Culture, Identity, Israel, Politics

An Open Letter to Rabbi Daniel Gordis

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.”

24 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Rabbi Daniel Gordis

  1. Dear Justin,
    While I will respond in a future note regarding the content of your post about Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ article, I am compelled to note that in order for a response such as yours to be truly open and public, you should do us all the honor of knowing your first and last name as well as the institution at which you were a student. Otherwise, yours is basically an anonymous post to those of us who do not know who “Justin” is.
    Rabbi Loren A Sykes
    JTSA Rabbinical School, Class of 1993

  2. Daniel Gordis writes:
    Item: Not long ago, a student at one of America’s recognized rabbinic schools sent a note to the school’s e-mail list saying that it was time to buy a new tallit. Seeking advice about what to buy and where to get it, the student noted that there was only one stipulation – the tallit could not be made in Israel.
    I wonder whether this is really what happened, or whether (as is more common) the student was looking for a tallit that wasn’t made in the territories, and the story was embellished to strengthen the rhetorical point.
    Item: A rabbinical student in Jerusalem for the year chose to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, accompanied by fellow students.
    And who are you to tell any Jew that there is any place in Eretz Yisrael where they don’t belong? 😛
    In this fiscally challenging era for schools, could we find the funding to place academically superb and unequivocally Israel-supportive professors in the schools that want them?
    You do realize that you’re writing this on the open Internet, where anyone can read it, right? This seems unwise, to say the least, for reasons that should be obvious.

  3. Bravo to Justin, thanks for calling out Gordis’ laughable opine. I don’t know a rabbi or rabbinical student who didn’t roll their eyes at his latest of a new inquisition.

  4. There oughta be some kind of denominational committee that can legislate against those anti-Israel rabbis in training. Perhaps we can institute a prohibition on de-legitimization of Israel, meaning the settlements, and then hound anyone who opposed said policy making for providing aid and comfort to the anti-semites.

  5. There once was a time when Rabbis admonished their congregations not to go to Israel. G-d had not ordained it so. Were those classical medieval and renaissance age Rabbis anti-Zionist?
    If the Conservative movement truly feels Medinat Yisrael is the Reishit Tzmichat Gulateinu, it should endorse this as a theological underpinning of the movement through the Law Committee.
    Furthermore if it truly wants ‘Zionist’ (and btw I’d like to know WHICH Zionism Gordis refers to- AD Gordon’s? Ha’Am’s? Kook’s? Jabtinsky’s?) Rabbis, it should either recruit from Israel OR teach their Rabbis how get more of their congregants to make Aliyah. That is, after all, the heart of any true Zionism.
    If, however, the Conservative truly embraces a pluralistic approach, it must acknowledge that many young Rabbis feel they must keep their mouths shut and toe the party line lest they be fired or deemed unhireable. We should listen to them openly and honestly about their concerns and include them into our broader internal and external dialogues if we are truly ‘big tent.’
    Its not limited to Rabbis btw, but all Jewish Communal Professionals. I too was once the subject of a smear campaign by Federation officials who never even met me to prevent my being hired for a significant position and career move. I’m a moderate willing to listen to both sides of an argument, as Chazal did, which in modern terms means I’m ‘liberal’ and therefore ‘anti-Zionist’ which is absolutely ridiculous. Talk about Loshon Hara by a Jewish institution.
    I’m not a Zionist as I’m not making aliyah. So what? I’m still pro-Israel (whatever that means). My not being a Zionist doesn’t make me anti-Israel anymore than most American Jews (also not moving to Israel) waving an Israeli flag and singing Hatikvah makes them Zionists. I’m in Galut just as my ancestors have been for 2000 years. I’m not quite ready to move to Eretz Yisrael, though the very notion of such a place is exciting to me.
    Semantics, like many fine points, are important. And yet, Rabbi Gordis and many others seek to divide us and impose a singular view with broad strokes and undefined terms like “anti-Zionist.”
    It should be enough we all have a personal and intimate connection to Israel and to our Jewish brethren everywhere. The quality of that connection is what we must be concerned with, and the decision for any increase or decrease in proximity, intimacy and passion must be up to the individual for it to be meaningful, authentic and actionable- e.g. mroe than waving a flag and eating Sabra Hummus.
    A note to my friend, colleague and teacher Rabbi Sykes- Justin has indeed shown his conviction by posting under his real name- his handle is just that. Many others, however, feel they must post under pseudonyms for fear of retribution in their workplace that would endanger the welfare of their families. This is exactly what Justin is writing about. You may be surprised to find this a growing trend, which is more concerning that Gordis’ fear about multiplicity of opinions on Israel.

  6. Only now, after two years of reading Jewschool, do I finally see how lonely some of you guys are made to feel for taking an unconventional stance to Israel.

