Recently, Rabbi Daniel Gordis published an article making allegations of a seeming tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment in rabbinical schools. This is my reaction.
Dear Rabbi Gordis,
Before I proceed, let me preface this letter with the following disclaimer: I write this with great honor and respect. While you and I have never met, we do hold mutual friends amongst whom I count some of my dearest rabbis and teachers and family members. The dedication you have given to the Jewish people holds special significance for me as you were the founding dean of the rabbinical school which will soon be ordaining me as a rabbi. Therefore I am indebted to your vision and determination. Your words have, at times, been a source of inspiration for me and whether I agree or disagree with any given viewpoint you share, I am always duly impressed by your command of the written English language. I do hope that our paths cross one day, as I would be honored to have the pleasure of meeting you in person. I also want to make clear that it has been at least two years since I have shared my own personal views on Israeli society, the conflict with Arab states and the Palestinians or any other similar matter in a public forum because of fear of being made into a pariah. I am making these statements here, publicly, because I feel it to be incredibly important. I write in my own name, and not in the name of the institution which will be ordaining me, nor in the name of the movement with which it affiliates. Again, I write only in my own name.
I read your recent article, Of Sermons and Strategies, with great interest, as it is a topic near to my heart–both as a rabbinical student and as a person who has been erroneously dubbed “anti-Israel.” I was even accused of being one of the students referenced in your article, which I assure you I am not. That is not to say I would be ashamed to be, I would not be ashamed, but the truth must be told that I am not responding to your letter as one of the selected few whom you wrote of.
It has been my experience that throughout the course of my rabbinical school career I have had the pleasure to meet and learn with students studying in Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Cincinatti, Boston, Philadelphia and throughout the United States as part of distance learning programs. I have met rabbinical students in their young 20s–fresh out of college, and I have met rabbinical students in their 60s–starting fresh on a second (or even third) career. I have met rabbinical students who hold beliefs across the spectrum a myriad of issues–theological, historical, political and beyond. 9 out of 10 times, those ideas have been shared in respect and confidence and students have been able to disagree with one another in sanctity or, as we say, l’sheim shamayim (in the name of heaven). My rabbis, professors and deans have always shown their students love and support and have also been very clear when they disagree with them on any issue–usually respectfully and lovingly.
In your article you claim that numerous students come to you to discuss the “profound loneliness they feel as unabashedly Zionist and pro-Israel rabbis-in-the-making.” I can tell you that in all of my years of studies I have never encountered anybody saying as much. In my surveys of students at each of the major seminaries, I have not found a single individual who has ever encountered such a viewpoint. The students who hold the beliefs you accuse of being dangerous are, by far, in the minority. Those who are public about those views put themselves at risk of libel, slander and defamation. The atmosphere which has evolved in the Jewish community is to silence and ostracize those views–the notion that it is traditional Zionists who are ostracized is something I have never seen and never experienced. Rather, I know a number of students who do not speak about their views on Israel, Zionism or the conflict because they fear being labeled as an anti-Zionist, or worse.
In this very forum, I myself have been accused of being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic–how utterly absurd that a future rabbi would be either of these things. I was leveled with this accusation because of my personal opinion that nationalism is a dangerous ideology that, historically, has a propensity to become militaristic and tends to have dramatic negative effects on a society. Any individual is welcome to disagree with my ideas, but for a stranger to make personal accusations against my character does not uphold the valiant and impressive history of our tradition supporting debate, discussion and honoring others viewpoints as long as they are l’sheim shamayim.
So out of hand is the discourse in our communities that a young woman was physically abused for her actions at the General Assembly last year. Again, any individual is welcome to disagree with this individual’s views, but in no way does Judaism or Jewish culture and tradition support physical violence against those with whom we disagree who pose us no physical threat. Even if one might argue that these views theoretically pose a threat, there is no excuse to reduce ourselves to violent behavior to silence others.
So out of hand is the discourse in our communities that an anonymous individual took it upon themselves to seek out which institutions I would be applying to work as a rabbi, and this individual used a fake name to spread hurtful and hateful words about my beliefs and character attempting to sway these synagogues from hiring me. Is this acceptable behavior in how we disagree with each others views? Is it acceptable to sabotage the career of someone with whom we disgaree? I cannot imagine that any aspect of the Jewish legal tradition supports such cowardly behavior. In fact, just writing in somebody else’s name is forbidden in its own right, never mind spreading unfounded lies about another person.
When I was a student in Jerusalem, I was singled out in class one day as an example. The professor proclaimed to the class, in Hebrew, “I believe that anyone who thinks like Justin should be blown up.” At least two other students in the class nodded their heads in agreement with smiles on their faces. Is this acceptable language for a graduate school professor to use in reference to one of their students during classtime?
