In a serious, respectful, and civil discussion on Facebook recently that began with a post about Nikki Haley’s defense of Trump’s policies vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, a highly respected professor of Jewish studies and I ended up debating the need for accuracy. I’d sum it up with the following excerpts from the thread:
Professor: “As J.Z. Smith once said, ‘exaggeration on the path to truth is progress.’ I think that applies here. Sometimes accuracy can actually be the enemy of good.”
Me: “I admit ignorance in not knowing who J.Z. Smith is.” [The professor later noted that “J.Z. Smith was the greatest scholar of religion in his generation, at least. He died quite recently.”] “Nonetheless I disagree with his cute aphorism. I believe that exaggeration on the path to truth takes you off that path.”
(I think — feel free to differ — that I come off the better in this highly edited transcript. I understand that my interlocutor might have chosen other excerpts with a different result. But I’m the one writing the column, so I get to choose.)
Later, another always thoughtful friend who’s often to the left of me on matters of religion and politics (yes, there actually are those to the left of me), returned to Russia/Ukraine and asked me the following question:
“As far as I can tell, the mainstream Orthodox institutions are all fundraising for Ukrainian Jews — which is good if they are getting additional funds and not merely competing for the same funds — but have you seen any institutional Orthodox statements condemning Putin?”
I gave a quick answer that I’ll quote in full below. But first, here’s a more detailed answer limited to my Modern Orthodox community. (I rarely write about other communities with different leaders, institutions, and sometimes concerns.)
So what did the three Modern Orthodox flagship institutions — the Rabbinical Council of America (rabbis), Yeshiva University (education), and the Orthodox Union (synagogues) — say about Putin and his war? To answer this question more fully here, I examined their websites and Facebook pages, performed Google searches, and reached out to people I know and respect who are associated with those institutions. (I received responses from people affiliated with the OU that are reflected in the discussion below. I didn’t receive any responses from either the RCA or YU.)
Sadly, the answer is they issued no condemnatory statements; not a word from institutions my community looks to for religious/moral leadership about the underlying moral issue of an aggressor invading an innocent country and killing thousands of people.
Let’s take them one by one.
I couldn’t find any statement at all from the RCA about Ukraine. While it did sponsor a virtual conversation “from the frontlines of Jewish life in Ukraine and the Polish border with leading rabbis and communal leaders on the ground,” and while obtaining information on breaking events is often helpful, the fact that the moral issue does not seem to be on the RCA’s radar is disappointing.
YU had a statement on its Facebook page that read, in full: “Yeshiva University stands with all people of conscience in our support of Ukraine. We pray for the safety of the innocent and the quick arrival of peace. May this Shabbat usher in peace and tranquility to Ukraine and the world at large.” No mention of invasion or aggression, or condemnation of Russia or Putin. Praying for the safety of the innocent is, of course, worthwhile, but identifying who is innocent and who is guilty also is critically important. As for praying for peace, we do that every day in our prayers. (Sim shalom — grant peace.)
YU also sponsored an hour-and-a half virtual conversation discussing the “unfolding situation in Ukraine.” I listened only to the introductions by YU’s president, Rabbi Ari Berman, who speaks for his institution, and the moderator, Dr. Ronnie Perelis, holder of a YU chair in Sephardic studies. R. Berman ignored the issues ignored in YU’s statement. To Ronnie’s credit, however, he began by referring to a “full war of aggression with no justification.” Knowing him, I wasn’t surprised that he expressly sided with right over might. I only wish there were more who did likewise.
The OU had a lengthier statement that began by referring to “the developing situation in Ukraine.” It then mentioned “the outbreak of war,” sadly unaccompanied by any mention that the outbreak was caused by a powerful country invading its peaceful neighbor without cause, or any condemnation of the evil actor. I was told by a friend affiliated with the OU that the “purpose was to offer assistance, not make a political statement.” If so, I’m disappointed that the OU seemed to confuse the immorality of starting a war and killing thousands of innocent people with politics.
The statement continued, before discussing setting up a crisis fund (which, to the OU’s credit, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, all sent directly to people in Ukraine without any overhead or administrative costs), by asking for all “to engage in tefillah (sincere prayer) for world peace, … and for the safety and vitality of Acheinu Bnai Yisrael, the individuals and communities involved.” While I can’t discern in that a request for prayer for the safety and vitality of non-Jewish Ukrainian communities cowering under the same bombardment threatening the Jewish ones, I was told that the phrase was intended to refer to groups that include Jews and non-Jews. Perhaps. That, however, is not how I read it, and it’s certainly not how I would have drafted it.
I understand that sometimes a point can be lost in a discussion of details. So now that I’ve laid out the details, let me try to make my point a bit more sharply in two ways. First, I’m talking about words, not actions; I’m talking about being moral leaders in addition to being doers of chesed. The work these organizations are doing in aiding Ukrainian Jewish communities and refugees is exemplary. But words and actions are not a zero sum game; you can do the right thing and say the right thing. Just look at our local non-denominational Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, also involved in laudable work in Ukraine, which said as soon as the war began: The JFNJ “vehemently condemns Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, threatening the independence of a sovereign nation.” This is what I was looking for and have not found. Simple. Direct. Powerful.
Second, let’s assume for a moment that Russia’s invasion was justified. The RCA, YU, or the OU still would have done all their acts of chesed concerning the Jewish communities in Ukraine and not have had to change a single word they said about the situation. And that’s a serious problem. Moral leaders need to speak differently in the face of evil; they need to call it out and stand up to it. And they need to do this not only for themselves and the communities they lead but even more so as a message for our children and their students.
[Update: After I finalized this column and was about to submit it for publication near deadline, I came across two later statements. There was one from YU’s president that discussed YU’s continued educational and chesed activities with respect to Ukraine, including sending a cohort of students to Vienna to aid Ukrainian refugees hosted in that city — all highly admirable. And yet, still no clear distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed.
On the other hand, I read the March 11, 2022 Erev Shabbos message by Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the OU’s executive director, discussing Amalek and our obligation “to live with a constant awareness of our duty to stand up against evil.” Applying that to Ukraine and hitting just the right note, he wrote that “silence is not an option. We must express our opposition to the viciously destructive Russian invasion.”
In reading this column, please keep this additional information in mind.]
Back to my original Facebook response mentioned above. Since I was the one who demanded accuracy, when my friend confronted me with the question about whether I saw any institutional Orthodox statements condemning Putin, I had no choice but to respond accurately: “Sadly, I have not. I read a few such statements over Shabbat and I had the same thought that you did.”
I’ve known and admired Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and his wife, Blu, for almost as many decades as I’ve been alive. Now an elder statesman, Yitz has a penchant for sometimes expressing insightful ideas in pithy, humorous ways. In that vein, he’s said numerous times, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”
With apologies to Yitz (may he live and be well), I don’t want to be embarrassed by Modern Orthodoxy; I want to be proud of it. Right now, while I am proud of some individual leaders who’ve spoken out with the right emphasis, and while I’m proud of the funds collected and aid work done, I’m not as proud of our institutional leadership in word as much as in deed. But there’s still time for them to lead there as well.