From the June issue of our publication, Daniel Gordis’s article ‘Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?’ has occasioned impassioned debate around the world, with a flood of responses coming into our offices by e-mail, through our website, and, yes, even in envelopes with stamps on them. This special letters section features comments from 15 of those who wrote in, with a significant response from Gordis.
John Wilmerding writes:
The first mistake in Daniel Gordis’s article is contained in these sentences: “To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one. To care about one’s enemies as much as one cares about oneself is to be no one.” Actually, the love of humanity does not require that one love all human beings equally; it requires respecting all human beings and loving all human beings equitably.
Mr. Gordis’s second mistake comes in his claim that “the discomfort with the idea of ‘the enemy’ and the intolerability of being in a drawn-out conflict has led these students to the conviction that Israel must solve the conflict.” Like many people today, he has not grasped that conflict cannot be resolved but can be transformed. There are methods for doing this—methods that truly work. And it would behoove political Zionists to make use of these methods.
No one says Jews need to love others more than themselves, or even as much as their own people. What peacemakers believe is that it is always possible to love all of humanity (and some of us, even all of creation) equitably. The kavanah from which this realization proceeds is ultimately worthy of integration into the practical Judaism, and Zionism, of the future.
Haim Shalom writes:
By offering Daniel Gordis yet another platform from which to attack liberal Jews, you encourage the very phenomenon he rails against. If one looks at the reactions that Mr. Gordis’s articles are garnering among young liberal Jews, a common theme is that the author’s venom will cause more liberal Jews to disengage from Israel. Please stop running articles dedicated to undermining liberal support for the Jewish state.
Rabbi Michael Marmur writes:
Daniel Gordis’s article calls for the institutions charged with training a new generation of rabbinic leadership to eschew apologetics, to “cease circling the wagons, and instead acknowledge the depth of the challenge they now face.”
As the chief academic officer of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I would like to state that we are constantly striving for improvement in every aspect of our work and have no interest in either vapid triumphalism or saccharine optimism. Mr. Gordis can be sure that his articulate words will feature in the unprecedented number of discussions and curricular initiatives currently devoted to these themes at the College–Institute.
Mr. Gordis employs some hair-raising examples of what he sees as our students’ slide into self-hatred. The case of the student (from another seminary, we are told) who refuses to buy a prayer shawl made in Israel is hardly representative of the mainstream. I do know that there are some young Jews in North America and elsewhere who are building a “thick” Jewish life in which, as a matter of principle, Israel plays but a small part. But they are hardly a significant proportion of our student body. And at the risk of disappointing Rabbi Gordis, I would add that if such a student meets our academic, ethical, and character requirements, they would be welcome at HUC–JIR. That is one of the reasons we are called “liberal.”
In a letter to the student body written in late April, our president, David Ellenson, characterized the dominant response to the complexities of modern Israel among our students as “a kind of engaged confusion, born of an honest attempt to grapple with the complexities of their relationship with Israel, the land, and the people.” A new generation of Jews is responding to the challenges of Jewish peoplehood in ways that are quite different from those of their parents and grandparents. Those in the liberal camp do not always find the political and religious climate of Israel in 2011 to be congenial to their own deepest-held values. Many of our finest sons and daughters are asking their own searching questions about where Israel is going and where they fit in. After they stand to attention on Memorial Day and celebrate on Independence Day, our students are invited to engage with Israelis with a wide variety of political commitments and opinions. I know that engagement is an abhorrent term to Mr. Gordis, but for myself I think it both laudable and even traditional. After all, wasn’t it through engagement that Jacob earned the name Israel in the first place?
Mr. Gordis is surely right when he argues that “without instinctive loyalty to the Jewish people, Jewry itself cannot survive.” But how is this instinctive loyalty to be engendered? Purging the ranks or weeding out the radicals implies that this batch of students is deficient, and somewhere over the rainbow there are the kind of students we need. We need to challenge the students we have and also allow their struggles to challenge our own certainties.
There can be no greater privilege than to devote myself to the building up of Israel in the spirit of the values and commitments I hold most dear. I believe that Ahavat Yisrael (loving the Jewish people) is the linchpin not only of Jewish identity, but indeed of a meaningful universalism. I want my Israeli children to share a world of discourse with the children of my North American colleagues. For all these reasons, I think we need to craft a response to the current uncertainty regarding Jewish peoplehood which is both self-critical and loving. I would love my students to share my commitments, but I don’t regard diversity as a sign of failure.
We will continue to look at every aspect of what we do to see how we might better engage our students as they engage with the people, the land, and the state of Israel. When the siren stops in Israel, all the arguments begin again.