I have never heard of a similar incident where someone has been accused of being “too Zionist.” I would like to know, what is your litmus test for the Zionist sentiment of rabbis and rabbinical students?
It is not rabbis in America who will ensure a safe and secure future for Israel–it is Israeli citizens and the politicians whom they elect to office. It is not rabbis in America who will ensure dedication amongst the Jewish population of the United States to the idea of a Jewish State, it is the values which Israel exhibits to the rest of the world. I understand your desire to coddle students who feel isolated by being “too Zionist” (if those students even exist) but what of the the students who feel ostracized because they are deemed “not Zionist enough”? Do you also seek to support and coddle them in their time of need? What of supporting free and open debate in academic institutions? What of the notion that people, as they age and experience new things, develop new ideas? When you were a rabbinical student, did you enter the rabbinate with the same ideas and views which you held when you entered school? I highly doubt it. I know I can speak for myself when I say that my views on any number of issues have changed exponentially.
Your fears of an “anti-Israel” insurrection in rabbinical schools is exaggerated, hyperbolic and only serves to further separate the global Jewish communities which are never monolithic on any issue. I must disagree with your assessment–it is not time for clandestine planting of ideologically motivated professors. This would only fan the flames. I cannot understand why it is acceptable in our view to ostracize a group of people in the name of reaching out to another group of people–this hypocrisy is far from helpful. It is time for an honest appraisal of our values and of our discourse.
It is time to support students in exploring their viewpoints with the understanding that as we age, as we experience new things, our views change. The role of rabbis, deans and professors is to encourage their students to think, to explore, to grapple and to come to their own conclusions. We must not be thought police. We must recognize that ideas are not actions, that those who are concerned for the future of Israel are not actively engaged in destroying her.
I assure you that the approach endeavored by your proposed strategy only polarizes our community. It only makes it more difficult for those who disagree to approach each other and have sacred conversations in a safe, open and honest manner. Just as it is a good thing for the Jewish people, who hold diverse opinions on all issues, to have rabbis who also hold diverse opinions on all issues. Just as there are rabbis across the spectrum who hold different opinions on matter of ritual, theology and law, and this is a positive thing for Jewish expression, it is then logical that it would also be a positive thing for Jewish expression that rabbis hold different opinions on politics. Jews who seek out rabbis for advice and opinions will only gravitate towards those who speak to their ideals and beliefs. By silencing, abandoning or isolating individual rabbis who hold opinions different than yours will inevitably have ramifications beyond your recognition. We are a tradition which supports and encourages debate, we do not shy away from disagreement.
Our rabbinical schools should be filled with professors dedicated to the Jewish people and tradition, who through their own merit have shown themselves committed to training the next generation of rabbis. To demand certain political beliefs of those professors would not serve anybody–least of all the Jewish communities of the world, who deserve well-rounded, well educated rabbis who hold diverse private opinions, and help their congregations and students find their own well informed opinions.
Every idea is weighed on the scale of its own merit, just as every individual is weighed on the scale of their own merit. Just as our tradition enjoins upon us to look kindly on our fellow Jew and to look on them with favor and good will, so too should we look upon opinions with which we disagree. I disagree with some of your ideas, but I believe and trust them to be in what you understand to be the best interest of the Jewish people. I would only ask that you show the same respect to those with whom you disagree. An individual does not go through the pain, frustration and challenges of 5 or more years of rabbinical training to be an enemy to the Jewish people. Every individual enrolled in rabbinical school believes in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people and acts every day to see both flourish. In order for that flourishing to be guaranteed, we must guarantee free expression. We must uphold the long standing part of our tradition that not only tolerates alternative viewpoints, but encourages debating them. Let the merit of the idea determine its success and longevity.
The fact is this, as I come to the end of my rabbinical schooling in just a matter of weeks, I still do not know the beliefs of most of my colleagues when it comes to Israel. This is because things are so polarized that nobody feels comfortable sharing their viewpoint. It is also because there are other issues which dominate more conversations in classrooms, lunch tables, hallways and shabbat meals. I am, personally, saddened by this fact. By rabbis and rabbinical students withholding their personal opinions, they withhold wisdom–something we should always be sharing at any time.
May we all be blessed to see the day when no individual is hated for their opinion, where we may openly and thoroughly debate our views l’sheim shamayim. May we be blessed to trust the intentions of those who are dedicated to the Jewish tradition and people and may we be blessed to see a future, speedily in our days, where one need not fear to be singled out, ostracized or abandoned because we may disagree with their opinion. I will close by reminding you of the brilliant words of the 4th chapter of Pirkei Avot, where we learn “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from all people; as it is said: From all those who taught me I gained understanding.”