A Member of the Tribe

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/21

     We live in an age of acronyms, and with the new technologies of communication that we are constantly using – email, twitter, FB, texting –  the abbreviations seem to be growing exponentially day by day.  As my children will tell you I am no expert on these matters, and so I am treading a bit into uncharted waters, but I would like to see where you are with these things, so I am going to give you a little quiz.  If you know what the following acronyms mean, raise your hand – and we will work our way up in degree of difficulty – 

     LOL – how many know it?  What does it mean?  TBH?  TBT (throwback Thursday on FB)?  OMG?  (a good one for rabbis to know).  OTD?  And here is a last one for you – MOT – member of the tribe.

     That last acronym, MOT, member of the tribe, I heard from a long time member who was asking me about whether someone was Jewish or not – “is that person,” he said to me, “an MOT?”  This was a few years ago, and when I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, he patiently explained to me the meaning of the term – is the person a member of the tribe – in other words, is the person Jewish or not.

     On the surface it is a little silly sounding, but underneath the surface it is a very interesting way of asking the question.  You are not asking is the person an MOF – member of the faith.  You are using the world tribe, which automatically carries a connotation of ethnicity – that there is not just a religious Jewish identity, there is also an ethnic, tribal Jewish identity, a sense of being connected by family, not only by faith.    

     This sense of Jewish identity comes to us naturally, and it is ancient.  After all, in the Torah, our oldest document, we read about the Shivtei Yisrael, the 12  – tribes – of Israel.  And tribal identity is a central biblical theme.  It is a major question in the Torah as to which tribe gets which territory in ancient Israel, and in fact the territories are named after the tribes.  In the book of Judges, after the Israelites have entered the land, it is clear that tribal identity is much stronger than national identity – the tribes fight with one another, they vie for power, there is constant tension, alliances are formed.  And it is also clear that in biblical times a person was much more connected to their tribal identity, and much more loyal to their tribe, then they were to the Jewish people as a whole.

     Over time that changed, and the national identity became the primary one.  One of the most important moments in that transition is described in this morning’s haftara, from the book of First Samuel.  The first verse of the text sets the stage – the prophet Samuel invites the people up to Gilgal, and there, he says, ונחדש שם המלוכה – we will establish a monarchy.  A king to rule over not a single tribe, but all the tribes together.  And part of the king’s job is to create a sense of national unity and to deemphasize tribal identity.  King David advances this agenda by creating a national capitol, Jerusalem, and centralizing power there, and then his son Solomon furthers that process by constructing what would become THE national symbol, the Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  The Temple belonged to all of the tribes equally, and it allowed for the celebration of national holy days like Pesah or Shavuot.

     But tribal identity still remained a part of Jewish life.  That is why even today people can strongly identify as Jews without doing anything religiously Jewish.  That is why the connection between Jews in the diaspora and the land of Israel and Israelis is so strong – that isn’t about religion!  Most Israelis are secular, and the truth is most diaspora Jews are secular as well!  It is about a tribal sense of connection, of being part of one ethnic identity, one large family.  That is also why I get so many emails from people that celebrate things like the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes.  As far as I know Episcopalians and Catholics don’t send emails to each other about how many members of their respective faith traditions have won Nobel Prizes.  But Jews take such pride in the accomplishments of other Jews, and in the same way feel ashamed when a fellow Jews does something terrible – I am sure we all remember the name Bernie Madoff.  And we’ve all done this – you hear about someone in the news who has done something horrible and the first thing you think is ‘oy I hope that person is not Jewish!’  Even today, 3000 years after the people asked for a king, Jewish tribal identity stays strong.

     In fact, I would argue it is growing even stronger.  If the much talked about Pew Study from last year about Jewish identity showed anything, it showed that Jews are more likely today to identify tribally as Jewish rather than religiously.  In fact religious behaviors were at the very bottom of the list in virtually every statistical category in the study – while tribal factors, like shared culture, remembering the Holocaust – and Jewish humor – were towards the top.

     My colleague Rabbi Sid Schwarz from Washington has argued that more and more Jews are dividing up into two categories – there are tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.  Tribal Jews focus on Israel, they go to the AIPAC convention, they may have strong ties to the Federation, they eat bagels and lox, they know what is happening in the Jewish community, they give to Jewish causes, they watch Seinfeld and old reruns of Woody Allen movies, they feel great pride when a Jew wins a Nobel Prize.  But religion is by and large unimportant to them.  They may come for HHD services in the fall, they probably light a menorah during Hanukah and go to a Passover seder, but for the most part they live entirely secular lives.

     Covenantal Jews are exactly the opposite.  They focus on religious life, their Judaism is centered more around a synagogue than it is the Federation or AIPAC, they are personally observant, regular shul attenders, feel a sense of being commanded religiously, perhaps observe Shabbat and keep kosher.  Their concern is more with the covenant between God and Israel than it is with the connection between them and their fellow Jews.

     Of course the truth is in real life people don’t break down into easily identifiable categories.  Much more commonly people are some mix of the above, a certain percentage of their Jewish energy and identity is played out tribally, another percentage plays out covenantally.  What does seem to be true is that the percentages are changing – the importance of tribal identity is clearly growing rapidly, while the sense of covenantal identity is diminishing.  What we have to be careful of is focusing so much on one that we forget about the other.  In some ways it is precisely the interplay between the two that makes Jewish life unique – we are both a faith tradition and an ethnic identity.  That is a dynamic that no acronym can capture – instead it must be lived every day, in all of its complexity – and any person who lives Jewish life that way will without question be an MOT – a full fledged member of the tribe – 


Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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