David G. Epstein writes:
In his article, Daniel Gordis fails to consider an important possible cause for the fecklessness he so clearly describes. In the United States, voluntary military service is not part of American Jewish culture. In Israel, by stark contrast, military service is one of the most vivid facets of Jewish culture. As an expression of the antimilitary aspect of American Jewish culture, we see Jews heavily and prominently involved in liberal and antiwar organizations and movements, many of which have taken on a distinct and intense anti-Israel posture. How then are these young rabbis, who were raised on the idea that “war is not the answer,” supposed to identify with a nation that is constantly at war and that elevates its soldiers to the highest positions of respect and power? Having no experience of war or service, how are these rabbis to rationally process the actions of Jews, so unlike themselves, who are forced to kill other human beings?
Josh Baker writes:
Daniel Gordis is spot-on in regard to the troubling development of young rabbis. A few years ago at a Jewish Theological Seminary fundraiser I attended, a recent seminary graduate began her remarks by stating that rejecting particularism was in vogue. She allowed, however, that it was still OK for Jews to express themselves as Jews. I was stunned that a rabbi would even consider the question.
Jerold S. Auerbach writes:
Daniel Gordis illuminates a lamentable lapse in rabbinical education. His Yom Ha-Zikaron example hit especially close to home because I know from personal experience how deeply moving that day of remembrance is in Israel.
The dean of Boston’s Hebrew College implies that teachers should teach students what they already know, not what they need to learn—namely, that their toxic mix of universalism and moral relativism compromises their claim to support Israel.
During 45 years as a professor at Wellesley, I believed that my responsibility to students was to teach them to question and analyze. I tried to stretch their minds, not pander to their parochialism or impose my own personal preferences. Daniel Gordis’s article provides a revealing, if dismaying, account of the abdication of this responsibility among some who teach the rising generation of aspiring rabbis. He is to be thanked for sounding the alarm.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman writes:
The title of Daniel Gordis’s excellent article should have read, “Are Young Non-Orthodox Rabbis Turning on Israel?” Mr. Gordis offers a trenchant analysis of why some young non-Orthodox rabbis harbor an ambivalence and even hostility toward the state of Israel, but he does not address the question of why this is not a problem among Orthodox rabbinical students. The non-Orthodox movements in the United States have long been in thrall to the latest liberal notion. Since it is de rigueur to assert that Israeli Jews are oppressors and Arabs are victims, some young non-Orthodox rabbis will inevitably be in lockstep with the prevailing prejudices.
Miriam Edelstein writes:
My heart was pounding as I read Daniel Gordis’s account of the attitudes among today’s young rabbis. He articulates the very thing that has been bothering me. My memory goes back even further than the author’s. I was born long before there was an Israel and I recall that day in 1948 when Israel was declared a state. It felt as if everything would be OK from then on. If Israel ceases to exist, today’s universalists will be singing a different tune.
Rabbi Gabriel Ben-Or writes:
I was a Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student in Jerusalem when Sadat came to Jerusalem to offer the hand of peace to Israel. As his limousine drove past, I held back tears of happiness, thinking that the violence between Israel and its neighbors had ended. I also remember holding back tears of sadness when I heard that Sadat had been assassinated by his own people. Now I hold back tears of anger, realizing that I am witnessing in the future Jewish leaders Daniel Gordis describes certification of the old adage that the Jews have often been their own worst enemies.
Leonie Lachmish writes:
I share Daniel Gordis’s feelings and agree with his reasons for the current state of affairs among young rabbis: they do not share our memory. I still remember my parents white with worry as reporters eulogized the state of Israel in the run-up to the Six Day War. Young rabbis avoid thinking about how precarious life as a Jew in the Diaspora would still be without a national homeland. There is great arrogance and ingratitude in this.
Instead, they ingratiate themselves with their enemies—enemies who will not differentiate between those who remember and those who do not. Perhaps this makes them feel less hypocritical than the previous generation, which was asked, “If you are a Zionist, why don’t you move to Israel?” Alas, if you are not a Zionist, the question disappears.
My favorite sentence in Mr. Gordis’s article is, “How a rabbi holding a pulpit in West Los Angeles is going to become a peacemaker in the Middle East is never explained.” Let us call it “Planet California.” I live a daily life of real coexistence in the Middle East, teaching Jews and Arabs at an Israeli college. You could say that here in Israel, we just get on with it.
My only comfort is that the young take absolutely no notice of these rabbis, and the older generation loves to disagree with most of what they say. But that does not absolve them of their sins.
