Posted by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub
In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this the “Death by Israel Sermon.” Across the country, our communal discourse on Israel has grown so ugly that many have stopped caring and engaging at all.
I work with institutions and leaders across the country to build open, constructive communication across political divides on Israel. I’d like to share three patterns that prevail in the current American Jewish conversation about Israel, why it should urgently concern us and what we can do about it.
The first and most common pattern is avoidance. Dodging the “Death by Israel Sermon” is just one example. Most Jewish social justice organizations have explicit policies to avoid Israel. It seems every week another institution bans Israel from its listserv. Even what presents as apathy among millennials is often a mask for avoidance: “Oh, that nasty conversation? Who wants to go there?”
The second pattern is open antagonism: vilification, ad hominem attacks, quoting each other out of context, impugning motives, distorting each other’s posi-tions to reckless caricatures.
The third could be called “avoidance 2.0” and refers to the widespread tendency to con-gre-gat-e, conference- and talk exclu-sively to those with whom we agree. We splinter into self-affirming nuclei of our respec-tive orga-ni-za-tions, each of them morally supe-rior and self-certain, talk-ing past one another, and now and then col-lid-ing in frus-tra-tion and hos-til-ity. Rival camps rally and take pride in the num-bers of those who are with them, while dismissing those who aren’t as dan-ger-ous, igno-rant, mali-cious or loony.
These dynamics are hardly unique to us as Jews. Consider the toxicity of the abortion conversation. In such entrenched social conflict, informal interactions across lines of disagreement grow rare, intensifying the ease with which we can malign and demonize our ideological counterparts. Adversaries harden against each other’s genuine integrity and concerns, dismissing each other in categorical and one-dimensional terms. Voices of nuance and uncertainty get trampled. Hostility and silence become the only perceived options for engagement.
These patterns are enormously costly and debilitating. We’re unraveling relationships and institutions, corroding community, and generating cynicism, distrust and fear. We’re alienating potential allies and turning people off, particularly younger generations of Jews. We’re engendering fatigue and burnout among activists of all stripes as well as the broader public. We’re obstructing and distracting from genuine problem solving and drowning out creative thinking. Resources that should be used to negotiate intelligent ways forward are instead used to attack or simply fight for the chance to be heard.
A dominant strand of Jewish tradition directs us to a more productive way, one that would replace these counterproductive patterns with mahloket l’shem shamayim, “sacred disagreement,” that is no less passionate and yet is generative rather than destructive.
Rabbinic sources — trying to account for radically divergent interpretations of Torah — present revelation as multivocal and contradictory in its very DNA: “One voice divided into seven voices and these into 70 languages” (Exodus Rabba 28:6). “Just as a hammer [stroke] scatters many sparks, so a single scriptural passage yields many senses” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a). “The scroll of the Torah is [written] without vowels, in order to enable man to interpret it however he wishes … as the consonants without the vowels bear several interpretations, and [may be] divided into several sparks” (Bahya ben Asher, “Commentary on the Torah,” Numbers 11:15).
Embrace of intellectual heterogeneity is written into our very blueprint for meaning and truth. This does not mean that every perspective is deemed equally convincing or valid. Rival exegetes in our tradition compete over the relative persuasiveness of their readings. But this theology does demand of us intellectual humility — embrace of our limitations and uncertainty, recognition that truth cannot be known through only one voice but rather only through rigorous search and deliberation.
The Talmud lives out this theology in its idiosyncratic format. Each page presents a record of argument, often without resolution. The Talmud’s structure similarly implies that the best way forward will not be discerned through single-mindedness or conflict avoidance, but only through investigating our differences proactively. The rabbis don’t just tolerate disagreement, or agree to disagree. They lean into their differences rather than tiptoeing around them, quieting them, or seeking to overcome them in search of facile common ground. They recognize that legal decisions must be rendered as an operative necessity. But they treat their disagreements as signposts to something that matters and needs to be thought through deeply, as springboards to greater intelligence.
Of course, not all disagreements are created equal. The paradigm for mahloket l’shem shamayim is presented in the Mishnah and later commentary through the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, as contrasted with Korah’s rebellion (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:17). Numerous commentaries try to tease out what distinguishes Hillel and Shammai from Korah, and cluster around two principles: the dispute’s method and its purpose. Hillel and Shammai exemplify a constructive method of argument: sustaining connection even in the face of profound disagreement. Goes another interpretation, Hillel and Shammai differ from Korah in their objective, that is pursuit of truth rather than power or victory. Even if they lose, they win, for they don’t hold their views out of stubborn attachment to them or ambition for dominance, but in collaborative pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
How can we restore such a spirit of “sacred disagreement” to our communal conversation about Israel?
