Shavuot and Collective Responsibility

close up of the flag of israel

Photo by cottonbro on

It is telling that when Jewish faith is born, it is born in community. The revelation at Sinai, which we commemorate on the festival Shavuot (which begins this Thursday evening), is a national encounter with the Divine, a collective experience. The covenant forged at Sinai was not merely a pact between each individual and God; it was also an agreement between the entire nation and the Divine, and among all the people. A national covenant means that we have shared obligations, that we are in a meaningful sense responsible to and for each other.

Subsequent Jewish teachings advance this idea. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shevuot 39a) famously teaches, “all Jews are responsible for one another.” If any of us witness another fellow Jew engaged in immoral, harmful, or destructive behavior, and we have the ability to intervene and stop it, we have an obligation to do so. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 54b-55a) sharpens this point, teaching that all who can protest against wrongdoing and do not are held accountable along with the actual offender. We may not be guilty of perpetrating the crime in question, but as covenantal partners, we share responsibility for it.

Jewish tradition’s insistence on our collective responsibility haunts me as we approach Shavuot this year. That’s because approximately one month after the holiday, Israel could begin the process of annexing some or all territories in the West Bank. If Israel were to annex these territories, a two-state solution would become more difficult . 

Moreover, annexation would seriously threaten Israel’s Jewish character. If Israel were to extend citizenship to the approximately 2.5 million Palestinians who populate the West Bank, it could face the prospect of losing its Jewish majority, endangering its status as a Jewish state. 

The possibility of Israel ceasing to be a Jewish state is unconscionable given the traumas of Jewish history. A second, more plausible, scenario is unacceptable given the demands of Jewish ethics. If Israel were to extend its sovereignty over the West Bank but not grant citizenship to Palestinian residents, it would cease to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. 

Additionally, unilateral annexation would threaten Israel’s security. That isn’t just my opinion. Some 220 Israeli former generals and retired security officials recently said the same thing. It is not hard to see how annexation could ignite a powder keg that would put innocent lives at risk.

As if those threats were not sufficiently menacing, annexation also flies in the face of the values that form the core of Israel’s Jewish identity. Jewish tradition insists that every person is created equally in the Divine image, but unilateral annexation is by its very nature dehumanizing to the impacted population. Jewish tradition demands we have “one law” for all, but annexation will solidify two unequal systems for two unequal peoples. Jewish tradition insists that we not do unto others what would be hateful to us — and yet through annexation Israel will be imposing upon Palestinians circumstances that we ourselves would find intolerable. 

While the consequences of annexation will doubtlessly impact diaspora Jews differently than Israelis, we are nevertheless both affected by the decision. Israel is in many meaningful ways the collective project of all the Jewish people. It is an indelible part of contemporary Jewish life the world over, a wellspring of Jewish cultural and religious vitality, and an embodiment of Jewish ingenuity, grit, and hope. Israel is a safe harbor for a people that has been brutalized throughout history, so its future is a vital concern for all Jews, wherever we may live. And, whether we like it or not, Jews everywhere are implicated in Israel’s actions, for good and for ill.

We must remember, then, that as covenantal partners, we have an obligation to protest Israeli actions that are immoral, harmful, and destructive. If we fail to object, we share responsibility for annexation and its consequences. But if we do whatever we can to protest and resist these actions, even if we are not successful, we will be upholding the commitments we, our ancestors, and our descendants agreed upon at Mt. Sinai.

Don’t let the paltry rituals and uninspiring, bloating, foods fool you. Shavuot is essential. As a reminder of our covenantal responsibilities to one another, the holiday may have never been more important than it is this year.

This piece was originally published by J Street as part of their “The Two Way Street” series.


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