Diversity Without Hierarchy

The four species of Sukkot. (Times of Israel)

From Japanese Ikebana to English gardens, the art of floral design runs deep in many cultures. There is something mysteriously appealing to our aesthetic sense when we see different kinds of flowers and plants arranged in a harmonious pattern. In Judaism, this aesthetic satisfaction is provided by the mitzvah of the lulav or arba’ minim, the four species that are shaken during the festival of Sukkot. This bouquet composed of deep green and symmetric myrtle, and irregular, greyish willow against the exotic backdrop of a perfectly vertical shoot of palm, brought together by the fragrant yellowness of the citron fruit, is a delight to the senses and the soul. And as in all floral arrangements, the key component to its beauty is the delicate play on the diversity of colors and textures that compose it. 

Rabbis, for thousands of years, have recognized this diversity and used it, symbolically, to speak of other diversities they saw in the Jewish community, in the spiritual world or in the realm of Jewish law. The following midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Biblical text), is a beautiful example of this allegorical use of the diversity of the four species:

“The fruit of the hadar tree” (Lev. 23.40)—This is Israel. For in the same way that an etrog has both fragrance and taste, so in Israel there are individuals that have both Torah and good deeds. “Branches of the palm tree”—This is Israel. For in the same way that the palm branch has taste but no fragrance, so Israel has individuals that have Torah but no good deeds. “Boughs of leafy trees”—This is Israel. For in the same way that the myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so Israel has individuals that have good deeds but no Torah. “And willows of the brook”—This is Israel. For in the same way that the willow has no fragrance and no taste, so Israel has individuals that have no Torah and no good deeds. What is the Holy One Blessed be He to do with them? He cannot destroy them. But rather, the Holy One Blessed be He will tie them into one bundle and they will atone one for the other. (Vayikra Rabba 30.12) 

This midrash plainly expresses a sometimes uncomfortable but undeniable reality: that within the Jewish world we operate with the belief that there are both better and less-than-perfect individuals. Yet, it also promotes the underlying unity of these disparate parts. This doctrine of Jewish unity, or at least mutual responsibility, has been an often-preached value. From the “all Israel is responsible one for the other” of the Rabbis to the “We are one” of the Federation campaign of some years ago. In theory, everyone cherishes and preaches this unity. Sadly, in practice it is seldom embodied—especially when we speak of peripheral communities or individuals.

The secret appeal of this idea lies in that this unity is viewed by almost everyone as an organized diversity, that is, as a hierarchical arrangement of difference. During Pesach we have four sons, but one of them is wise while the other is ignorant, one is wicked and one is almost a non-entity. There is clearly a hierarchy. When it comes to religious observance, there are those who place the clergy on a pedestal, while shunning the unaffiliated. Politically, we delight in dividing the Jewish world into a well organized totem pole that starts wherever we are standing and is shakingly cemented, down there, by the “self-hating Jew” or “the fanatic” who threaten to topple it down. Each denomination thinks it represents the most authentic form of Judaism while the others are mere approximations to the real deal. 

In our Midrash, we have the etrogim commanding the coalition of the inferior myrtle and palm, who are—fortunately for them—above the unassuming willow branch. This convenient metaphor allows us to preserve the unity of the Jewish people while maintaining categories which organize the Jewish world so that we (whoever the “we” is) end up on top of the hierarchy. 

This tendency of organizing our collective diversity into hierarchies, by no means an exclusive Jewish phenomenon, might be necessary at times as a way of understanding ourselves or creating positive group identity: what soccer team really wants to be #2? But it is a threat to the vision of unity, since fans opposing teams rarely see eye to eye. In no case is this view of a hierarchic diversity more alienating and mistaken than in trying to bring together the different Jewish communities that dot the globe.  Historically, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have lived autonomous and fruitful lives for over twenty-five centuries without the need of a hierarchy or pope. Neither numbers, nor influence, nor antiquity are good markers to place one community over the other: far too often, we have seen small communities contributing to Jewish life in ways that defy their demographic insignificance, and we have seen new communities transform the Jewish world in the space of a few years.

A rabbinic teaching offers us a relevant alternative metaphor which can better describe our incredibly diverse global Jewish community, which is continually growing in number and complexity. A model that stresses diversity but does away with hierarchy,

“The fruit of the hadar tree” (Lev. 23.40)—This is the Holy One blessed be He. For it is said “he is clothed in glory and splendor (hadar).” (Psalm 104.1) “Branches of the palm tree”—This is the Holy One blessed be He. For it is written: “the Righteous like the palm shall flourish.” (Psalm 92.13). “Boughs of leafy trees”—This is the Holy One blessed be He. For it is written of him “and He stood among the myrtles” (Zachariah 1.8) “and willows of the brook “—This is the Holy One blessed be He. For it is said of Him: “extol Him who rides the heavens” (Psalm 68.5) [in Hebrew “rokhev ba’aravot”—’aravot means both “willow” and “heavens”]. (Vayikra Rabba 30.12) 

In this commentary, each of the four species captures God´s majesty in diverse yet equal conditions, each appealing to its own nature and essence to do so. Likewise, each of the global communities of the ever-growing Jewish people is an equal and yet unique manifestation of a people and its values, of its yearnings and its dreams, of its religion and its culture, of its strengths and its shortcomings. In the same way that the midrash does not judge the willow through the eyes of the etrog, we should not judge these communities in the eyes of, let´s say, mainstream suburban American Judaism or its Israeli counterparts. Each of these communities, through its music, through its rituals, its Torah and its institutions is bringing to light new aspects of the divine and affirming old or new ways of being Jewish. And as with the lulav, we need only to stand back in awe of this unlikely yet amazingly beautiful collection of parts and feel thankful.

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