What does it mean to be a member of a “tribe”? I get an inkling during weeks like these, when the majority of the world is consumed by a quadrennial soccer tournament, and a small slice is convulsed over the abduction of three teenage boys.
L’havdil, I know. But somehow both events — one celebratory and somewhat artificial, the other horrific and as real as it gets — turn disparate, even feuding individuals into a unified mass. The impulse is to gather with others like ourselves, wrap ourselves in the symbols of our tribes, and celebrate and grieve in words or ways we suspect only other members of the tribe fully understand. Those with a global, cosmopolitan worldview get in touch with a nationalism they thought they had left behind. And those alienated from other members of their tribe — separated by ideology, class, belief — suddenly make common cause with their kinfolk.
Israel is said to be experiencing a rare moment of unity as its population prays and rallies for the safe return of the kidnapped yeshiva boys. That hasn’t entirely squelched the usual arguments over politics and security. But with a few exceptions, the language has been muted to acknowledge the pain of the parents, the universal fear for the teens’ safety, and every Israeli’s own sense of anxiety in raising children in a lousy neighborhood. Right and Left, religious and secular, settler and peacenik — the abductions have reminded them and their counterparts in the Diaspora that they are all Jews.
You could argue that it is traumas like these that prove Benjamin Netanyahu’s point that Israel is a “Jewish state,” united by — what exactly? Not just trauma, we hope. More than one writer has pointed out that asking Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state” is the height of chutzpa when the Jews haven’t figured out what they mean by “Jewish.” Are they united by religion? National identity? Biology? Historical memory?
Yes, “Jewish” is a matter of behavior and religion, but I wouldn’t press that point too strongly. If you demand certain behaviors or beliefs as a measure of Jewish belonging, you end up writing a lot of people out of the enterprise. (Many in the religious community would be happy to excise members of the tribe who don’t follow certain behaviors. See the conversion process in Israel, for example.) A certain amount of “blood” identity, meanwhile, has its advantages. It forces Jew A to accept Jew B as a Jew beyond each’s ideological and denominational definitions.
But if the Jewish definition of “tribe” is not (only) about belief, or (only) about having a Jewish mother (setting aside patrilineal descent), what is it? Here are some possibilities:
• learning a particularist language or languages, sometimes but not always literally;
• sharing a historical and textual narrative and finding one’s place in that story;
• sharing and learning from a particular historical experience/s;
• sharing certain folk behaviors, from foodstuffs and literature to music and humor;
• often but not always sharing a theological worldview and a language of prayer and spiritual connection;
• often but not always sharing a calendar and rhythm for ritual and shared observance;
• often but not always sharing geography — neighborhoods, villages, and for some a country;
• feeling a sense of mutual responsibility to other members of the tribe — not necessarily an exclusive responsibility, but perhaps the sort of responsibility a mother feels to her own child ahead of other children, or a sibling feels to a sibling ahead of the rest of humanity — the kind of mutual responsibility so many of us felt this week.
Think, for example, how the spectrum (some would say glut) of Jewish institutions reflects different aspects of tribal belonging: textual fluency, meaningful davening and meditative experiences, the arts, political activism, to name a few.
Tribalism gets a bad name, especially when it is considered a synonym for “parochialism” or even “chauvinism.” Its critics will cite Korach, the bad guy in this week’s Torah portion, whose assertion that the “whole nation of Israel is holy” suggests other nations are less worthy, even less human.
In practice, tribalism is responsible for misery across the planet. Just pick your favorite insurgency.
And yet tribal identity can be a powerful force for good, when it is not seen as a sign of superiority or an excuse for bigotry. The Jewish impulse to serve humanity is inspired in large part by our particularist languages, behaviors, and affinity. It is Torah that tells us, over and over, that the pain felt by our people is a reminder to identify with the pain felt by other peoples.
We learn to see ourselves as part of something bigger than our own tribe because our tribal practices and beliefs — the counterculture that we created to distinguish ourselves from the wider culture — model and reinforce that message. It is those who dedicate themselves to promoting and teaching this language, and creating a shared sense of Jewish identity, who put the “Jewish” in “Jewish state” and “Jewish people.” Otherwise, Jewish “peoplehood” becomes just an accident of birth or geography.