j_street_largeThis a guest post by Rabbi Ezra Weinberg.
Sometimes the first interaction you have at a conference can be emblematic of the experience. In my instance, the first person I spoke to said, “Wow, so many people, so few people of color.” My impulse was to say, “REALLY? Is that what you’re choosing to notice?” While her observation happened to be an annoying yet irrefutable truism, it got me seeing things a little differently. I started seeing what was not here.
Clearly, the organizers wanted to make sure there were many Jewish voices represented, including religious voices. But the religious voices and words used to describe our Jewish mandate for justice were unfortunately predictable. I cringed when I heard one speaker talk about “Isaiah’s fast” and when another said “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” In another example, Ronit Avni of Just Vision used an anecdote about how she “values a Talmudic approach which values complexity and minority opinions.” Jeremy Ben Ami and others were adamant about not reducing the conflict to “us vs them.” Who can argue these points? But when you quote the same overused passages about justice and make blanket statements about using minority opinions or what Judaism does or doesn’t stand for, you better have some substance to back it up. There was lip-service for embracing complexity and opposing viewpoints within sound-bites of Torah that were used, but not a clear enough demonstration of that commitment, at least in the opening plenary.
What I experienced was an unfortunate and all too common over-simplification of the Torah and the purpose of Judaism in a manner similar to those that J Street would criticize their opponents for doing. To me, the voice of our tradition was being used as a rubber stamp to accentuate the political viewpoint of the conference. I happen to resonate with the view point, but feel strongly that the medium was misused. Can there be a more humble and sophisticated way to connect to our ancient heritage? I was craving a religious voice who could draw inspiration from the traditional sources to take a risk and think outside the adversarial box.
Consider for example: What happens when there is tension between settling our promised land and our moral imperative to treat the stranger kindly? It is complex.
Case in point; an opportunity missed.
During Rabbi Bachman’s Dvar Torah of Parshat “Lech Lecha”, he mentioned that the first place Avram travels in Canaan is Schem. This potentially loaded observation about the deep Jewish attachment to the West Bank/Ancient Israel could have lead to a moment for genuine empathy to the settlers. Imagine a liberal rabbi or activist taking time to try to empathize with the devotion and power of his perceived opponent. How moving that could have been? One way our heritage and traditional voice can truly embrace complexity if we let them inspire ourselves to take a risk. But when the goal is to win and beat our opponents the ground is less fertile for transformation. We put ourselves in a greater position to contradict the values we say we represent. We become the embodiment of us vs. them, even when explicitly try not to be.
So what happened? The moment passed. To be fair, it appeared that some people in the room did not seem to realize that Biblical Schem is same city as the modern day Palestinian city of Nablus. That is until moderator and new CEO of NIF Daniel Sokatch pointed out that fact moments after the dvar Torah, leaving the room in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments until he went on to the next speaker. As if to say, “whoops, there ARE biblical reasons for connecting to the land, but we’re not going to go there.” I say, go there. Attachment to the land is real and we do Klal Yisrael a disservice by ignoring that impulse, even when we perceive it as misguided.
There was a strong emphasis on welcoming those of different opinions and the non-Jewish participants in the crowd. I was surprised that a part of myself didn’t feel welcomed. More accurately, I experienced a lack in transparent self-consciousness around the religious political divide. I wonder if anyone else felt a part of themselves unwelcomed.