I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
A living Judaism demands an exquisite balance between inside and outside, concern for our own and concern for the other, particularism and universalism. From era to era and generation to generation, the balance point shifts. But as long as Jewish life holds fast to both, it thrives. In our time, the balance has broken. Perhaps this is the residual effect of living in the shadow of the Holocaust – a symptom of our collective PTSD. Instead of an active tension, we are left with severe polarization. Jews today turn inward and resent the suggestion that they are responsible for the world. Or they turn outward and reject the value of Jewish identification. One side interprets Judaism exclusively in universalist terms; for them, tikkun olam – repairing the world – is the only mitzvah. The other holds that Jewish concern is entirely internal; for them the only world, and the only repair, is mitzvah. Such polarization will suffocate Judaism.
Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous are among the contemporary Jewish intellectual heroes struggling to resuscitate contemporary Judaism by reviving the balance. That is what makes their controversy so painful to witness. Gordis inveighs against Brous’s concern for the other, and charges that her loyalty to her own is insufficient. In his eyes, her sensitivity to the suffering of Palestinian children somehow displaces her commitment to his own children and the children of Israel. This attack only deepens the polarization.
So incendiary is Rabbi Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Brous, it obscures the simple fact: He needs her. First, he needs her Torah. The polarization of our community runs largely along generational and denominational lines. The young, non-traditional Jews that Rabbi Brous addresses do not resonate to expressions of Jewish particularism. Gordis fails to acknowledge how skillfully she has brought them back into the Jewish conversation, teaching them to interpret their universalism and humanism in a traditional Jewish idiom. (It’s time you come visit IKAR, Danny!)
Second, he needs her conscience. The voice of Jewish particularism needs the balancing voice of Jewish universalism, else it turns chauvinistic, narrow, and cruel. Too easily do we fall into a narrative of victimhood and wallow in attitude that overlooks brutality and excuses all moral infractions.
Finally, he needs her moral vision. The primary task of Zionism, as Gordis so well understands, was to make a safe place for Jews and Jewish life. But that was never its sole purpose. Zionism was always an expression of Jewish moral aspiration. The best exponent of this impulse is Gordis’ former Shalem Center colleague, now Israel’s ambassador, Michael Oren. Every time Oren was interviewed on CNN this past week, he carefully detailed the painstaking efforts taken by Israel’s military to avoid harming Palestinian civilians. Given just a few precious moments of the world’s media attention, Oren talked of the text messages, phone calls and leaflets dropped into Gaza neighborhoods warning of impending attacks and guiding Palestinian families toward safe havens. This, he argues persuasively, is what distinguishes a democracy from a regime of terror. This is what keeps us from becoming them. This is what makes Israel a Jewish state. And this, despite himself, is why Rabbi Gordis needs Rabbi Brous.
Danny, with all our hearts we pray for your sons. We pray they carry out their sacred duty defending the State of Israel and the People Israel with courage and wisdom. And they return to you and Elisheva whole in body and soul. We pray for all the sons and daughters of Israel who sleep in bomb-shelters, their homes and dreams shaken. May they be whole and know the blessings of peace, soon, in our time. And we pray as well for the children of Palestine, frightened and broken, that they too might soon know peace. We pray that they will come to see us as we see them, children of the God of Abraham, who commanded us to bring blessings to all the families of the earth.
“Heartache,” the original message from Rabbi Brous to her community can be found here.
For the original post by Daniel Gordis, click here.
For the rebuttal from Sharon Brous, click here.
For a response by David N. Myers, click here.
For a response by Adam Bronfman, click here.
For a response by Gil Troy, click here.
For the rejoinder by Daniel Gordis, click here.
Sivan Zakai argues that debates like this have harmed Jewish education in the US - click here.