Parashat Ki Tissa 5777

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 17 March 2017


Anywheres and Somewheres

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Ki Tissa, focuses on the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the two sets of tablets. It marks the turning point in the story of the aimless wandering of a people who are united by a common fate, namely, having been freed from slavery in Egypt. From Sinai onwards, the people are united by a new identity that they have embraced — the identity of having been declared a chosen people of God.

A midrash in Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael describes that the ancient nations of the world were asked to accept the Torah before it was offered to Israelites. Each nation would ask God what the Torah teaches, and then reject the Torah because its laws did not suit their lifestyle. But when God turns to the Israelites, according to the Midrash, they all opened their mouths and said these words from our Torah portion: “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7).

Ever since Sinai, being Jewish has been an identity defined not just by who our parents were but by our actions. This is why we are instructed to pause annually on Yom Kippur for a self-assessment of our actions, reflecting on whether we have achieved and what God demands of us. As Jews we walk a fine line between an identity that is ascribed to us and an identity that we achieve.

In his upcoming book, “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”, the British author David Goodhart uses the question of how our identity is defined — whether it is ascribed or achieved — in order to postulate that two tribes exist in society today: the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.

In his article in The Sunday Times, 1he describes these tribes as follows:

“Anywheres dominate our culture and society. They tend to do well at school and then usually move from home to a residential university in their late teens and on to a career in the professions that might take them to London or even abroad for a year or two. Such people have portable, “achieved” identities, based on educational and career success, which make them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.”

“Somewheres are more rooted and usually have “ascribed” identities — Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife — based on group belonging and particular places. One core group of Somewheres has been called the “left behind” — mainly older white working-class men with little education. They have lost economically, with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications, and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalisation of their views in the public conversation.”

Goodhart also notes that “Of course, few of us belong completely to either group — we all have a mix of achieved and ascribed identities — and there is a large minority of Inbetweeners.

I would guess that a lot of Liberal Jews will consider themselves to belong to a greater extent in the Anywheres rather than the Somewheres tribe – our identity tends to be based more on the aspects of our achieved identity rather than our ascribed identity as Jews.

Most Liberal Jews can identify with Goodhart’s Anywhere ideology: a world-view for individuals who care about society, placing a high value on autonomy, mobility and novelty and a much lower value on group identity, tradition and national social contracts (faith, flag and family).

Liberal Judaism as a movement has always considered itself as political, promoting equality, human rights and refugee rights, to name just a few. However, reflecting on these Anywhere values that Liberal Judaism embraces, we have to also face the challenges of Goodhart’s analysis that the rift between the Anywheres and the Somewheres is widening.

What is our responsibility as Liberal Jewish Anywheres in ensuring that the world-view of the Somewheres is not altogether negated, leaving them feel utterly powerless? How are we to enter a conversation with the Somewheres who are afraid of social and cultural change? These are big questions for our society as a whole and for us as Liberal Jews and they are linked to the question if Liberal Judaism is or should be political. This will be the theme for the upcoming LJ Day of Celebration, which we are very much looking forward to hosting at NPLS on 11 June. It’ll be a day full of learning and discussion – see you there!

To find out more about the LJ Day of Celebration and register click here.

1 David Goodhart, The Great British Divide, The Sunday Times on 5 March 2017, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/my-articles/the-great-british-dividesomewheres-v-anywheres-s8qm908f0

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