Embracing complexity and nuance: Talking to your family friends whose opinions you hate.
After attending the Republican Presidential Debate at the Reagan Library, I came away with 5 impressions that related Jews and the Jewish future.
“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)
Judaism speaks to every issue
Judaism has something to say (often multiple opinions) about any issue. The talmudic rabbis argued about everything — from commerce and capital punishment to property rights and personal behavior, to abortion, contraception and homosexuality. They took on poverty and hunger, distribution of wealth and health care.
From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.
So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.
Moses, the ethical agitator
As Moses stumbled upon a bush that burned unconsumed, the character of the Jew was forever stamped in our souls. Out there in the wilderness, the personal became political. When Moses returned to Egypt to convey God’s message to Pharaoh to “let My people go,” he ensured that Jewish leaders would speak truth to power for generations to come. The life conditions of people — as individuals and a community — became a central concern of Jewish rabbinic leadership.
Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.
So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.
This Passover, be Moses
To properly observe the Pesach seder, one must retell the story of the Exodus. One must recall a time when people were oppressed, and when Moses heard the call of the Divine and stood up to Pharaoh’s oppression. Passover is about bitterness sweetened and salty tears refreshed.
It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.
Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.
Hear the call of the seder
So, next time your rabbi speaks up about public policy and Judaism — on economic justice or health care reform, marriage equality or Israel’s responsibility to work diligently for peace, our concern for the environment or our differing notions about when life begins — she is walking in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, of Esther and the Nathan. Your rabbi is listening closely to the call of the seder, to stand up for the downtrodden and to cry out for the oppressed.
Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.
So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.
This d’var Torah was originally posted in the Jewish Journal.
I joined the leaders of the major denominations of Judaism to urge our members of Congress to support Foreign Aid to Israel. The letter read:
As Rabbis in the American Jewish community we write today to express our unified support for the State of Israel and to underscore the vital importance of U.S. foreign aid to Israel. It is essential that foreign aid to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, continue as part of a strong far-reaching foreign aid package that allows nations to address poverty, global warming, democracy building, human rights and disease prevention.
Aid to Israel is an investment in U.S. security and Israel’s security. President Obama’s proposed FY2012 budget includes an increase in foreign aid to Israel to $3.075 billion as part of the 10-year agreement signed in 2007. This aid is essential to Israel, which spends a higher percentage of its gross domestic product on its own defense than any other industrialized country in the world. U.S. foreign aid reaffirms our commitment to a democratic ally in the Middle East and gives Israel the military edge to maintain its security and the economic stability to pursue peace. Furthermore, U.S. foreign aid to Israel represents a strong investment in the American economy; Israel spends over 75% of its aid in the United States supporting American jobs.
It is essential that foreign aid to Israel not be separated from the rest of the foreign aid package. Aid to Israel, like foreign aid in general, is an investment in the future. The United States spends just over one penny of every federal dollar on foreign aid, a small price to pay for a world-wide investment in democracy, economic development and political stability, increasing the quality of life for millions of people outside the United States. As Jews, we insist that the U.S. do all that it can to continue to be a leader in the world supporting basic human rights and we are unwilling to compromise this for aid to Israel or vice versa.
As Jews we are committed to the vision of the Prophets and Jewish sages who considered the pursuit of peace a religious obligation. Foreign Aid to Israel is an essential way that we can fulfill our obligation to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15).
We urge you to vote for continued U.S. foreign aid to Israel and to support foreign aid broadly as a means of advancing American leadership and interests around the world. For a full list of Rabbis that signed this letter nationally, visit www.rac.org.
The letter was also signed by:
Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick
Executive Vice President and CEO
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Steven Weil
Executive Vice President
Rabbi Fredi Cooper
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Rabbi Jonathan Stein
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President
Rabbi Basil Herring
Executive Vice President
Rabbinical Council of America
Rabbi David Saperstein
Director and Counsel
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, Conservative Rabbi Jerome Epstein and Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein are scheduled to take part in the Jan. 21 event at the National Cathedral in Washington… Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, offered a prayer on the night Obama accepted the Democratic nomination at last summer’s convention in Denver.
Haaretz comes to highlight the higher profile that religion is playing in the Democratic world and in this first African-American President’s inauguration. After a politically astute, yet very disappointing decision to invite the upcoming dean of the Christian Right world, and strong marriage equality opponent Rick Warren, President-elect Obama is offering some very significant invitations:
… Obama asked V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, to lead prayers at Sunday’s kickoff for the inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial. Gay rights groups rejoiced, while some conservative Christians wrung their hands.
Then at the January 21 National Prayer Service that caps the inauguration:
The Reverand Sharon Watkins, the first woman president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant group, will deliver the sermon.
A prayer will be offered at the National Cathedral by Ingrid Mattson, the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. The Islamic Society, based in Indiana, is the nation’s largest Muslim group.
Ha’aretz correspondent Bradley Burston (and twice-weekly award-winning Ha’aretz blogger), blogging about the beginning of the Israeli response to Hamas’ ending of the ceasefire (and, more precisely, its resumption of daily barrages of missiles into Israel’s cities and kibbutzim), refutes ahead of time the “the 10 most gratuitous, least productive, most resolutely ingenuous claims likely to be hurled in an effort to attack Israel.” In Wartime in Gaza: The worst anti-Israel charges you’ll hear, he writes:
It is, abruptly and again, wartime. Across the globe, the selective pacifists of the left and the recliner Rambos of the right are spoiling for their next battle, the war in Gaza.
They will fight one another in letters to Congress, in cable news sound bites, in raucous talk-radio phone-ins, in the virtual mega-heroics of the online battlefield of the talkback.
They will fight one another in the United Nations as well, unashamedly one-sided in their concern for human life.
