I have always disliked John Lennon’s utopian anthem “Imagine”; Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, reminded me why.
In case you’ve somehow forgotten the lyrics of this ubiquitous tune, Lennon sings:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too. . .
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.
It’s the classic dream of the 60s, a world liberated from national boundaries, archaic creeds, and petty tribal loyalties. So why am I so resistant?
Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest—when I imagine a world with no religion, I’m unemployed. Yet I disliked this song long before I entered rabbinical school. Junger’s book clarifies why.
Tribe describes what often happens after soldiers return from battle and survivors of natural and manmade disasters resume ordinary life. Why, Junger asks, do so many find that despite its horrors, war may feel strangely better than peace, and calamity creates community? He argues that for all of its unprecedented material comforts, contemporary Western life can be terribly lonely. Conflict and catastrophe, by contrast, remind us what it is like to be a member of a tribe, a tight clan pledged to care and sacrifice for one another.
This culture, with its fierce devotion to kith and kin—is at odds with modern society’s drive toward economic—and moral—globalization. As columnist David Brooks notes, there is a sharp divide between those for whom loyalty to blood and historic ties takes precedence and those who emphasize generic obligations to all of humankind. If the universalists’ hymn is “Imagine,” the tribal ethos is embodied by the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own.”
I learned where my sympathies lay early in my rabbinate, at a series of interfaith gatherings, where I always found myself lumped in with the Catholics and Protestants. As a rabbi, I was inevitably seated with priests and ministers, as part of that family of faiths labeled “Judeo-Christian.” They were good people, and I did not take their company for granted; I was well aware that generations of American Jews had labored mightily to gain a place at that table, which meant acceptance into the social and religious mainstream. And yet. . . it wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Then—and even more so now, thirty years later—I identified with the outliers: the Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus, with the Native American shamans, the Wiccans and animists and pagans. I connected best with those on the periphery—not the proper mainline clergy in their grey business suits and collars but the women and men in bright, bold colors, flowing robes, funky hats and headdresses, the folks whose celebrations included pungent smelling foods, drums and dance, and chants offered up in ancient, guttural languages—just like my own.
I cast my lot with the tribes.
As a rabbi, to this day, I hear my calling to represent my tribe, the Jewish people. I honor our storied history. I revere the sacred tradition that fills my life with purpose, and insists, contra John Lennon, that there are, indeed, people and principles worth dying for. If this seems dangerously naïve, let me offer an important caveat: I am well aware that taken to extremes, tribalism devolves into racism and bigotry. This is a critical concern, and I will return to it soon enough. But here, at the outset, I refuse to let tribalism’s potential dangers eclipse its many-fold blessings.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield describes those blessings in his article, “Confessions of an Unrepentant Tribalist.” He writes:
It all comes down to two words: unconditional love, or at the very least, unconditional belonging. A tribe offers the experience of being loved and cared for not because of what you do, but simply because you are who you are. Once you are in the tribe. . . you are in, no matter what. It is that sense that no matter how wrong we may be, there is always a place for us.. Think of it as un-divorceable family on steroids, if you like. We all need that, and the only question is where and how we are going to get it.
I’ll add: Not only do we all need this kind of unconditional love—right now, we need it more than ever, because modern American life so often leaves us isolated and alone. Even when we are surrounded by people of good will, the emotional armor that we wear, both knowingly and unwittingly, insulates us from them. Our culture instructs us not to intrude or ask too much, to shy away from strangers, to keep out of others’ business. Living behind our closed doors and ubiquitous screens, we are frequently hyper-connected yet ultimately on our own. Our vaunted networks of Facebook friends are pale imitations of true tribal bonds. They have a real role to play, enabling us to share information across vast distances in time and space. But they can’t make your shivah minyan or dance with you at your wedding or bring you soup when you are sick. They won’t help you care for your new baby or your dying father and they definitely will not love you even when you are being a total jerk. Only the real, flesh and blood tribe has the power to lift us when we fall and stay with us, through thick and thin, as we struggle to get back up.
This is the immeasurable benefit that tribes confer upon their members: they love you and care for you even when it’s inconvenient—because you will do the same for them. That’s the nature of the brit—the sacred covenant—that binds you. And this is where John Lennon’s “brotherhood of man” inevitably falls short, for it simply isn’t possible—or even desirable—to love the entire 7.5 billion member human family with that kind of unconditional passion.
Most of us who have been parents—or, for that matter, children—know this in our gut. The mother or father who loves their own child neither more nor less than any other child of the universe is not a parent that you’d choose to raise you. You want someone to love you fiercely, vehemently, uniquely. And that’s the point. It’s ok—in fact, it is essential—to disproportionately love and nurture those closest to us. It’s no sin to take special care of our own family and own tribe. Indeed, Jewish tradition considers this a central obligation. From our roots in Abraham and Sarah’s ancestral clan to today’s diverse tribe—spanning the globe from Be’er Sheva to Brooklyn to Boise—our calling has always begun with Kol Yisrael areivin zeh ba-zeh—All of Israel, all the Jewish people, are responsible for one another.
Here at CABI, caring community is the soul of our mission: celebrating our simchahs, comforting our mourners, tending to our sick and lonely. We must always strive, however imperfectly, to learn and laugh together, to love one another in sickness and in health, and to maintain a special place in our hearts for our extended family, the land and people of Israel. As Hillel put it over two thousand years ago: “Im ayn ani li, mi li—If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
But here’s the catch—the critical caveat to which I promised to return and which any responsible tribalist must address: we cannot not stop there. For we know, all too well, what tribalism looks like when it runs amuck, when tribal pride degenerates into chauvinistic supremacy. History and today’s world stage are rife with wars pitting clan against clan, sect against sect. Countless conflicts rage, as arrogant bands spill endless blood over misbegotten power, privilege and honor. If we wish to make the case for tribalism, we have a strong obligation to guard against these potentially lethal pitfalls. Such precautions might begin with two guiding principles.
