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Rabbi Schwartz Contrasts the Values of Exodus and Sinai and Urges New Thoughts on Jewish Identity

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2005

Exodus and Sinai, writes Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, “serve as metaphors for the twin impulses at work in Jewish history, Jewish community and Jewish identity. The Exodus impulse is the tendency that rallies Jews in political and institutional arrangements to support the continuity of the group or tribe ...The Sinai impulse is the tendency that drives Jews to ally themselves with the most vulnerable members of society in the spirit of prophetic Judaism.”  

In an article, “Exodus and Sinai: New Thoughts on Jewish Identity” in Sh’ma (Oct. 2005), Rabbi Schwartz, founder and president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, sets forth the seven values which drive Judaism’s Sinai impulse. These include “compassion (chesed); respect for the dignity of all of God’s creation and creatures (tzelem elohim); pursuing peace (bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu); attention to the suffering of others (lo taamod at dam re’ echa); seeking harmonious relationships with people who are not Jewish (darchei shalom); loving the stranger in our midst (ahavat ger); and pursuing truth (emet).”  

While Jewish professional and lay leaders and organizations may identify with many of these altruistic values, Rabbi Schwartz argues that, “They view their priority responsibilities as securing the health and safety of Jews at home, in Israel and throughout the world. Add to this the anxiety generated by demographic studies suggesting that Jews are self-destructing through intermarriage and assimilation, and it is easy to understand why Jewish organizations are driven to respond, first and most energetically, to the Exodus impulse that focuses on the survival of the tribe.”  

This, however, may be seriously mistaken, he believes, and he laments “the unfortunate growing gap between Sinai and Exodus identities. While the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel were formative events for Exodus/tribal Jews, those two experiences are becoming more remote with every passing year and certainly much more complex on a moral level. Israel no longer serves as the engine driving Jewish identity or Jewish philanthropy.”  

He asks: “How might Jews live out Sinai/covenantal Jewish identity when it is stripped of all elements of tribal association? How do we identify Jews who have no observable Jewish practice, yet live in accordance with Jewish ethical and moral principles — playing leading roles in the fields of human rights, global peace, worker justice, women’s rights, civil liberties, third world development, and domestic poverty relief and identifying the Jewish historical and ethical narrative as an impetus for their work?”  

Here, he writes, “We enter into the realm of Sinai consciousness, or what sociologist Herbert Gans terms, ‘symbolic ethnicity.’ Many Jews, with no identifiable pattern of Jewish affiliation or behavior, nonetheless define what drives their actions in the world in the context of Jewish heritage. But given the way that the Jewish community currently functions, such Jews — who might otherwise be open to Jewish community initiatives or programs when such endeavors align with their prophetic values and ethics — are defined out of tribe and driven away by implicit communal institutional messages.”  
Rabbi Schwartz concludes that, “The organized Jewish community is not very good at understanding and validating covenantal Jewish identity. Drawing hard and fast lines on who does and does not belong becomes even riskier and more complex when attempting to program and reach out to covenantal/Sinai Jews, whose identity is soft and ambivalent and yet, who see themselves as part of the Jewish people. Jewish communities would do well to recommit to God’s charge to Abraham in Genesis 18 — to do righteousness and justice ... Doing so would have the effect of attracting tens of thousands of Jews who would resonate to that ancient message — today more relevant than ever before.”

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