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Tribal vs. Covenantal Jewish Identity

As I reflect on the millennial span of Jewish history, it seems clear to me that the tension between the efforts to insure Jewish group survival and the impulse of Jews to live in accordance with the highest possible ethical standards, is a paradox that was part and parcel of the Jewish condition. I see Exodus and Sinai as metaphors for the twin impulses that are at work in Jewish history, Jewish community and Jewish identity. The Exodus impulse is that tendency that brings Jews together in political and institutional arrangements to support the continuity of the group or “tribe” and that triggers our communal response to threats to group survival. The Sinai impulse in Jewish history and community is a way to speak about how Jews have sought to ally with the most vulnerable members of society in the spirit of prophetic Judaism. Exodus represents tribal Jewish identity while Sinai represents covenantal Jewish identity.

Seven values drive Judaism’s Sinai impulse: compassion for others (chesed); a respect for the dignity of all of God’s creation and creatures (tzelem elohim); the obligation to be pursuers of peace (bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu); the warning not to ignore the suffering of others (lo taamod at dam re’echa); the requirement to seek harmonious relationships with those are not Jewish (darchei shalom); the need to love the stranger in your midst (ahavat ger); and the seeking after what is right and true (emet).

Jews have internalized these values so deeply that, even as modernity weakened the tie between most Jews and their heritage, the attitudes and behaviors implicit in these values manifest themselves as an ethnic ethos. This explains why it is that Jews were so prominent in the civil rights struggle, the persistence of liberal voting patterns despite socio-economic trends that would suggest growing conservatism, and why Jews are in the leadership of so many organizations that are devoted to the welfare of society and the world.

Yet in the context of Jewish communal life, Jewish organizations are clear about their mandate to prioritize the needs of Jews, wherever they are in need or at risk. This does not mean that the professional and lay leaders of Jewish communal organizations do not relate to the altruistic values that are central to Jewish teaching; it just means that they see their job as securing the health and safety of Jews at home, in Israel and throughout the world. When we add to this the anxiety generated by demographic studies that suggest that, even absent outside threats to Jewish life, Jews are at risk because of rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation, it is easy to understand why Jewish organizations have chosen to give their most focused attention to the survival of the tribe. Indeed, in Jewish communal circles, Exodus trumps Sinai most of the time.

What modernity has brought into bold relief is the unfortunate, growing gap between covenantal and tribal Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel were formative events for Exodus/tribal Jews. It would be hard to invent a more compelling narrative for why Jews need to band together, whether in a nation-state or through diaspora Jewish organizations, to protect themselves and watch out for each other in a hostile world. Yet those two experiences are becoming more remote with every passing year. They are not the life experience of Jews born after World War II. And while Exodus Jews still see Israel as the biblical David doing battle against an array of Goliath enemies in the world, and thus worthy of unqualified support, to the majority of Jews that narrative is much more morally complex. Israel is no longer the engine to Jewish identity or to Jewish philanthropy that it once was.

It is not easy for the Jewish community to recognize how Jews might be living out Sinai/covenantal Jewish identity when it is stripped of all elements of tribal association. It is easier to identify a Jew who takes on the particular details of Jewish observance, joins a synagogue or contributes to a Jewish organization, than it is to identify a Jew who has no such practice yet lives in accordance with Jewish ethical and moral principles. I have encountered and interviewed hundreds of Jews who are playing leading roles in the fields of human rights, global peace, worker justice, women’s rights, civil liberties, third world development, domestic poverty relief , and the list can go on and on. Many of them will identify a piece of the Jewish historical and ethical narrative as an impetus for their work.

It is here that we enter the realm of Sinai consciousness, or what the sociologist, Herbert Gans calls, “symbolic ethnicity.” Many Jews, with no identifiable pattern of Jewish affiliation or religious behavior, nonetheless define large parts of what drives their actions in the world in the context of the Judaic heritage. Given the way that the Jewish community currently functions, such Jews are effectively defined out of the tribe. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jews who might otherwise be open to initiatives or programs of the Jewish community when such endeavors align with their values and ethics, are driven away by an implicit attitude coming from communal institutions that they have not paid their dues to the tribe, not only financially but, as well, by lack of regular association with communal institutions.

The organized Jewish community is not very good at understanding and validating covenantal Jewish identity. The Jewish community tends to draw hard and fast lines on who belongs and who does not. And the harder the lines, the less likely that covenantal/Sinai Jews, whose identity is soft and ambivalent, will see themselves as part of the Jewish people.

The Jewish community would do well to soften its boundaries. The number of Jews who resonate to exclusively tribal definitions of Jewish identity is shrinking. Conversely, there is a tenacity of the Sinai impulse among Jews that is nothing short of remarkable. Many Jews, whose experience of the organized Jewish community, from Hebrew School through adult years, left much to be desired, continue to resonate to the ideals that are at the center of the Jewish tradition. These are the Jews whose Jewish identities may be “soft,” but who can be attracted to Jewish activities that align with their personal ideals.

To the extent that the organized Jewish community and Jewish institutions become recommitted to the charge that God gave to Abraham in Genesis ch. 18–to do righteousness and justice (laasot tzedakah umishpat)–they would find tens of thousands of Jews who would resonate to that ancient message, which is more relevant today than ever before.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz is the founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, an organization dedicated to the renewal of American Jewish life through the integration of Jewish learning, values and social responsibility.