Which is better, unity with differences or unity without differences? Most people would say unity without differences is better, but Orthodox Judaism underlines unity with differences.
An ancient Jewish ritual called bikurim, saw Jews bring an annual basket of fruit from their homesteads to Jerusalem. These baskets were placed before the altar and then given to the priestly class, the kohanim.
Each family was represented by a separate basket which begs the question why they didn’t pool their fruit in one large basket? Would it not have made more sense to bring one large basket to G-d and proclaim it a joint gift from all His children?
Let’s put this in modern terms. The Jewish people are diverse. We have Ashkenazim, Sefardim, hasidim, hareidim, Conservatives, Liberals, etc. We each have our own groups and congregations where we get along with those who are like-minded. Yet, on occasion, we gather in large international conferences and celebrate our unity.
On these occasions we celebrate our common Jewishness despite the kaleidoscope of our individual expressions. We don’t highlight our differences at these conferences because differences clash with unity. We set them aside and celebrate our commonality.
Why then didn’t our ancestors do the same? Rather than each homestead bringing a separate basket, they could have placed all their fruits in one basket.
The Marvel of Diversity
If Judaism believed that there was only one way to understand G-d, we would not have tolerated diversity within Orthodox ranks. We would have insisted that all Jews must believe and practice in the same way. And while there are some Jewish groups who feel this way, who preach a “my way or the highway” approach, this is not a common Jewish approach.
When my G-d is limited to the way I understand Him, anyone who disagrees with my understanding is in denial of truth. If I am truly passionate about my G-d, I must work to convince others of this truth. If they rejected my truth, I would have a hard time accepting them as honest truth seekers and would have to reject them.
However, if my G-d is exalted and formless, I can’t claim that my form of understanding G-d is the only possible understanding. If He is without form, He can accommodate any form. What makes my form closer to His formless truth, than your form? So long as you and I both embrace G-d and His Torah, our variant understandings are diverse ways of striving for the same formless truth.
If you believe that Judaism has only one legitimate way and all other ways are false, the only path to unity is to ignore our differences. We would focus on our common Jewishness and overlook the fact that many Jews practice in a way that seems inappropriate to us. That is unity without differences. We focus only on our commonality and leave our differences out of the picture.
If you believe that G-d’s formless truth is filtered through a prism that projects all the colors in the spectrum, the differences don’t impact our unity. If my form and your form are both honest attempts at relating to a formless truth, our differences don’t divide us. They both appear to be precisely what they are. Our common aspiration to reach for the same formless truth, you in your way and me in my way.
This explains why we often compare and contrast our differences when we come together,. I said earlier that international Jewish conferences don’t highlight the differences. But the truth is that there is always a workshop or two that address these differences in a fun and light manner.
On the surface, it seems we are poking fun at our differences to underline what unites us—our common Jewishness. But the truth is much deeper.
We are not just poking fun at what divides us to demonstrate that we are united by something more profound. We poke fun at the very idea that our differences should divide us. We recognize that each tract of Judaism is a legitimate form of striving for a formless truth. And it is this striving that unites us. We are not just united by the formless truth for which we strive, but by the striving itself, which is common to us all.
Thus, our very diversity is an expression and projection of our unity. We are not united without differences. We don’t need to ignore our differences and focus on our common Jewishness to find unity. We are united with differences. Our diversity reflects our common aspiration to find G-d’s formless truth in our unique color. We embrace the fact that every color in the spectrum strives for the same truth and are thus able to find unity with differences.
The Separate Baskets
This explains why our ancestors didn’t pool all their fruits in a single basket. Had they done that it would have implied that the only way to achieve unity is to find that inner space where we are without differences. It would have assumed that on the surface, where we are all different, there can be no unity.
By having each family bring their own basket and then placing all baskets together before the altar, we were able to celebrate unity with differences. We were able to proclaim that each homestead represents a unique way to strive for the formless truth for which we all strive. And our common aspiration, is our unity.
There is no question that unity with likeminded people feels more like unity. It is cleaner and purer. But it is not the most authentic form of unity because it excludes those who think differently from us.
When we are each in our congregation of preference where we converse with those who think like us, we feel the kinship more. But there is an implicit bias in this unity. It says between the lines that we get along because we are like-minded. We would not get along as well with people who disagreed with us.
The unity that we experience at the great conferences is not as clean and pure because we need to overcome differences, but it is authentic. No one is excluded from this unity. Everyone is embraced under a large, but single tent. This is authentic unity that reflects the formlessness of our one G-d. This was represented by the individual baskets, each from a unique homestead, placed together before the altar of a single formless G-d.
This Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. During the High Holidays, our synagogues are usually attended by many who don’t attend all year. You have Jews in the synagogue from all stripes and colors. Jews who behave differently, who practice differently, and who believe differently. You might sit in your seat thinking that the large crowd is a distraction, and the more homely group that meets regularly would be preferable. It is nice to pray with people who think like you. It is hard to overcome differences and come together.
Remember that the homely group that meets weekly have a cleaner and clearer unity, but the High Holiday crowd is a more authentic unity. Better to come to G-d with our differences than to reject our differences. Remember that from the Torah’s perspective, unity with differences is better than unity without differences.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.