In Support Of My B’nai Jeshurun Rabbis

In Support Of My B’nai Jeshurun Rabbis

My rabbis have been under attack. Not from the usual suspects. 

No terrorists of foreign nations involved. No native anti-Semites. Just my fellow Jews, from other rabbis to other Jewish people. People “known” and unknown. People wise and less so. People of great generosity of both spirit and pocketbook. Probably good people all. What has happened to us?

My rabbis wanted to help turn the corner into the next (and inevitable) chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. They wanted to anticipate the future. They wanted to encourage Palestinian and Israeli moderates to use the recent United Nations vote to begin to effect change. They wanted to say that we may not have a future if we continue to be headed on the current path of more powerful violence in each new encounter. And they wanted all of these things because of their abiding and consistently demonstrated love of the land, people and State of Israel.

I sit in their pews. I listen to their teachings. I read their writings. I chant with them on the High Holidays as they minister to thousands of members that they have nurtured and educated since the rebirth of a moribund congregation of a few remaining members in 1983. I am not hard of hearing. I am not hard of heart. And by any fair measure I am one of the most committed and engaged Israel educators in the Jewish world. So why the disparity between me and the critics?

Change is difficult. From our earliest years, we reveal our greatest vulnerabilities when faced with changes that we either could not have anticipated or did not anticipate accurately. And when we are truly unprepared for new realities, we often react with fear, ongoing anxiety and even confusion. We don’t see the future clearly.

I think the Jewish people are now in the midst of such a time. Whatever our individual political orientation, we all feel uncertain at the moment. The United Nations vote to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state scares and concerns us all. Some find it anathema; others promising. But none of us can predict the future. With looming existential threats from Iran and extremists throughout the Middle East and beyond, we all are struggling.

If there was ever a moment for encouraging open discussion and free speech it should be now. We need the widest expanse of ideas to help us imagine where we go from here. It should be clear to all that none of us has “the answer.” We all want a peaceful Israel.

We all want a more secure Israel. And we all want to live in a more just and peaceful world. We differ on how to get there, and that is as it should be.

But now we have a new reality staring us in the face. Shall we retreat in anger at an international voice and vote with which many of us do not agree? Now is the time for our most imaginative minds to consider where we go from here. The Zionist movement itself was one of contention and disagreement (and as a result one of the most dynamic in all of Jewish history). One could certainly argue that the birth of the State of Israel was made possible by the struggles of passion and imagination between the most extreme ideologues of the early Zionist movement. Why today are we seeking to close the doors of independent thought in the American Jewish community? Even before Rabbis Marcelo Bronstein, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol issued their controversial statement, distinguished Jewish thinkers like Daniel Gordis were calling the expansive words of Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles expressions of “betrayal” (read “traitor”).

The prime minister of Israel, a gifted leader of the political right has declared himself committed to a “two-state solution.” While we might disagree about the timing, and even more strongly disagree about the venue, what is the actual problem with the UN recognition of a “non-state observer status” to the Palestinians? Isn’t it at least possible that it might encourage more dialogue, lead to more negotiation and ultimately even help to bring about the shared conviction of two states for two people?

My rabbis are dreamers and that is why I love them. Other rabbis may be more pragmatic. Some even skeptical. But can a rabbi lead us from behind? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Significance is contingent on vision and anticipation, on living the future in the present tense.” The past can inform us only so far; the future demands more of us … it sometimes demands going beyond what appears to be “realistic.” And David Ben-Gurion even said: “A person who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

Now isn’t that a thought for this Chanukah season, the celebration of the miraculous.

Peter A Geffen is the founder of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City, and of the nonprofit KIVUNIM, a gap-year study/travel program.


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