  7. Victor,
    When my family made aliya, we only had one small set of relatives there. Very distant. Perhaps not even connected by blood! But for years they invited us to holiday seder’s and in other ways made us feel welcome and provided some measure of ‘family’ that was very important.
    When I refused to serve in the occupied territories, they assumed that it was the rebellious act of an immature young person, which it partly was, no doubt. In conversation with my mother, they realized that the family’s position was something like ‘respect the young man’s convictions’ as opposed to ‘do everything to make him see the light.’
    In response, they cut off all contact to my entire family – forever. Not for agreeing with my actions; they didn’t, not really. But for treating me with respect, for I had ‘done the crime and was willing to do the time.’
    This incident, and the pain it caused to my entire family, surfaces when I see certain voices affirm particular kinds of support for Israel, preach a particular kind of Zionism, or talk about ‘kol yisrael arevim ze l’ze.’ These sense in which hardcore Zionists have merrily, happily, maliciously engaged in acts of ‘disowning’ of family members, friends and colleagues for years was never seen as a problem to be overcome in the interests of Jewish unity. But let a small amount of that negative energy be unleashed in the opposite direction, a little ‘delegetimatzya’ and WOOSH you have millions of dollars, new programs, manuals, conferences, websites and so on. All spent on this threat.
    It is rank hypocrisy of the highest order. It causes some people (not me though) to feel like everything uttered by ‘those folks’ is shit, even when they have real feelings and ideas worth listening to. You get that slimy feeling like if you heard your father the rabbi denounce adultery when you know he himself had an affair. It is maddening in a way that pushes so many to the farthest reaches of ‘mud in your eye’ anti-Zionism.
    This rift, with origins that go back to the virtual excommunication of R. Elmer Berger, or back to the beatings administered by Hebrew zealots against Yiddishists, or back to the forced transfer of Holocaust survivors to Israel when so many of them dreamt of America – this rift will not be healed with a victory bv one side over the other. But until truce negotiations are underway (I support them) may Rabbi Gordis feel ashes in his mouth and fear in his heart.

  8. I wonder who the funder behind the blog post is. My money is on the Tikvah Center. Let’s see how long it takes before they snap up JTS. I hope Chancellor Eisen has enough balls to say no to this.

  9. Also, read the comments on Gordis’s blog. It’s scary.
    If someone were to write on their blog, “let’s seed the rab. schools with Hadash supporters,” how long would it take that person to get tarred and feathered?

  10. As usual its up to me to look on the positive side of things.
    Regardless of who’s ‘right’ what’s obvious here is that there is a huge level of discord-that’s the one thing that must be true.
    This level of discord will hopefully lead people away from studying for the Conservative Rabbinate. And in the curent situation among the non-Orthodox seeking pulpits, that’s a good thing.

  11. look, R. Gordis has been writing posts of the same kind of content as all the big institutions (AJC etc) for years (“donate money to us or all teh young Jews will marry out!!!!!!!!!!!!!” or “anything you say no matter how mild if it doesn’t say that Israel is always and at all times teh awesomist place on earth and is always doing the right thing and everyone else is in the wrong because Israel is only ever a victim and never ever makes a wrong choice and if you in any way ever say anything that criticizes it, Israel will dry up and blow away like a dead leaf and you are an anti-semite self-hater!!!!!!!!!”) this is just a slicker version of that, for a slicker guy.

  12. @Victor – I think you, and many others, miss the point. Mine is that there are many, many people, especially young people, whose views are nuanced. They are thinking, intelligent moderates generally center-left in their outlooks on most things. When it comes to Israel, they are batted over the head with a communal two-by-four.
    Their distancing from Israel and from communal Jewry is as much a result of this as from any ‘behavior’ from Israel.
    Its not that we’re unconventional or lonely. MOST American Jews under 36 have more moderate views about Israel than their older peers. A system insistent on disenfranchising anyone with these views and preventing their holding communal leadership positions cannot in the next breath ask why their targets are uninterested in supporting institutions which perpetuate these views.
    Seeding JTS with right-wing zealots will only serve to widen the disconnect between those Rabbis and their future congregants and weaken the movement.
    Seeding it with people who really care about intense communal relationships, Jewish life and tradition and vibrant dialogue will ensure that Conservative synagogues are filled with people for whom Judaism, and not just Israelism, is important. The former can feed the latter, but the reverse is not as true.

  13. What a powerful and passionate response to Rabbi Gordis. I look foreard to the day when I can welcome Justin as a rabbinic colleague. If this letter to Rabbi Gordis is any indication of Justin’s qualities he will bring much credit to the rabbinate. How tragic that he has been villified by others.

  14. @Rabbi Sykes,
    As BZ pointed out, I am far from anonymous on this blog. Plus, my name is linked to my (un-updated) personal blog which contains my full name. As BZ also pointed out, I made clear reference to my institutional affiliation in the first paragraph of my letter to Rabbi Gordis. So I have to disagree with you, this letter is far from anonymous. In fact, I am one of very few bloggers on this site that use their real name and only their real name.
    I don’t think loneliness is the right word here. Isolation, perhaps. Fear, perhaps. It really depends on the individual. I can’t say I’ve felt lonely as much as demonized.
    Once again, your surmising of the situation is far from accurate. As Rabbi Artson is quoted in that article, students from the Ziegler School, at least, get jobs–as do most students from JTS. In my class, nearly 50% of people had gainful employment before the official interview process began and around 90% of us have jobs already. I do not know the statistics for JTS but I have to imagine it’s not far off. As far as I know, despite a shrinking job market we are all still finding work. I also cannot imagine that anybody would be swayed from joining a USCJ seminary because of politics. Theology and observance is what determines institutional affiliation more than anything else. Which seminary one choose within a movement comes down to culture and geography, but I do not know a single person who chose their seminary in any movement or at Hebrew College or ALEPH because of politics.
    @Rabbi Cohn,
    Thank you so much for your kind words and support. I hope we can meet in the future and work together to elevate the discourse in the American Jewish communities.

  15. Justin – thanks for your courageous honesty. A rabbi who uses his “pulpit power” as Rabbi Gordis does, has been corrupted by this power. Sadly, there are many rabbis, both in the U.S. and here in Israel, who use the power of their positions not with humility and open-mindedness, but in the opposite ways.

  16. Justin:
    More than 5 years have passed. Where have you landed and how have you fared?
    David Shapiro
    Baltimore, MD

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