In the Jewish professional world that I inhabit, “unity” is a word that gets used an awful lot. Community crises of all sizes demand a united approach. In considering the curricula or methods we want to teach, we need to be united behind a particular philosophy or approach. We often issue calls for Jewish unity, asking us to set aside our differences in pursuit of what’s seen as a higher goal.
In those first dark days after October 7, the calls for Jewish unity came frequently and from different sources. In our own community, I remember opening up a discussion on Simḥat Torah to allow us to talk through our experiences and feelings. During that conversation, several of us spoke passionately about the need to be united as a community during this painful time for Israel and the Jewish community.
At that time, at least to me, it felt that the calls for unity were about standing in solidarity and supporting each other. It was about sharing our pain and offering a familiar embrace. It was not necessarily about uniformity. Perhaps things were too raw and new; perhaps we needed each other so much that we didn’t even consider the things that divide us. Over the ensuing months, I have seen a painful shift across the Jewish world: more insistence on sameness or uniformity of opinion; less tolerance for difference and diversity in one space.
In our Torah reading for this week, Parashat Yitro, we see perhaps the most united gathering of Israelites in the whole Ḥumash. Standing at Sinai, awaiting God’s word, the people are together, both physically and spiritually. A number of well-known midrashim and discussions of this scene and what follows paint a picture of a people entirely in lock-step with each other, speaking and acting as one.
Staying that united is hard, and we know that the people will soon fall apart, just as they have before. And perhaps their perpetual disunity was in part due to seeking out the wrong kind of unity. Perhaps they needed instead to seek out God’s unity.
The opening words to the Ten Commandments give us a glimpse, if we look deeply enough, of a different sort of unity, a unity that is more honest, more inclusive, and more sustainable.
“God spoke כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה (all these words).” (Exodus 20:1) Picking up on the use of the word כׇּל (all), the Talmud engages in a discussion about the essential nature of the words that God spoke, namely the Torah (BT Ḥagigah 3b). Torah can be compared to a goad, as Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah taught, because just as a goad is flexible and not rigid, so too words of Torah can be moved from one interpretation to another. And God’s word can be compared to something well-planted - just as something well-planted can flourish and multiply, so too words of Torah flourish and multiply.
One of the ways, says the Talmud, that words of Torah flourish and multiply is in the multiple groupings of scholars who each read and interpret the text in different, often contradictory ways. Should a person despair of learning Torah due to the presence of so many divergent opinions, the Talmud reminds us that God spoke *all* these words. God’s singular utterance contained multitudes. God’s unity has room for difference, dispute, and contradiction. God’s unity can hold us all - not because we are the same, but because we are unified in just how different we are.