Who Speaks for the Jews?

In this period of heightened tensions between the United States of Israel, we seem to have entered into a period of "dueling ads."

Lately it seems that there has been a spate of full page advertisements in both the secular and Jewish newspapers that would claim to articulate the collective will of the Jewish people.

Elie Wiesel’s ad about Jerusalem, in the New York Times, obviously caught the attention of the White House, because President Obama invited him to lunch to talk it out. (I wonder if they had a beer, like Henry Louis Gates and that police officer from Cambridge?).

J Street would have us believe that it speaks for the "silent majority" of Jews who love and support Israel but want it to be more flexible in peace negotiations; AIPAC, the AJC, the Conference of Presidents, and a variety of other Jewish organizations are more supportive of the State of Israel’s official stand, whatever it might be.

And, of course, there are more than a few right-of-center organizations that would want us to see President Obama as the worst threat to Israel since Nasser and Saddam Hussein.

And so I often find myself wondering, who really does speak for the Jewish community?

I don’t know that anyone does. And I much prefer it that way.

It has often been observed how fortunate we are that there is no "Jewish Pope," no one person or leader whose authority is, at least de jure, unchallenged in the Jewish community. I surely agree, although after almost thirty years of serving that community as a pulpit rabbi, I readily admit that were there such a position, only a fool would want it. Within my own congregation- a microcosm of the Jewish world- there are more opinions on any given subject than I could possibly count.

When I get up to speak on a Shabbat morning from the pulpit of my own synagogue, I have no illusions about speaking for anyone other than myself, and not in the name of my congregants. Some of them will occasionally say that I articulated what they were thinking on an issue, but that is their comment, not mine. I might wish to influence the way others see a particular issue or situation, but I speak for myself.

And that is certainly true, even more so, when I speak with a reporter who happens to ask my opinion. It is, in almost all cases, my opinion, and not the opinion of The Forest Hills Jewish Center.

The truth is that, in most instances, I am very much like the people I teach and serve as a rabbi.

I don’t like people telling me what I think, or purporting to give expression to what I really feel deep down, as if they know my inner soul better than I do.

I tend to form my own opinions by reading and listening to as many relevant reports and news items as I can, and then… thinking. It is rare that I have strong opinions about a situation or issue that I know little of, or feel no expertise in. I like to roll things over in my head, and think carefully before I have anything to say publicly about a subject.

Of course, there is nothing at all wrong per se with Elie Wiesel or any Jewish organization declaring to all who would listen how they feel about Israel, or the American-Israeli relationship. More power to them, and sometimes, when I agree with them, I’m grateful. God knows the New York Times or even The Jewish Week have to love it when someone or some group wants to express itself in a full-page ad. For them it’s all about advertising revenue.

But nothing should take the place of thinking for yourself. That’s why God gave us brains, I figure…

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