Rabbis, Speaking Out and Israel
This past week the rabbis of Bnai Jeshurun sent out an email congratulating the UN for the overwhelming vote in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state. They saw the vote as a step in the right direction toward the Palestinians achieving independence and toward the realization of a two state solution. This provoked a front page story in the NY Times about the ensuing controversy which led to an expression of regret by the Bnai Jeshurun rabbis about the tone and language but not really the substance of the original email. The subsequent email stressed the deep and long time support for the State of Israel by the rabbis.
I wanted to discuss with you this controversy and its context, and then share with you my own feelings about the UN vote and the response of the Israeli government.
What do we want from our rabbis, that is, do we see as part of the rabbinic role, that rabbis especially congregational rabbis should at times speak with a moral voice on important issues facing the Jewish community or America? Rabbis may not have any special insight into politics or the economy that would warrant paying more attention to what they have to say about the fiscal cliff than anyone else. The real question is whether rabbis have a moral authority invested in them by their role.
It is clear that moral authority is reflected in expectations about their behavior. While we wouldn't accept a cashier who cheats or a drunken airline pilot, we wouldn't really care if those same people excessively yell at their children. What I mean is we expect people to do their professions honestly, but what they do after work is their business not ours. Do we decide not to continue using the best brain surgeon because it was just revealed that he was having an affair? I don't think so.
Rabbis are an exception to this because they are in the religion business, there are no after hours. We would care if we saw a rabbi littering or cutting ahead on a line. Or one rabbi once described going to a movie with his spouse and when there was a sexy scene on the screen noticing how congregants who happened to be at the theater turned around to see his reaction. No one would do that to see how their lawyer or doctor was reacting. Morality/ethical behavior is not restricted to office hours.
We thus have moral expectations of our rabbis even as we know that they are not saints. Similarly, I would suggest that we think they have a moral expertise and thus a moral voice. Therefore, it is not just that rabbis should be learned about the Jewish tradition. Judaism is a religion and whether rabbis represent God or the Jewish people, we think or we hope that they have particular insights into morality.
Stephen Wise, one of the leading rabbis of the early 20th century founded the synagogue that bears his name as the Free Synagogue—now the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. "Free" does not mean that there were no dues. Free meant that the person in the pulpit was free to say what he thought needed to be said. Freedom of the pulpit. One of the other leading rabbis of the time who practiced this was Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan was known for criticizing labor practices from the pulpit knowing full well that among his congregants were clothing manufacturers. His critiques could be very pointed. For many years, Kaplan also didn’t accept a salary from SAJ (he was paid as a Jewish Theological Seminary professor) because he didn’t want money to limit his freedom to speak out.
Have things changed since Kaplan and Stephen Wise’s time? Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, in a letter to the NY Times that appeared on the day following the BJ front page story, wrote the following:
"I support their action not only because I agree with it — and I most certainly do — but also because liberal American religion, not only Judaism, has become afraid of its own shadow and unwilling to take bold, morally complex public positions.
The bind we are in is untenable and creates boring, safe religious leadership. Our congregants frequently communicate in different ways that they don’t want controversy. We are often silenced by fears of contract negotiations. How have we become a world in which we want to hear only from those in our religious communities who reinforce what we already think? I welcome those who disagree with me in my synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. And I hope that they appreciate knowing what I really think and enjoy engaging with me on the issues facing all of us today."
I think there is truth in what Sharon Kleinbaum wrote: While in theory, congregants might argue that rabbis do have freedom of the pulpit, there are a variety of pressures to hew to the middle consensus view—it can be concerns about contract renewal, it can be concerns for the congregation—I have wondered whether if I took a certain public position whether some members of the congregation would resign. Do I have a right to say what I feel needs to be said or do I have a responsibility to the congregation which takes precedence over my views and therefore I shouldn’t harm the congregation by saying what I feel from the pulpit knowing that it could lead to some people’s resignations?
Of course the issue of Israel has become the most divisive issue in the Jewish community with very little tolerance for opposing views. Many communities/groups have decided that it is too difficult to have discussions about Israel and have taken the topic of the table. I once mentioned to you that Joy and I visited one of the independent minyanim made up of people in their 20’s whose rule was that members took turns giving the dvar torah/sermon and they could talk on any issue with the exception of Israel because the spectrum in this group ran from anti-Zionists to pro-Zionists. Increasingly, communities have become more homogeneous in their views. You may have seen a recent piece by an Orthodox Jew with a liberal view on Israel and the Palestinians who said he feels he is an isolated minority even on the Upper West Side. Increasingly, the Orthodox community identifies with right wing views on Israel, while religiously liberal Jews identify with center/left views on Israel.