In recent years, a few pioneering organizations, institutions and leaders have spawned efforts to model and teach generative engagement across our differences on Israel. Individual synagogues and campus Hillels have hosted rounds of study, dialogue and inquiry. Citywide initiatives in San Francisco and elsewhere — and national efforts, like Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Campaign for Civility — have produced resources, models and lessons learned that must be built on across the country. I have been honored to be involved with several of these efforts, working alongside partners and colleagues to replace the false choice of hostility versus silence with curiosity and mutual learning in the face of our most passionately held differences.
If we are to create an infrastructure of community resilience through times of crisis, as well as strategies for prevention and reconciliation, what is now a trickle of such initiatives must become a torrent. We must make our commitment to “sacred disagreement” as widespread as we have made our commitment to social justice. We need wide-scale communal investment at national and local levels, training rabbis, funders, lay leaders, rising leaders and seasoned professionals in the art of heavenly dispute. We need programs at every level that actively build relationships and support meaningful communication across lines of distrust, aversion and dismissal.
A community’s destiny does not rise and fall based on how it handles its times of harmony and consensus, but on how it responds to its moments of greatest discord and disagreement. We are now in such a moment on Israel. How we meet this challenge will impact the Jewish people for generations to come.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America faculty, the founding director of Encounter, and an independent Israel engagement consultant, educator, facilitator and trainer.
4.24.13 at 5:45 pm | In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears. . .
3.18.13 at 3:57 am | Jewish leadership has a distinct advantage over. . .
2.7.13 at 11:41 am | With President Obama having just taken the oath. . .
12.13.12 at 2:46 pm | The two-state solution is the object of a lot of. . .
11.13.12 at 1:37 pm |
4.24.13 at 5:45 pm | In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears. . . (44)
3.18.13 at 3:57 am | Jewish leadership has a distinct advantage over. . . (6)
2.7.13 at 11:41 am | With President Obama having just taken the oath. . . (2)
March 18, 2013 | 3:57 am
Posted by Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi
Jewish leadership has a distinct advantage over all other kinds of leadership. Our advantage is that we are inspired by and can be driven by the ethical force of Jewish tradition. Our other advantage is that we can learn from many models of leaders who transformed societies and history itself because of their desire and capacity to act on ethical imperatives. We have been driven by God's call to us to be not only free, but to be holy - to be ethically good (Leviticus 19:2).
According to leadership experts who teach about long-range systemic change in countries, universities, and the business world, successful leadership depends upon the combination of knowledge, the trust of a community of people, the capacity to leverage power, and the willingness to take risks. Successful leaders also learn from other leaders, from their brilliant successes and their disastrous mistakes. But not enough has been said or taught about how Jewish leaders can succeed in transforming organizations, communities, and countries. Jewish leaders don't just need to lead according to communal needs; they need to be led by the ethical imperatives of this hour.
There are three Jewish leaders we should study who I think best model the rare combination of leadership capacity motivated by ethical imperatives: 1) Moses 2) Yohanan Ben Zakkai (First Century BCE) and 3) Theodore Herzl (1860-1904). Each one, in different contexts, embodied not only powerful leadership capacity, but perhaps more importantly their leadership was guided by ethical imperatives - and they were willing to take risks. Each one responded to a profound existential threat facing the Jewish people and acted on the ethical imperative of his time.
According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was nearly assassinated on several occasions: after he struck the Egyptian oppressor and upon leading the Israelites fleeing for freedom across the Red Sea while pursued by the Egyptian army. Along the way he repeatedly faced the dangerous fury of God, of multiple enemies, and of his own people. He risked everything on more than one occasion. But Moses' success is the basis not only of the existence of the Jewish people but of the ethical imperatives that should still guide us today.
Similar arguments could be made about Yohanan Ben Zakkai in fleeing the siege of Jerusalem in 68 CE and setting up the rabbinic academy of Yavne, and about Theodore Herzl in calling for the Jewish State in 1896, expanding the Zionist movement, and establishing international alliances. Without each of these three giants of Jewish history we would probably still be enslaved, without Torah, without rabbinic tradition, and without even the possibility of political sovereignty. In other words, we wouldn't exist.
