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A Responsibility to Speak

November 27, 2012

It is the nature of Jewish life that its most critical issues have often been debated fiercely, and in public.

In the Bible, there’s Korach versus Moses, disputing the critical question of what constitutes legitimate leadership.  Millennia later there was the conflict between Spinoza and the Amsterdam rabbis who essentially excommunicated him, over whether Jewish disputes should be kept in the community or taken to public courts.  Then there were searing disputes between Vilna Ga’on and the Ba’al Shem Tov about what constituted the essence of Jewish religion, as a result of which Jews refused to eat each other’s food or have their children marry the children of the other.  There’s the still simmering dispute between Reformers and Orthodoxy, the former arguing that under Orthodoxy, Judaism would wilt and wither, and the latter arguing that what Reform proposed wasn’t Judaism at all.  And, of course, there was the vitriol between Zionists and anti-Zionists in the last two centuries, in a debate which has largely been settled by history.

The Jewish community has always been a passionate, argumentative one.  Might we be better off if we adopted a certain Protestant etiquette, a less-passionate and less-vitriolic way of conducting our affairs?  In theory, perhaps.  But that’s never happened, for the questions in all these disputes are fundamental and existential – they are about the very survival of the Jewish people.  For those who engaged in those debates, it was not a single issue that was at stake, but rather, their entire world, the People that defined the very essence of who they were as human beings.

This debate now unfolding in The Times of Israel is no different.  What is at stake is yet another issue on which the Jewish future may hinge – the question of the degree to which Jews owe allegiance to Jews first, and then, secondarily, to a universal ethic.  That question has been part of Jewish life since time immemorial, but it has emerged with a vengeance in recent years, largely because of the dangerous abdication of particularistic responsibility in much of Progressive Judaism.


There is obviously much to celebrate in the largely non-denominational Progressive movement.  It is restoring a vibrancy to worship that has long been absent in most of the organized Jewish community.  In many cases, and especially in the case of Rabbi Brous, it has restored a vital and central role for Jewish tradition, while coupling to it deep intellectual sophistication and moral sensitivity.  There is much more to applaud in the movement in general, and especially in the work of Rabbi Brous, who, as I explicitly stated my opening column on the subject, is to my mind one of the great and most creative and visionary rabbis in American Jewish life.

But too often, Progressive Judaism’s moral sensitivity is devolving into a pallid universalism that actually silences the classic Jewish voice which says that when it comes to our love and our devotion, the members of our community come first (Bava Metzi’a 71a).  It’s not because other people don’t need us.  Rather, there’s a more substantive view at the heart of that Talmudic claim:  We learn caring, and we learn love, from our innermost circles.  To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one.  Devotion and loyalty demand priority and specificity.  Sans such specificity, we ultimately stand for nothing.

Consequently, to care about one’s enemies as much as one cares about oneself is to be no one.

Many of Israel’s harshest critics understood that last week’s fighting between Israel and Hamas was very different from the “standard” Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Gershon Baskin, a regular critic of Israeli policy, had this to say on his Facebook page:

Wouldn’t it be great if the people of Gaza said to Hamas and Jihad “we don’t want you to defend us by sending rockets into Israel … We want our leadership to invest in building schools, parks, museums, factories, etc. and not rockets, bunkers, and bombs”… [Gaza] is not like the West Bank – Israel has no territorial claims or aspirations in Gaza.

Last week called for moral clarity.  Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, is hardly a passionate Zionist.  During the Second Lebanon War, he wrote: “The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake.”  Ouch.  But this past week, Cohen understood that Israel was at war with unadulterated evil, and this time, Cohen wrote:

Hamas is not the passive party in this struggle. … It chose to make war by allowing more militant groups to use Gaza as a launching pad for rockets and firing off the occasional rocket itself. No nation is going to put up with this sort of terror. The rockets do some, not a lot of damage, but that’s not the point. The point instead is that people who have the wherewithal will not continue to live in a place where even the occasional rocket can come down on your kids’ school. This is not a mere border problem. For Israel, this is an existential threat.

… Both sides have a case and both sides have proved to be indomitable. But both sides are not equally right in all instances. Hamas sent rockets into Israel, not caring if they hit a chicken coop or a group of toddlers jumping in and out of a sprinkler. You want balance? Here’s balance. Hamas didn’t care if its own people died either.

That is what Jewish leaders needed to say, too.

Even Rabbi Eric Yoffie, formerly the President of the Union for Reform Judaism and not one to back away from critique of Israel, wrote in Haaretz how troubled he was by the absence of outrage in the Progressive community:

Progressives, of course, want the use of force to be a last resort. But it would be hard to imagine a case where Israel was more patient than Gaza.  … With sickening regularity, rockets fall on civilian centers and hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens flee to shelters. Israel responds, usually with modest force aimed at lower level operatives, the violence stops for a while, and then the cycle begins again.  Progressives should be as outraged as everyone else about this.


Which brings us to my column about Rabbi Brous’ message to her congregation.  What I found so painful, and what felt like a betrayal to me as the father of a soldier-son who was on the Gaza border as shells were falling, was the lack of outrage, an unwillingness to state the obvious truth:  Hamas is murderously evil.

To say “We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator” is a sentiment I might understand regarding the West Bank or a host of other issues.  Rabbi Brous and I probably disagree about some of those issues, but that’s not only fine, it’s healthy.  This time, though, the evil that Israel was facing was so clear that not to assail Hamas and to distinguish it clearly from Israel was, to me, a classic example of moral equivalence, an abdication of responsibility to moral clarity and to the Jewish particularism that I believe has always characterized Jewish life (sometimes to excess, of course).