Jeffrey K. Salkin writes:
We should be grateful to Daniel Gordis for his shofar blast of alarm. In a time of heightened spirituality among rabbis of all ages, we need to link Jewish spirituality to the collective Jewish people, and not just the individual Jewish person. Synagogue prayers for healing are inspirational, but historically the most powerful force for healing of the Jewish people has been the state of Israel itself.
Jocelyn Feuerstein writes:
Daniel Gordis beautifully articulates everything that I have been feeling for the past five years. New Age ideas, such as “engagement” and an enemy-free existence, are dividing the Jewish people and watering down our religion. They are appealing but unrealistic concepts in today’s dangerous times. If Jewish people ignore the realities of the Middle East, we will eventually be in as precarious a position as Jews were in Europe in the 1930s. I hope that the next generation of leaders can reverse the trend described in this article and regenerate a passion for the survival of the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
Martin Gray writes:
This article is timely and brilliant. Daniel Gordis confronts young Jews with uncomfortable facts about themselves. Are these “new” Jews any different from their grandparents, the timid American Jews of the 1930s and 1940s who were so insecure about their place in America that they refused to confront President Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department about the fate of their Jewish brethren in Europe? Christian Zionists, a majority of whom are Christian fundamentalists, seem far more secure and sincere in their outspoken support of Israel and the Jewish people than a good deal of young progressive Jews are. A little more spine and volubility is required from those Jews who embrace Israel. Truth is our most powerful weapon.
Rabbi Reuven Brand writes:
I read Daniel Gordis’s article with great interest, as I am a young rabbi involved in training future rabbis. As an Orthodox rabbi, perhaps my training differs from that of other backgrounds; I cannot help notice the stark dichotomy between my perspective and the one Mr. Gordis portrays. Orthodox rabbis know that our Torah calls upon us to stand against injustice and moral equivalency, and to aspire to greater levels of Ahavat Yisrael.
Ervin Rodin writes:
Daniel Gordis’s article resurrected in me many aspects of my experience during the Holocaust. It is well known that before and during the Holocaust, a large segment of the European rabbinate was strongly against Zionism and the Zionist movements. Unfortunately, many of these rabbis perished during the Holocaust, as did so many of their followers. But a very large segment of those who survived remembered the terrible leadership, and totally abandoned Judaism as a result. A few decades later, there was a resurgence of the Jewish identity in Europe, and it was not because of any rabbinic efforts but precisely because Israel made European Jews proud of being Jewish.
Daniel Gordis writes:
An important conversation is unfolding. Presidents, deans of rabbinical schools, and their students have written to me saying that there is now more discussion of Israel on their campuses than there has been in years. That is a positive development. So, too, is the Jewish Theological Seminary’s recent decision to have Dr. Steven Cohen undertake the first ever study of “the Israel-related views of JTS-ordained rabbis and students.” Despite public protestations to the contrary, there is an emerging recognition of a real problem in the field, and we should be gratified that some institutions are now taking steps to think about it seriously.
Space here permits a specific response to only a few of the many letters I’ve received. John Wilmerding writes, “What peacemakers believe is that it is always possible to love all of humanity (and some of us, even all of creation) equitably.” Wilmerding, a well-known Quaker leader, comes from the tradition of Christian pacifism. There is much to admire about that tradition. But in this particular instance, the “peacemakers” are wrong. It is not possible, nor is it noble, to love the people who are trying to kill your children. Wilmerding’s poetic rhetorical flourish notwithstanding, the love he asks us to feel is not only unrealistic; it would be—in our situation—suicidal, and therefore immoral. But his request should not surprise us. For centuries, people have been holding the Jews to standards of behavior that they, themselves, would never have adopted if they were in the Jews’ shoes.
There is another danger to Wilmerding’s blame-free approach. Obviously, Israel is not faultless in this conflict, and we can well understand why that is particularly painful to a young generation of Jews and their emerging leaders. But no fair reading of the Middle East conflict’s past or present can deny that had Palestinian society undergone the profound transformations that Israeli society has, the conflict would be over. There was once an era in which no major Israeli party recognized the Palestinians as a people. Today, they all do. There was a time when no significant Israeli political leader would entertain the notion of a two-state solution. Today, they all do; even Benjamin Netanyahu, who now heads the party once led by Menachem Begin, has endorsed that position.
On what position, though, have the Palestinians changed their stance? On the refugees’ right of return (which would end Israel’s Jewish character)? On recognizing Israel’s right to exist? On accepting the notion that Israel is, by design, a Jewish state? On their willingness to allow even some Jews to remain in a future Palestine, just as Arabs live in Israel? Tragically, they have not budged on any one of these issues. And for good reason. They know that “peacemakers” will continue to coddle them, helping them avoid the soul-searching that Israel has undertaken and to delay even further the Palestinians’ need to take responsibility for their contribution to this endless conflict. Peacemaking of Wilmerding’s sort, for all its rhetorical gentleness, perpetuates the war.