While the existential threats of our time are real, we live with the blessing of Jewish sovereignty and the political leadership willing to take risks to defend the physical existence of the Jewish people.
But Jewish spiritual and communal existence in North America is -- while not under existential threat of physical destruction-- much in need of more Jewish leaders attuned to ethical imperatives of another sort. Jewish leaders today -- professional and lay, young and old -- must have the capacity to fully respond to an unprecedented reality of what some call a post-ethnic Jewish era, an age characterized by what was unthinkable just a few decades ago. We are blessed to live in a time of egalitarian Judaism, women rabbis, Jews of patrilineal descent, families of intermarriages, and Jews of a wide spectrum of sexual orientations. Multicultural and multi-layered identities are (generally speaking) accepted if not embraced by the majority.
This kind of Jewish communal reality probably demands that we rethink everything. But it also presents us with enormous opportunity. Given such expansive affirmation of the ethical demands of many who were previously disenfranchised, we are also likely to be living in a time in which there ought to be greater sensitivity to the needs of those still seeking a place or a voice within our communities and in the world altogether.
It is also likely that this diversity holds within it not only the ethical sensitivities and the social capital to lead the transformations necessary to become more of what Jewish tradition wants us to be, but this diversity should also breed more leaders who have the knowledge, capacity, power and the willingness to take risks.
The challenges of our time are also filled with opportunity to find expanding ways of responding to God's call that we be an Am Kadosh, a holy nation (Leviticus 19). But our holiness only matters if we can be both free and good. Now we just need more leaders attuned both to the sacred call and the real needs of our time.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She writes regularly for the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.
February 7, 2013 | 11:41 am
Posted by Donniel Hartman
With President Obama having just taken the oath for his second term in office, we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about substantive issues in ways that transcend party affiliations and divisions. We no longer have to debate how and for whom Jews should vote, and instead can confront the far more important question of what Jewish values teach us about the nature of a just society and the role and responsibility of the individual in shaping it.
Jewish teaching on this issue begins early in the Bible, in chapter 4 of Genesis, when we are introduced to the personality of Cain, who personifies injustice and serves as a model for what we must not become. In response to God’s query regarding the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain offers a response that sets the foundation for Jewish morality: Am I my brother’s keeper? The core of Jewish ethics may be summarized by the answer: “Yes, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper.” When you walk in the world as a Jew, you relinquish the singular perspective of self-interest and accept that the existence of others breeds responsibility to them. This responsibility is not the mere consequence of a social contract, but a core aspect of what it means to be human. Others claim you, and their existence demands of you that you see them and respond to their needs.
In the Jewish tradition, this principle gets translated into a Law of Non-Indifference, which serves as the foundation for governing the relationships among human beings. “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray do not remain indifferent. You must take it back to him ... you shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3).
The defining feature of a Jewish public space is that it must be a safe one; safe not merely from harm, safe not merely from a Hobbesian definition of the state of nature as being a state of war of all against all, but safe in the sense that individuals who enter it know that their well-being is a concern of all who share in that space. A space is a safe one when all who inhabit it are “fellow keepers,” a space wherein the individuals recognize their responsibility to override their personal interests and not merely refrain from harming others but actually care for and respond to their needs.
The biblical law of lost property quoted above shapes a mode of behavior and consciousness whereby fellow citizens do not come into the public domain either to merely survive, or conversely, in search of benefiting from others’ misfortunes. What could be more natural or simple than “looking the other way” when coming into contact with a lost piece of property. Who needs the hassle of trying to run down the owner? As a busy person, I don’t have time to be my brother’s keeper or, more opportunistically, I can view such a moment as a prospect for personal gain. Who knows, I might reason, perhaps it is meant to belong to me. Perhaps it is a gift from God. In both cases the lens is actually a mirror: When I look at someone else’s loss, I can only see myself, my needs and interests. Jewish tradition commands, however, that we walk in the public domain in a different way. At the heart of the ethic of non-indifference is the smashing of the mirror of self-interest to do what is just and right.
Jews in America have been blessed with the gift of freedom and equality and given the opportunity to not merely pursue our religious life free of persecution, but also the opportunity of full partnership in shaping the American public sphere. The First Amendment “wall of separation” between church and state, which Jews so judiciously protect, is meant to ensure that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its aim is to separate church from state, but not religion and religious values from the public discourse.