The first is easy in theory but surprisingly difficult in practice: Do not raise your side up by putting others down. Root passionately for your tribe. Sacrifice, serve, and advocate for them with all of your heart, soul, and might. But do not let your zeal for your community lead you down the rat hole of thinking that it is superior to everyone else’s. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes: “When one is clearer about what’s wrong with the other tribes than they are about what is right with their own, they are almost certainly walking down the racist path.”
Arrogance is a mask we wear to hide our weakness; real power is humble. Invidious comparisons are a sign of underlying insecurities. Tribes that are truly strong and secure can afford to be magnanimous in measuring others. This is an important lesson for us as twenty-first century Jews, for an honest appraisal of our sacred tradition acknowledges that a significant strain of Jewish thought declares our superiority over our non-Jewish neighbors.
That’s the understandable legacy of centuries of oppression. When others put us down—often with horrific brutality—we maintained the self-respect we needed to survive by acclaiming ourselves God’s elect. But the time and place for such boasting is now past. The American Jewish community is surely secure enough to stand tall, to realize we no longer need to assert our unique sense of destiny at others’ expense. In the words of two CABI members, who responded to a Facebook post I offered on this subject:
I have a hard time reading “chosen people” as “better people”. . .
It is not that others are better or worse, but that one is where they are and they cannot pretend to be otherwise. . . Like flowers, we all bloom at different times. Can a sunflower that has kissed the sun pretend that it hasn’t? Can a bud pry open its petals without being destroyed? Both are beautiful, unique, and part of something perfect, miraculous and essential.
This is the balance that we, the Jewish community, walk in this new year 5777. Let us learn to celebrate our chosenness, even as we recognize that others are also chosen, for their own unique missions. May the pride we take in our community’s accomplishments help us better hail those of our neighbors.
Which brings me to the second governing principle for successful tribes: Self-preservation is not enough. Strong communities extend their vision outward, using their hard-earned wisdom to bring healing to the world at large. After we take care of our own, we must also take care of the other. I’ve mentioned Hillel’s defense of tribalism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But of course that’s just half of the equation, as he famously adds: “U-ch’sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani—If I am only for myself, what am I?”
In my childhood years, the Jewish community paid too little heed to this principle. Our modus operandi was survival for its own sake. The goad my parents’ and grandparents’ generation trusted most to keep us in the fold was good old-fashioned guilt: since Hitler tried to wipe us out, we were obligated to keep the faith, whether we liked it or not.
This didn’t work very well back then—and it certainly won’t play today—for it begs the Darwinian question: Why does our tribe deserve to survive? If we want our children and grandchildren to be Jewish, we have to do better, to offer them inspiring answers to that query. For unlike previous generations, they have a vast array of options—countless tribes that will eagerly and adeptly welcome them if we don’t. They can find a new clan almost effortlessly, through soccer or politics or Meet Up or Crossfit or a thousand other possibilities. They certainly won’t join a synagogue out of guilt or obligation. Our young people—and lots of our older people, too—will vote with their feet unless we model a community that cares for them deeply and empowers them to work together with other tribes to repair our broken world. As it turns out, taking care of our own includes infusing them with a powerful sense of purpose they can carry into the wider world. Isaiah said it best, almost three thousand years ago:
It is too small a task for you to be My servant merely to preserve the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my liberation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Now there’s a vision I can imagine—and, God willing, pass along. It’s our mission here at CABI: to care for our own—visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, celebrating weddings and births and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs—while also working in the wider community, feeding the hungry, gardening with, tutoring, and advocating for refugees, and lobbying our legislature for justice.
That far-reaching vision lies at the heart of this sacred day, which deftly balances unconditional tribal love with universal aspiration. On Rosh Hashanah we revel in our uniqueness, with majestic melodies, sweet foods, and the shofar’s haunting call to community. We focus on teshuvah, on turning—or returning—to the values that have sustained the Jewish people throughout our history. But we don’t stop there, for Rosh Hashanah also celebrates Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. Today we remember that our little tribe is part of something so much bigger. We stand in awe before the Holy One and the vast mystery of Her works. And we add our uniquely Jewish voice—our small yet significant tribal song—to the magnificent, multi-vocal chorus of creation.
At the high point of this morning’s liturgy, the service for sounding the shofar, we sing: Aleynu l’shabayach l’adon ha-kol—Let us praise the Maker of all. . .
This is our tradition’s alternative to both “Imagine” and “We Take Care of Our Own”, living, like the Jewish people itself, in the creative tension between the two. It is, simultaneously, unabashedly tribal and ambitiously universal.
As Aleynu opens, we declare our special destiny, our unique Jewish mission to serve the Creator, whose covenantal relationship commands our worship. Then, in the second paragraph, the perspective turns, and we envision an age when all the nations of the earth will dwell in harmony, making real the vision of God’s—and humanity’s—oneness.
It’s complicated and paradoxical and a little unresolved—which is to say, it’s very Jewish—and very human.
And so, my friends, we journey together into another new year. May 5777 bring blessing to us, to the people of Israel, and to all of humankind. Let us embrace our little community—our tribe—with unconditional love—and may that love ripple out into a world that so dearly needs it.
If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?
If we are only for ourselves, what are we?
And if not now—when?