and eventually they all landed up, well their grandchildren did, as slaves.

The second time was just years, a few years after the completion of the first Temple. Solomon dies, his son takes over, the kingdom splits in two, and, as Abraham Lincoln said,  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And that was the beginning of the end of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms.

The third time was during the Roman siege of Jerusalem when the Jews inside the besieged city were more busy fighting one another than the enemy outside. Those three splits within the Jewish people caused the three great exiles of the Jewish people.

So if we can argue together and stay together, fine. But if we split apart, there is disaster. How then do we contain that diversity within a single people bound together in fate and in destiny? Well, I think there are seven principles.

Number one, keep talking. Remember what the Torah says about Joseph and his brothers: “Lo yachlu dabro leshalom”. “They couldn’t speak to him in peace.”

In other words Reb Yonason Eybeschutz says, had they kept speaking, eventually they would have made peace. So keep talking to one another.

Principle two:

Much more difficult. There’s good news about the Jewish people and bad news. The good news is we’re amongst the greatest speakers in the world. The bad news is we’re among

the world’s worst listeners. Hence, rule two, “Shema Yisrael. Listen, Israel.” Listen to one another. Hear what your opponent is saying. Listening is itself profoundly therapeutic.

Number three:

Remember why the law follows Hillel as against Shammai. The Talmud tells us that Hillel was humble and modest. He taught the views of his opponents as well as his own, he taught the views of his opponents before his own. He laboured to understand the point of view with which he disagreed. So rule three, labour to understand the people with whom you disagree.

Rule four: Never seek victory.

Never ever seek to inflict defeat on your opponents. Even Moses sought to defeat Korach in the most dramatic way possible by asking for the ground to open up and swallow him up, which it did! But it didn’t end the argument. Because the next morning the people came and said “Atem hamitem et am Hashem!” (“You killed the Lord’s people.”) If you seek to inflict defeat on your opponent, your opponent must by human psychology seek to retaliate by inflicting defeat on you. The end result is you win today, you lose tomorrow and in the end everyone loses. So don’t think in terms of victory or defeat. Think in terms of the good of the Jewish people.

Five: Remember the principle of the Book of Proverbs.

“As water reflects face to face, so does the heart of man to man.” “As you behave to others, they will behave to you.” If you show contempt for other Jews, they will show contempt to you. If you respect other Jews, they will show respect to you. So if you seek respect, give respect. That’s rule number five.

Rule number six:

Remember the ultimate basis of Jewish peoplehood. As Shimon bar Yochai said, “When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.” We may not agree on anything, but we remain one extended family. And the thing about that is if you disagree with a friend, tomorrow he may no longer be your friend. But if you disagree with your family, tomorrow they are still your family. So in the end, family is what keeps us together. And that’s expressed in the principle “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”, (all Jews are responsible for one another).

So remember rule six: I don’t need you to agree with me, I just need you to care about me.

And principle seven:

Remember that God chose us as a people. He didn’t choose only the righteous, or only the saints, or only the very, very holy people, he chose all of us. So that means it is as a people that we stand before God, it’s as a people that we stand before the world. The world doesn’t make distinctions, antisemites don’t make distinction. We are united by a covenant of shared memory, of shared identity, of shared fate, even if we don’t share a faith.

So remember God chose us as a people and it is as a people that we become before God and before the world. The Sages said a very striking thing. They said, “Great is peace, because even if Israel is worshipping idols and there is peace among them, God will never allow harm to happen to them.” Go think about that. So next time you are tempted to walk away from some group of Jews that you think have offended you, make that effort, that gesture to stay together, to forgive, to listen, to try and unite because if God loves each of us, can we try to do anything less?