Talking About Difficult Issues and ‘Gratuitous Interdenominational Bickering’

In response to the blog that I posted immediately after the presidential election, in which I called on the carpet those Jews who had spread malicious and untrue rumors about Barack Obama all over the internet, someone posted an online response accusing me of “Ortho(dox)-bashing.” I found the charge to be too glib, since there were certainly members of my own (Conservative) congregation who were both ready and willing to believe the worst about Obama, regardless of where it came from. Also, interestingly, the editor of this paper, himself an Orthodox Jew, expressed very similar sentiments to me in his weekly column. I doubt he intended to be bashing anyone.

The issue of whether or how one criticizes another Jew or another movement in the Jewish community is a serious one. The gratuitous interdenominational bickering that too often passes for “dialogue” or conversation among Jews of different ideological stripes is a plague, and it requires no sacrifice of principles to recognize how much that kind of discourse hurts us, and our interests. It is to be avoided at all costs.

The only question is, what does “gratuitous interdenominational bickering” mean? I suspect it means very different things to different Jews.

Learning not to respond to every perceived slight or insult is a life skill, not just a Jewish communal issue. People who are so thin-skinned that they cannot suffer even the gentlest or best-intentioned critique can themselves be insufferable. We all know people like that, and it’s painful to try to have any meaningful kind of conversation with them about almost anything.

But there are those moments when the insults or slights are not gratuitous, and the comments or attitudes being passed off as legitimate cross that slippery but nonetheless real line from the banal to the blatantly offensive. The ancient rabbis taught that, under certain circumstances, shtikah k’hoda’ah damei… silence may fairly be understood as acceptance, or concurrence. What is one to do then?

I told my own congregation last Shabbat that if, indeed, there were rabbis (as there definitely were) telling their followers in no uncertain terms that they must not vote for Obama because he will bring about the downfall of Israel, or, as I heard, usher in the pre-messianic battle of Gog and Magog, then I as their rabbi, was telling them in equally certain terms that that kind of talk is a hillul Hashem of the highest order, a desecration of God’s name. And if that meant that I was criticizing a certain fringe sector of the Jewish community, well, so be it. Shtikah k’hoda’ah damei. And I’m just not prepared to be silent when it comes to slander like this.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.