Friday, February 15, 2013

Should Rabbis Talk About Israel?

This morning when I checked Twitter I found an old picture of me and some colleagues making the rounds. It was from a few weeks before ordination, May of 2003. In it are myself, Michael Shulman, Dalia Marx, Debra Kassoff and Jon Linder. It was taken for a Cincinnati Enquirer photographer for an article about ordination. Boy, do we look good! And I'm happy to say that each of my colleagues have gone on to do meaningful work.

So I was surprised to find this picture attached to a blog post by Ben Greenberg, responding to Rebecca Sirbu's post. (the picture has since been taken down, but I include the Enquirer photo above. Nice looking crew, no?) The post, entitled "Why Rabbis Should Not Talk About Israel", suggests that to do so is self-defeating and not what our congregants are looking for:

The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.

I sympathize with Greenberg. There are lots of times when my congregants clamor for me to preach about Israel, not from a position of values, but geopolitics. My first Lunch & Learn at my current congregation, I spoke for a half-hour on Judaism and Ecology (the advertised topic), leading the group through texts, until I was interrupted by an older woman who said, "excuse me rabbi, while this is all very good, what's going on with Israel and Gaza?"

For a generation, rabbis were often the way Jews got their information about Israel: through congregational trips, sermons, discussions on Middle-east politics, Appeals for Israel Bonds and UJA, etc. Rabbis were expected to be knowledgeable about the subject. As rabbis increasingly gave voice to concerns about human rights, the peace process, the role of the Orthodox in dictating Jewish and personal life in Israel, etc., members affiliated with certain organizations asked rabbis to speak only about 'kosher' topics. This was true at last year's AIPAC conference, where our rabbinic affinity lunch was all about how Israel was surely going to bomb Iran and how we would discuss the subject with our congregants. Ze-hu. 

So, for many rabbis, speaking about Israel has become (as one prominent New York rabbi said at a Rabbis for Human Rights-North America conference years ago) a 'third rail', touched at our peril. So why bother speaking about it? We're not experts on foreign or military policy; often our congregants want us to take positions we're not comfortable with, and when we do take those positions, we're criticized for talking 'politics' (as if taking a hard-line right-wing position was no less politics than a left-wing one).

And, as we all know, rabbis getting into hot water is a topic as old as the institution itself. We all know the stories of David Einhorn being run out of Baltimore for being an abolitionist or Isaac Meyer Wise getting into a fistfight with his Temple president over kashrut. The Israel 'thing' is only the latest in a long debate about whether rabbis have the freedom of the pulpit; that is, to preach freely.

You know what? Rabbis talk Israel. Rabbis talk 'politics' (at least, what people call politics--I call it human and civil rights). Rabbis talk about what is meaningful for them. THROUGH the lens of Torah, to be sure. I look at my ordination certificate and read the words yoreh yoreh yadin yadin v'yehi adonai elohav imo: "whatever he teaches, he teaches, whatever he decides he decides, and may Adonai be with him" (hey, it's my certificate, it says 'him').

To be sure we teach Torah, but we also get to decide how we teach Torah and about what, including how we feel and what we see about Israel. We get to walk people through our own internal process, to show nuance, to advocate for Israel, share our love of Israel, and also our concerns and loving rebukes about Israel. And our words, b'ezrat haShem, God willing, come out of a place that is authentic and true. This is no less true when I speak about homelessness, or the death penalty, or gun control, or economic policy, or caring for our elderly, or any other topic that gets to the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Yes, that means I will say things that will challenge--and sometimes offend--people. Good. Rabbis are supposed to challenge their communities. Not out of anger, or self-righteousness, but love. Love of Torah, love of Israel, and love of God. We have an obligation not only to our congregations but the Tradition itself, and that means bringing people, as Sirbu says, into the conversation. To simply turn a blind eye to part of it, regardless of Movement, is to surrender.

And to those who say that it threatens their job or their congregation's membership, I disagree. I have seen congregations over the last ten years offer free memberships, refuse to take positions on complicated issues, offer a whole variety of services and programs designed to market the congregation effectively. What works in the end, the congregations I have seen succeed, are the ones who have spoken to their core mission and vision and said, "these are the values we uphold. This is who we are. This is what we're about", often taking very strong "political" positions. Likewise, the rabbis I see succeed are the ones who cultivate the relationships to be sure, but also speak their mind freely and invite others to participate in the long conversation we call Judaism. People want to associate themselves with integrity, period. 

I had a conversation with some non-Jewish colleagues the other day, and we were discussing how whenever a professional class arises, a lay class appears as well, and the professional class too often infantalizes the laypeople. This cuts both ways; we as rabbis often infantalize our congregants, acting as if they're not sophisticated enough to handle a complex issue (i.e. let's just give them fun 'outreach' programs) and laypeople infantalize us back, telling us that we SHOULDN'T challenge them. I don't know how Michael, Jon, Dalia, or Debra (my friends in that picture) feel about this issue, but I'd like to think that all of us have worked hard to empower the members of our communities, to challenge them in healthy ways, to let them in on the process, to trust them. To say, "don't talk about Israel" is an act of mistrust, and I intend to trust my community. 