Herewith the first in a two-part guide to the 10 most gratuitous, least productive, most resolutely ingenuous claims likely to be hurled in an effort to attack Israel.
The first five are arguments of the anti-Israel left, claims which are, curiously, as tired as they are unflagging.
Leftist 1: Israel’s true motive in bombing Gaza, is genocide against the Palestinian people and extermination of their right to statehood.
Israel’s genuine interest in this campaign is strikingly similar to Hamas’ interest in firing scores of rockets into Israeli population centers: Forcing a cease-fire on better terms than the one just ended.
For Hamas, this largely means easing Israeli economic sanctions against Gazans. For Israel, this centers on ending shelling by Qassam and Grad missiles and mortar shells. For both sides, this means a prisoner exchange, centering on Gilad Shalit and hundreds of jailed Hamas members.
Leftist 2: The Palestinians have no recourse but to defend themselves, and the makeshift rockets they fire are nothing compared to the world’s most advanced warplanes and munitions, which the IDF is using against them.
The Human Rights Watch organization has been unequivocal in condemning the use of Qassam rockets as a direct violation of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. The firing of Qassams and mortars against civilian populations also constitutes collective punishment against hundreds of thousands of innocent Israeli men, women and children.
Moreover, the firing of Qassams began not as a response to the siege against Gaza, but as a marathon celebration by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups following Israel’s withdrawal of its troops and settlers from the Strip. To purposely add insult to injury, Islamic Jihad and other organizations used the ruins of settlements as launch platforms.
Leftist 3: All that Hamas is asking, is recognition as the democratically elected government of Gaza, and an end to the Israeli economic embargo. Were they to attain these goals, there would be calm on both sides of the border.
It is both unrealistic and dangerous to believe that Hamas has abandoned its clearly stated and often reiterated goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in all of the Holy Land, including all land claimed, annexed by, or in any way occupied by Israel.
Beyond that, Hamas has strong alliances with the Egyptian opposition Muslim brotherhood, as well as working partnerships with the Iran-dominated Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli restraint, when practiced, has been met with contempt and additional Hamas and Hamas-tolerated strikes against civilian populations.
Leftist 4: The Israeli blockade against Hamas is state terrorism and any means to fight it are legitimate.
There is every reason to believe that Israel’s economic siege against Gaza is misguided, but not for an essential cruelty, rather because Hamas taxes collected on the influx of goods imported through tunnels from Egyptian territory have subsidized and cemented Hamas rule.
Leftist 5: The world overwhelmingly sympathizes with the Palestinians against Israel, and unreservedly backs their struggle for independence.
In an era of global revulsion against radical Islamic terror, Hamas’ protracted program of suicide bombings, drive-by murders and shelling of civilian populations, coupled with its refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel, or accept past peace agreements, coupled with its ideology of militant jihad, have drained the Palestinians of international sympathy and have, in fact, legitimized Israeli arguments of military self-defense.
Nothing has been more instrumental in harming the cause of Palestinian independence than Hamas, with its brutal take-over of Gaza in a war with brother Palestinians, and its frank efforts to build a large-scale regular army force in the Strip.
In Part Two, in the coming week: The second five will be newer claims, the Alpha-male displays of the Israel-bashing right, the group which constantly berates the government and the IDF for not bombing Gaza into a parking lot, for not shooting and starving and freezing innocent civilians to death. Watch here for the next installment.
More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com
Hmmm, 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.
Joseph got it right and saved up.
America apparently didn’t. We consumed our riches instead of planning for the future. Where could we have been if we:
- produced energy efficient automobiles (now we are bailing out the car companies)
- provided real oversight of Wall Street (now we are tossing bad money after good to bail them out)
- regulating the mortgage industry (now we are watching the house of cards come tumbling down)
- curbed greenhouse gases (now we are watching the glaciers melt and…)
Unlike Pharaoh and Joseph, we let greed about “I want to enjoy it now” overwhelm the urge/need to plan for the future.
President-elect Obama is proving to be very interested in hearing from a spectrum of views on Israel and the Mideast. Though that will make right-wingers very nervous, it suggests that, based in Obama’s deep appreciation for and support of Israel, we might see some creative, wide support for negotiations and peace efforts in that troubled region. (Also in attendance was the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center).
JTA, in its Election Central Blog, reports that:
President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team’s first official encounter with the Jewish community suggested a substantial change in how his administration will deal with Jewish groups: Present were the array of dovish pro-Israel groups, including the Israel Policy Forum, J-Street, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.
Of those groups, only IPF made the occasional appearance at meetings with Bush administration officials – and that was because the group has always been careful to cast a non-partisan tint to its pro-negotiations posture, effusively praising the Bush administration’s peace-brokering efforts, however infrequent those were until a year or so ago. Other more liberal groups at the table – including the Reform movemen’ts Religious Action Center – were also occasionally invited, but the emphasis is on “occasionally.”
What was remarkable about Thursday’s meeting is that the Obama team also reached out to the other side, including the Zionist Organization of America. Dan Shapiro, the transition official who handled foreign policy at the meeting, made it clear he wanted to hear all voices.
The Bush administration’s infamous tetchiness at criticism seemed to be a thing of the past: ZOA has slammed Obama’s transition team for including strident Israel critic Samantha Power in a post that barely registers above chief cook and bottle washer, but has failed to praise it for installing true-blue pro-Israel types like Jim Steinberg in more senior posts.
And that was fine with the dovish types, or at least with Diane Balser who directs Brit Tzedek, a group that has lobbied in recent years for increased aid to the Palestinians, even as ZOA has lobbied against it.
“The Obama team said they were open and understood everyone had a seat,” Balser told me. “To acknowledge there is more than one view on Israel, that we’re not monolithic – I consider that a step forward for us.”