When rabbis gather at rabbinical conventions they talk about feeling that they can’t really speak out on issues they care passionately about especially about Israel. Some of this has to do with how much credit any individual rabbi has. New to the congregation and just out of rabbinical school you have very little credit. If you have been the rabbi for 25 years in the same congregation you should have a great deal of credit that can translate into trust—"I disagree with you rabbi, but I know you for so long I still respect you" or "I disagree but I still remember you were there when my spouse died." And yet, one could argue that the Bnai Jeshurun rabbis should have a great deal of credit both for being there a long time and running a very successful congregation. Structurally, the rabbis at BJ have a great deal of authority which is a legacy from Marshall Meyer who basically rebuilt Bnai Jeshurun from scratch and himself was a throwback to the Stephen Wise model of a rabbi, that is a rabbi who played an important public role and who spoke his mind and often challenged his congregation.
Yet even with that legacy and credit, the rabbis of BJ felt the necessity to express regret for their first statement.
Is this incident then a demonstration that rabbis can speak their mind—yes
Is this proof that even well entrenched rabbis can not speak their mind—yes as well.
The truth is that Jews both want their rabbis to speak out but mostly when they take positions that those Jews are in favor of. When your rabbi takes a position that you strongly disagree with—you are not so happy; when he or she speaks publically thereby linking your synagogue and you to that position then you are really unhappy.
We need prophetic voices to challenge us, to shake up our long held assumptions, to ask the hard questions of what needs to be reconstructed and what needs to be laid to rest with other noble but ultimately unsuccessful endeavors in Jewish history. Yet, as we learn from the biblical texts, prophets are never popular people they are too serious and too cranky.
As for me, I do not see myself as a prophet. I think it has to do with my personality. I do not like conflict. This is not always a good thing especially when it is about avoiding people being angry with me. Yet it also comes from my unwillingness to see the world in black and white. Issues seem complex. Most often there are actually two sides to every debate. I think it is very hard to feel absolutely certain that you are right and the other side is wrong. Liberals aren’t always right. Neither are conservatives.
Frequently I am asked to sign on to a statement for supporting a position on an issue. For example, lend my name to the workers who are striking against an owner. I rarely sign. While I assume that most of the time it would be better if the workers were unionized I can’t be certain as in this story. A number of years ago, there was a small greengrocer on the corner of my street. It was a mom and pop operation with 3 additional workers. One day there was a picket line in front of the store. Asking around I was told that the three workers didn’t want to join the union and that the people picketing outside are not the workers but three members of the union. These union members were being paid by the union to picket despite the fact that they are collecting unemployment benefits.
Now perhaps that story isn’t the truth or perhaps the workers in the green grocery actually would like to be part of the union but they have been threatened by the owners about losing their jobs. Who knows?
I just don’t make the assumption that unions are always right and owners are always wrong.
I think demonizing the other ignores that we are all created in God’s image. And yet, there are causes I support. Positions that seem important. Other positions that seem really wrong.
I have been to Israel dozens of times since my first trip at age 15. Yet, a long time ago, I decided that the Jewish life I was committed to helping create was going to be here in America not in Israel. That has been the focus of my Jewish life and yet Israel has always been part of that experience. In my last book, The Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice my chapter on Israel begins as follows: "Most attempts to define our relationship to Israel have rested on the ever-changing shoulders of the political situation. Without negating the importance of politics, let me posit another model—a religious metaphor for the ways Jews might relate to Israel. This model would serve no matter what political party was in power in the State of Israel and even if a final peace agreement was reached between Israel and her neighbors, and even if harmony existed between the various denominations of Judaism. Ultimately, our relationship to Israel is religious in nature, not political or nationalistic. What is needed is a new religious Zionism that would affect both Zionism and Judaism.
This new Zionism would reflect the beliefs of those for whom the Diaspora is a permanent reality. This Zionism would recognize that galut—the spiritual alienation of the Jewish people—is a condition that exists everywhere, even in Israel. Yet, even after affirming a Jewish life in the Diaspora, we still must face the question: What of Israel? Is there no difference between living in Borough Park or Des Moines and living in Jerusalem? Do the phrases Eretz Yisrael, Zion, and “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” have no special meaning to us?
The challenge, then, is to create a metaphor that takes into account both the Diaspora and Israel, a metaphor that posits both as being of equal importance and yet different. The struggle is to speak of two centers, of two paths, or two Torahs, without implying even subtly the superiority of one over the other."