With that in mind, I've had my say--what do you think?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A little less rejoicing this Adar: The passing of David Hartman z'l and WoW

Today was Rosh Hodesh Adar, usually a time of frivolity and rejoicing. Adar is, of course, the month that hosts the holiday of Purim, with it's ribald humor, drinking, dressing up, gender-bending, and other insanity. But this Adar doesn't quite feel right to me. Some of it is because I'm the only one left standing (so far) who doesn't have the flu in my house (sadly, the vaccine-resistant kind). But much of it is because of two events in the land of Israel.

Rosh Hodesh--the New Moon--has long been associated with women (for obvious metaphorical reasons) and Women of the Wall use it as an opportunity to come together at the Kotel, usually resulting in some number (at the very least, founder Rabbi Anat Hoffman) getting arrested. Today, despite 300 men and women coming together including nearly a minyan of the 1967 Six-Day War Liberators of the Kotel, 10 women were arrested, including two American rabbis (one of whom happens to be Sarah Silverman's sister. Yes, that Sarah Silverman).

Ironically, today also saw the funeral of Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. An Orthodox rabbi, he became one of the great progressive voices in Halakha, writing several books, promoting a progressive valuing of women within Halakha, and bringing rabbis of all stripes together annually for intensive and transformative study. That might not sound like much, but remember, a rabbi is first and foremost a student and teacher of Torah. To come together with a diverse group of colleagues who, under other circumstances, might NEVER associate with one another, and study a page of Talmud together over weeks at a time in Jerusalem, was to create understanding that might not happen any other way.

I never studied with Rabbi Hartman; with his son Donniel, on one occasion. But I read his books, and looked forward to a time (perhaps a sabbatical) when I could bring my family to Jerusalem and take the time to study deeply with people different than me, be challenged by those people, and come back to my congregation renewed. Frankly, reading his works renewed in me the sense that we as Progressive Jews have as much claim to the Halakha--to the Torah itself--that others would want us to deny. While certainly there are times when rejecting Torah can be justified (or at least feel satisfying), Hartman was one of those who taught me that it is that much more powerful to root progressive values in text authentically that is no less radical than the rejection thereof, and in fact may be even more radical.

So to have Hartman laid to rest the same day when women are arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall because the garment is STILL associated with men, to me, marks a great sadness.

Shmuley Boteach, in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, lamented the lack of a "Jewish Billy Graham" or "Jewish Martin Luther King":

But one searches in vain for the Jewish Billy Graham or the Jewish Martin Luther King. Where are the great spokesmen of our people to teach the world of Jewish charity, Jewish education and Jewish values? Why are we not training a generation of media and press ambassadors to expose and reverse the fraudulent accusations against Israel that are daily occurrences at the UN, the BBC and the Arab press? A few years ago I was to meet the Jewish head of a national television network. The producer who had arranged the meeting with a view toward the executive buying into my idea for a TV show said to me, “The man you are meeting is very influential and very secular. He’s going to be wary of you as a rabbi so whatever you do, don’t mention anything religious.”

I understand that idea; just the other day I was speaking to my dad of how once there was a generation of rabbis (Roland Gittlesohn, Ferdinand Isserman, Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Levy Olan, Abba Hillel Silver, etc.) who commanded a national presence in a way that few do today. Some of that is our more fragmented world; as Lena Dunham quipped in an interview : there is no such thing as a 'voice of a generation' today. And while Graham and King commanded a national spotlight, neither were perfectly loved throughout their ministries. I feel as if we have lost such an individual; that Hartman was a kind of Jewish Graham, if not a Jewish King. In The God Who Hates Lies, Hartman writes:

I developed a theology, based on the concept of covenant, that understands the relationship between God and the Jewish people as one of intimacy and partnership. This covenantal model—in which God not only tolerates but demands and delights in Jews’ taking of responsibility for ever-increasing dimensions of our individual and collective lives, infusing every element of human endeavor and experience with religious meaning and purpose—describes a religious anthropology characterized not by slavishness and a howling sense of inadequacy in the face of an infinite commanding God. Instead it resurrects the vital and precocious religious spirit of the Talmudic Rabbis, who understood that the implementation of God’s will amid the complex considerations of human society and psyche requires, at times, the full and fearless assertion of our intellectual independence. The covenant struck between God and the Jewish people was not exclusively a call to unconditional obedience; it was equally a call to empowerment and an affirmation of human adequacy.

That theology could--should--influence us today. We should see ourselves as partners, not called to obedience, but empowered, affirmed, to see halakha not as boundaries but as a jumping-off point, an educational model, a way to struggle with the moral and ethical challenges of our day, which are legion. If only more people would have listened to Hartman. Then we might all see that the idea of arresting a woman for wearing a prayer shawl and giving thanks to God would be preposterous, and Rosh Hodesh Adar would be a time to rejoice indeed.