Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference.
This inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity, this inability to celebrate our own origins, our own People and our own homeland, I argue in my latest book, The Promise of Israel, is dysfunctional. Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not? The same is true of nations and ethnicities. The French care about the French more than they do about others. So do the Italians. So do the Spanish. It’s only this new, re-imagined Jew who is constantly seeking to transcend origins which actually make us who we are and enable us to leave our distinct fingerprints on the world.
That an utterly universalized Judaism is almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts is bad enough. But on weeks like this, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis sleeping in bomb shelters and many millions more unspeakably frightened, it’s become clear that this universalized Judaism has rendered not only platitudinous Jews, but something worse. It bequeaths us a new Jew utterly incapable of feeling loyalty. The need for balance is so pervasive that even an expression of gut-level love for Israelis more than for their enemies is impossible. Balance has now bequeathed betrayal.
For me, the most devastating representation of this ethical and emotional confusion this week came from the pen of someone for whom I have great admiration, respect and affection. Rabbi Sharon Brous is, to my mind, one of the most intelligent and creative minds in the American Jewish community. A perpetual fixture among the Forward 50, she is almost universally recognized for her path-breaking vision of what a synagogue can be, and her combination of deep intelligence and authentic soulfulness have reached many Jews who would otherwise not be attached to the Jewish world.
Because I hold Rabbi Brous in such high esteem and consider her a friend, I was especially devastated to read her message to her community this week, which I quote in full:
It has been a devastating couple of days in Israel and Gaza.
I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives. And I happen to agree with the editors of the New York Times that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas – which poses a genuine threat to Israel – is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace. Take a breath. We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared. Over one million Israelis will sleep in bomb shelters tonight and rockets have nearly reached Tel Aviv. So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way. However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.
Let us pray that this conflict comes to an end quickly, and that we soon see a return to negotiations and a real, viable and sustainable peace.
It is, on the surface, a lovely and innocuous message. But what’s deeply troubling about it is that every single expression of sympathy for Israelis immediately coupled to a similar sentiment about the Palestinians. Absolute balance, even on a week like this, has become the supreme commandment. “Thou shall love thy neighbor who attacks thee as yourself.”
What do we have? Israelis have a right and obligation to defend themselves, but in the very next sentence, Palestinians have a right to lives of dignity. Nothing wrong with that. Israelis are scared, but so are Palestinians, and it is not our place to gloat. Fair enough. And even more balance: “the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”
Unobjectionable, sort of.
For the clincher is this: “We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared.” Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community (I know that I sound like a dinosaur to her community in saying this) which side is good and which side is evil?
Of course Israel is far from perfect, and yes, much of life in Gaza is miserable. Yet why can we not actually say what we know to be true? Why cannot a leader of the American Jewish community say that the only reason that Israel and Hamas are at war is that Hamas wants to destroy Israel? Does anyone really imagine that even a return to the 1967 borders would mollify Hamas? How do I know that it would not? Because they say so. They say that they will never end the “armed resistance” until the “Zionist entity” is utterly eradicated. Why don’t we believe them? Why this paternalistic, virtually racist, “oh they couldn’t possible mean that – it must be a cultural difference in how we express ourselves”?
The “we’re all entrenched in our narratives of good and evil” worldview leaves no space for calling evil what it is. Why can we not simply say that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong? Why cannot someone as insightful and soulful as Rabbi Brous just say, without obfuscation, that whatever fault one finds with Israel, it is the Jewish State that for seventy years has sued for peace and the Arabs/Palestinians who have always refused. Does anyone bother pointing out to her community that whatever you think of Israel’s presence on the West Bank (or Judea/Samaria), that when Israel left Gaza, the Palestinians elected Hamas, and that when Mubarak fell, the Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are these obvious facts utterly unmentionable? Because hope must spring eternal?
Yes, Jewish hope must spring eternal. And in order for it to do so, in order for us to find the strength to continue, to send our children to war and to raise another generation in a place that will tragically not know peace in any of our lifetimes, we need to tell Jews what this is. This is a battle of good versus evil, the battle between those struggling to avoid civilian casualties and those who are intentionally trying to kill civilians, the battle between those who have time and again sought peace, and those who said “no” in Khartoum in 1967 and still say “no.”
As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?
But my friend left me heartbroken. If people as wise and as deeply Jewishly knowledgeable as Rabbi Brous (whom I told that this response was forthcoming) cannot come out and say that at least at this moment, we care about Israel more than we care about its enemies because we care about the future of the Jews more than almost anything else in the world, then her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.
I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.
“Heartache,” the original message from Rabbi Brous to her community can be found 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 Ed Feinstein, 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.