To the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet:
Over the past year, those of us who have been paying attention have seen an increasing amount of bad, if not shocking, news from Israel. We have read of assaults – against women and girls, against non-Jewish clergy, against the sacred structures and books of Muslims – and other acts of bigotry by Jews who call themselves religious, as well as physical attacks against the IDF by Israelis who call themselves Zionist. Those of us in particular who claim or aspire to a leadership role, however modest, need to respond, and two rabbis – one of whom I know and respect and honor – have written a letter condemning in no uncertain terms these actions, J Street, an organization I affiliate with, has circulated it. It should be, as they say, a slam dunk, a no-brainer, an easy win.
I am writing to tell you why I am not going to sign.
The letter presents itself as a call for “Religious Ethical Zionism,” which certainly sounds wonderful. I would love to think of myself as part of a vanguard promoting it – it would give me that warm, righteous feeling I so rarely have. To be quite honest, I’m not always sure what people actually mean by Zionism these days, but I do have some ideas about what an ethical-religious vision might involve:
- It could be the claim that Jewish religious practice needs to make the practitioner more open to the needs and experiences of the other;
- It could be an insistence that any teaching that contributed to an atmosphere of dehumanization or delegitimization of one’s opponents, whether Jewish or not, could not be called Torah;
- It could be a serious campaign to learn and respond to the experience of those who are strangers in the community and State;
- It could be a move towards a Mussar-like approach, demanding a rigorous honesty about one’s own flaws.
Being ethical is more than not being a creep.
Here is the core of the letter:
“We stand in solidarity with the victims of these crimes, believing that those who perpetrate them cross the line that separates righteousness from immorality. We condemn these acts as desecrations of human beings and of our sacred tradition. We call upon [the] Israeli government and legal authorities to bring these criminals to justice.
“We call upon the leaders of all branches and forms of Judaism to denounce these crimes for what they are: a denigration of the essential Jewish teaching tht honors the divine imate in which every human being is created.”
That’s it? The religious ethical vision is don’t do crime?
We can’t let ourselves off the hook that easily. To be able to call ourselves or our approach “ethical” – to wear that badge, to tell ourselves that story about ourselves as we drift off to sleep – shouldn’t we be actively trying to make the lives of others better? Or at least addressing the roots of criminal behavior in non-criminal (but still abhorrent) culture?
I have no doubt that the writers of the letter had the best of intentions – a desire to craft a statement that as broad a range of Jews as possible could sign on. That’s a noble desire. But I’m afraid that by using the language of “this constitutes an ethical response,” we send a signal to others that we think that it’s sufficient, when in fact it’s barely the beginning. Worse, I’m afraid that we will fool ourselves.