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Daniel Gordis
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How my toddler grandson convinced me it was time to leave Conservative Judaism

When it comes to Israel, the Movement tolerates hostility it would never permit regarding gays, lesbians and African Americans
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America building in Morningside Heights, New York, June 11, 2021. (CC BY 2.0/ JTS)
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America building in Morningside Heights, New York, June 11, 2021. (CC BY 2.0/ JTS)

Forty-something years ago, when I decided I wanted to go to rabbinical school, there really wasn’t much to decide about where to go. My mother’s brother, Rabbi Dr. Gerson Cohen, z’l, was the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the academic center of the Conservative Movement. My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Robert Gordis, z’l, was a professor of Bible there. My father’s brother, Rabbi Dr. David Gordis, had some role (that I no longer recall) at the (now moribund) University of Judaism (later renamed American Jewish University), then JTS’s branch in Los Angeles. To go anywhere other than JTS would have caused a huge rupture in the family, and most importantly, would have broken my grandfather’s heart. I loved him too much to do that.

Intellectually, it was a good fit in many ways. JTS today is but a faint shadow of the world-class institution it was 40 years ago. I got to study Talmud every semester with Professor David Weiss Halivni, perhaps the century’s greatest Talmudist; Jewish legal codes with Professor Yisrael Francus, who just passed away last week; Hebrew literature with Professor David Roskies, Jewish history with Professors Ismar Schorsch and Shaye Cohen, and on, and on. (Yup, it was almost exclusively men back then.) It was a lineup of some of the Jewish world’s greatest academics, and those of us willing to work hard had an opportunity to learn a tremendous amount. I don’t know how much I learned, but whatever I didn’t absorb was a reflection only of my own limitations.

Religiously, it wasn’t a perfect fit, but it didn’t matter. There was a group of students, and it was not small, who were serious about rigorous religious observance, and my (then newly minted) wife and I had a fabulous community, a wonderful group of friends, some of whom are among the people we love most in the world.

It was fine, more than fine. I felt deeply privileged that I’d studied there.

In the years that followed, the movement took religious turns that I was less comfortable with. I was deeply involved in the student push to have women admitted to rabbinical school (it happened shortly after our class graduated), but lots of the changes that followed didn’t sit well with me. Some mattered more, some mattered less. Some mattered a lot.

And when there were those of great moment with which I disagreed, I thought about resigning from the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis. Each time the notion crossed my mind, though, I thought of my grandfather. I had a (probably silly) notion that one day we would meet up in the World to Come, and he would ask me how I could have abandoned the movement to which he’d dedicated his life and his appreciable energies and talents. So I swallowed my discomfort, and so as not to hurt my grandfather (who was by now long gone), trudged on.

* * *

In recent weeks, that’s become increasingly difficult. On Ravnet, the email listserv of members of the Rabbinical Assembly, there has been plenty of support for Israel, but a lot of absurd anti-Israel rhetoric, too. By anti-Israel, I don’t mean “stuff I don’t agree with.” I mean anti-Israel.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs heads an organization called Tru’ah (of which the present Dean of JTS’s rabbinical school has been a board member), which describes itself as “bring[ing] the Torah’s ideals of human dignity, equality, and justice to life by empowering rabbis and cantors to be moral voices and to lead Jewish communities in advancing democracy and human rights for all people,” has, as its latest entry on the current war, two updates from October 19 and 20, four weeks ago. These are disclaimers that read as follows:

Updated 10/19: A spokesperson from the National Security Council said Wednesday that the U.S. does not believe Israel is responsible for the blast based on ‘overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information’ and that a possible explanation is a failed or errant missile launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Firing missiles at civilians is a war crime.

Updated 10/20: The situation in Israel and Gaza is changing quickly and reports are at times contradictory. Though we wished to express our dismay at the deaths of hundreds of civilians, we were careful not to assign blame. Here’s what we know now: U.S. intelligence says Israel did not strike the hospital and that 100-300 people were killed in the blast.

The death of even one person is a tragedy. May the memories of those killed be a blessing.

The disclaimers are above a statement about the explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, which everyone now knows Israel did not cause. Still, four weeks later, this is the most recent statement on their website:

NEW YORK – T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization representing over 2,300 rabbis and cantors in North America, mourned the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including many children, gathered at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday. They called for an immediate, independent investigation into the cause of the blast.

In a statement, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, said:

“Our hearts are broken by the bombing of Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City, which killed approximately 500 people, many of them children. Civilians fleeing their homes, as well as medical and rescue teams, had taken refuge at the hospital, believing it to be safe. We call for a thorough, independent investigation into this horrible tragedy.

“As we await independent confirmation of who was behind the bombing, we uplift the voices of Palestinians all over Gaza who are suffering a humanitarian disaster. Nearly 1 million Gazans are children, and the international community has a responsibility to intervene and ensure their safety. We welcome President Biden’s announcement today that Israel will allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza from Egypt. This aid must be extensive and quickly distributed; time is of the essence.

“Collective punishment is a violation of international law. We echo the many family members of victims of Hamas’s attacks who — even in their grief — are calling for the Israeli government to de-escalate and prioritize the safe return of the hostages as well as humanitarian relief for civilians in Gaza, knowing that seeking revenge will only result in more innocent lives lost and more families in mourning.

“We recognize, too, that de-escalation is essential for securing the safe release of the hostages held by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza. The reality that the fates and safety of Israelis and Palestinians are bound together is more stark than ever in this moment.”

THAT is what the Rabbis of Tru’ah are broken-hearted about? THAT is the violation of international law that has them up at night?

