The East Bank of the East River is where I’ve lived for the past twenty years, in a territory known as Brooklyn, which began as Native American land and was then settled by the Dutch. George Washington and his troops beat a hasty retreat from the British in the park where I run. It is now among the most sought after places to live in New York City.
I’m rabbi of a large synagogue that has been here since 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was president and our nation was deeply divided in a war to end slavery. Our synagogue serves a community of Jews and their partners that was unimaginable to the generation which founded it. In 1861, the majority of the world’s Jews lived not in America but in Europe, North Africa, and the Arab lands with a small, steady settlement in the Land of Israel. Men and women and blacks did not share equal rights; gay marriage was inconceivable. There were no labor laws; the public school system was just coming into being. In the 150 years that the Jews of Brooklyn have occupied the East Bank of the East River, the world has never stopped changing and the Jews have never stopped adapting to the growing needs and demands of an ever evolving Jewish reality.
The way I was trained to think about things, reflectively, that adaptive nature is a good thing. Adapting requires observation, reflection and understanding, which in turn demands an action that is rooted both in self-interest and a willingness to compromise or “adapt” one’s basic nature to a changing set of circumstances. One really big adaptive change might be marveling, two thousand years later, at the Jewish people’s continued existence, two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. Or it might mean marveling at the revival of the modern Hebrew language (spoken by fewer than 50,000 people a hundred years ago but by more than 6 million people today.) These miracles didn’t just happen, people made them happen. In the same way that the Union was saved by the North winning the Civil War.
I know what you might be thinking: Those are the same old boring liberal tropes, being trotted out yet again to remind ourselves of our happy bourgeois civil religion. They may be boring but they’re true. And our failure to remind ourselves of their impact is what’s gotten us into our current mess today, here in America and Israel. The refusal of our leaders in America and Israel to think adaptively, broadly, even historically about where we’ve come from and where we’re going is a failure fueled by ratings and profits and the anesthetized minds made numb from staring into glowing screens, and it has us on the brink of one of most cataclysmic times in our people’s history.
First there’s Israel: surrounded by nations patiently waiting for its dissolution, including several eager to hasten that end with nuclear and conventional weapons; internally torn asunder by a Palestinian population demanding statehood and an entrenched Settler population committed to the creation of a Jewish theocracy in Judea and Samaria; and in Israel proper, alarmingly high rates of disparity between rich and poor that shamefully belie traditional Jewish values.
That the only voice of rabbinic leadership we seem to hear coming from Israel is that which continually denies the last century of progress and openness for men and women and gays by arrogating to themselves the definition of ‘who is a Jew;’ or that the prime minister and foreign minister of the first Jewish democratic state in human history with the most powerful army in the middle east betray their internal weakness and insecurity by demanding a ‘loyalty oath,’ the dark underbelly of which we Jews in the diaspora know something about. When you add it all up, something has gone terribly wrong with our sense of perspective.
We’ve lost perspective in America as well. The social infrastructures built by earlier generations of Jews who proudly embraced the moral and ethical mandates of Jewish tradition while also expressing themselves fully as American citizens is rapidly unraveling, giving rise to the other tropes of American history–a fear of the “other,” a hatred of the immigrant, a casting off of the poor, the homeless, the underprivileged. Corporations practice “free speech” with cover from the Supreme Court while political leaders harness anger and fear in order to dismantle an “evil government” that is deeply committed to its satanic values like education, health care, energy policy, social security, national service.
Personally, I like conflict. I think it’s a kind of yeast that helps make the bread of life. The Sages agreed–they knew that in life we needed our impulses, good and bad, in order to realize our true potential as God’s partners in the Covenant. And the way I see things, from here on the East Bank of the East River, as things get nuttier and nuttier here in America and there in Israel, I want to plant a flag for all those in both places who want to win this one for our side. A flag for tolerance and understanding; for decency and kindness; for justice and fairness for all people. For a Jewish democratic state and a Palestinian democratic state; for health care and social security and great public education; for clean energy and for the blessing of a chance to start life new, in a new country, which welcomes you with open arms.
There are two sides to every debate. And I want my side to win. I take my inspiration from the man who was president when my synagogue was founded. A few years before his election, in a debate with Stephen Douglas, he famously said about America’s crisis over slavery, "In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
“I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” You see, there’s debate and there’s division. What we’ve lost — in both America and Israel — is the ability to debate without division. And that loss can only lead to a greater fissure, which could tragically dissolve both America and Israel as we know them.