Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?
In the 1970s I remember the Jewish community doing “values clarification” exercises in summer camp, shul learning, and adult education. The questions and discussions revolved around the concept of identity: are you a Jew who happens to live in the U.S. or are you an American who happens to be Jewish? The nuance seemed trivial at the time.
It doesn’t seem trivial now. Listening carefully to the individual Jews I encounter both within our intentional community and beyond, I hear a struggle not unlike Korakh’s in our parashat hashavua.
It’s easy to explain away the uprising led by Korakh which defines (and names) this parashah as due to the same nameless “riffraff” that were used for that purpose in past weeks to place blame for bad behavior and its consequences. But Korakh and Moshe are first cousins; Moshe’s father is Amram and Korakh’s is Yitzhar, and they were brothers, sons of Levi.
Korakh is depicted by the Torah’s authors as the singular leader of a failed rebellion against Moshe’s leadership. Tracing the responsibility and the ensuing guilt, though, indicate a more subtle problem. Korakh speaks against Moshe’s leadership in these words:
וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם ה’ וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל ה’
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” (BaMidbar 16.3)
If you consider yourself an American who happens to be a Jew, this is a compelling argument: all of us are equal, after all, aren’t we? All of us are equally precious individual reflections of the Holy, created in the Image, as we are told in our Creation story.
This approach to identity is problematic when it leads to an erasure of differences, and, paradoxically, it causes the breakdown of ego strength. We are not all equally “good” at everything, nor can we all fill the same roles in a community. Everyone knows what a “participation trophy” is worth. And if you are equally as good as everyone else at everything, how can you ever seek advice, or rely on expertise? In the end, you may even fall into the trap of believing that you have to save the world all by yourself.
So what about if, after careful consideration, you are able to see yourself as a Jew who happens to live in the U.S.? Jewish community is born in an Eastern context (no, not the East Coast, ha) with more in common with Islam and even Buddhism than Christianity. Jewish ethics insists that you are not the center of the universe, and that in being unique, you are uniquely gifted and challenged in a way no one else is. Your whole life’s mission is to study, consider, and act within a communal context to discover your true worth and purpose. The last thing that comes up is how to control the world; you’re just trying to learn how to control yourself for the good of the world.
What does a Jew do after a week like this one – or any of the recent weeks that have lessened any sense of safety we may have thought this supposed Goldeneh Medinah offered?
Learn. Open your heart and mind to generations of perspectives that will comfort and challenge you. A different narrative about responsibility and guilt – not an absence of one, but a different one or two or ten – is there. Torah study and practice within an intentional community gives you roots that will sustain you through whatever may come.
On this July 4 weekend, consider what the American has in the way of ritual and meaning to support that identity. In contrast, perhaps, consider what Shabbat offers you. Perhaps you will join me in a chorus of ashreinu! Jews are lucky!