I don’t know whether God is a Democrat or a Republican, nor do I want to argue that one of them is more conducive to creating a just society. I do want to argue, however, that as Jews we are inheritors of a value system that has much to contribute to a public discourse about the nature of such a just society. As Jews, we must be the enemies of indifference and the advocates of a social contract that educates and obligates all to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
America is in the midst of a serious discussion about its present and future identity and how the values that it holds dear ought to impact on issues such as universal health care, entitlements, deficits, gun control and the environment, to name just a few. As Jews, our role in this discussion should not merely be expressed in the way we vote, but in the way we bring the values of our tradition to shape this public discussion.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
December 13, 2012 | 2:46 pm
Posted by Yehuda Kurtzer
The two-state solution is the object of a lot of discussion right now, mostly theoretical and mostly negative, and — at least on the Jewish and Israeli side — not showing a lot of action. Most opinion polls will tell you that Israelis still overwhelmingly support the idea of the two-state solution, even if a similar number express significant doubt about whether it will actually be implementable. In the wake of the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the unilateral action in the United Nations by Hamas’ rival Fatah that immediately followed, many Israelis legitimately believe that there exists a basic chasm between what they know to be the prudent endgame and the process that would get them there.
As a result, the two-state solution is just a theoretical political possibility, and all sorts of other national priorities take precedence. This past summer, rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute summer study program visited the Knesset and heard from a mainstream political leader that the situation with the Palestinians ranked “fifth or sixth” in the priority list of urgent challenges facing the State of Israel.
What’s more, Israelis hate more than anything the risk of becoming friers — getting the raw end of a deal, being sucker-punched or embarrassed. To me, this seems at the core of the increasingly brazen Israeli governmental attitude — toward the American administration and toward the international community. The message is that we are prepared to deal only from the place of a clearly defined upper hand. Anything else would make us look vulnerable and small.
The problem with this argument is that as much as Israel may have historical legitimacy on its side in its ongoing contest with the Palestinians, and as much as Israel may have both the military superiority and geographic advantages in a long-term conflict that do not force it to negotiate except from a position of strength, Israel is on uneven moral ground about the existential claims it seeks to make for itself in its intransigence on this issue.
After all, the core claim of the Book of Genesis, which we are reading right now in the synagogue cycle, is that in spite of our setbacks and dispersions across the world, Jews are part of not only a religion but also a nation. “Two nations are in your womb,” God tells Rebecca, a radical idea for the nomadic Israelites to claim in the ancient world. Like the Edomites with their historical claim to a native homeland, the Israelites — despite their experience as sojourners elsewhere — lay stake to a place. Modern Zionism relies heavily on the moral claim that Judaism — in spite of its diasporic qualities for 2,000 years, in spite of its absence of a landed identity — never lost its national qualities, and in the emergence of the epoch of the nation-state, the Jewish nation, too, had a moral right to self-determination.
It is simple and straightforward: As Jews, our right to self-determination matters so much to us in the new narrative we are writing of our own history and destiny. We are surfacing a key moral claim about ourselves as a people and reawakening a Jewish moral vocabulary related to all sorts of issues we never had to deal with as the outsiders in the societies in which we lived.
But that same right should also be compelling us, as moral actors in a time in which we can act with greater moral agency than ever before in our history, to believe not just in the idea of the two-state solution as a woebegone and far-off political outcome, but as a moral claim inherent in how we see ourselves in the world. Palestinian self-determination should neither be mocked with old snarky Golda Meir quotes about the absence of a “Palestinian nation” nor left as the outcome of a political process that we as Jews see little incentive or responsibility in cultivating.
Like everyone else, as a political realist and avowed Zionist, I know it is not so easy; I know that even with great intentions it is difficult to overcome obstructionism, state-sponsored terrorism and the absence of a political will to achieve a final status agreement with the Palestinians. But moral claims are fundamentally different than political considerations. When you feel a profound sense of ethical responsibility toward a major challenge, you do not shrug it off out of fatigue or failure; you remember that your identity is wrapped up in its pursuit.
Jewish power, in Israel and North America, is perhaps at its historical apex. We have greater ability now than ever before to shape our destiny and dictate our future, and our awesome ethical tradition impels us to do so with considerations that are different from those of every other nation-state. The basic standards of morality are what entitle us to a state of our own; the same claim should make us advocates for nation-states for others. Can the Jewish people, in this moment, face up to the core moral challenge of our time?
Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. This column begins a series of monthly columns on Jewish ethics and contemporary life by leaders of the Shalom Hartman Institute in the Jewish Journal.