Unity or diversity?

Judaism’s Worldview Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

The brainchild of Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, PJ Library is a free Jewish book club for families that provides more than 1,100 unique stories for celebrating Jewish values, traditions, and culture, and strengthening Jewish connection and identity. In 18 years it has delivered more than 50 million books published in seven languages. Each month it ships 680,000 books — 12 different titles — to newborns through tweens in 36 countries on five continents. PJ Library exemplifies a key Jewish worldview: unity balanced by diversity.

In its opening verses, the Torah establishes this worldview. From the Oneness of the Divine emerges “a world of differences,” writes Rabbi Mendy Herson.

God then creates humankind in the Divine image, both male and female, implying unity between God and humankind and between one human and another.

In the second version, a single human is created from the soil, becoming man (ish). One of his sides is removed and fashioned into a totally distinct female being (isha). Described as man’s ezer k’negdo, a helper against him, the isha is a unique counterpart to the ish. When man becomes one with woman as his wife, the narrative returns to unity.

By way of contrast, the subsequent stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel imply that either quality pursued solo is ruinous. In the era of the Flood, everyone lived only for themselves — there was only diversity.

In the era of the Babel building project, everyone was forced to become an anonymous cog in the construction community— there was only unity.

Both stories end in disaster. In other words, the world operates optimally when unity and diversity are in balance.

Later Jewish writings also reflect this theme. “Judaism’s canonical texts are anthologies of arguments,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, made famous by the legendary disputes between Hillel and Shammai. Yet the sages of the Talmud were of one mind about their fundamental role as interpreters and preservers of biblical law and tradition.

Rabbi Tali Loewenthal notes, “As the sages themselves put it, despite all the diversity of opinion, all are ‘the words of the living God.’”

The panorama of Jewish history is a collage of events that eventually strikes a balance between unity and diversity. The most clear-cut example is the Jewish Diaspora.

Over the centuries, Jews scattered across the world and adopted the languages, cultures, traditions, even the values and ideas of their host countries.

“No small people is more diverse ethnically, culturally, attitudinally, and religiously” Sacks writes.

And yet, despite the pressures of dominant cultures in the ever-expanding Diaspora, Jews “have not lost their peoplehood, their religion, or their connection to the Land of Israel,” Israeli writer and speaker Hen Mazzig notes.

Where do you see a balance of unity and diversity in the following tales?

The blue box. During storytelling time at the nursing home, Clara unexpectedly signaled she wanted to participate. Speaking slowly, she struggled to recall words, to pronounce them clearly.

As a young mother, Clara learned of the horrific Nazi concentration camps, and felt called to help. So every afternoon, she took her young son and a blue JNF box in hand and went door to door throughout the Jewish neighborhoods nearby, collecting money for Israel.

Then she approached other communities. “Everyone gave,” she told the group. “The Irish, the Italians, the Greeks. They said, ‘I feel so bad for your people. Thank you for giving me a chance to help.’”

Until the birth of her second child, Clara and her son collected money to bring the survivors home to Israel. She finished speaking, and the room erupted into applause.

Yids and yuds. When he was a young child first learning the alef-beis, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa recounts, he pointed to the letter yud and asked his teacher, “What is this dot?” He answered, “The letter yud.”

Then the teacher pointed to two yuds together. He explained, “Those two yuds together spell the Holy Name of God.”

Fascinated, the boy Yaakov looked in the Chumash (the printed version of the Torah) to find these two dots and discovered two other dots, one above the other.

“That’s a colon,” his teacher said. The boy was worried. “The dots look alike. How will I remember the difference?”

“Easily,” his teacher replied. “When the two dots sit next to each other as equals, they are the Name of God. When one lords it over the other, then they aren’t the name of God.”

“From this,” Reb Yaakov declares, “I learned that when two Yids (Jews) sit together as equals, God is present. But if you raise another above yourself, or yourself over another, then there is no real meeting, no equality, and no Divine Presence.”

Bride and groom. At the wedding of the son of Reb Avraham Yaakov of Sadigora to the daughter of Reb Zvi HaKohen of Rimanov, the groom’s grandfather stood up and said to the father of the bride, “Let me share with you the yichus (venerable lineage) of our family.”

He then listed numerous relatives with scholarly pedigrees, ending with, “So, my dear friend, please share with us your lineage.”

“My parents died when I was 10,” Reb Zvi said softly. “I didn’t know them well enough to tell you anything about them other than they were righteous and good-hearted people. After their deaths, a relative apprenticed me to a tailor. During my apprenticeship, I learned two rules by which I govern my life: Do not spoil anything new, and fix anything old.”

With that, the groom’s grandfather leaped to his feet, shouting joyously: “This is a marriage of two great lineages. These children are doubly blessed!”

Unity creates a sense of cohesiveness and common purpose, while diversity allows for different voices and perspectives. How can the Jewish worldview of unity balanced by diversity influence how you live your life?


Literature to share

A Book About Bupkes by Leslie Kimmelman. Bupkes, a Yiddish word for nothing or lacking, is turned on its head in this delightful picture book for children. It seems that something can be made from nothing! Find out how Zoe does so while helping others in her community. It’s a book to bring to life at home — almost like magic — try it.

Cooking alla Giudia by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta. One of the most fascinating features of this cookbook is the inclusion of background information for the Jewish culinary traditions in Italy, with descriptions of how Jewish cooking significantly influenced Italian cooking. Gorgeous images of foods and Italian locations and unique histories of many individual recipes feed the eye and mind, while the recipes themselves use easily accessible or familiar ingredients — or simple substitutions — keeping the chef happy. Winter is the perfect time to warm up the kitchen with some food adventures.

To read the complete February 2024 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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