Monday, July 11, 2011
E Pluribus Unum
"E Pluribus Unum" is one of the official mottos of the United States. It's a Latin phrase meaning "From Many, One." While it originally suggested that from the many colonies there should emerge a single nation, it has also come to suggest that from the many races, ethnicities and cultures of individual Americans there should emerge a single people. Although this idea of a melting pot is uniquely American, I believe that it ties in quite nicely with Jewish values as well.
Just as the American motto alludes to the fact that it doesn't matter how famous your family was or what your current socioeconomic status is - we are all Americans - the Jewish approach is similar in that it doesn't matter what your family's customs were or what your current denomination is - we are all Jews. And just as it doesn't matter whether you are black or white or liberal or conservative - you are an American - so too, it doesn't matter whether you are Ashkenazi or Sephardic or religious or secular - you are part of the Jewish people.
Unfortunately, intolerance among Jews can be found in all directions. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a Reform synagogue in Rhode Island conducted a special service to which they invited recent Jewish refugees from Europe. Many of those refugees came to the service wearing hats or kippot, which at the time was against Reform practices. A prominent member of the congregation demanded that everyone remove their head coverings. Although the rabbi of the congregation was extremely upset by the man's behavior, he felt too intimidated to do anything.
Similarly, there are some Orthodox Jews who too easily brand their less observant coreligionists as "heretics" or "non-believers." Yet, prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God's concealment and therefore cannot apply the religious laws concerning heresy to modern-day Jews who question their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong to harm those who deny even Judaism's most basic beliefs. Not only should we not hurt such people, we should help them if the situation ever presents itself.
It takes a considerable amount of humility and tolerance to refrain from forcing our beliefs upon others, but that's exactly what we should strive for. To do so, objective ethical standards must be upheld, while the more subjective areas of life can be left to the individual. It's ironic that people tend to focus so much on the subjective when it is really the objective that matters most. For example, some regard those with whom they disagree politically or religiously as bad people, instead of simply judging their overall behavior to determine what kind of person they are. This needs to change if we are to produce a better world.
One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide - not force - others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality. Then, we will truly represent a motto as great as "E Pluribus Unum."