Bamidbar 5779 – A People or a Religion?

By: Alan Bach

I received inspiration for this d’var from a podcast discussion between the host Jonathan Silver of the Tikvah Project and his guest, Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Shalem College in Israel. They discussed the growing divide between Israeli and American Jews. No longer do we live in an American society where support for Israel is automatic and where Israel can do no wrong. Not only are we as Jews attacked by far-right extremists, but we now experience the far-left who question Israeli policies especially in the area of the Occupied Territories. And this anti-Israel sentiment is now heard from our fellow Jews as well. Religious belief in America is diverse across a wide spectrum of beliefs, but Israelis are typically either Orthodox or Secular with a few who find themselves involved in the Mesorti or Conservative sect and the Reform sect.

I have given the dvar for Bamidbar for the last five years since it is my Bar Mitzvah parasha. This year, I went back and reread the parahsa with a different mindset. Bamidbar means, “In the Wilderness”, but in English this book is called Numbers. We completed the book of VaYikra last week and now transition to wandering in the desert where the revelation occurs. Tomorrow we celebrate Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai which begins the establishment of a formal book of law.

Verse 2 begins with G-d speaking to Moses, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.  You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.  Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house”.  This census begins the lineage of the Jewish people as 603,550 males over the age of 20 were counted.

The census, organized by tribe, establishes the numbers which defend the nation of Israel. The tribes flew their flags in the formation of the encampment. The count and the structure established a position of strength in hopes of avoiding war. Was there any premonition to the future that each of these tribes would spread the Jewish people to different parts of the world in the future? What would happen to the strength in numbers when there was no longer a single presence as one nation?  A common set of beliefs and morals were established to build the basis to form a nation based on the laws of the Torah. Would anything have changed knowing the state of modern day Judaism and the events leading up to present time over the past thousands of years?

The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines a religion as, “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal G-d or gods.” A nation is defined as, “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” So, where do we as Jews fit into these definitions? Most Americans think of Judaism as a religion first. The basis of our Jewish upbringing revolves around receiving a Hebrew School education, having a Bar Mitzvah, attending shul and building a social network of other Jews. In Israel, I believe people see themselves as a nation first and as a religion second. Those of us outside Israel do not inhabit a common land or speak Hebrew fluently.

Recently, in some heated Congressional politics here in the US, the allegiance to America over Israel was questioned. It is Jewish nature to feel a bond to Jews everywhere and especially to those Jews in Israel. But it cannot be disputed, that the vast majority of American Jews are patriotic to their home country. It is not just a yes or no or a right or wrong answer. As Jews, we owe our allegiance to both our home country and to our ultimate homeland, Israel. We as Jews have never been treated better in the history of the diaspora than we have been treated here in the US. Most people have created a successful and comfortable life. Let’s hope we never find ourselves forced into a position of having to give-up our dual loyalty.

The answer to the question – Are we a people or are we a religion is not so simple. The answer depends on where you live and the individual perspective you take. For those in the US we are part of a religion that has survived thousands of years in various locations because of our belief in a fundamental value system originating at Mt. Sinai. The argument can be made that we are a single people that have taken up residence in various host countries over the years and carried with us the same fundamental beliefs. But a people or a nation requires a common system of laws, a common culture, a common language and political structure to support everyday life. The only place that all these aspects exist today is in Israel. As American Jews, most do not understand and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.

Religion provides the underlying structure that governs the laws, the culture and the language that the state of Israel is built on. Just last week Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a government because of a single issue – the requirement from the opposition that all Israelis serve in the military no matter their religious beliefs. Will a three-year absence from formal study negatively impact a segment of society devoted to Torah study and the future of Judaism? I believe not. What happens to a nation formed on the foundation of religion if the Jewish people continue to exist, but the Jewish religion slowly fades away? Is it possible to have a Jewish People without Judaism?

Shabbat Shalom

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