It’s treacherous ground where a liberal American rabbi treads, wanting to express support for Israel and sympathy for all the innocent life lost in Gaza. In this fight over the soul of American Judaism, “Jeremy Haber” takes issue with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky about a piece published by the latter in Haaretz in which the rabbi attempts to carve out a middle position at the moral center of the conflict. Rooted in religion, the argument is about moral somnolence. While I have enormous respect for Jeremy Haber, I would myself never pretend to know whose heart is hard and whose heart is not. These kinds of claim strike me as unknowable and unnecessary as they are nasty. I don’t presume to know how liberal rabbis or anyone else with a moral conscience sleeps or has slept over the long course of the Israel Palestinian conflict and 1967 occupation.
“Jeremy Haber” is the nom de blog of Professor Charles Manekin at Magnes Zionist. An orthodox Jew and a Zionist, Manekin supports the creation a binational state in Israel-Palestine. I have been following Magnes Zionist for years, and would recommend it to everyone. While I usually disagree with Manekin, I read him always for the ice-cold wash with which he frames the conflict and arguments about it. I am sure it is not an accident, indeed it’s probably thanks to the critical acumen at Magnes Zionist that Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s rejoinder at his own blog, Honest to God, was more sharply formulated than the original article published by Rabbi Kalmonsky that drew Manekin’s rebuke.
As for Rabbi Kalmanofsky, he presides in the Sanctuary Minyan at Anschei Chesed in Manhattan, where he also happens to be my rabbi. So it’s with some experience that I can say that never once have I heard him fail to address a moral problem with the complexity it deserves. While this may have been his first publication in Haaretz, it is certainly not the first time he has spoken from the bimah before a public about Israel and against the occupation and anti-Arab racism in Israel or the United States. There are times I’ve heard him tack further to the right than I might have wished. But I appreciate that to speak from the bimah “in the name of Judaism” is no small responsibility. From the bimah his words on matters relating to the confluence of morality and politics always carry weight.
I cannot speak for Manekin, but it seems to me that many critics of Israel, including modern orthodox Jews on the left-left of the political spectrum don’t understand or simply have no patience for liberal Judaism, liberal Jews or the liberal rabbinate. Going back to Abraham Geiger, the founder of Reform Judaism in Germany, liberal rabbis have often found themselves caught betwixt and between contradictory commitments, between what they will say versus what they will not say in public, on principle. In religion as in politics, liberals and liberalism are overall committed to all sorts of compromise, even at the cost of moral compromise. Writing also in Haaretz, Eric Yoffie was therefore probably right to point out that most American Jews, including their rabbis, are not going to stray far from the consensus in Israel about the current conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and that this is just as much a moral commitment as it is about congregational politics.
Addressing the point made at Magnes Zionist, I’m still not sure about calling out an entire class of people, in this case the liberal rabbinate in the United States. Magnes wants to know why it’s only now and all of a sudden that liberal rabbis speak up. Why the outrage or the tug at moral conscience now at a moment of crisis, when outrage and tugs at moral conscience are easy? Why now and not one year ago, or two, or five, or ten do rabbis suddenly speak out against the occupation and anti-Arab racism in Israel which long predate and set the condition for the moral outrage of armed conflict in closed urban environments? To this I suppose that rabbis are empirical beings, like most of us. About this I can only speak about Rabbi Kalmanofsky and other rabbis whom I know to be decent and caring and committed people. Most of us don’t live in a world of moral absolutes, meaning we don’t see the same things and say the same things about human suffering with the same kind of intensity all the time as we do at moments of catastrophic crisis.
The larger issue might be this. What don’t I want to hear from a rabbi? I don’t want to hear from him or her that the IDF is the most moral army in world, that we have to “stand with Israel” right or wrong. What I especially don’t want to hear from my rabbi or any other rabbis is anti-Arab rage and racism. And not apologetics. What then do I want to hear from my rabbi? Not one thing, but two things, about the Jewish people and about Israel, and about the creation of the human person, every human person in the image of God, if not words of peace and reconciliation.
In his response to Magnes Zionist, Rabbi Kalmanofsky addressed this very moral complexity. It’s a complexity that makes for the kind of muddy political morality the shaped by the plurality of often competing human goods and values identified a long time ago by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. But what about moral vision? After the destruction of the Temple, according to the Babylonia rabbis, prophecy was given over to lunatics and children. The rabbis also tell us that there was never a prophet apart from Moses who could see through what for all the other prophets was a cloudy glass.
One speaks intensely in the intensity of a moment. As for me, I don’t want my rabbi to tell me what to think or to confirm what I think. Was it ever in the hands of Rabbi Kalmanofsky to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict in the first place, and from what moral vantage point? I want a rabbi to frame a point of view or a problem in relation to values that drive Jewish religion such as justice, judgment, and mercy. I want a rabbi to speak morally from the pulpit to a situation, to step into the breach like Aaron the High Priest, at the outbreak of a pestilence, to speak words of understanding and wisdom that will get us off from the brink over which we hover . What is the point of demanding moral clarity as a response to a political circumstance that is everything but unclear, except to critics whose clarity, it often seems to me, comes at the cost of seeing one side of the conflict. About that unclarity, it’s best to be clear.