Sunday, December 19, 2010

Are you a MOT?

Parashat vayechi December 17, 2010
If someone came over and said, ‘Are you an MOT?’ What would you say? We know this popular phrase MOT means member of the tribe and describes Jewish identity in its most basic form which is that we are a tribal people. MOT is not about describing us as the people of the book or the religion of monotheism, the belief in one God as the source of all being. This phrase MOT does not take into consideration the Judaism of Maimonides or the Kabala. MOT transcends national borders and even time and place. MOT stands for the basic tribal structure that we as Jews supposedly descended from in ancient times.  And no matter where we hail from all of us who call ourselves Jews originate from that tent in the ancient desert or towns of Canaan, later to be known as Judea. In fact the word Jew itself refers to a person descended from the tribe of Judah. Everything about who we are appears to be from its inception a tribal identity.
Because of the Torah portion we are reading tonight we are all walking through a museum of history returning to the point of inception to the development of this tribal system for the ancient Israelites. Have we not evolved out of that ancient physical and spiritual existence?  The Torah portion for this week, “Vayechi” establishes the beginning of the formal tribal system. We see it happening in the pages of the Torah itself. Even before we became the world’s most famous ancient slave people by the beginning of the pages of Exodus which we shall read next week, Vayechi inaugurates our tribal formation with the final blessings of Jacob to his sons who themselves become the patriarchs of their respective tribes.
So if our spiritual and maybe our ethnic DNA as well are tribal in nature what then does that term MOT mean today? Does it still have the same power and relevancy for us as it did in ancient times?  This is not necessarily an easy question to address. Jews straddle between ethnic and religious identities. These identities supposedly binds us together as a people and yet our makeup is so diverse on so many different levels how can we really call ourselves a tribe given that diversity? That is what we have to grapple with as an outgrowth of this week’s parasha. Look how far we have come since the moment Jacob declared his sons to be chiefs of the tribes of Israel.
We can see the genesis of our tribal structure not only in Abraham and Sarah’s times. Yes, the patriarchs and matriarchs set the stage for the tribes. It is, however, with the final words of blessing by Jacob that we see the antecedents before the official birth of a nation that had been enslaved for 400 years in Egypt. 
Basically there are three things happening in this week’s portion that illustrate this tribal structure. First Jacob appeals to Joseph to take him back to Canaan and bury him in the ancestral cave of Mahpelah in Hebron. Second we see the guilt in Jacob’s eyes for not having buried Rachel in that cave. Jacob buried her on the road to Bethlehem. Third, Jacob blesses each son as the head of his own tribe.  The end result is that being a MOT back then meant belonging to one of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, identifying with the sacred land of Canaan and paying homage to the ancestors.  It is not clear where God fits in to the spiritual awareness of these new tribal leaders.
Jacob foretells the future with his blessing of the tribes. For example, Judah will wear the scepter of kingship one day.  Simeon and Levi represent weapons of violence and received a rebuke from Jacob for seeking revenge against the native population after the rape of Dina. They in fact, will be scattered throughout the all the other tribes. The tribe of Dan will be a serpent in the way a horned snake in the path that biteth the horse’s heels so that this rider falls backwards.” Thousands of years later the chief rabbinate of Israel will declare the Ethiopian Jews to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. Despite the fact that their Judaism practically bears no resemblance to anything we know as Judaism, the tribal roots trump the religious rites. We are tribal through and through.  Jacob blesses each child as a tribe with the kind of statement of character whether it is an admonition or a prediction of future behavior is up for debate. But the main point here for our purposes tonight is that this week’s parasha defined the Jewish nation as a series of tribes.
How far we have evolved from the days of our tribal roots in the land of Canaan!  How we have evolved into so many diverse ethnic and racial identities! Yet, we are still questioning what makes one a Jew? Are we ethnic and tribal or have we transcended those ancient boundaries of ethnicity?
Are we Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi or Ethiopian? Is the core of our Jewish identity the branches of Judaism such as Reform, Conservative, Hasidic and Orthodox or secular? Does our religious affiliation or ethnic identity define our identity as Jews?
What is so fascinating is when we add in the state of Israel to the mix. In a way now that we have a nation of many cultures of Jews we can see more clearly how we evolved and adapted, some would say acculturated, into larger cultures.  Hundreds of years from now will Israel create a new tribal structure that blends these historical distinctive traits, borne out of 2000 years of Diaspora, into a new religio-ethnic identity? Is it already happening before our very eyes?
This is why we see the continuing saga of parliamentary debate in the Knesset and the sounding of the alarm throughout World Jewry when an MK starts a new “Who is a Jew’ bill. We get so upset and mobilize because we know that we cannot afford to be excluded from the nation which is the same as being exiled from the tribe and cast into the wilderness.
What is not clear and is intriguing to us is how do we fit into this ancient narrative? Does it still work for us today? Are we really one people historically speaking? Or is the idea of our being one people more about theology than history?
Just like we who live in the Diaspora have challenges to our tribal roots so too does Israel face challenges as well. We have intermarriage and we are learning how to incorporate loved ones into our community who remain, spiritually speaking, outside the official framework of Judaism. Israel will have to deal with those issues more often in the future as well. Whether we are in fact many peoples living under the banner of a theological conviction of our being one people, we will have to figure out ways to balance that rootedness in the ancient tribal narrative versus being open and welcoming of newcomers and those who live with us even if they do not affiliate in a complete religious sense.
So when someone asks next time; ‘Are you a MOT?’ What will we say?  We are no longer a tribe in the traditional sense of the term. But we are a people with many different cultures, languages, racial and ethnic identities. Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote years ago.
”The Jews are a people. A people are a body of people who partake together in a social past and its heritage, a present and its problems, a future and its aspirations.   To outsiders it appears as a distinct identifiable historic entity. Viewed from within, it is marked by a sense of kinship and shared interests among its members. It is in sum a fellowship of tradition and a destiny. People then express a broad reality, yet political sovereignty and allegiance are not essential to it. Wherefore, both in what it says and leaves unsaid it fits the Jews.”
Some scholars say we are living in a post ethnic stage of Jewish life. I am not so sure about that assertion. There is something buried deep inside us that resonates with that spiritual DNA that resembles a tribal identity. How we see ourselves from within versus how others from outside of Judaism view us will influence how we answer that question. “Are you a MOT?”


