In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others. Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.
As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.
However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter. While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.
When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be. And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.
We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.
Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.