Shabbat Nitzavim: Who Is The Jewish Community?

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה “All Israel are guarantors for each other” (Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 39a). 

But a person cannot serve as a guarantor unless they is more resourceful in some way than the one they are guaranteeing. For example, a poor person obviously would not be accepted as a guarantor for a rich person’s loan. So if the Talmud says that all Jews serve as guarantors to each other, this means that in every Jew there is a quality in which they are superior to all others.

– The Lubavitcher Rebbe

In the 1980s the Who Is A Jew controversy rocked the Israeli-American Jewish relationship. At its heart was a disagreement over gatekeeping; it should have been called Who Is A Rabbi? It was a struggle for the power of declaring who is in, and who is not, in the Jewish community. 

In other words, as our parashat hashavua, Nitzavim, puts it, who is included when we are told that we all “stand this day before HaShem” to enter into the Covenant of the Jewish people with each other and with this vision of holiness to which we are committed?

Rabbis officiate at identity rituals – brit milah, brit mitzvah, and conversion – and in the 1980s women were beginning to be admitted into progressive rabbinical schools. That made all progressive Rabbis suspect to the Israeli Orthodox establishment. The same anxiety was manifest when the first LGBTQ+ Rabbis were ordained.

This anxiety is understandable in a world in which identity and its attendant politics are a focus of much intensity, and we see it on all sides in our days. Interestingly enough, however, the ancient understanding of Jewish belonging was not defined in some “primitive” narrow way, but with a wide and surprisingly pragmatic embrace, as demonstrated in the first lines of the parashah (Deut 29.9-14):

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

You stand this day, all of you, before your G*d ‘ה – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every person in Israel

טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃

You, your children, your spouses, and the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer

In the first two verses we are told that class, gender, age and financial status are immaterial; we all are seen as equal before that which is Eternal. Note that the “stranger within the camp” – a term which is used to indicate the person who seeks to join the Jewish people through conversion in rabbinical Judaism – is included.

לְעׇבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃

  • to enter into the covenant of your G*d ‘ה, which your God ‘ה is concluding with you this day,

לְמַ֣עַן הָקִֽים־אֹתְךָ֩ הַיּ֨וֹם ׀ ל֜וֹ לְעָ֗ם וְה֤וּא יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃

in order to establish you this day as G*d’s people and in order to be your G*d, as promised you and as sworn to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The entire community enters the Covenant relationship with HaShem, and all, regardless of entry point, are seen as descendants of the ancestors, equally inheriting their status.

וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone,

כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃

but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our G*d ‘ה and with those who are not with us here this day.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that the commitment that the people are making on the day that they enter this Covenant agreement is binding upon their descendants, all the way down to us. 

This clearly shows that all those who had made it this far, who were still holding hands and making their way across the wilderness together, were equally invested in, and affirmed by, the Covenant relationship. And that we trusted it, and each other, enough to commit to passing it along to future generations.

That Covenant has been understood, from that day to this, as a mutual reliance: not only between HaShem and the Jewish people, but also between Jews; not only between Jews who know each other and share a congregation, a community, or a state, but also all those who came before us, and all who will, please G*d, come after us.

“This day,” in the first verse refers to Rosh HaShanah, according to the Baal Shem Tov. May all of us in the dawn of the New Year of 5783 find our place within our Jewish community strengthened and affirmed, through our own acts with each other, and for the covenant we keep with those to come.

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