Ysoscher Katz

Is the Progressive community heading for divorce?

We are told that when a marriage comes undone the mizbeach (the altar in the Temple) is crying. The last few weeks has seen a spiritual union being pushed to the brink, giving more reason for the mizbeach to (metaphorically) mourn. 

Here is why.  

When all this is over (emphasis on “when;” this war is going to take a very long time, the execution and then the subsequent aftermath, but it will eventually come to an end. It has to!), the Jewish landscape will be dramatically transformed. There will be many changes. Some good, some fair, and some of them not so good. 

One example of the latter is a permanent and irreparable split between various members of the  progressive community. Pre-October seventh most of us in this community, albeit theologically different, nevertheless had a lot in common and were therefore able to join hands in the fight for certain important causes. In spite of some significant first-principle differences, we nevertheless shared common values, goals, beliefs, and aspirations. The underlying commonality: a desire to heal a broken world and rehabilitate a fractured social fabric by rooting out racism, sexism, and homophobia in our respective communities and in the world at large. 

The marriage between the various members was always a bit rickety because of the disparate ideologies that inform the impetus for this non-negotiable commitment to inclusion and optimal equality.  Different members of this community come at it from very different angles. 

For some the drive is “tikkun olam” per se, which is seen as an intrinsic value in of itself—social justice as an innate human and perhaps also religious value. Others, however, come at it from a very different place. Their impetus for tikkun olam is theological, based on a verse from the thrice daily repeated Aleinu prayer. 

The charge given there is לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, to make the universe a better and more ethical place by infusing the world with robust kedusha and palpable divine presence which, in turn, does not abide any form of racism, sexism, or homophobia. An immanent divinity is a balm to blatant discrimination. There was much practical overlap between our respective communities’ aspirations, but a wide gulf nevertheless existed between our end goals and theirs. Still, the relationship worked, and many in each camp saw the people in the other camp as comrades in arms.

Tragically, that camaraderie has now been torn asunder, in large part because of the Israel crisis. There has been a huge split in the community. Some of us, myself included, are staunchly supportive of Medinat Yisrael, while others have been vociferously critical, pitting members of the progressive camp against one another. Each group within the liberal community finds the actions of the other side troubling, their words hurtful and in some cases even condemnable. 

My colleagues and I in the pro-Israel liberal camp believe that this is not a time to think strategically about what is happening in the Middle East. There is a time for everything, and this is not a time for pontification (especially when, across the board, those who critique Israel’s actions fail to offer an alternative and better approach, one in which no bystanders are hurt). Instead, during this emotionally charged time for our loved ones, on the front and in Israel at large, our role is to let our emotions dictate our reactions. Our friends, relatives, and loved ones are suffering, and we need to provide them with all the emotional support they need and deserve. 

While being guided by emotions is generally not prudent, there are times when that is the only right response. This is one of those times. The pain, horror, and fear our Israeli brethren experience is so overwhelming, what they need most is our emotional succor. 

Former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis learned that lesson the hard way.

Those who remember that campaign will recall his famous capital punishment gaffe. Dukakis was staunchly opposed to the death penalty. Once, during a campaign appearance, he was asked if he would be in favor of the death penalty in the event that his wife (God forbid) was raped.  Dukakis, in emphatic tones, responded with an unequivocal no! 

At the time, many pundits believed that this cost him the presidency. People felt that this showed a person who is too doctrinaire and emotionally immature. When our immediate family is hurting, we respond with our heart, not with our minds. A paragon of morality cannot let his ideals blind him to the human aspect of an issue. Dukakis’s response should have been that in such a case, not only would he be in favor of the death penalty but that in his heart of hearts he believes that in that moment he would be prepared to kill his wife’s rapists with his very own hands—even if he eventually would have thought better of it. 

During this conflagration, too, many of my otherwise spiritual soulmates have remained Dukakian to a fault—opening a wide gulf between themselves and many in my camp. 

The other day, someone in the liberal camp insinuated that the state of Israel could perhaps be the contemporary incarnation of the Sodomites, while the Palestinians are the ones God sides with because, as we are told, “אלוקים יבקש את הנרדף, God sides with the victims,” which in the author’s  view applies exclusively to the Gazans. Aside from being academically inaccurate, the analogy being flawed on multiple levels, it is also extremely insensitive. 

Hyperbole like this is strong enough to permanently sever an already tenuous relationship. I have difficulty imagining one day rekindling our spiritual kinship after such harsh and aggressive bashing of my son-in-law who proudly serves, his young wife who spends sleepless nights, and anxiety-filled days worrying about him and the thousands of Israelis on the part of those whose situation is similar to mine or far worse, with loved ones murdered by or still in the hands of Hamas.     

And for that I mourn– as well, another consequence of a horror story that has brought so much havoc, pain, and destruction—physical, spiritual, and emotional.                                                                                                                                                           


The Mizbeach mourns when relationships are ripped asunder. 


The Mizbeach, undoubtedly, is (metaphorically speaking) currently experiencing much distress. 

PS. Admittedly, with the frightening cloud of war hovering over all of us perhaps everything looks bleaker than it is. Maybe, when this conflagration will come to an end, things will no longer look so bleak. At that point, things could possibly look less dire, making reconciliation a possibility. For now though, while the echoes of war are ricocheting across the world, when looking at the divergence that has developed in our community, the divide, sadly, looks irreparable. 


About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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