On a trip to Santiago, Chili a few weeks ago I had the privilege of spending time in the Jewish community. Part of that time was spent with a Jewish fire brigade called Bomba Israel. In Chile, the fire stations are strictly voluntary, a civic responsibility, which carries no wages, salaries, benefits or perks. In 1954, the Jewish community, wishing to express its appreciation to the Chilean people for welcoming them after the holocaust established their own fire brigade. Adorning the fire station, called Bomba Israel, and all their trucks is a Magen David and the flag of Israel. Those that man the station 24/7 are the Jewish youth who on a rotation serve as the primary first call responders not only for the Jewish community but wherever they are called.
Perplexing in all this is the demonstrable lack of religious practice (shemirat mitzvoth) by these brave and proud Jews. In taking note of their Jewish pride, loyalty to the Jewish community with one eye on their home community and the other glancing towards Israel I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yehuda Halevi’s take on the qualitative difference between the Covenant of the Pieces and the Covenant at Sinai (Horeb). Before getting into that it is interesting to note an Aggadic text in the Talmud.
Talmud Sanhedrin (98a) describes the “melech moshiach” arriving on a donkey. While there are those who understand this Aggadic text literally, there are those who treat it metaphorically. Harav Kook suggests that there is no reason to believe the donkey is kosher because externally it shows not the signs of a kosher animal. It doesn’t chew its cud nor does it have split hoofs as opposed to the pig that has at least one external sign to qualify it – split hoofs. However Kook maintains that while the donkey doesn’t possess the external features to render it kosher it has an internal, non identifiable holiness and for this reason the Bible (Exodus 13:13) commands that of all the forbidden animals, only the donkey is obligated with the mitzvah of Bechor, the first born. For Harav kook, the donkey is a metaphor for the non practicing Jew, but demonstrates a highly developed sensitivity to the concept of Jewish peoplehood.
Yehuda Halevi too, with his highly developed sense of peoplehood underscored this quality as central to the Jewish people. When put to the task of choosing which was more important, the Covenant of the Pieces or the Sinaitic Covenant he rendered the Covenant of the Pieces to be the locus. He reasoned that there are two types of kedusha; the external (chizoni) and the internal (penimi). The Covenant of the Pieces was an internal kedusha, fundamental and essential to the very essence of the Jew. It’s his matrix, his DNA, without which one cannot be Jewish. The Covenant of Pieces provides the connection, the electrical contact between the Jew and his people. It is the coding that allows the Jews to communicate with one another in a way distinct from all other people; whereas, the Sinaitic Covenant is external. The mitzvoth presented at Sinai are external dressing; if they aren’t scrupulously observed the cohesion of the Jewish people is still in tact and guaranteed by the internal coding. This is not to diminish the value of mitzvoth, but they aren’t necessarily essential to the continuation of peoplehood. Halevi went so far as to venture the following: A non observant but nationalistic Jew with an eye to Zion is more substantial than a Jew who is compulsive in mitvot observance, but doesn’t identify with the corpus of the Jewish people.
These were the thoughts running through my mind when visiting the non religious Chilean youth while on duty at Bomba Israel, Santiago, Chili.