Hey guys, I’m MaNishtana.
By now I’m sure everyone has heard not only of the UN’s vote to grant Palestine observer status, but also of the infamous email and subsequent retraction from the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in support of the move, citing it as a great humanitarian moment.
This past Shabbat I had the [dis]pleasure of happening to be on the Upper West Side in B’nai Jeshurun’s neighborhood attending an Orthodox synagogue (of course) which shall remain nameless. The topic of the Rabbi’s sermon that week was on the B’nai Jeshurun letter. The dialogue that followed was reprehensible, couched in the veneer of being respectful and tolerant of differing views, but in actuality turning into a virulent “us vs them” tirade.
As soon as Shabbat was over, I sent the following email to the Rabbi and congregation:
Rabbi [name omitted],
Before I continue, I’d like to clarify two important points:
1-This letter is not, and should not, be taken as a declaration of my political opinions regarding Israel, the recent UN vote, or a Two-State solution. My views are irrelevant to the issues I am writing you to address.
2-I am not a convert. The following words are not the ruminations of someone still wet behind the ears with mikvah water. I grew up Chabad, and my family has been African-American and Jewish since our arrival in this country in the late 1700’s, and as such, we have had a perspective of dueling perceptions of otherness which escapes most Jews.
My wife and I attended your synagogue as guests of a couple we were visiting for a Shabbaton of sorts celebrating the conclusion of the Meorot Fellowship Program, a program under the auspices of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the focus of which being that of exploring and grappling with the opportunities and challenges of Orthodox identity and Jewish communal leadership.
I saw no greater need for such a program as I did in your congregation this past Shabbat.
Your drasha topic was criticism of the recent letter from B’nei Jeshurun concerning the recent UN vote to grant Palestine observer status. After your own fiery words, you opened the floor to discussion, encouraging even dissenting views to participate.
What followed was sadly not as gracious.
What I heard in the responses that day was a congregation self-righteously convinced of its morally superior authority, largely by dint of being Orthodox. A congregation confident of the fact that they were being magnanimous by merely entertaining the concept of dialogue and giving lip-service to the notion of diversity of opinion, despite the lack of respect actually being employed in the discussion. A congregation upon whom the message of sinat chinam of the week’s parsha of Vayeshev had apparently fallen upon deaf ears, for just as surely as Yosef’s brothers muttered to one another “Behold, here comes the dreamer”, the [name omitted] congregation was ready to consign B’nai Jeshurun to the pit.
Were Yosef’s actions blameless? No. Yet there was some merit to his words that warranted attention be paid to them. Could B’nai Jeshurun’s letter have been couched differently? Perhaps. That does not strip its content of any relevance of meaning.
Furthermore, the comments devolved not just across the liberal Zionist v conservative Zionist axis, but also across the denominational one as well.
“It’s useless to talk to them,” a gentleman behind me scoffed. “They’ve always chosen the opposite side of the Orthodox.”
And the side of Orthodox Jewry has always been the morally correct one?
I’m sorry to inform you, but I’m ashamed to say that historically our record has been less than pristine. Because as I recall, in response to President Buchanan’s declaration of a day of fasting in the face of the Secession Crisis, Orthodox New York rabbi Morris Raphall gave a rousing speech in support of slavery. I assume we can all agree American slavery was a deplorable and morally decrepit institution. Yet it took the Reform rabbi David Einhorn to decry Raphall’s sermon.
Orthodox Jewry fared slightly better during the Civil Rights movement, for at least there they were largely absent, as opposed to brazenly standing on the wrong side of history. The Conservative movement however, was visibly accounted for, as Rabbi Joshua Heschel marched with Dr.Martin Luther King,Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March.
Given these glaring flaws, the [name omitted] congregation nonetheless sat in judgement against the B’nai Jeshurun congregation and it’s “liberal” views, much as Yosef’s brothers sat deciding what should be done with him, as if there were no redeeming qualities or aspects to be gleaned from either the sentiments of the letter, or of the synagogue itself.
The Midrash brings down that sparks of the Mashiach are scattered across Creation and must be extracted. One such spark was in Canaan, and it was lodged in Tamar, which is why it was so imperative for her to attach herself to Yehuda’s family. If such sparks could be drawn out from the pagan Canaan, from the non-Jewish Tamar, somehow there are nosparks to be learned from our fellow Jews, regardless of their level of observance or viewpoints? Is not sinat chinam the cause of our current exile, as well as the reason for its continued duration?
And if we are being committed to intellectual integrity, let us not pat ourselves on the back for being such staunch Zionists because that’s what Orthodox Jews–“good” Jews–do. Let us not forget that Zionism was a purely nationalistic movement with underpinnings that were secular at best, and atheistic at worst. It wasn’t until Rav Kook in the 1920’s and 30’s that Zionism was attempted to be reconciled with Orthodox Judaism.
Chabad Lubavitch did not begin espousing a tentatively Zionist ideology until the last Rebbe, and Breslov, Brisk, and Satmar (not to be confused with their extremist offshoot, the Neturei Karta) still do not.
Dedication to the State of Israel is not a measure of Jewish religious observance or integrity.
In short, after this past Shabbat’s experience, I shall not be returning to your congregation.
Actually, on second thought let me amend that statement by adding “b’li neder”.
I am sure–just as there potentially is in any other congregation, any other Jew, any other human–that there is a spark amongst the [name omitted] Synagogue congregation. I am confident, much like the miracle of the oil of Chanukah, it will be unearthed and found whole, pure, and sealed away against outside contaminants.
Perhaps I will return once that spark has been rediscovered and extracted.
I’m not particularly looking for or expecting a response. I am, however, mildly curious as to whether or not the Rabbi would likewise dedicate a Shabbat sermon to discuss my email to his congregation and what, if any, dialogue and or growth would arise from it.