Jeffrey Goldberg put it best when he tweeted, “Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks Rabbi Sharon Brous to love Jews a little more than she loves Palestinians.”  That was the point, plain and simple.

In hindsight, there are phrases I should have worded differently.  I should have said that as the father of a son on the border, her column “felt like a betrayal.”  And I should have been clearer that she certainly did not create this Jewish universalism.  It’s become Progressive Judaism’s trademark.  Indeed, upon publication of my first column, a friend wrote to say:

We attended a progressive congregation for many years until the Shabbat services following the Dolphinarium disco suicide bombing in which 21 teenagers were killed and more than 100 injured.  During that Shabbat morning service following less than a day from the suicide bombing, one of the shul’s rabbis actually said from the pulpit that before we condemn the Palestinians for this act, we should remember that “we have our Baruch Goldsteins, too.”   I have never been so revolted by a Jewish leader as at that moment.  I care about the Palestinians and argue with those who compare them to Amalek.  But I love my own people before others.

“[I]t’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat,” Rabbi Brous wrote.  But who was gloating?  The people I know were simply petrified.  Instead of telling us not to gloat, can leaders of the Progressive community say what my friend wrote: “But I love my own people before others”?  Increasingly, I suspect not.

Absent the ability to say those words, does the Jewish people stand a chance?  I fear not.  That is new debate the Jewish world must have.  It was the debate I sought to surface.


The debate, however, needs to be sophisticated.  It must be rooted in a broad read of the Jewish canon, not in sound-bites thereof.  While Adam Bronfman is obviously right that Hillel admonished “if I am only for myself, who am I?” Adam also surely agrees with me that Jewish discourse must not devolve into to “pin the tail on the rabbinic aphorism.”  We need more than an exercise in which one person cites “if I am only for myself,” (Avot 1:14) while another pulls out “if someone is coming to kill you, kill him first.”  (BaMidbar Rabbah 21:4).  Then someone will tweet the midrash that has God weeping over the Egyptians drowning in the sea (Megillah 10b), just begging for someone else to point out that there is another version of the same midrash that has God trembling in fear over what might happen to the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 23:7).

Ideas, not “greatest hits,” are what matter.  We need a community-wide conversation, learned, frank and ongoing, as to whether the Bible and rabbinic literature have a sense of particularism at their core.  If they do, to what extent should that color our worldview?  Without particularism, is Judaism recognizable?  Are those books our guides, or just volumes in the library?  To the extent that we do not wish them to shape us, in what shall our Judaism be grounded?  Those are the questions that matter.

David Myers urged that I brush up on Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin to see how deeply they were grounded in a universal ethic.  Yes, they were.  But it was precisely because Jabotinsky understood Arab dignity that he advocated an “iron wall which the native population cannot break through,” for “as long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes.”  Therefore, he insisted, “the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.”  That doesn’t sound like an abdication of particularism to me.

And as for Begin, when he gave his famous “a little more time, and there will be no Katyusha’s in Kiryat Shmona” speech as he prepared to invade Lebanon, did he not understand that Lebanese children would die in the war he was unleashing?  Of course he did.  But he was Jew and a leader of the Jewish people.  The future of Jewish children mattered to him more.  His entire life was testament to that.

I say this not to advocate an “iron fist” or to suggest that we needed an invasion of Gaza.  I say it simply because just as we ought not play the “rabbinic aphorism game,” neither should we subject people like Jabotinsky or Begin to what Myers calls a “simplistic misreading.”  They, like the challenges we face, were complex and nuanced.  The same should be true for the arguments we adduce today.

Rabbi Brous says that my column brought Zionist discourse to a new low, but she knows that’s not true.  I wrote, and repeat: “Rabbi Sharon Brous is one of the most intelligent and creative minds in the American Jewish community.  She is almost universally recognized for her path-breaking vision of what a synagogue can be, and her combination of deep intelligence and authentic soulfulness have reached many Jews who would otherwise not be attached to the Jewish world.”  How’s that a new low?  It was Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s response that gave me pause.   Rabbi Feinstein is a person of such wisdom and careful judgment that when he wrote that my column was “incendiary,” I was struck.  I read and re-read my column, and don’t see it.  But if he felt that it read that way, then I clearly didn’t word things nearly as well as I should have.  And for that, I apologize.   Finally, I understand that Rabbi Brous has received no small amount of hate mail following that first column; my disgust for anyone who would do that knows no bounds.


A cri de coeur is no guarantee of success.  The Sadducees lost their battle with the Pharisees, and are no longer.  The Vilna Ga’on was unsuccessful in rooting out Hassidism.  Orthodoxy failed to prevent the rise of Reform.  It is entirely possible that those of us terrified by the specter of a largely universalist American Judaism will also fail and that history will view us as the losers in an unwinnable battle.  Perhaps it will also be said that we were wrong to be so worried in the first place.

Perhaps.  But each of us can only believe what we believe.  I have few axiomatic beliefs, but here are two of them:  I believe that our most sacred responsibility in life is to strive to leave the Jewish people in a better place than it was when we were born.  And I believe that four thousand years of Jewish tradition are committed to the proposition that particularism is key to who we are, and that the inability to love our people before we love others cuts out the heart of one Judaism’s great sustaining characteristics.

For those of us who hold those beliefs, refusing to say what we think would be our greatest failure.  Unpopular though our views may be, if we choose silence, we abdicate what may well be our most sacred responsibility.

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