So if ALL of our ancestors were together at Mount Sinai why can’t all Jews agree? I think it is because all Jews (including the souls of all converts to Judaism) were at Sinai; and not just the Orthodox, or the wealthy, or the political right or left.
Why ALL Israel? Why not just the pious: or the elders, or the leaders? Why include the women, the children and even ‘strangers in our midst’? And on Yom Kippur, why include the sinners with the saints.
If Moses had spoken to only one segment of the people the others would have felt left out and thought ‘none of this applies to us’. (Yalkut Shimoni)
If Moses had spoken only to one segment, that group would have been tempted to add to what Moses said in order to make things stricter for the others who were not so ‘worthy’ of getting the word directly from Moses. This would violate the Mitsvah “You shall not add to the word I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1) (Me’am Lo’az)
God loves all the different groups within the Jewish community, just as parents who have many different children, love all their children and declare each one special. “You are the children of the Lord your God…a holy people unto the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).
God did not give the Torah for Moses but for all the People of Israel through Moses. As Moses himself says, “On the day that you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble for me the people that I may make them hear my words” (Deuteronomy 4:10).
God has inspired other prophets for other peoples: Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith for example. God has also become manifest on rare occasions to a select group of people who were already the followers of an inspired prophet.
But never before or since has God made a covenant with an entire people, including all kinds of different groups within that people; “Inquire of the past which was before you, since the day God created humans upon the earth, from one end of heaven to the other, if anything like this has ever been done or even heard of. Did a (whole) people ever hear the voice of God speaking.” (Deuteronomy 4:32-33)
When all Israel is gathered together, even when they are divided into different groups, God is present among them. God commands “Gather all the people” (Deuteronomy.4:10). And we are told “All of you are standing today before the Lord your God; your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the strangers in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
But everyone is included in the two groups of tribes and strangers. So why list all the other groups? This teaches us that some of the leaders were conservatives and some were liberals. Some elders were Reform and some were Orthodox. Some wives were leaders like Miriam the prophet (Exodus 15:20) and some were not.
Many different denominations, groups and classes of Jews are specified to teach us that ‘all Israel’ includes all kinds of different groups of Jews. United but not uniform. A salad bowl not V8 juice.
When visiting the Grand Synagogue in Rome a few years ago, I heard the following story: Today there are 12 synagogues for the 13,000 Jews living in the city of Rome, but in the 15th century there were only five synagogues for a much smaller Jewish population.
Still, the Pope thought there were too many synagogues in Rome so in 1555 the Pope ordered all the Jews in the city to live in just one area. He also decreed that the Jews should have only one synagogue for the whole community.
Those Jews who did not already live in the designated area had to sell their homes and move into the newly formed Ghetto. Although many Jews did not want to sell their homes, they had to do it, so they did it. But they did resist the decree to have only one synagogue.
The members of each synagogue decided to hold services in the home of the member with the largest room. But when the police learned of their plans, the Pope ordered all Roman Jews to pray in just one building with only one entrance.
What should the Jewish people do? Some said Jews should obey the Pope’s order just as they had obeyed the order to live in the Ghetto. But most Jews disagreed. Two of the synagogues in Rome were Sephardi and two were Ashkenazi. The fifth congregation followed the Roman rite that Jews in Rome had followed for more than 17 centuries.
They thought: We say the same prayers but we chant and sing the prayers with different melodies.
We all say some of the same prayers, but some have added extra poems and prayers that others haven’t.
Some have longer services and some have shorter services.
Some pray with more joy, some pray with more intensity, and some use Kabbalistic meditations.
Some would rather pray at home then go to a different synagogue. So what should they do?
The rabbis discussed the problem. One said, “We all know the difference between a human king and God, who is the King of Kings, is that when a human ruler stamps his image on a coin, every coin has the same image on it. But when God creates humans in God’s image, we all look different. God wants diversity, not uniformity. God wants pluralism, not universalism. We can all live together in harmony, but we cannot all think, feel or behave the same way.”
So they decided to buy a large three story building, with only one doorway. On the first floor there would be two synagogues. On the second floor there would be two synagogues. On the third floor would be a fifth synagogue.
