Liberal Rabbis, American Judaism & Gaza (Jeremy Haber — Jeremy Kalmanofsky)

am judam

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.

(You can read the piece at Magnes Zionist here and the response by Rabbi Kalmanofsky here. Yoffie’s opinion is here.)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to Liberal Rabbis, American Judaism & Gaza (Jeremy Haber — Jeremy Kalmanofsky)

  1. Zach, thanks for taking the time to think about this. But a few corrections.

    Nowhere have I ever endorsed a binational state, or for that matter any specific political solution.. I have written extensively against the ethnically-exclusivist state founded in 1948 and of which I am a citizen, primarily because I believe it to be foundationally flawed, and because I believe it can be transformed into a liberal democracy of which Jews will be proud. Any political framework has to fulfill the conditions that Israelis and Palestinians have maximum security, as well as the maximum ability to exercise their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, without outside interference. If because I support these principles I am considered radical, or lacking in nuance, or insufficiently attentive to the complex situation of the Jewish people, so be it.

    One more correction, and here I am perhaps to blame. I wasn’t calling upon this rabbi or any rabbi to be a pulpit politician or strategist, or, for that matter, a Jeremiah from the pulpit. And I am certainly aware of constraints upon salaried professionals who are leaders, constraints that tenured professors teaching Jewish philosophy don’t have. On the contrary, I actually favor the rabbis who use their time to teach Torah and to address questions of personal morality — and leave the political analysis out of the pulpit. Had the rabbi not written anything I wouldn’t have criticized him for his silence. It was what he wrote that disturbed me.

    I did not mean, halilah, to cast aspersions on the personal morality of the rabbi, whom I don’t know. As an orthodox Jew, I know tens if not hundreds of rabbis who are moral exemplars — in all matters having to do with Jews, anyway. And I have already apologized to the rabbi for the snarkiness of that post.

    Tzom kal


  2. Michael says:

    What I want from a philosopher is to breach and disspell the clouds of ambiguity and to use a clear, comprehensive language. To call things by their name, not invent imaginary words that aim to mask the reality behind them. To face the truth, even if, especially if, it is uncomfortable. To call “left-left” what it is – extreme left, radical left – anything, as long as it contributes to clarity, not ambiguity.

    • zjb says:

      Fair enough. Michael. We do our best, as do I. Please note that I’ve been more critical of my friends on the left than I have been of the right for the simple reason that these are the people closest to me, personally and politically.

      • Michael says:

        Zach, I don’t think this has much to do with my observations on your repeated use of Orwellian Newspeak terms. Not that I have noticed much criticism of the extreme left in your writing – you even don’t admit its left extremism you’re talking about.

        In science, everything is learned by comparison. Since philosophy aspires to be a science, I’d suggest looking closely to other examples of military conflicts. The moral problems Israel and the IDF in particular are facing are the same the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan faced. The drone war in Pakistan causes dozens, sometimes hundreds of innocent casualties for each combatant killed, so I’d say, that the comparison of the behaviour is not in favor of the US forces. I don’t even begin to compare the events in Gaza to the horrors of Iraq and Syria.

        The difference in opinions seems clear to me – the moralists (the anti-Israel extreme left) demand an absolute morality and purity from Israel, and forget all the other evils, in this conflict and others. The Israeli and pro-Israel public are irresponsible to such absolutism, and want their actions to be viewed in relativistic terms, and do not understand why the moralists single out the Israeli actions for such vicious criticism, while avoiding saying a single word on the brutalities of all other wars in the world. If you or anyone else can explain that dichotonomy, a real, meaningful debate can take place.

  3. “Had the rabbi not written anything I wouldn’t have criticized him for his silence.” Professor Manekin is a liberal orthodox Jew and an orthodox liberal. Religious orthodoxy for him is filled with variety and possibility regardless of it current pro-occupation manifestations. Liberal Jewish life, not so much. He is absolute in his criticism of all the temporizing steps a liberal Zionist might take in moving toward support for Palestinian self-determination. Idiosyncratic at best.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Chicagoteamster. Re: “Jerry Haber” I would refer you to his comment to my post “War Right Wrong == Impure.” He can speak sharp and off the cuff, but he always speaks with great critical acumen, in my opinion, at least.

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