Rabbi Angela Buchdahl – A Leader Through Narrow Spaces

A recent headline and article by Canaan Lidor appearing in this Paper distresses me deeply. It is misleading to suggest that Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (who is my Rabbi) is “making it difficult for Americans to support Israel” or damaging inter-communal and bilateral ties. Knowing her as you do, how could you possibly have printed such a headline? And, citing Shmuley Boteach, who besmirches Rabbi Buchdahl by asserting that she “has betrayed her people”, simply adds insult to injury. Such lies must be addressed!

Accusing Rabbi Buchdahl of betraying the Jewish people and self-righteously offering “enlightenment” regarding the morality of the ongoing war in Gaza is nothing more than self-aggrandizement by Boteach. His premise is insulting and self-serving and reflects a lack of intellectual honesty about the operating environment in Israel as well as his own moral emptiness. Boteach oversimplifies the issues and his invective is, in fact, antisemitic.

The Talmud suggests that embarrassing or shaming another is a serious transgression. In fact, we are taught that it is better to jump into a fiery furnace than to hurt another. Humiliating another, as Boteach attempts to do, especially a fellow Rabbi, is antisemitic. Boteach is in the wrong. Might there be sexism or simple jealousy of Rabbi Buchdahl’s notoriety at play? She is a gifted, much-loved and respected spiritual leader and innovator with a hand in the moral growth of her congregants and growth of the Jewish nation. Above all, Rabbi Buchdahl is humble and authentically human and humane. Under her leadership, over 100 people took their place in the Jewish nation just this week. Can Shmuley lay claim to such a positive impact on our Jewish family?

Setting aside the personal nature of his attack, other issues merit examination. First is whether questioning or criticizing the Israeli government is, as he suggests, antisemitic. Asking questions does not make you anti-anything. Questioning is a form of healthy citizenship. Questioning and challenging, are tenets of democracy, which Israel holds up as a founding principle. And, in fact, questioning is a critical aspect of Jewishness. We Jews are encouraged to question to understand. It is shameful that Boteach ignorantly jumps to judgment without questioning or understanding what Rabbi Buchdahl believes. His failure to question reflects ignorance and ignorance allows the rise of authoritarianism, which we Jews know all too well. And why should he be considered the authority on the moral issues raised by this tragic war?

Questioning does risk that we will expose situations where answers are not easy. The simplicity that comes from ignorance or empty headedness may be easier to deal with but it is dishonest. The world is complex because people and humanity are complex. What we discover in our inquiries might be unpalatable or confusing and require that we formulate thoughtful, reasoned approaches to complex problems. Some issues, such as the war with Hamas, result in cognitive dissonance – the need to sit in the discomfort of holding conflicting beliefs. Such is the reality acknowledged by Rabbi Buchdahl in her remarks. Hers are not questions restricted to liberal Jews in America. They are questions that challenge any compassionate human trying to follow a moral compass amidst forces and facts that conflict with one another and with Jewish ideals.

Israel has the absolute right and obligation to protect its people and rescue its hostages. And, at the same time, war is sad and ugly and complicated. Since October 7th, the pews and streaming platforms at Central Synagogue and elsewhere have been overflowing with congregants and unaffiliated Jews who need a community in which to share their fear, anger and grief for the loss of life, innocence and safety that are inherent to this war. While living with the trauma and uncertainty of these times, these people are seeking a path for living in which they do not become prisoners of hate and anger. Rabbi Buchdahl is lighting the way through the narrow spaces. She teaches that unequivocal support for Israel does not preclude moral questioning nor does it allow blinding ourselves to the suffering that flows from warring.

Rabbi Buchdahl has publicly borne the pain of personal grief that reflects her love and commitment to the State of Israel. At the same time, she has, in her personal actions and leadership, role modeled how we can rise to stand as a beacons of love and light in the darkness. Her efforts to reconcile the anger and hurt with pain over the fate of innocents, Palestinian and Israeli, who are the victim of evildoers among them as well as the devastation of war are not a betrayal of her People. Through her actions, Rabbi Buchdahl fulfills the theology that we cannot, in the end, betray our God. Rabbi Salanter taught that the material needs of others are our spiritual imperatives. This is Buchdahl’s truth.

About the Author
I have a PHD in clinical pharmacology.  My career was spent as an inventor and leader of R&D organizations developing innovative technologies to improve consumer health care. I am the author of an innovative new book that integrates Mussar teachings and practice into 12 Steps of Recovery. I am breaking myths that keep Jews prisoners of shame and judgment and empowering them to create lives of meaning and joy drawing on Jewish wisdom.