Inconvenient Truths is a series of intermittent postings highlighting concepts calling for changes in thought and action resisted, deplored, or denounced by some.
The Messianic Jewish think-tank Hashivenu has seven core principles, of which the fourth is this: “The Jewish people are ‘us’ not ‘them.’” This principle assumes a foundational unity among all of the seed of Jacob. This unity is termed Achdut Yisrael—the unity of Israel. This is for some an Inconvenient Truth.
Achdut Yisrael is the God-ordained, familial, covenantal unity which binds together all of the seed of Jacob. Its contours are outlined in four texts which speak of am echad (one people), and its proper outcome is Ahavat Yisrael – love for Israel. (We will explore Ahavat Yisrael in another posting of Inconvenient Truths. For now, let’s just take apart this short definition of Achdut Yisrael).
This unity is God-ordained. It is not something invented out of whole cloth by rabbis, priests, ministers, theologians, or carnival barkers. It is a reality that God wanted to see in the world, which is why he preordained it and why we may find it imbedded in the warp and woof of Scripture and trace its trajectory as a theological discovery (which is not the same as an invention).
This unity is also familial, applying to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Sarah and Rebecca, Rachael and Leah. The Jewish people are foundationally a flesh and blood family. This truth is out of focus in a day when we have overspiritualized spirituality, thinking of people as essentially souls who have to spend some time temporarily in flesh suits. Not exactly, Mr Plato and Mr Plotinus! The Bible sees embodiment as essential to being human. That’s why we await a general resurrection of all the people who ever lived. Spirits are naked and in an unnatural state apart from bodies. It was when God breathed into man’s flesh and blood nostrils the breath of life (man’s spiritual essence) that man became a living soul. You can see, can’t you, that from the Bible’s point of view, there is no true humanity apart from embodiment. And every human body-person is a member of a family, part of a people, even part of a tribe. Even the resurrected Messiah is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is not some generic Savior, but was, and everlasting shall be a Jew, a member of the family of Jacob.
While the Jewish people are at the root a genetic tribal unity, this unity is not only tribal: it is also covenantal. The divine covenants with Abraham and at Sinai are at the heart of this unity, although other covenants are included as well. Through the Abrahamic Covenant, and its sign, ritual circumcision, a horizontal relationship is created among all Jews. Similarly, in the confirmation of the Sinaitic Covenant on the plains of Moab (Deut 29:9-14), we are told that this covenant of obedience to a body of law applies not only to those who were there that day, but to those who were not there that day, meaning all the people of Israel throughout time. All of the family of Jacob are bound together, with a common identity and shared responsibilities. This is why Jewish tradition rightly says,”kol yisrael averim zeh bazeh—all Israel is responsible for one another.” This covenantal bond of identity, accountability and mutual responsibility is at the heart of Achdut Yisrael.
The contours of this unity are broadly outlined in four biblical texts which name am echad/one people: Gn 11:6, 34:16, 22; Esther 3:8. The first of these texts, Genesis 11:4, speaks of God’s judgment upon the generation of the Tower of Babel, reminding us of the strength that comes from unity: “ADONAI said, ‘Look, the people are united, they all have a single language, and see what they’re starting to do! At this rate, nothing they set out to accomplish will be impossible for them!’” What was true for Babel is certainly true for Israel: united we stand, divided we fall.
In the second and third texts, Genesis 34:16, 22, the Sons of Jacob are driving a hard bargain with the Shechemites, requiring of them that all the men be circumcised so that they might become covenant partners and therefore one with the Israelites. Here the horizontal reciprocal covenantal aspect of Achdut Yisrael is at the forefront.
In the fourth and final text, Esther 3:8, Haman the Agagite tells King Achashverosh “There is a particular people (am echad) scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people; moreover, they don’t observe the king’s laws. It doesn’t befit the king to tolerate them.” Here the covenantal unity of Israel is stressed, particularly her cohesion through the mitzvot of Torah.
So how is Achdut Yisrael, the God-ordained, familial, covenantal unity which binds together all of the seed of Jacob, an Inconvenient Truth?
- Achdut Yisrael calls into question the internal factionalism characteristic of the Messianic Jewish world, and of our cousins, the Jewish Missions world. It is not seemly to chronicle here how competitiveness (rather than competition), dirty dealing, and bile are a recurrent and sometimes constant factor among the organizations and leaders of these worlds, but anyone who has been around for a while will bear witness that this is so. In some locales world-wide while leaders and congregations will readily and rightly affirm their oneness, there seems to be an inability to disagree without denunciation and polarization. We need to be careful that our disagreements are always family matters, and not matters where we expel, isolate and stigmatize one another as if we were strangers and estranged.
- Achdut Yisrael calls into question the habit of thought and speech by which some Jews who believe in Yeshua speak of the Jewish people and its leaders as a distrusted or second-ranked other. We might call this the “them-ification” of the Jewish people. Some talk about “the rabbis” as if they are a Mafia clique, the rabbinic tradition as if it is somebody else’s problem, and speak of the wider Jewish community and even their own family members as “unsaved Jews,” treating them primarily not as family but as a target audience. Underneath all of this is a current of us-them, a habit of thought, speech, and action that holds the wider Jewish world and its leaders at a distance. Despite their entrenched status, these habits need to be called into question in view of the fact that all of the descendants of Jacob are a God-ordained familial and covenantal unity.
- Achdut Yisrael calls into question the rejectionism, laxity, factionalism and even animosity with which many Messianic Jews view adherence to Jewish communal standards of Torah observance. Even Haman knew that all Jews are called to observe a body of laws that set us apart from all other peoples. This covenantal way of life is intrinsic to our unity as a people under God and with each other. Yet all of us know Messianic Jews and Messianic Jewish leaders who oppose this way of life, who even flaunt their rejection of it, considering it theologically passé. In the main, we as a movement are lax about being Torah observant, factionalistic about it when we do consider it, and many/most of our leaders categorically reject that we should obey Torah in the ways that other Jews do. How does this advance and manifest Achdut Yisrael? Why do some/many consider it to be out of the question that we should obey Torah in harmony with Jewish communal precedent, that community to whom the Torah was given? When we separate from our people and their covenantal life, erecting alternative standards that stand in judgment over theirs, claiming to be “more biblical” than the People of the Book, are we advancing Achdut Yisrael?
- Achdut Yisrael calls into question our passivity concerning the plight and progress of Jews whoever they are and wherever they may be. When Torah-living, aliyah, and spirituality are advancing in the wider Jewish world do we rejoice? Do we applaud, contribute and even participate? If not, why not? And when Jews are being persecuted in France or elsewhere, or when Jews are poor and hungry anywhere in the world, including our own city, do we consider it to be our problem too? Do we stand as mute witnesses when other Jews stand to benefit from experiencing the spiritual infusion made available through the resurrected Messiah whom we ourselves have encountered? In short, do we think, speak and act like the whole Jewish people is family, and if so, what kind of family members are we being toward other Jews?
Achdut Yisrael is an Inconvenient Truth, and I will be the first to admit to feeling threatened by the weight of its implications. But that does not mean that any of us are exempt from examining ourselves and making new beginnings in all of these areas.
Let the wisdom of Rabbi Tarfon challenge us as we seek to improve our lives in view of Achdut Yisrael. He outlined our responsibility this way:
It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it (Pirke Avoth 2:16).