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Why the Twelve Tribes?

By ReligionMarch, 2023March 17th, 20244 min read

Why did the Jewish people need to consist of twelve tribes? They started as one family, with a common ancestor – our forefather Jacob. As they grew from a large family to an emerging people during the Egyptian exile, what was achieved by maintaining the separation into distinct tribes? Could they not all have been “just Jewish”?

This contrasts with the sons of Jacob’s brother Esav who formed who formed small Chiefdoms rather than stay together under the banner of being Edomites. Neither was it like the United Arab Emirates, who were distinct sheikdoms and then came together in 1971 to form a federation. The Jewish people, however, were formed simultaneously as a nation, and an aggregation of tribes, and remained that way for hundreds of years of life in Israel.

This structure has a relevant message to us today about the nature of identity, and the contemporary challenges of polarisation both in Israel and the global Jewish world.

Identity is like an onion – it has many layers. To a non-Jew, I am Jewish. To another Jew, I might be Ashkenazic. To another Ashkenazic Jew, I am Chassidic. To another Chassid, I am a Chabadnik. Other forms of  identity work in the same way: I’m an Australian, then a Victorian, then a Melbournian. When I meet a Jewish New Yorker, I don’t stop asking “where in …?” until I really know where the are from. City -> Borough -> Suburb -> Block.

At each subsequent layer of identity, we may find more and more things in common – the Chabadnik or Upper East Side subcultures. At the outer layers, we have a small number of things in common, but those things tend to be very broad and encompassing.

The Jewish world has become so fragmented that it cannot speak with one voice, yet non-Jews often make broad generalisations that are invariably wrong, offensive or both. Put a Haredi Jew from Williamsburg in a room with a progressive Jew from SoHo and see how that conversation just flows. While they are both Jewish New Yorkers, they would likely find more differences than similarities. Jewish identity is not monolithic.

This identity fragmentation has a positive side, as pointed out by OU President Mark Bane. There is sufficient diversity within Orthodoxy that people can find their own path. He quotes his teacher Rabbi Weinberg on the difference between unity and uniformity. While some Jewish groups stress uniformity, what really holds us together is unity. I welcome the progressive Jew from SoHo to my Shabbat table, and celebrate our connections and what we have in common rather than harp on our differences.

In addition to the complexity within Jewish identity, we have political affiliations (which for many have become another form of identity), and identities based on race, ethnicity, sexuality and more. The modern Jewish people is far more than just twelve tribes – we are composed of dozens of combinations of multiple identities and sub-identities. This fragmentation is pulling us apart.

As a people, we’ve been managing the tension between our Jewish identity and our various sub-identities for over 3000 years. Now more than ever, we need to draw on the Jewish idea of unity – the values we share rather than the identities that separate us.

This was also posted at [The Times Of Israel].

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