Everyone agreed to refer to the one building as “the” synagogue, and to call the five synagogues; schools, “scolas” in Italian or “Shules” in Yiddish. This solution worked for over 300 years, until the Pope lost his power over Rome and the Italian government took over.
If five different Orthodox Jewish groups could share one synagogue building during a period of intense religious conflict and persecution, then all the different Jewish groups today should be able to live together, in a time of much greater freedom.
If many different kinds of Jews can learn to live together in harmony, then the different sects of every religion can learn to live together in harmony. And if all religions can live in harmony with their own heretics, maybe they can live in harmony with each other.
Just as every human body is a total unity divided into many different parts (organs, bones, personality types etc.), social, political and religious bodies are also made up of many different religious, social and political parties.
Thus, while Judaism and the Jewish People have always been one religion and one nation; their one wholeness has always been the sum of many different parts.
In Biblical days, the People of Israel were divided into three or four distinct groups based on the number of Mitsvot (religious duties) they were expected to do.
First, the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into Levites, who were responsible for running the Temple in Jerusalem, and the remaining eleven tribes; with more Mitsvot applying to the Levites than the rest of Israel.
Second, the tribe of Levy was divided into the clan of Kohanim, who were responsible for the Temple service ritual offerings; and the other clans who were just regular Temple Levites, with the Kohanim being responsible to do many more Mitsvot than even the Levites.
Third, all Israelites were divided by gender; with many more Mitsvot applying to men than to women.
Although the Jerusalem Temple has not existed for more than nineteen centuries, remnants of these distinctions still do exist in Orthodox Synagogues, where there is a fixed order of four distinct hereditary categories in which Jews are called up to read Torah
First Kohanim, second Levites, third Jewish men in general and fourth; Jewish women, who are not called up to read Torah at all.
In Conservative Synagogues there are only the first three categories, and in Reform Temples where tribal and gender equality is stressed there is only one category: Jews.
The new groups, parties and sects within the Jewish People in the post Biblical period were no longer tribal and inherited. They were geographical and cultural i.e. Hellenistic Jews and Israeli Jews; religious i.e. Scribes Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and political; Herodians, Zealot and Sicari anti-Roman revolutionaries and disciples of the sages/rabbis.
In Medieval times diversity among new groups was reduced and constricted primarily to geography; Sephardim and Ashkenazim and to some extent to philosophy; Karaites, Kabbalists and Talmudists.
However, the Ashkenazim in the modern age are divided into several religious sects: Hassidim, Anti-hasidim, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and other smaller groups.
So, is the warning of Rabbi Yohanan that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four divisive sects” still valid today? Yes and no.
Some divisions are normal and necessary, especially in the realm of religion. As Thomas Jefferson said: “The maxim of civil government being opposite that of religion, where its true form is: ‘Divided we stand, united we fall.'” But when religions get political then extreme and intolerant division is destructive.
As we have seen, from the time of Jacob’s descendants Israel has been divided into twelve tribes. From the time of Aaron descendants, the tribe of Levy has been separated from the other tribes.
From some time after the Maccabees the Essenes and the Pharisees separated (Pharisee means separatist) from the Sadduces and by the first century there were over a dozen separate religious and political parties in Israel.
But even so there did not have to be fragmentation and destruction. The sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem was that political and religious extremism led to unrestricted, unlimited hate.
As Eichah Rabbah 1:33 teaches: “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which existed in it: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. …But why was the Second Temple destroyed, since at that time people were involved in study, mitzvot, and deeds of kindness? Because at that time there was senseless hatred among the Jewish people. This teaches that senseless hatred is as powerful an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined!”
What kind of hatred and intolerance was there? After the disaster our sages said (note that all of these things were done only by some Jews): Jerusalem was destroyed only because:
her laws were based on the strict letter of Torah and not interpreted by mercy and kindness,
the school age children who remained untaught.
the people who did not feel shame (at their hatred) toward one another.
no distinction was drawn between the young and the old.
one did not warn or admonish (against hating each) other.
there were no longer men of hope and faith in her midst.