Try this edgy thought on for size: rabbis should care about Israel more than they care about Israel’s enemies. Rabbis should care about Jews more than they care about people who despise Jews and seek to slaughter them. I know … so very not PC.

Of course, the Tru’ah statement aroused a bit of a tempest in a teapot on Ravnet, a tempest that can charitably only be described as masturbatory. The idea that Rabbi Jacobs would be chided, or more appropriately, be tossed out of the Rabbinical Assembly, never came up.

* * *

Rabbi Jacobs and her compadres at Tru’ah, of course, have no monopoly on moral ludicrousness. (It’s a word, I checked.) Another rabbi had this to say, also on Ravnet:

Peter Beinart comes across to me as one of the most passionate advocates I know for a political realistic, morally grounded Zionism. … Those of you who reject him are simply uninformed about the greater political context we live in, and the great moral weight of Israel’s actions.

Could any combination of English words produce a more absurd sentence? Peter Beinart is explicitly on record as opposing the existence of a Jewish state. He’s as much of a Zionist as is Vladimir Putin.

A few people snorted at his note, but that died down, too.

Then came the coup de grâce with this doozy: “We’re talking about genocide, people.  GENOCIDE. I don’t know what else to say. Is Ravnet a moral wasteland?”

Yes, Ravnet is, indeed, a moral wasteland, but not for the reasons the author of the doozy intimated.

* * *

That email happened to be on my screen when I heard my son packing up outside my study. Something about the place he’d placed his gun for a second, right next to his newborn daughter’s toy, broke my heart. Adam, their 2-year-old, was with me, and I kept him away – we try not to let him see the gun.

Then Avi came into the study where Adam was sitting with me on the sofa. He was wearing the bottom half of his uniform, but not the top, I assume so as to make the exchange as normal as possible.

“Adam,” he said, “Abba has to go away again for a while. I’m going to miss you very much, and then I’m going to come back and see you.” He hugged his kid for a while; Adam, who is too young to really understand what is happening, intuited that it wasn’t a regular old goodbye.

I picked Adam up, and Avi went to the front door. He grabbed his gun, his duffle and a box of fruit (like many others, we’ve been buying fruit for which we have absolutely no use to try to keep farmers in the south from going under) we’d asked him to bring to his unit.

And out the door he went, back to the front.

Photo Daniel Gordis

It’s heartbreaking to watch a 2-year-old try to hold it together. I don’t know why Adam thought he shouldn’t cry (after all, he’s been crying and acting out non-stop for weeks, bursting into tears whenever I leave the apartment or when someone comes to the door and it’s not his Abba), but somehow, it seemed he’d decided not to cry. I held him tight, stroked his hair. Then I remembered the moment that Avi had said to me, a couple of weeks ago, “You know, if anything happens to me, the kids won’t remember me.”

And now, it was my turn to cry.

Adam looked at me and looked away.

I looked away, too, and saw the morally depraved email on the screen. And it was then that I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore. With a son at the front, a grandson who doesn’t understand anything except for the fact that he’s petrified, I can no longer tolerate the morally vacant, the Jewishly treasonous. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t work for others; I couldn’t care less what others do.

I take seriously what the tradition says when it speaks about Jews who are enemies of their own people:

Let there be no hope for informers and may all wickedness instantly perish; may all the enemies of Your people be swiftly cut off, and may You quickly uproot, crush, rout and subdue the insolent, speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, Crusher of enemies. and Subduer of the insolent.
We all need different things from the communities of which we’re part. It doesn’t work for me to be part of a community that has any place for that sort of hatred of one’s own people.

* * *

Now, it will be said that rabbis have a right to believe whatever they want.

But, of course, that’s not entirely true. If a member of Ravnet posted that blacks should not be admitted to Ivy League universities, would the mini-tempest pass in a day? If a member of Ravnet wrote that Israeli Arabs should all be forcibly moved out of Israel to guarantee the demographic Jewish majority that Israel needs to remain both Jewish and democratic, would that blow over? If someone said that gays and lesbians should not be able to join Conservative synagogues, would that quickly fade?

But a rabbi can, in so many words, suggest that my son is part of a genocidal army, and all of a sudden, people have a right to say what they want.

♦Related: From anger to embrace
♦Related: Conservative Judaism and Israel: A response to Daniel Gordis

So, I did what I should have done years ago. I wrote the heads of the Rabbinical Assembly and resigned from the RA, severing all ties to the Conservative Movement.

I did so with great sadness. Some of my closest friends are my rabbinical school classmates. When I was the Founding Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (the West Coast Conservative rabbinical school, now with a gutted curriculum, and like the AJU of which it is a part, dying a slow but obvious death), I had fabulous students, many of whom are treasured friends. I have colleagues in the movement, some of them new friends, for whom I have unlimited admiration and affection.

There are many, many talented and caring, deeply Zionist and Jewishly learned women and men in the Conservative Movement.

But the Movement, as a movement, is rudderless. The movement is spineless. The movement has no courage, no meaningful vision for which it is willing to take a stand. It gave up its halakhic seriousness decades ago. When it comes to Israel, the movement tolerates hatred and hostility it would never stand for when it comes to gays, lesbians, African Americans.

* * *

There’s a photograph of my grandfather and me just outside the door of my study. I must be about four or five years old, he was probably in his late fifties, and with a large physical presence in addition to his formidable personality, he obviously towers over me.

I noticed the photo earlier today, and for an instant, once again had that thought about what I’d say to him when next our souls meet. This time, though, I suspected that his question would be not how I could have left the world to which he devoted everything.

His question, I imagine now, would be, “What took you so long?”

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams?" was published in April.
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