Steven Bayar
Steven Bayar

As Missiles Fell, Arguing Among Ourselves

“A value is only a value when it is tested.” I learned this from David Hartman many years ago. It’s easy to embrace an ethical stance and take the moral high ground while in the comfort of your own surroundings. Doing so while in the fire is another matter.

Recently, 100 rabbinical and cantorial students from Reform and Conservative seminaries wrote a letter hypercritical of the State of Israel in its conflict with Hamas. They wrote:

“… (our) institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine. So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo.”

The response from the clergy has been what you would expect: vilification or support. The rhetoric on all sides is incendiary. I guess this must be a basic Jewish value: Aggressively publicize your stance, silence those who disagree with you and call for their ostracism and punishment.

Let me be clear: I do not support the letter writers’ point of view. To me they are wrong, misguided and myopic. But silence them?

I am a supporter of AIPAC. When I was on the pulpit, I was approached by J Street and asked for a program in the congregation. Against the wishes of leadership, I met with them. I listened. I responded that while I didn’t agree with them I would give them access to the pulpit if they could meet my preconditions – the same preconditions I gave to AIPAC when they made the same request.

J Street chose not to participate. I heaved a sigh of relief. But I heard them out and didn’t attempt to silence them.

Why? Because it is a Jewish value to argue about our values. And a value is only a value when it is tested. Yeshiva students learn to argue about text (it’s called pilpul) and we have all grown up with the famous disputes between Hillel and Shammai.

While we tend to romanticize the rabbis of the past, do you think their differences were any less divisive than what we face today? If Hillel converted someone who could balance on one foot – do you think Shammai accepted the conversion? According to the tradition, the Second Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed because of the baseless hatred of one Jew to another – the Romans walked in and finished the job. Rabbi Akiva anointed Bar Kochba as Messiah (for God’s sake!) and thousands died because of their actions – do you think he was welcomed into every Jewish community?

And yet they are all included in our tradition, in our eternal dialogue. If our tradition is to have any meaning in our lives then we must allow its values to have a say in how we address one another.

I am amused when I hear the phrase “We are One” in describing the Jewish community. We have never been one: Sadducees/Pharisees, Karaites/Rabbinites, Sephardim/Ashkenazim, denominations and Haredi/everyone else.

Years ago when I was sent to the former Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks, bring them ritual objects and black market goods, and give them support, we were not allowed to meet with anyone affiliated with the Lubavitch. We were considered a bad influence. It was more important to keep two conservative rabbis away from the Lubavitch congregation then to get them much needed material support.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors) we learn that “arguments for the sake of heaven will never be resolved. Arguments not for the sake of heaven will be resolved.”

We have had significant disagreements about the direction of the Zionist dream for well over 150 years. It seems to me that this is a discussion that will never be resolved – and perhaps it is time for us to stop vilifying one another.

To be fair, I don’t see any interest on “their” side to enter into a dialogue either – but as they co-inhabit our tent, they do have a place at the table and should not be silenced.

I believe that Hamas must be destroyed. The Palestinian Authority agrees with me – and while 100 student clergy may not – I can live with that.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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