Publication date: 

By Adi Mayer for Israeli American Council - Boston

The Jews will never be uniform, but can we be unified?

“…A table with five legs is very sturdy; it is very strong. I have seen tables meant for five legs stand on four; I have seen them stand on three. On two, they tipple over; on one they are not even a table. So what am I? I am basically a Jewish carpenter.”

—Avraham Infeld

A Jewish carpenter? I started imagining a 19th-century shtetl Jew laboring over a wooden table, wearing a grey-black fiddler cap and an atypical bright red sweater, similar to the one Avraham Infeld wore that evening to his riveting lecture at the Israeli American Council in Newton. But I don’t think that was the kind of carpenter Infeld was referring to.

I was asked to write an article covering Infeld’s lecture. I rushed into the room, having had just driven there from a school gathering, still preoccupied with my day’s events. I was little prepared for what I was about to experience. Sitting down among the many audience members, I took out my quirky notebook and caught my breath for a while. And then Infeld began to speak about carpentry.

Avraham Infeld has had a very long and meaningful career, filled with numerous accomplishments. He is the president emeritus of Hillel. He also was a founder of Taglit Birthright Israel, the director general of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the first specialist in informal Jewish education to be awarded the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Samuel Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education in 2005. Clearly, Jewish life and identity are deeply embedded in his culture and being.

He had just begun explaining an especially captivating concept about the Jewish people, that ever since the emancipation of the Jews, they have never been uniform. What it meant to be a Jew became drastically ambiguous and personalized. This new rise of diversity among the Jewish people is not necessarily a problem. The problem that we face today is a loss of Jewish consciousness that came as a result of the successful integration of Jews among other nations.

To articulate this issue, Infeld drew from an intriguing experience of his speaking to Jewish college students from all over the world. He challenged them with an exercise of analogies, where he presented them with a table. The first line said “apple, orange, banana.” The second said “cucumber, lettuce, broccoli,” and the last one read “Jew, blank, blank.” The students were meant to fill in the blanks. Most students responded “Jew, Christian, Muslim,” suggesting that Judaism is a religion. But not one Israeli answered that. The Israelis responded “Jew, Arab, American” or “Jew, Arab, Italian,” etc., suggesting that Judaism is a nationality. Russian Jews usually responded “Jew, Russian,” and a varying third answer, suggesting that Judaism is an ethnicity. And lastly, Infeld explained, when he presented this analogy to Latin American Jews, they simply responded, “I don’t know, there’s nothing like it.”

At this point, I cleared my mind from any distraction, as I was fascinated by Infeld’s experiment. Growing up in America my entire life with my Israeli roots has put this very idea at the forefront of my mind. I’ve had first-hand experience with both American Jews and Israeli Jews and how they view their Judaism. And this varying perspective has confused me. What is Judaism?

And that was exactly Infeld’s point. Just as the Latin American Jews had said, “There is nothing like Judaism. It is not a religion, it is not an ethnicity, it is not even a nationality. It is a people.” But the disagreement on this point, Infeld argued, has disunified our people. The Jews will never be uniform, but can we be unified?

Infeld has devoted his life to answering this question and has come up with a solution. He created a concept of defining the Jewish identity through five principles, and that is when he became the Jewish carpenter of the five-legged table.

The first leg, Infeld elaborated, is memory. For the Jewish people, memory is more important than the actual history. The difference is that memory is not necessarily what happened in the past but what the past means to us. Infeld argued, “The only purpose of Jewish education is how you take the individual Jew, open their mind and help that person link their personal memory to the collective memory of the Jewish people.”

He continued explaining that the next leg is the Jewish family: “That understanding, that feeling, that warmth, that sympathy, that empathy, with an understanding that we are a family. That’s why we were called B’nei Yisrael—not Jews, not Hebrews, but the children of Israel.”

Third is Mount Sinai. You can interpret Sinai however you want, but you cannot ignore it. It is a consciousness of God, and that God commanded Israel to seek tikkun olam.

The fourth leg splits into 4a and 4b, where 4a is the land of Israel and 4b is the state of Israel. The land of Israel is the warehouse of Jewish memory and it always will be, no matter who is ruling it. The state of Israel is also just as important, but for a completely different reason. You may not always like Israel or agree with its government, but you should always love Israel because now that there is a state of Israel, there will never be another Jewish refugee.

I especially related to the fourth leg. Israel is my second home, the home of my family. It is the place I love, visit regularly, and can turn to in times of trouble. My grandparents did turn to Israel at their time of need when they were forced to escape communist Europe. Their story is etched in me. I will always have the land and the state of Israel when I need it most.

The fifth and final leg is the Hebrew language. The purpose of language is to pass a culture to a future generation. An example Infeld provided was the Hebrew word “tzdaka.” Directly translated to English, this word means charity, but really there is no word for charity in Hebrew. “The Jews are not a charitable people,” Infeld explained. The word “tzdaka” comes from the word “tzedek,” meaning justice. The Jewish people does not give charity. They do what is just. Certain words have different meanings in different languages. These meanings reflect the unique culture that a language belongs to, and therefore, Hebrew represents the foundation of Jewish culture and identity.

The Jews are a diverse people, but if each Jew embraces at least three out of the five legs, then they will always have at least one leg in common with any other. With this the Jews can unite under a concept that Judaism is an ineffable phenomenon with several layers that cannot be understood unless they are felt first. With the five-leg philosophy, Jews will always be one people, not a uniform people but still unified.

To myself and many people sitting in that room, Infeld’s lecture put all of the confusing feelings we had ever had to endure regarding our Jewish identities into a perfect sequence of ideas. This clarity was similar to what you feel when you have a certain melody stuck in your head, but you can’t remember where you’ve heard it before; no matter how much you rack your brain, you just can’t place it. But then someone comes and tells you its name, and relief rushes over you. Infeld’s lecture provided a sense of appeasement from self-doubt. It was truly a profound experience. I highly recommend that you seek one of his lectures or find him speaking on YouTube.

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