Lech Lecha: Solidarity or Separation?

What is a family to do when one member abandons its norms and traditions? This problem has confounded families since the beginning of time. How does a family handle its prodigal son, or sons?

Curiously, the term "prodigal son" is associated in the popular consciousness with a wayward son who is welcomed back into the family hearth. This association is based upon a story found in the Christian Bible. However, the word "prodigal" originates in the old French prodigere, which means "to drive forth or away," not to “welcome or bring close.”

Entire societies, even nations, have historically been confronted with this problem. How are internal schisms to be dealt with? The choice is clear. One can attempt to retain solidarity by keeping the rebellious group in the fold. Although much is to be gained by such an approach there are risks. The group challenging the status quo is likely to influence others, eventually diluting their commitment and endangering time-honored beliefs and practices

The alternative is rejection. Expel the dissidents from group membership and demarcate them as "outside the camp." Let them go their own way. This approach aims to maintain the status quo and hopes to insulate the "loyal" from ideological "contamination."

The Jewish people have faced this dilemma numerous times in our history. Moses himself had to deal with contentious subgroups that "left the camp," one even retreating to Egypt.

Much more recently, but already a century and a half ago, the rise of the Reform movement in Central Europe posed this very dilemma to the Orthodox communities there. Two great rabbinic figures, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt and Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger of Wurtzburg feuded heatedly over this issue. Should the Orthodox community take advantage of the Austrittsgesetz of 1876 and secede from the general Jewish community, now dominated by the reformers, or should unity be preserved, at almost any cost?

In our own times, young Orthodox rabbinical students face this dilemma. Should they pursue positions in traditional synagogues, thereby protecting self and family from exposure to those ignorant of or hostile to Orthodox religious ideals? Or, connect to those with lifestyles and ideologies antithetical to their own in the interests of Jewish unity? Should they thus follow the approach of the kiruv (outreach) movement, but thereby possibly compromise their own faith commitments and risk the religious development of their families?

A verse in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis, 12:1-17:27) provides us with food for further thought about this critical question. In this week's parsha, we learn of the very first schism in Jewish history, one which occurred in the family of the patriarch Abraham.

From the time we were first introduced to him in last week's Torah portion Abraham’s name has been linked with that of his nephew, Lot. They travel together to Canaan. A dispute ensues between Abraham's shepherds and Lot's shepherds, leading to a separation between the two. We then read:

"And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had parted from him, 'Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the North and South, the East and West, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.'" (Genesis 13:14-15)

Rashi focuses upon the first several words of this passage. He notes that the Almighty postponed speaking with Abram and did not notify him of a most magnificent promise until after Lot parted from him. From Rashi's perspective, Abraham's long association with Lot was displeasing to the Almighty. Only after he had rid himself of Lot was the Almighty willing to directly address Abraham again. Rashi clearly endorses the separationist approach to the dilemma we have been discussing.

But not all rabbinic authorities agree with Rashi. Note the dispute between two Talmudic sages recorded in Midrash Rabbah on our verse:

"Rabbi Yehudah says, the Lord was angry with our father Abraham when he permitted Lot, his dear nephew, to separate from him. The Holy One, Blessed Be He said, 'He tolerates everyone, and his own brother Lot he cannot tolerate?' Rabbi Nehemiah disagreed, and said, the Lord was angry with our father Abraham when he permitted Lot to join him in the first place. The Holy One, Blessed Be He said, 'I promised you that I would give this land to your own children, and yet you go and join with your nephew Lot, as if you intend to bequeath the land to him!'"

Rashi apparently sides with Rabbi Nehemiah in this dispute. For them, Abraham was acting meritoriously when he allowed Lot to depart from him. His association with Lot brought upon him nothing less than God's own wrath. Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, forcefully represents the totally opposite view. Abraham should have done all that he could to prevent Lot’s departure. Separatism is not the way to go. Unity and solidarity must be preserved. For Rabbi Yehudah, Abraham's ability to reach out to others was his greatest strength, and he displeases God when he does not use that ability to reach out to his own kin.

This dispute between these scholars of old is preserved for us by the Midrash for good reason. There is no simple answer to the dilemma of solidarity versus separatism. There are times and circumstances which require the strength of resolve advocated by Rashi, in the footsteps of Rabbi Nehemiah. But there are other times, and different circumstances, which require the outreach approach that Abraham epitomized by his life example.

Personally, I find it helpful to reflect upon the end of the story. Abraham and Lot do separate in the passage we have been studying. But Abraham does not abandon Lot. As the narrative develops, we learn that Abraham came to Lot's rescue and engaged in battle in order to redeem him from captivity.

Much later on in the Biblical narrative, we learn of Lot's grandson Moab, whose descendant Ruth rejoined Abraham's descendants. That ultimate reunion culminated in the birth of King David, Ruth's great-grandson and the forebear of the Messiah. It would seem, then, that whereas separation is sometimes unavoidable and even necessary, it is solidarity and unity that hasten the arrival of the Messiah.