Daniel M. Cohen

I’m Progressive… Not Suicidal

The other day my friend and colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor wrote an op-ed entitled “I’m Done Apologizing for Israel.” It is a powerful piece that, judging from the number of times it has been shared, clearly struck a cord. When his post was republished on the Jewish Daily Forward an additional line was added to it on the front page. That line stated,

“Menachem Creditor is a left-leaning Rabbi. His peers expect him to condemn Israel’s military actions in Gaza. But he won’t – he can’t – not this time.”

That additional line immediately reminded me of an exchange another friend and colleague had a few days ago. He had sent a letter to his community explaining the current situation in all it’s nuance and complexity and his thoughts on it. One member of his community replied privately to him that he found the rabbi’s tone problematic. “I expect my Rabbi to be focused on preserving life. Isn’t each person created in God’s image and each life matters.” the man wrote. “Aren’t we taught ‘He who saves one life it is as if he has saved the entire world.’? Isn’t that the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish?”

The subtext of this comment was that, by supporting Israel’s right to take action to stop the missile attacks my friend is running counter to a core Jewish value.

I was reminded of my own childhood Rabbi. When asked what Judaism teaches about the afterlife he replied, “When we die we live on in the hearts in the minds of those we love.” It was only later that, through my own study, that I discovered that he was absolutely correct but that his answer was only part of the answer. The Jewish understanding of what happens after we die is far more complex and nuanced than what he shared with us.

So while my friend’s congregant was 100% accurate – a core Jewish value is the importance and meaning and relevance and holiness of each and every individual life, that is only part of the story. For there is another core Jewish value which teaches us the importance of self-preservation. If, for example, we are in the desert with another person and there is only enough water for one person to survive the walk to civilization the individual who is in possession of that water is not at liberty to choose to give it away. We are not, Judaism teaches, at liberty to determine that the other person’s blood is “redder then our own”. In other words, we are not allowed to decide that the life of the other person has more value than our own.

The inverse is also true. If the other person is in possession of the water bottle we are not permitted to take it from them. In this case we are not allowed to determine that our blood is “redder than theirs”. In other words, we cannot determine that our life has more value than theirs.

As it turns out, self-preservation is as much a core Jewish value as is the holiness of life.

So what does one do when these core values come into conflict with one another? What does one do when life is valuable and holy but preservation of our own life or lives requires actions be taken that may result in the loss of other lives? That is the dilemma with which Israel deals on a daily basis. That is at the core of why Israel has taken the steps it has taken during this military campaign. That is why, despite the propaganda coming from Hamas and the simplistic, misinformation coming from so many different media outlets, the death toll in Gaza is actually as low as it is. Yes, every civilian casualty is tragic but if any other world military were carrying out the current campaign the numbers would be exponentially higher. Just look at Syria, look what has happened in Afghanistan and look at the number of lives that were lost when we invaded Iraq.

So at the core of the line added to Rabbi Creditor’s article when it was published on the Jewish Forward was an assumption that someone who is a liberal progressive, someone who believes strongly in a woman’s right to choose, in sane gun laws, in immigration policy that has honor and respect, and in the fundamental basic human rights that are part of the liberal, progressive agenda, will also be anti-military and will do whatever it takes to uphold those values even if it means risking one’s own life or one’s family or community. It is a ridiculous dichotomy and one that shows a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a progressive and what it means to be a Jew in the world today.

One of my favorite teachings comes from Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers. In it Hillel teaches – If I am not for myself who will be for me but if I am only for myself what am I? And if not now when?

Hillel was not teaching about selflessness OR self-preservation. Hillel was teaching us about the importance of balance BETWEEN the two. That balance is a key component of what it means to live a Jewish and a holy life. There will be times when the pendulum swings more toward one side than the other. What makes it Jewish is the freedom to move between the two; to be somewhere on that continuum and to realize that one’s position will change depending on the circumstances.

There will be times when more selflessness is called for. There will be times when more focus on self-preservation will be needed. It is rarely… if ever… an either/or proposition.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.
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