Im Kol Ha’amim
On my first day of university classes I woke up late, skipped breakfast, grabbed a book and rushed out of my hall of residence alongside a steady stream of fellow students heading in to start the term. As we reached the corner of the road, everyone turned right to cross towards the main campus buildings. I didn’t. I carried on, turned left to go to the tube station and machzor in hand, travelled up to The Sternberg Centre to take my seat in a giant marquee. My first day of university was also Yom Kippur.
Returning to halls after sundown, one of my friends commented ‘we didn’t see you today, where were you?’.
What was I supposed to say, what would they understand, what would they think?
I weighed up the options:
1.) Brush it off. There were lots of people there, it was a busy day, next time let’s try and sit together.
Pros: It’s plausible.
Cons: It’s a lie.
2.) The non-committal reply. ‘Yea i didn’t go in the end’. Offer no explanation, move on, hope everyone is still too new or too awkward to probe.
Pros: It avoids the Judaism conversation.
Cons: It’s still hiding.
3.) Tell them. ‘Well it’s Yom Kippur and it’s the holiest day of the Jewish year and well, I know I don’t necessarily look it but I’m sort of very Jewish.’
Pros: It’s honest.
Cons: Do I really want to be known as ‘the Jew’ before they know anything else about me? What conclusions might they draw from this about who I am? About what I believe? About how I see them?
Working in the Jewish community means talking about these kinds of conversations with people a lot. What do you say to your colleagues about taking the chaggim off work? What do you say to a child who doesn’t want to take time off school at the start of a new year because they don’t want to be different? How do you manage the sense that being Jewish in these moments, even in North West London, can be somewhat inconvenient, perhaps even deviant or troublesome.
It’s easier in so many ways to keep those things that make us different out of sight. And maybe there’s another layer too. Do we trust that others can interpret the complex identity jigsaw of a modern progressive Jew, still allowing us to be ourselves with all of our distinct components, instead of being defined solely by our Jewishness?
The notion that Jewishness in some way sets us apart is woven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Today’s Torah portion contains a great example not just of how this works but also of why it is sometimes so challenging.
“And God has affirmed this day that you are, as God promised you, an am segulah, a treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments. And God will set you in fame, renown and glory, high above all the nations that God as made, and you shall be as promised an Am Kadosh, a holy people to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 26:18-19)
The good: A special relationship with God, Torah- a rubric for living an ethical life, a sense of purpose and place.
The less good: A complicated relationship with other nations, with other people, a sense of superiority, the kind of specialness that leads to distance and separation.
If you’ve been in shul on a Friday night for kiddush, you might have noticed something happening towards the end of the blessing over wine. The traditional blessing goes ki vanu v’charta v’otanu kidashta mi kol ha’amim, You chose us and made us distinct from the peoples. Every week however, there is a smattering of people who, instead of singing mi kol ha’amim, from all the peoples, sing instead im kol ha’amim, with all the peoples.
This switching of two hebrew letters, changing the word from mi to im comes originally from Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. His chidush, his innovation, was that rather than saying Jews were chosen from other peoples, the text would rather read chosen im kol ha’amim, with all the peoples. Thus instead of what is known as a doctrine of election, he advanced what is described as a doctrine of vocation. Election is about relative value, vocation is about uniqueness and purpose.
Kaplan’s teaching offers us an opportunity to reflect on what it means to step away from the rhythm of secular life and into the realm of Jewish time in the coming weeks because with it come two different models of being; one where our difference takes us away from others, and another where acknowledging that which makes us different can also engender a curiosity about what makes other people unique as well.
Much discussion around diversity focuses on finding that which we have in common. It seeks to highlight sameness. Relationships are formed through the things that overlap, and the focus is on creating a sense of shared purpose that is strong enough to not be diminished by the threats that difference presents.
It’s the realm of different from- mi kol ha’amim. That which makes us who we are, that which is sacred, is also that which separates us, lifts us up and away from others. Difference is something we do elsewhere, because it threatens our ability to be together. In this paradigm, in order to be together we must seek an anchor in sameness, however small and reductive that sameness might be.
I’m increasingly intrigued by the potential for a richer and more expansive engagement with difference than this model offers. A model which sees difference not as something that separates us from others, but rather where our difference sits among a sea of other ways of being- im kol ha’amim.
In this realm we learn from encountering those who are not like us, it helps us understand new faces of the work of creation. We have our own distinct place, and sit amongst those who are equally created in the image of God, and who have their own unique and important part to play in the world we share. Difference is not something we do elsewhere, but something we talk about, share, invite others in to see, and reciprocate with a curiosity about that which makes them and their story and community distinct in its own way too.
I know that this year, after the rolling and rumbling months of conversation around antisemitism perhaps the last thing many of us are feeling like doing is highlighting our Jewishness and the difference that entails, but maybe that’s exactly the point. This year, this season, this moment, is an opportunity to share that which is rich and nurturing, that which sustains us, that which gives shape to our year and direction to our lives.
Otanu kidashta im kol ha’amim, you made us distinct along with all the other peoples. Distinct, and yet a part of something much bigger. Not distinct as defined by those who seek to discriminate or indeed by those who seek to advance a supremacist notion of Judaism, but distinct in a way that is so key to what this community is about, distinct as defined by the richness of our tradition and the sense of a sacred responsibility to leave this world just a little better than when we got here.
When I was asked where I spent that Yom Kippur I answered in a way I have regretted for years, mumbling something about a family commitment. In that moment I stepped back from an opportunity for people to get to know me better, and therefore also from an opportunity to invite reciprocal sharing from others.
Being together, im kol ha’amim, requires trust and curiosity, but the solidarity and mutual respect that flows from those encounters is a powerful innoculation against the challenges that we share and those that we would otherwise face alone.
Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe in whose world exists such beauty.