For lots of people, a time like this fills them with ideas: about Hamas, about Zionism, about what Palestinians and Jews are like, about maps and plans and tunnels and drones and a million other things.
Me, a time like this: it knocks the ideas flat out of me. I don’t have a clue about how to get the hostages back. I don’t know what led us to where we are today. I don’t know what fighting a war now can do, and I don’t know whether not fighting a war now will leave Israel vulnerable in the future. I don’t know much of anything that matters.
Which is why, at a time like this, I look to people I trust; no simple thing, as these days trust itself is hard to come by. Here in Israel, the past years have corroded trust in our leaders and institutions. Prime Minister Netanyahu and lots of people who see the world as he does have been saying for some time, for instance, that judges look out mostly for themselves and their kind, the police have their own agenda, universities cultivate disloyalty, and NGOs are hothouses of treason. The protest movement has been saying for some time that our government is a kleptocracy run by a man driven to become a dictator, propped up by messianist theocrats eager to make Israel into Gilead. You can feel the impact of all this. Polls show that each year, our faith diminishes in politicians, judges, generals, cops, teachers, rabbis, and every other sort of leader we have.
This lack of trust is a terrible thing. It makes you think thoughts you’d rather not think. It makes you wonder whether the men in the “War Cabinet” are making the right decisions about what comes next, for the right reasons. It makes you wonder if the generals are giving the right orders to the more than half million soldiers they command (170,000 in the regular army and 360,000 reservists), a group that, for every last one of us, includes people we love.
And the problem goes deeper than that. At a time like this, it is hard for me to think straight on my own. Faced with the shiva of a murdered 19-year-old kid, scrolling through picture after picture of twenty-somethings shot in their backs running from that music festival into the desert, stories about kids gunned down in front of their mothers, and fathers gunned down in front of their kids, my moral faculties shut down, or go into some other register.
At a time like this, I need other people to help me think straight. And lately, the people I found who helped me the most, somewhat to my surprise, are three progressive, American rabbis: Angela Buchdahl of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Sharon Brous of Ikar in LA, and Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. A week after the massacres, each rabbi gave a sermon on Parshat Bereishit, the weekly Torah portion of Genesis, that was really a sermon about what sense to make of what happened the week before.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl
Rabbi Buchdahl described how the leaders of most of the churches, synagogues and mosques in New York tried all week to write a statement about the murders, and all they could come up with were platitudes like, “We stand in solidarity with the people in the region.” Finally, they gave up altogether. Rabbi Buchdahl said, “The leaders of our Manhattan faith community could not say the words, “We condemn Hamas terrorism and massacre.” She said:
…those who generally have the most compassion for victims of oppression and violence simply have a blind spot when the victims are Jews. I have had enough of calling Israelis colonialists. It is Hamas’s strategy to paint Israelis as rootless settler-colonialists, that’s a lie. As Jews, Israel is our country.
Rabbi Sharon Brous
Across the country, Rabbi Sharon Brous said, “Rav Yosef Soloveitchik wrote so long ago about the historical loneliness of the Jew, and I felt it, I felt it profoundly.” She points to philosopher Leo Strauss, who wrote of “the problem of the Western Jew, who severs his connection with the Jewish community, expecting that he will become a normal member of a purely liberal or universal human society, and then he is naturally perplexed when he finds that no such society willing to welcome and embrace him.” Rabbi Brous quoted Strauss and the way he saw out of the perplexity: “The solution to the Jews’ problem is to return to the Jewish community.” Such solace as could be found for Jews after the Hamas attacks, Brous said, could be found only among other Jews, who offered, “just sorrow and solidarity.”
Rabbi Rachel Timoner
In Brooklyn, Rabbi Timoner told how Noam Tibon, the retired major-general father of Haaretz writer Amir Tibon drove down from Tel Aviv to Nahal Oz to save the life of his son, daughter-in-law and two grand-daughters, who were locked in their safe-room surrounded by Hamas gunmen. Rabbi Timoner said that Noam Tibon did not save everyone he passed on the way to his son (though he did save a good many), “because he needed to get to his own son, and to his own granddaughters, as quickly as possible. No one would say that Noam Tibon was wrong for choosing to save his family before other people’s families.” And this, Rabbi Timoner said, is because:
…we live in concentric circles of love, in concentric circles of care, in concentric circles of obligation. And that is okay, it is human, it is right. It is good, to care first and most about those closest to you, and then outward in widening circles, and it is o.k., to prioritize our own group’s grief, before we focus on the grief of others. It is right to rise to save our own people before rising to save others.
