We are all familiar with the story of the 12 scouts. They look at the land, come back to Moses and declare that while it is a land flowing with milk and honey, it is also a land controlled by giants and strong people who live in fortified cities. The message is “it's too hard for us to take it over...God or no God. Let's go back to where we were safe. Let's go back to Egypt”. This message is shared by ten of the twelve spies.
One of the other two spies was Joshua the son of Nun, who would eventually succeed Moses as the supreme leader of the Israelites and their commander during the time of the conquest of Canaan.
The other dissenting spy was Caleb the son of Jephone, one of the leader of the tribe of Judah who would eventually become of the most important charismatic leaders during that time of Israelite history known as the “time of the Judges”
Both the dissenting voices were saying “yes, there are giants...but the reward is worth the effort – le us go forth and take the land”. But with ten out of twelve tribal leaders against the idea, Moses was forced to delay the entrance to Canaan by forty years so that a new generation would come to age which could go forth and enter the land. Yet Joshua and Caleb will survive the forty years and take leading roles in the new order.
Now back to the present. Throughout Jewish history since the destruction of the Jewish Commonwealth at the beginning of the common era, our people excelled in creating boundaries to preserve our identity. This was a need born of the constant attempts by the non Jews to convert or destroy the Jews. Setting up boundaries became for us second nature. People did “what Jews did” to remain Jewish. The Rabbis, as the gatekeepers of those boundaries, promoted common ways of doing things like praying and solving disputes to preserve the strength of the community, a community which lived as a minority immerse in a much larger and often hostile society. Variations developed over time between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, but by and large the boundaries were clear and strongly defined because otherwise the community would loose cohesion.
With the Emancipation came a challenge to those time-honored boundaries and Jews started to explore new ways to express their Identity outside the confining walls of the Ghetto. This gave way to a vast variety of expressions of Jewish Identity, and the religious leaders reacted in different ways – some retrenched in the old boundaries because they felt safe; others explore the construction of new boundaries, more flexible boundaries to allow Jews to get the best of both world: full citizenship in the new Europe as well as the comfort of the old traditions. Conservative and Reform Judaism were born.
Having differences of opinion within the Jewish community is not exactly a new phenomenon; it goes back to those very same twelve spies we started with. In every age there were those who prefer to retrench into the familiar and those who dare to take a leap of faith into the future. Orthodoxy, Reform and Conservative Judaism of today are not the heirs to those who retrenched but to those who took a leap of faith...in different directions.
Maimonides did not retrench...he took a leap of faith to reconcile Faith and Reason. The Rabbis in the Talmud did not retrench...they applied the Torah to situations which did not exist in Biblical times, and in doing so they established a precedent of Judaism as an evolving idea rather than one carved in stone.
But true leaders are always in a minority, and the majority of the people are scared of the unknown future and the insecurity it brings with it. Some will look forward and follow the leadres; others will look backwards and “go back to Egypt”
When our ancestors lived in a world in which communication between different communities could take days, or weeks, or even years, they could afford to have deep disagreements and take long years arguing and confronting one another over whether this or that was “a desecration of the Shabbat” or whether you stand or sit during a particular prayer. The world in which we live is somehow faster, communications are more intense, and people with very different ideas of what it means to be Jewish live in very close proximity. It follows, that while our ancestors could afford to remain defiant and refuse to accept “the other Rabbi” who lived far away because it didn't really affect them on a daily basis, we cannot do that. To keep our strength as a people we need to accept our differences and even embrace them. What is a good answer for me, might not be a good answer for you – but we both have our own answer of what it means to be Jewish. I don't have a right to invalidate yours, and you don't have a right to invalidate mine – so far as we both live within the broader tent of Jewish Identity, recognizing our debt to the past and looking to a common future. Yes, there are some answers which are outside the pale. If you practice another religion, or if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah, you have stepped outside the boundaries – but the tent is broad and rich in diversity.
Ten spies wanted to “go back to Egypt” - two wanted to move forward.
One Knesset member denied the validity of Conservative and Reform Rabbis because he's afraid of change..he wants to “stay in Egypt” with well defined boundaries.
Over 4,000 years have passed since the time of Moses, and still struggle to find the proper balance between change and tradition; between rigidity and flexibility in the boundaries of our identity...if that is not a testimony of the vitality and creativity of our people, I don't know what is.
I hope we continue to go again and again to that defining historical moment of the 12 spies. I hope that there will continue to be 10 spies trying to go back to Egypt, and two spies pushing forward, because it is in that tension between innovation and seeking the security of the past that our tradition exist. It is in that tension between the old and the knew that every Jew lives. It is in that balance between change and rigidity that our creativity as a people is born...even if we need to spend forty years in the desert.