Give Tents a Chance: A Second Look at Tribalism
Excerpted from Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)
In our second excerpt from his groundbreaking new book, “Gonzo Judaism,” rogue rabbi Niles Goldstein returns with a penetrating analysis of tribalism. Here, Niles explores the connections between old ways and new problems and reaches provocative conclusions about society’s ills, as well as how to cure them.
A couple of years ago, I traveled with my brother, mostly on horseback, through northwestern Mongolia, a remote region of herdsmen and nomads. Yet now that I’ve been back in New York City for quite some time—an urban environment that seems about as un-nomadic as you can get—our exotic journey through those mountains and steppes somehow feels increasingly relevant to my life and my mission as a rabbi. That experience of tribalism, of community at its most raw, intimate, and intense, affected me very deeply, and offered me important lessons that have much to teach American Jewry as our generation confronts the challenges of this often unsettling new century.
Within the first few days of our journey—after passing herds of camels, yaks, and goats, and traversing the habitat of ibex, wolves, and endangered snow leopards—we came across a celebration. A young man was about to be married, and relatives and neighbors from the surrounding area had gathered in a collective effort to build him a ger—a circular, transportable, tent-like structure that helped Genghis Khan conquer much of the world—as a wedding present.
When we arrived and were invited to participate in the construction of the ger, the tent itself was about half-finished—its wooden frame and central posts stood bare, like a skeleton awaiting the flesh of felt that would soon envelop and protect this new home. The men used hammers, saws, and sinews to build and affix the frame, while the women scraped the felt covering that would shelter the young family from the weather of the northern steppes. What tribal culture does, and does so effectively, is wash away the illusion of self-reliance, the myth of independence and individualism that so many of us Americans have bought into for so many years—more now, arguably, than ever before.
I tried my best to do my part, which consisted mostly of schmoozing through a translator with the groom’s father and uncles, and taking photos of the children. Since my brother and I had to leave the event in order to move on with our own trip, this cultural experience concluded with a mid-afternoon feast of candy and homemade cheese curds, followed by celebratory toasts of vodka and fermented mare’s milk.
Never before had I felt so welcomed, even as a total stranger, into somebody else’s world—their party had become our party.
This powerful communitarian sensibility is related as much to necessity as it is to morality. No one in that world could have survived without the active help of others. What I saw was a form of humanitarian aid that wasn’t institutional or solicited, but commonplace and expected.
One of the great nomads in the biblical tradition is Abraham. A narrative in the book of Genesis is often used to illustrate Abraham’s morality and to serve as a model for how we should behave toward others. Three mysterious strangers unexpectedly appear in the desert and approach the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Rather than reaching for a weapon, the patriarch rushes out to greet them and invites them into his home for food and shelter.
It’s clear that Abraham and his wife had an “open tent” policy—a policy that, in a nomadic and tribal culture, was related not just to an ethical code, but to survival. What I saw in Mongolia afforded me an unforgettable glimpse into the world of Abraham and Sarah, the world of the nomad. While their society isn’t a perfect one, it inculcates a culture of the open tent, of hospitality and interdependence. What tribal culture does, and does so effectively, is wash away the illusion of self-reliance, the myth of independence and individualism that so many of us Americans have bought into for so many years—more now, arguably, than ever before. It shows us the lunacy of trying to go it alone, and the truth that we don’t have to.
Like the institutions of science, technology, and government, tribalism has both negative and positive dimensions. The tribal culture I bore witness to was one of selflessness and interdependence. It was one that held the values of community and commitment above all else. In sharp contrast, ours is a culture of narcissism, of extreme and excessive individualism, of the radical pursuit of our own needs and personal desires—and, on the global level, of unilateralism.
Self-worship is our generation’s sin.
What is it, then, that we need to atone for in modern America? Not for having packed up our tents and moved into townhouses. Not for having traded in our camels and horses for cars and planes. But for having, in the process, abandoned our commitment to a culture of community. Ours is a culture of narcissism, of extreme and excessive individualism, of the radical pursuit of our own needs and personal desires—and, on the global level, of unilateralism.
With most of the external structures of tribalism gone, how can we regain its internal ones, its core values and virtues? This is the challenge of modernity itself. If we fail to overcome, or even face, this existential struggle, then we will have failed in our humanity—we will have taken the gift that is our birthright, the gift of Abraham and Sarah’s open tent, and sealed its entrance shut.
And when we seal the entrance to that sacred tent, we seal the entrance to our hearts. The narcissistic impulses so prevalent today are only the outer crust of our hidden worlds—they are this society’s mask. Beneath that mask, in those murky regions of our souls that we’re too afraid to confront honestly, we are more needy than ever. We live in an era of disturbing violence and roiling hatreds, of color-coded terror alerts, of alienation from those around us as well as from our own families. We live during a dark period in time, and its evolution is uncertain and unsettling.
As a Jew, I come from a nation of nomads, of free spirits. Ours is a tribal religion with tribal roots. Most of the answers to society’s current problems—our fears, anxieties, and feelings of loneliness—aren’t in self-help books, but in our own, sometimes primal, spiritual heritage. Judaism offers correctives, pathways that allow us to regain the elemental values our culture so desperately needs and the anchors of authentic community we so deeply crave.
There are many things we can do to improve our moral characters and to cultivate a more harmonious, truly compassionate, community, society, and world. But for this to happen, we must accept one of the first rules of tribal life—that the motivation for our behavior be grounded, not necessarily in what we want to do, but in what we ought to do.
Today, that’s a brazenly countercultural idea.
Tradition states that Abraham’s tent was exposed to every direction—it was welcoming, but it made him vulnerable. And that’s precisely the point: it is only through vulnerability that genuine community can emerge, that commitment and compassion become intertwined and inseparable.
Both require a risk on our part. Both necessitate that we make a leap of faith beyond our normal comfort zone.
Modernity gives tribalism a very bad rap. Part of why most of us look down on tribal religions or religiously motivated groups is the result of what we see around us, events we associate with more primitive mindsets and cultures: the violence in the Balkans, the bloodshed in Chechnya and Sudan, the terrorism of the radical Islamists. To most of us, tribalism means feuding and fighting, ethnocentricity and triumphalism, “insiders” and “outsiders,” and closed-mindedness. We must accept one of the first rules of tribal life—that the motivation for our behavior be grounded, not necessarily in what we want to do, but in what we ought to do.
But it doesn’t have to. It is usually only when political or personal agendas (or vendettas) get mixed up with social or spiritual ones that such horrific problems occur. If we look deeper—and see tribalism at its best and most authentic rather than at its worst and most distorted—it has much to teach us.
Signs of a re-emerging tribalism are everywhere. But it’s too soon to tell if it will lead to more conflict and separatism or a renewed sense of community. Together, let’s strive for the latter.