Rabbi Sacks on Peoplehood

JInsider (March 2010)

If you look at the Bible carefully, we have many different words for peoplehood. One is am, which means the people. One is eidah, which means… I don’t know how you would call out an eidah as a congregation, whatever it is, and they signal different aspects of the Jewish experience. And one way of this was expressed by the late Rabbi Soloveitchik, who spoke about a covenant of fate and a covenant of faith. An am is a people that shares a fate; an eidah is a people that shares a faith. So in Egypt, Jews became a people through fate. They were all enslaved. They were all oppressed. They were all in the same situation. At Mount Sinai, they became an eidah, a community of faith, because they all together heard the voice of God and made a covenant with Him.

Now that duality has had the most extraordinary effect on Jews throughout the ages. So when Jews were scattered around the world, they no longer shared a fate. In the late 11th century, when the Jews of Northern Europe, of Christian Europe, were being massacred in the first crusade in 1096, the Jews of Spain were enjoying their golden age. When the Jews of Spain were being expelled, the Jews of Poland were enjoying one of the great ages of Polish tolerance. So Jews didn’t share a fate, but they shared a faith, and that kept them together as one people. They said more or less the same prayers, they read the same book. They read the same bits of that book on the same Shabbat. They kept the same calendar and festivals. So when Jews were divided by fate, they were connected by faith.

Of course, that faith splintered apart in the 19th and 20th centuries, and all these denominations happened, Orthodox, not Orthodox, religious, secular, and Jews no longer shared a faith, but for heaven’s sake, they shared a fate. It was called antisemitism. It was called the Holocaust.

So one way or another, if faith divides us, then fate unites us. If fate divides us, then faith can unite us one way or another. The Jewish people must never ever break apart because we are the one people who correspond to the one God, and we must never split apart because if we did, we would betray all those of our ancestors and all those of our children who believe that we are part of both the covenant of faith and of fate.