When Rabbi Sharon Brous first read an essay by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a colleague and former teacher, accusing her of betraying Israel, she was shocked and angry, she said. Nevertheless, her initial instinct was to refrain from feeding the publicity machine.
Gordis’ article, posted on the Times of Israel Web site on Nov. 18, attacked a Nov. 15 e-mail Brous had sent to IKAR, the Los Angeles spiritual and social justice community she founded and leads. In her three-paragraph e-mail, Brous stated that Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks targeting innocent civilians and designed to create terror. She also urged people to retain their humanity and empathize with the Palestinian victims.
Gordis, executive vice president of the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem and winner of a National Jewish Book Award, wrote that Brous’ “radical universalism” and extreme balancing of the Arab and Jewish narratives left him to conclude that “her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.”
“Why can we not simply say that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong?” he wrote.
A day later, Brous decided to respond when the hate mail began to pile up — profanity-laced letters, e-mails and Facebook posts calling her a Nazi, a terrorist sympathizer, a self-hating Jew.
“Danny essentially gave people permission to believe that I was an enemy of the State of Israel. Not that Hamas rockets were the danger, but the danger was American rabbis who have compassion on Palestinian children,” Brous said in an interview this week.
Gordis then posted another column in rebuttal on Nov. 26, reiterating his ideas and offering some points of remorse.
“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,” he wrote.
Other leaders, many from Los Angeles, weighed in with articles. The exchange, much of it reprinted in these pages, with more on jewishjournal.com, has garnered hundreds of comments.
Gordis declined to be interviewed for this article, saying his columns expressed his thoughts.
Brous and Gordis have known each other for more than 15 years. Brous said Gordis inspired her as a Talmud teacher in her first year at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), where Gordis was a founding dean. After Gordis moved to Israel in 1998, Brous said she has visited him whenever she traveled there.
Gordis, in his essay, spoke of the great respect he holds for Brous and said he e-mailed Brous before publishing his essay.
Brous said Gordis ignored who he knows her to be.
“My sense was that Danny knows me well; he knows how much I love Israel; he knows the character of my Judaism, and for him to write something so outrageous, he must be very scared and very concerned about his own safety and his family’s safety,” she said.
Since moving to Israel, Gordis has written several articles that provoked confrontations with other rabbis. In 2003, he launched an attack on Jill Jacobs, then a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, for her criticism of Israeli policies. In the past two years, he has enraged many young rabbis by accusing seminaries and rabbinic students of losing a sense of belonging to the Jewish people and Israel.
Those confrontations have often taken a personal tone, as did this one.
Gordis wrote that Brous’ words left him feeling that she had abandoned his children — his son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He parenthetically added that Brous used to babysit for his children — a remark with implications of gender, age and authority differences.
“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,’ ” he wrote in his Nov. 26 rebuttal.
“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.”
Brous said she initially wrote her e-mail because she was seeing disturbing posts gloating over the killing of Gazans.
She said she believes that showing humanity and caring for innocent victims across the border is a genuine way of showing love for Israel.
And yet, Brous said, “There are American rabbis who last Shabbos were publicly calling for carpet bombing Gaza, which would mean the death and destruction of hundreds of thousands of people, and somehow those rabbis are within the bounds of permissible discourse on Israel, while I am out of bounds because I said war is not to be celebrated.”
Although she believes she clearly stated in her initial letter that Hamas rockets were targeting innocent civilians, she said she was pilloried for not sticking to Gordis’ formula of using the words “murderously evil.”
“Who decides what the script is, and why do we want to be in a community that forces us to follow a script and calls us out for treason if we don’t?”
What she wants to see most is a quieting of the vitriol and polarization.
Ironically, Brous pointed out, Gordis, in a Tablet Magazine article posted just before the exchange, lamented examples of American Jewish communities canceling speakers on Israel because of their actions or views: “These people believe that an increasingly narrow tent will best protect the state of Israel, and so they continue to move the tent’s pegs. But they are doing just the opposite of bolstering the Jewish state: They weaken Israel and make it more vulnerable because they exclude enormous swaths of the community that we need.”
Brous believes, too, that there is much work to be done.
“The reality is that in no small part this is what turns off so many young Jews from engaging in the Israel conversation. Not only that even to enter you have to list your Zionist credentials of how many summers you spent in Jerusalem and how many family members made aliyah, but you cannot say anything outside the script.
“I think it’s doing a great disservice to our community and to Israel by narrowing the conversation so severely.”
More on the compassion controversy:
- Email from Rabbi Sharon Brous to IKAR
- Rabbi Daniel Gordis: When balance becomes betrayal
- Rabbi Sharon Brous: Lowering the bar
- A response from David Suissa
- A response from Rabbi Ed Feinstein
- A response from Rabbi Mordecai Finley
- A response from Danielle Berrin
- A response from Rabbi Wolpe