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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4 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    December 6, 2012, 3:15 pm

    “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.”

    Well, understood. But what if you are aware that the latest Israeli resort to massive armed force was triggered by a response to Israeli assassination of a man with a truce in his pocket. That Israel assassinated him because it could not accept the threat of peace — and because it could depend on American Jews to take its word that the assassination (and all the rest) are necessary for Israel’s security (or, even, if not necessary, then at least “for” Israel’s security).

    Think of how much the American Jews must have praised the Americans of German descent who blamed Hitler for invading most of Europe (never mind the Holocaust, which came later). Just imagine — perish the thought? — blaming your family [nation of descent] for (mere) warlike (Attilla the Hun-like) deeds! Shocking to Rabbi Gordis, who has nothing (it seems) to say good about ANY Palestinian and nothing bad to say about any Israeli leader.

    There is sickness here.

  2. sydnestel
    December 6, 2012, 4:54 pm

    Gordis says:
    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?’

    Well, I love my kids, more than other peoples kids. But when they beat up other kids, even mean ones, in the school yard I make them apologize and make proper amends.

    More to the point, what do you do with a beloved relative who is an addict – who is harmful to himself and steals, robs and assaults others. Family loyalty only goes so far. You don’t have to stop loving them, but you do have to reign them in, or failing that at least stop enabling them.

  3. piotr
    December 6, 2012, 8:14 pm

    I commiserate with Rabbi Gordis. It is not that he disliked the missive from Rabbi Brus. He was devastated. What she delivered with a piece of elegant feminine prose was treason, stab in the back. Just as Rabbi Gordis was ready to reach an appropriate level of wrath directed at the ENEMY she writes “calm down” and then she twists the knife and adds horrible balderdash: “they are also children of God”.

    One should seriously question if women can make good rabbis. At the time of war (and we are always at war) having clear priorities is essential for survival. And I have nothing against women in general. Take Caroline Glick or Pamela Geller. But female rabbis are as a rule utterly unreliable. About a week before Gordis lamentation was published, ToI had opinion article of Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Just the photo should be a warning — while Rabbi Gordis sports neck like a bull and grim expression suitable for those trying times, Rabbi Beit-Halachmi looks like an swan-necked aunt cooing to the infant daughter of her sister. If that does not scare you already, behold the title:
    On war, love and preserving an ethical core. I assume that after that double warning Rabbi Gordis skipped the piece and delayed his spiritual devastation for few days until Rabbi Brus delivered her stab.

    To be fair, Beit-Halachmi went to considerable length to avoid the accusation of even-handedness and universalism, but it is basically the same message. Is it a correct spiritual advise when soldiers look for guidance: should any of the enemies be spared on the chance that he or she may be innocent? This sows hesitation and clouds moral clarity. Here is a clear answer that strikes the balance: yes, some of the folks there may be innocent but the task of the warriors is simple: Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. (Sorry for my ignorance of Hebrew.)

    Surrounded by those female viles, Rabbi Gordis got thoroughly distracted. Number one, what is the correct treatment of the enemy, other then placing them at the bottom of our “we love … ” list? No concrete advise. Number two, what is the correct treatment of the traitors (and traitoresses)?

  4. Castellio
    December 7, 2012, 12:19 am

    What I like about this series is that, for one reason or another, Mark Ellis is allowed on this blog – where others are deterred – to explore the relations between being a Jew, universalism and contemporary ethics. Does it well, too.

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