The Power of Unity

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Take a look at the makeup of the Jewish world around you and you might find a series of fractious divisions running through the fabric of our global community. That’s no accident, as it’s largely the divisions that garner attention, providing fodder for much of the news that’s appeared in the pages of the JT over the course of the fast-concluding secular year.

There are Israeli Jews and American Jews, secular and religious, conservative and liberal. And as any glance at the letters to the editor will show, there is an endless series of divisive issues that set neighbor apart from neighbor, the most recent of which is the perennial question of whether Chanukah is a public holiday or a private one. What tends to get unsaid, however, is that the just-concluded Festival of Light can actually be both and that the plethora of disagreements that vivify Jewish discourse — the fate of Israeli settlements, the propriety of the BDS movement, gender-neutral ritual, the threat of European anti-Semitism, how to handle intermarriage and assimilation — actually pale in comparison to what unifies us.

That’s why the current campaign of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation to restore their many Torah scrolls is so interesting and important. They’re not the only synagogue to do so, of course, nor the first to invite its members to be a part of the process by assisting a scribe in fixing a scroll’s letters. But as you’ll read in this week’s cover story, their project has united those who may only go to synagogue on the High Holidays with those who never miss a Shabbat, and it has brought young and old together under the banner of what has been a truly unifying force for thousands of years.

One of BHC’s scrolls contains the stylistic renderings of three Hebrew scripts, amplifying the reality that anyone who knows how to read from a Torah scroll can pick one up anywhere in the world and know what they’re reading. The one believed to be the oldest complete scroll, which a team from the University of Bologna last year dated to between 1155 and 1225, contains the same text as one written today by a ritually trained scribe. So too does a Jew raised in Prague have the ability to pick up a scroll in Baltimore and read aloud for the congregation.

There’s no question that throughout the ages, Jews of all manner of background and socioeconomic status have joined together in the defense of the Torah and its study. But it’s not enough to merely acknowledge that such unity is there, even in potential. What the restoration at BHC further illustrates is that while the Torah is a unifying force, even it too needs to be tended; a Torah scroll whose letters have faded and disappeared is not fit for ritual use.

As we look ahead to the news stories that beckon in the coming year, such as the Israeli elections scheduled for March or the beginning of the 114th Congress in Washington, let’s all remember that agreeing to disagree is just the first step. Acknowledging that what unites us is so much more powerful than what divides us is the better prescription for peaceful living.

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