I then try to spell out what a Torah of Zion might mean. I am less optimistic these days that there will be a peace agreement which would allow for such a discussion, though I do feel the lack of a metaphor of meaning is part of the growing distance between American Jews and Israel.
Where am I in my relationship to Israel after the recent events? I was struck by an op Ed piece by Yossi Beilin in the NY Times that appeared before the UN vote. He called upon Israel and the US to embrace the resolution in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state. This was first of all a political tactic to bolster Abbas and the Palestinian Authority which has lost ground to Hamas particularly after the recent strife in Gaza. He also maintained that it would make little difference on the ground though it might change the atmosphere enough to jumpstart peace talks. I thought Beilin was correct. Instead Israel opposed the vote and lost overwhelmingly even among the European states.
However, it was the response of the Netanyahu government after the vote that really disturbed me. The decision to begin the process of building in the area known as E-1 felt we had arrived at a potential turning point. What makes that area so controversial is that it would basically bisect the West Bank making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Perhaps Netanyahu didn’t really mean it and doesn’t really plan to build whole neighborhoods in that area. Perhaps it was election campaign rhetoric or said as a threat to the Palestinians to stay out of the International Court.
Perhaps Netanyahu didn’t mean it. But that has been said about every plan to build in the West Bank—"it is only studying the issue"; "it’s just laying the infrastructure", "it’s just this area it won’t be further expanded", "the illegal settlements will all be removed". Almost always these turned into facts on the ground that then become a challenge to figuring out how to create a two state solution.
In the last decade the question of whether a two state solution is still a physical possibility has become a relevant question. For decades we have urged the Palestinians to recognize and accept a 2 state solution. That is what the Oslo accords are about. That is what the Palestinian authority has accepted; that is what Hamas has rejected. Hamas wants a one state solution—a Palestinian state in all of Israel and the West Bank.
There are increasing voices on the right wing of Jewish life who are also advocating a one state solution—a Jewish state in all of Israel and much if not all of the West Bank.
That is what is so dangerous about building in E-1 for I believe that a one state solution can only mean the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland/an independent state. Either it will cease to be Jewish or it will be a state where a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority that does not have full citizen rights. Call it apartheid or not, a theocracy or not, what matters is it will not be a democracy to a large body of its inhabitants.
How do those Jews in favor of a one state solution imagine this working. I actually can’t tell you. Mostly they believe there is no other solution, there are no real Palestinian partners for peace and Israel has the military power to continue indefinitely until…
It is the until that is never spelled out. The Palestinians give up? This playing for time scenario was dealt a major blow in the last few years as Israel lost two of its allies in the area—first Turkey and then Egypt. The Arab spring has shifted that world not in Israel’s favor. Who knows what will happen in Syria? And who knows what will happen next?
It is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Things have changed so much since the hopes of Rabin days.
It is the accumulated toll of this history, on top of other issues such as the dominance of Orthodoxy in Israel that has worn away the support of increasing numbers of American Jews especially young American Jews. In this last election much was made of how Israel was not the central issue determining who most American Jews voted for in the presidential election. I think this was because Jews care about the economy and the rights of women and a host of other issues, but I also wonder whether it also reflects a growing care gap about Israel. I would guess that Netanyahu is less popular among American Jews than Romney.
I believe that the American Jewish leadership and for that matter Israeli leadership is making a huge mistake in thinking that Israel’s image problem can be solved with better marketing. The statement by the BJ rabbis and even more by seven congregational rabbis in White Plains who took a similar stance on the UN vote is a warning that it is no longer Jews on the margins of American Jewish life that question Israel’s policies.
And for me: When I read about E-1, I thought of this analogy. We all know stories of families where there is a child who is a troubled person. For whatever reasons, they have been caught up in addictive or destructive patterns. As a parent you never want to cut off your child, but after the 50th time of bailing them out, of giving them money that will only be wasted, when do you say I can’t enable this any more. I am not doing you a favor by pretending to support what is behavior that is not good for you.
In response to E-1, I wanted to say to Israel---you’re on your own. I give up. What you are doing is so wrong, not just morally but in your own self interest. But I didn’t say that, but the fact that I wanted to is I believe a sign of the challenge that Israel faces, not because I am so important but because if I am feeling it, I think many others in the Jewish community may be feeling similarly. I keep coming closer and closer to the moment when I will say enough.
Instead, of saying Israel you are on your own, I decided to ask myself what can we do this Yom Ha’atzma’ut Israel Independence Day to better connect SAJ and Israel. The JCC in Manhattan is co-coordinating a celebration of Yom ha-Atzma'ut that will involve many of the Jewish institutions on the Upper West Side in all their diversity. Please contact me if you would like to be involved.