Leonie Lachmish makes the important point that “here in Israel, we just get on with it.” The Jewish state is not about the conflict. It is tragic that even among knowledgeable and committed Jews, an oral Rorschach test in response to the word Israel evokes responses such as “checkpoints,” “Palestinians,” and “settlements”—as if the conflict is most of what Israel is. But as much as settling the conflict would be transformative, most Israelis are not consumed by it. They know that we are not the ones who can end it, so we move on with life. Israel is about much more than its relationship with the Palestinians, but that fact is too often obfuscated by the war of words now gripping the Jewish world.
When the revival of Jewish sovereignty evokes images of war only, when the restoration of a people to their ancestral land (with all the complications thereunto) evokes no pride, when the ingathering of exiles after 2,000 years does not strike a chord of awe, our educational system has failed. Rabbinical schools inherit the products of those inadequate educations, and it is up to the faculties of these schools to help students think about Israel in much broader terms than they are currently able.
That leads us to Michael Marmur’s very thoughtful response, which raises the most urgent issue. “We need to challenge the students we have,” he says, and we should therefore not resort to “purging the ranks or weeding out the radicals.” Two questions, however, come to mind. First, as Rabbi Marmur well knows, although Reform Judaism permits intermarriage and many of its rabbis perform these ceremonies, the Hebrew Union College that he serves so ably does not admit intermarried candidates to rabbinic school. This standard (for which HUC deserves praise) reveals that Rabbi Marmur shares my position—it is possible, even laudable, to demand of our students standards that are different from those we might condone in the community at large. We can, and do, disagree about what those standards should be. But HUC’s own policies support my contention that not every otherwise admissible student has to be accepted. Many fine people and committed Jews are married to non-Jews. Reform Judaism says that their marriages are to be celebrated, but they cannot become Reform rabbis. Why such courage on the marriage front, but not on the Israel front?
Second, when Rabbi Marmur writes that “we need to challenge the students we have,” he is effectively acknowledging that admitting a student to rabbinical school is only the beginning of a long and subtle process. The job of rabbinical schools is not only to teach students, but to shape them. That requires a strategy. But is there one beyond “engagement”?
Boston’s Hebrew College provides a telling example. This past Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day), Hebrew College offered three different options for morning worship. The traditional minyan included Hallel (the Psalms sung on Jewish festivals and holidays of important historical moment), for Hallel is now part of the Yom Ha-Atzma’ut liturgy throughout almost the entire Zionist world. But two prayer options were provided for students who did not wish to say Hallel that morning.
Now, to be sure, Hebrew College’s students are adults, and there is little point in requiring them to attend a service that makes them uncomfortable. But Hebrew College has no obligation to make its students comfortable. Is comfort a virtue? The British poet and critic Matthew Arnold once remarked that the purpose of Greek philosophy was to make the Greek comfortable in Athens, while the Hebrew prophet sought to make the Jew uncomfortable even in Jerusalem. By offering a plethora of options as it did, Hebrew College’s leadership missed an opportunity to make good use of the students’ discomfort. This was their moment for stating clearly that all Jews, regardless of their political dispositions, should be able to see something virtually miraculous in the Jewish revival that the state of Israel has wrought.
The Zionist convictions of the individuals who lead Hebrew College are not in the least bit in question; what they and I disagree about is what education really is. That the current reality is painful is beyond dispute. That Palestinians suffer is denied by nearly no one. But what matters no less is this: Can someone blind to the glories of renewed Jewish sovereignty over the past sixty-five years legitimately seek a leadership role in the Jewish world? Nothing about the state of Israel merits saying Hallel one day a year? Accommodating those students who cannot understand this is not a strategy; it is a dangerous form of acquiescence.
Rabbi Marmur is right. There is much to admire about this younger generation, and yes, their questions and their pain ought to inform our own worldviews. There is, indeed, much that happens in Israel about which we dare not be complacent. But there is also much about which we should feel great pride. When we say to students, “If you do not want to say Hallel on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, that is fine with us,” we are failing in our sacred responsibility to teach them to think more deeply and to see more broadly. When we are silent in the face of such narrowness, we fail as leaders.
Samuel’s rebuke of Saul (I Samuel 15:17) is an admonition to us all, particularly in complicated times such as ours: “Even if you are small in your own eyes, you are a leader of the tribes of Israel.” Our positions come with great responsibility—not only to our students’ present predilections, but to the Jewish people we pray they might someday be worthy of leading.