Exile and the prophetic: Rabbi Gordis’s ‘innermost circle’ of caring

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Let’s congratulate the Rabbis and lay leaders of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City for their email giving a thumbs up for the United Nations vote on Palestine.  It’s the least they could do.

Note this congregational member’s response:  ‘We’re just sort of in a state of shock.  It’s not as if we don’t support a two-state solution, but to say with such a warm embrace – it is like a high-five to the P. L. O., and that has left us numb.’

Such a typical Progressive Jewish stance – from the 1980s.  Most Progressive Jews have moved on from that kind of sentiment – sort of.

Then there’s this response from Rabbi Daniel Gordis to another Rabbi who had the temerity to suggest that though Israel had a right to defend itself, ‘the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.’  Gordis responds:  ‘Especially this week, I wanted to tell her to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews.  Is that really too much to ask?’

I haven’t seen the entire email from the impertinent Rabbi in question – identified in the New York Times as Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an egalitarian congregation in Los Angeles – but it seems she’s walking a truly Progressive Jewish line.  She affirms Israel’s right to self-defense. Thus the assumption is that Palestinian leadership, especially Hamas, is wrong-headed at best.  Just remember that ordinary Palestinians are still human.

Now we don’t know what Rabbi Brous actually thinks about any of this.  Like religious leadership across the denominational board, you can’t expect – and most often don’t want to hear– their honest opinion about most things.  Rabbi Brous ventured out on a limb.  She thought she could push the envelope by including the humanity of Palestinians – danger zone – within her acknowledgement of Israel’s right to self-defense – safety zone.

What about the rights of Palestinians to resist Israel’s control of their border, trade, sea access and infrastructure?  Even the most conservative interpretations of Just War theory allow for resistance to oppression. 

If the situation was reversed and, say, Palestinians controlled Israel and Jews were imprisoned in Gaza, would Rabbi Brous argue that the Palestinians controlling Israel and Jewish Gaza had a right to self-defense?

At least Rabbi Brous spoke some truth.  Even this drove Rabbi Gordis through the proverbial Progressive Jewish roof.  He wants Rabbi Brous to love the people who elected Netanyahu more than the people who elected Hamas. No matter what one thinks about Hamas or, perhaps more to the point, actually knows about Hamas, you have to concede that in relation to Palestinians, Netanyahu acts like a fascist. 

Interesting too, this concept of love Rabbi Gordis pleads for.  His family and his neighbors – should Rabbi Brous love them, even if she doesn’t know them personally, more than a Palestinian family and their neighbors who by oft chance Rabbi Brous knows?

Now I don’t want to implicate Rabbi Brous in actually knowing or caring for Palestinians – even if she does.  That could be the ultimate mark of shame for a Rabbi.  Knowing – and loving – a Palestinian, just the thought of it boggles the Jewish mainstream mind.

Let’s play a thought game.  Imagine, first, a Rabbi knowing Palestinians and second, the same Rabbi admitting that fact and perhaps mentioning their names from the pulpit.  Imagine, second, a Rabbi admitting friendship with the Palestinians she knows and then going further by relating that their security and freedom is uppermost in her mind. Now imagine the Rabbi giving the Palestinian friends she knows priority over Jews she doesn’t know and even Jews she might know.  Finally, imagine her explanation:  ‘I am stating this truth that comes from my mind and heart because the situation is as it is and has been going on forever and something needs to change.  I am no longer signing on to a love of Jews for love’s sake.  It is too abstract and too unjust.’

‘Is that too much to ask,’ Rabbi Gordis asks, as if holding our conscience in check so that love for the Jewish people trumps justice and compassion for the Other who is suffering at our hands is the Jewish ethical command. Besides for Jews of Conscience, Palestinians aren’t the Other anymore.

Rabbi Gordis: Jewish conscience is not ultimately hostage to the love you speak of.  Even our people Israel-centric Biblical prophets called a spade a spade.  Do I need to remind you that when the people Israel went wrong in the Land their condemnation was a lot harsher than Rabbi Brous’ comments?

Give the Rabbi a break.  She isn’t throwing Israel out of the land – as the Prophets did.  She isn’t preparing Israel for scorched earth – as the prophets did. 

Compared to the prophets, Rabbi Brous has it both ways – Israel’s self-defense and Palestinian humanity.

Read Rabbi Gordis’ current website post –‘A Responsibility to Speak’ – where he provides his rationale:

My latest on the Times of Israel debate on Progressive Judaism and universalism: We learn caring, and we learn love, from our innermost circles. To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one. Devotion and loyalty demand priority and specificity. Sans such specificity, we ultimately stand for nothing. Consequently, to care about one’s enemies as much as one cares about one’s self is to be no one.

It maybe that loving Jews universally – without specificity – is like loving no one.  Jews of Conscience feel that a demand to love that begins with sacrificing conscience is wrong.  Such a love doesn’t ask the right ethical question: What is the right thing to do under circumstances of injustice and oppression?

Rabbi Gordis seems unaware of the great Jewish reversal of our time.  Palestinians are the ones Jews are learning from.  Palestinians have become our innermost circles. Defending the rights of Palestinians demands our priority.  Palestinians are our Jewish specificity. 

Whys is this the case?  Palestinians are re-presenting the prophetic to the Jewish community in Israel and beyond.  The prophetic more than love is the Jewish challenge.  Or perhaps the prophetic is the way Jews love.

A Palestinian could be our enemy.  Then, again, a Palestinian could be our friend.  What goes for the individual can also be true for the broader community.  Palestinians can be our enemy.  They can be our friends. 

Isn’t this true for you and other Jews? 

Rabbi Gordis, you could be my friend.  You could also be my enemy.  Collectively, Jews can be my friends.  They can also be my enemies.

Which side is everyone on, that’s the ultimate question.  On the Jewish side, such a question won’t be answered by an abstract love.  It will be answered by the concrete demands of justice.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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