‘Tribe’ needn’t be a pejorative label

‘Tribe’ needn’t be a pejorative label

I am not a well man. In my middle age I have fallen in love again — with the Jewish People. To be more precise, this is not something that just “happened” to me, but has been my conscious decision. Just as I have willed to love the most important people in my life — my mother, my children, my wife and myself — as a natural extension of this I have recommitted myself to the well-being and flourishing of my tribe, the Jewish People.

I use the controversial word “tribe” intentionally. As a religiously liberal Jew and ordained Reconstructionist rabbi, I wish to say a word in favor of tribalism, that most misunderstood concept. The leadership of my beloved and venerable movement unfortunately used that word recently as a slur against opponents of the new Reconstructionist policy allowing rabbis to intermarry. It was claimed that those who defend endogamous marriage for the rabbinate are devoted not to Judaism, but to “tribalism.”

Jews sometimes joke that we are members of a tribe. I believe we are right to think so. While this may offend other liberal-minded Jews, “tribalism” to me is not a curse word. It is rather an inescapable fact of life, even in today’s rootless, cosmopolitan America of weak social bonds. The human species is a tribal species and, try as we might, we can never escape it. All evidence shows that people need a mediating identity in between the individual person and the vast whole of humanity. We must belong to something, somewhere, that is larger than ourselves but smaller than the universe. The perennial question therefore for each of us is not “tribe or no tribe,” but rather, “which tribe?” And following then also, “what kind of tribe?”

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionism, understood this phenomenon and called the Jewish version of tribalism “ethical nationhood.” Kaplan is often considered the most original thinker ever produced by American Jewry. It was he who pioneered the concept of “Judaism as a civilization,” and he who placed Jewish peoplehood at the very center of Jewish life. Kaplan did more than simply understand the necessity and benefits of belonging to a tribe; he felt Jewish in his kishkes and erected an intellectual edifice to support and explain his innermost feelings. In his biographer Mel Scult’s felicitous phrase, Kaplan was primarily “a man of the group.” Digging beneath his turgid prose, one discovers that Kaplan was also a lover who could write of “the thrill of being a Jew.”

Sociological conditions are greatly different today from Kaplan’s time, and we are freer than ever to devote ourselves to increasingly varied tribal options. Liberals, feminists, LGBT, environmentalists, birdwatchers and perhaps even Republicans are all decent tribes that may have much to teach us. But if my colleagues are to carry the title rabbi with integrity, I believe we must always make the Jewish People our primary tribal commitment. This is arguably no less true for all the loyal sons and daughters of our people.

All of the above explains why I recently joined with some two dozen fellow rabbis to found Beit Kaplan: the Rabbinic Partnership for Jewish Peoplehood. We are not a new denomination or a split in the Reconstructionist movement. Through intellectual debate and leadership, we seek only to restore some moderation and balance as well as Kaplanian wisdom to the movement we love, and perhaps ultimately to liberal Judaism as a whole.

In criticizing tribalism, the current Reconstructionist leadership does have a point. History clearly shows the potential dangers of a tribal mentality. Unchecked by a spirit of humility, openness and tolerance, it can easily shade into a self-centeredness that leads ultimately to xenophobia and racism.

But there is also such a thing as a tribalism of ethics and integrity, one that expresses our highest Jewish values as in the famous Torah verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We demonstrate admirable devotion in liberal Jewish circles to the first part of that sentence. But what about the second part of the verse? In our neglect of the concerns of klal yisrael — the Jewish people as a whole — as evidenced by the sanctioning of intermarried rabbis and a related retreat from support for the State of Israel, the argument can be made that liberal Jews have come to love everybody but ourselves.

What can we do about that? I would like to see the Reconstructionist movement pay greater attention again to the needs of klal yisrael, as we once did. Like any individual or group, we must maintain healthy boundaries in a world that constantly pushes up against them. We must stop talking as if the man in the black hat or knitted kippah and the woman wearing a wig are our enemies, when they are in fact our brother and sister. We must stop demonizing Israelis who do not share our political outlook, and end our pained ambivalence about the State of Israel, the greatest accomplishment of the Jewish People in modern times. I do not always agree with my wife or my mother, and sometimes I may not even like them very much. But I remain loyal. So too, we must be in a relationship of commitment and responsibility to the Jewish People at all times.

To me, that is exactly what love is. I am asking us to do no less than love ourselves, love our family, love our tribe and love the universe — and in that particular order. A healthy love of self does not preclude love of others, but is in fact the very foundation upon which love of others must be built. But then again, I am that strangest of creatures, a middle-aged Reconstructionist rabbi in love, and lately I have been feeling rather unwell.

Rabbi David Osachy is a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor in Jacksonville, Fla. A native of Pittsburgh, he was The Chronicle’s Teen Scene columnist from 1981 to `1983.