Heavy with grief, as I am, going to the shivas, scrolling through the pictures, hearing the stories, it is easy not to notice how radical a message is the message of these three progressive rabbis, how at odds it is with a paradigm that has held sway for a long time among progressive Jews. Lots of progressive Jews, most of all in America but everywhere else, too, have made a foundation of their theology of Tikkun Olam, the idea that the main brief of Jews is to make the world a place better for everyone, helping the poor (whoever they are), undoing discrimination (against whomever), freeing the enslaved (wherever they may be). This impulse made it possible for progressive Jews to believe that being a Jew aligned with the Bill of Rights, with the civil rights movement, with opposing apartheid, with Black Lives Matter, with the movement for Palestinian self-determination.
Rabbis Buchdahl, Brous and Timoner are all progressive Jews, and they each have a history of standing for civil rights, fighting against oppression, decrying racism, opposing the Occupation. But what they each said this week is that their Judaism is not the same as those things. Their Judaism does not counsel equal concern for “all the people in the region” of the Middle East. Their Judaism says Jews are our family, our community, and we drive from Tel Aviv to Nahal Oz to save them first. After that, we help the others.
This sort of thinking comes almost naturally here in Israel, though we mostly don’t see it as an expression of our Judaism. Since the massacre, hundreds of thousands of people found hundreds of thousands of ways to help the hundreds of thousands of people we consider our own, people who lost people or lost their homes or both, in a display of ingenuity and generosity more vivid than any in my lifetime. Ex nihilo, there was a free ride-sharing app, a free homestay app, a free food-delivery app and a free baby-sitting apps, as if Uber, Airbnb, Doordash and Bambino just stopped charging. Massive warehouses filled with clothes, toys, books, dishes, furniture, anything anyone might want, all donated, all for free. Therapists gave free sessions. Databases of information about hostages in Gaza took shape. The economy became familial, tribal.
Here, though, the tribalism makes it hard to talk about, even to think about, how people in Gaza are suffering and dying, most of them people who never voted for Hamas, and who maybe feel that Hamas is an author of their hardship. Hell, most of them are kids who, whatever awful things they believe are, after all, just kids. For most of us here, now anyway, there is no concentric circle for Gazans.
But, as Rabbi Brous put it, “our close encounter with the pain of the narrowing of the lens of moral concern, must awaken us to the danger of narrowing our own lens of moral concern.” The way to concern for others, the American rabbis said this week, runs through – not around – experiencing the world as a Jew, concerned first for Jews.
Responding to a smartass tweet that said all he cared about was saving his own, Amir Tibon replied the other day that, while he was saving his granddaughters, Noam Tibon saved a couple escaping from the music festival, and got wounded soldiers out of the line of fire and to a hospital. Maybe it crossed Noam Tibon’s mind, as he did these things, that the other lives he was saving, of people who don’t have his DNA, matter to someone else as much as his kids and grandkids matter to him.
What Rabbis Buchdahl, Brous and Timoner were saying was something in between the soulful solidarity that has brought us so much solace here in Israel, and the abstract universalism that allows people to care about people who are different and far away. They are finding a path between what sociologist Benjamin Nelson once called, “tribal brotherhood” and “universal otherhood.”
Still, what Rabbis Buchdahl, Brous and Timoner told their congregations last week brought progressive American Jews and Israelis closer in attitude than we have been, maybe for generations, maybe ever. It also signaled a rift in attitude between progressive American Jews and other progressives in the States and in Europe that is maybe wider than any such divide has been for generations, maybe ever. What they told their congregations is the beginning of setting out a new way to be progressive and maybe, though it sounds too grand to say, a new way to be a Jew.
It’s late at night as I write this. When my boy heard the first reports of what Hamas had done, and what Israel had suffered, when they were reporting only that tens of people had been murdered, he got a ticket from LA to Tel Aviv, leaving college to go join his infantry reserve unit, and right now, I am worried sick about him. Right now, too, the papers say that 4,651 Palestinians have died in the bombings of Gaza (of whom 471 were killed, apparently, by an Islamic Jihad missile that went astray), an unimaginable number, and the ground war my boy will take part in hasn’t even started yet. I am overwrought, and trying to figure out how to make sense of all this.
I find that three progressive, American rabbis can help. I find in them voices that I trust.
(Correction: An earlier version of this essay referred to Rabbis Buchdahl, Brous and Timoner as Reform rabbis. Rabbis Buchdahl and Timoner are affiliated with the Reform Movement. Rabbi Brous, who holds ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, is not.)