Andy said...

Very iformative History lesson, with tremendous relavancy to today's thoughts and questions.
My Dad always told me before I was a MOT, I was Jr. memebr of the Colts Corral. For what that's worth! Thanks Rabbi Bloom!

Rabbi Arthur Segal said...

Shalom Chaverli Rebbe Brad:
Very Nice article.

Didn't the original leaders of Reform eschew the idea of tribalism and people-hood for we Jews, and instead called us a religion, not bound to pining for the return of the Temple, nor even of returning to Judea?

The Talmud teaches parabolically that before G!D thought of creating the universe, He had in His 'mind', the idea of creating B'nai Israel... not Pharisees, not Sadducees, not Zealots nor Essenes, but just plain Jews.

Is it at all possible to have us understand that since G!d is infinite, the ways to G!D are infinite, and hence no one group, has the right and only path (halakah) to the Divine? The labeling that we have done with all of our different sects, all vying for a piece of the Jewish economic pie, leading many to decide for each sect, 'who is Jew', or 'who is a Rabbi', or 'who can emigrate to Israel,' is destructive to our religion's spirituality.

Do you, my dear respected friend, see a day, when if one answers yes to being a MOT, that one is NOT asked immediately ,'what kind of Jew are you?'

Or do you believe that the toothpaste is sadly out of that proverbial tube forever?

Todah Rabbah!

Shalom uvracha,
Your friend,

Rabbi Arthur Segal

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom said...

Hey Andy. thanks for the comment. I get it. I am glad he shared with you that lesson. Your dad was a proud Jew.
Ah the colts. That is a whole different conversation. right?
see you soon.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom said...

Thanks for your comment. You are right about the history of the reform movement and its aversion to the ethnic aspects of Judaism. But that was over a hundred years ago and thankfully Reform Judaism changed and progressed into the mainstream of Judaism.
In regards to your question, I think we will always be living in a state of perpetual creative tension with each other. So much depends on events in the future that we cannot predict. But as far as our past is concerned, we have been so diverse. The idea that we are one or were one people and one way may not have been the fact. We are competitive and we may always have to face those kinds of question you raised. To ofset that we must count upon values that we all share as important to maintaining our integriy as a people which is why we need God in our lives to balance out what we as people do to each other.