Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Palace built on Boats: Seeking Unity amid Diversity

Open up the book of “Standard Sermons for the holiday of Shavuot”, and you’ll undoubtedly find a sermon along the following lines:

Exodus 19, the chapter which describes the giving of the Torah at Sinai, opens with a beautiful – and rare - image of Jewish unity: Israel encamped there opposite the mountain(Exodus 19:2).
Noticing the singular form of the Hebrew וַיִחַן Rashi expounds:
and Israel encamped there
as one person with one heart
ויחן שם ישראל
כאיש אחד בלב אחד

Torah can only be revealed where unity exists. Truth can only be revealed in loving community. We must become like one person, with one heart, in order to regain the power of Sinai and the existence of Divine truth among us.
Hearkening back to this mythical unity, the sermon will ask us to set aside our differences in order to be subsumed by the corporate identity which is the Jewish people.
This is a moving message, but I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat whenever I am asked to suspend difference in favor of sweet smelling unity.
I was thinking of this discomfort the other day when a Bronfman alumna shared the following story:
This weekend, an old friend asked to meet me for a drink.  After a few, he told me why he'd called me: his mother had casually mentioned that her mother and her mother's parents were Jewish.  He was, needless to say, shocked, having been raised a Christian. When he found out what matrilineal descent meant, he felt violated by the Jewish people who were "making' him be Jewish." While he knew that this wasn't personal or malicious, my friend felt he had lost his autonomy. He asked me if he's suddenly a bad Jew. He asked if he could still celebrate Christmas. He asked if he could still eat bacon.  Drinks were on me that night.  
Her story reminded me of the often overlooked fact that when the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, they didn’t openly embrace the close encounter with God, rather they ran the other way: “And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightenings, and the voice of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off.” (Exodus 20:14). Rashi describes this “rush to the exit” at Sinai: “They recoiled backwards twelve miles… and the ministering angels came and tried to push them back…”
What made the Israelites run far away from God at Sinai? What makes our young friend so livid at the discovery of his ancestral identity? Why did many of us feel a deep discomfort at discussions of Jewish unity? Perhaps there is a shared theme to these very disparate discomforts.
At the core of all these experiences is a deep loss of autonomy, without recognizing the individual’s right to define themselves on their own terms. A pervading paternalism is insinuated: I know better than you the meaning of your own life.
Whenever people start talking about the need for “more unity”, I feel like all the air had been sucked out of the room. The insinuation is usually: “everyone should be united – around my understanding of (fill in the blank): Judaism/politics/human rights etc.” It is the turning of Sinai into the Tower of Babylon, a time when “the entire land was one language and few words” (Genesis 11:1).
But I am equally uninterested in the opposite, the anti-Tower of Babel, where everyone walks off to their separate ways. Is there a way to talk about unity and solidarity without overriding diversity?
In a midrash, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai offers such an image. He moves from your standard “unity metaphors” into an image that creates room for individuals and communities independent standing:
רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר משל לאחד שהביא שתי ספינות וקשרם בהוגנים ובעשתות והעמידן בלב הים ובנה עליהם פלטרין.
כל זמן שהספינות קשורות זו בזו פלטרין קיימים פרשו ספינות אין פלטרין קיימים (ספרי דברים שמו)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: This is like a person who brought two ships and anchored them together and placed them in the middle of the sea and built upon them a palace. As long as the ships are tied to each other – the palace exists. Once the ships separate from each other – the palaces cannot exist. (Sifre on Deuteronomy, #346)

A Palace Built on Boats: The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipor
How different this vision is from the tower of Babel. Both attempt to build towers in the sky, but the latter is built as a second floor upon a foundation of diversity. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai talks about two boats, but I imagine this palace being built upon many boats. Each person, or each group, is valued here as an independent entity, with their own boundaries, their own conceptions of truth. This is the way God created the world, full of diverse human beings with independent minds, a myriad of languages and opinions.
And yet, each boat is asked to give up some of the freedom that an autonomous boat was built for, and tie themselves alongside the others. Why would we do such a thing?
Perhaps because we realize that life is not solid ground but rather a rocky ocean; that one boat alone in the vast ocean is too vulnerable. Perhaps because we are tired with life in the marina – full of fancy big boats, each with their own agenda, but without the cumulative power of the collective. Perhaps because while we yearn to live our own truth and are wary of being subsumed, we also realize that life receives meaning when it transcends the day to day and tries to build a palace in the sky.
There is something deeply tolerant about this vision of unity. The inherent paradox of tolerance is that despite the fact that I think you are wrong, I seek to empower you. Tolerance is the opposite of paternalism: I respect you on your own terms – because I believe enabling your opinion is crucial for my own ability to arrive at the truth. Perhaps our floating boats building a palace in the middle of the ocean are disparate truths which are willing to be tied to each other in order to allow for the creation of a larger palace.
This image allows us to return to revelation at Sinai with fresh eyes. While some hold that the revelation at Sinai was in one divine voice, given to a people unified with one heart, a famous midrash disagrees, claiming that the revelation at Sinai was a multi-vocal (pluralistic) experience, in which each person was recognized as an individual, experiencing not only a personally relevant revelation, but also hearing their own version of the Torah:

א"ר לוי נראה להם הקב"ה כאיקונין הזו שיש לה פנים מכל מקום, אלף בני אדם מביטין בה והיא מבטת בכולם. כך הקב"ה כשהיה מדבר כל אחד ואחד מישראל היה אומר עמי הדבר מדבר, אנכי י"י אלהיכם אין כת' כאן, אלא אנכי י"י אלהיך.
א"ר יוסי בר' חנינא ולפי כוחן של כל אחד ואחד היה הדיבר מדבר עמו. ואל תתמה על הדבר הזה, שהיה המן יורד לישראל כל אחד ואחד היה טועמו לפי כוחו, התינוקות לפי כוחן, והבחורים לפי כוחן, הזקנים לפי כוחן. (פסיקתא דרב כהנא פסקא יב)
R. Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though He were a statue with faces on every side, a thousand people looking at her and she is looking at them all. So, too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, "The Divine word is addressing me." Note that scripture does not say, "I am the Lord your God" (אלהיכם), but "I am the Lord thy God" (אלהיך).
Moreover, said R. Yosi ben R Hanina: The divine word spoke to each and every person according to their particular power. And do not wonder at this, for when the manna came down for Israel, each and every person tasted it in keeping with his own power... (Pesikta DeRav Kahana, 3rd Century Midrash, Land of Israel; Piska 12 pg 249)

If God is a God who holds many truths (“These and those are the words of the living God”), and the Torah was revealed in many voices, than a vision for Jewish unity must be one that takes into account people’s individual truths, accepted on their own terms. And yet, the plurality of Judaism (or of American public discourse, for example) should not be a moment where we simply give up on a vision of the wider collective, and allow each boat to sail independently off to sea. This Shavuot, I pray we can build a community where our independent boats are recognized in their diversity, yet anchored together in service of a grander vision, a palace of truth we can build together in a world that is a stormy ocean. 

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Bamidbar / Shavuot | Text and the City