Gershom Gorenberg: An Open Letter to American Rabbis

By | Mar 31, 2012

The incident repeats itself with small variations. A rabbi somewhere in America writes to ask if I’ll come speak to his congregation about Israeli politics and my recent book, The Unmaking of Israel. Afterward I receive another email: At a meeting of the Israel Committee or the board, he has encountered worry that inviting me could offend right-wing Jews. He asks how I respond to such concerns. Here’s one abridged version of my reply:

Dear ___,


Your note reminds me of the apocryphal story about the new rabbi of an American Orthodox congregation who asks the shul president what he should talk about for his first Sabbath sermon. The president says, “Something to do with yiddishkeit.”

“Maybe I’ll talk about Shabbos,” the rabbi says.

“Well,” says the president, “a lot of our members drive to shul. They might take offense.”

“All right, I’ll talk about kashrus,” says the rabbi.

“Actually,” says the president, “some of our members eat in Chinese restaurants. Maybe you should skip that.”

“Fine. I’ll talk about taharas mishpuche,” the rabbi suggests, referring to the laws regarding ritual immersion for women.

“Now that you mention it,” the president says, “my wife is scared of water. Not a great topic.”

“In that case, what should I talk about?”

Yiddishkeit, of course.”

So I should prepare a lecture based on my recent book, which describes how the occupation of the West Bank threatens Israeli democracy. But I’d best not talk about anything that could upset anyone.

Jokes aside, my first inclination is to answer defensively—to say that I moved to Israel 35 years ago and have raised three children here, that I’ve worked as a journalist for nearly three decades, and that my views are similar to those expressed daily by mainstream Israeli politicians and by other Israeli commentators. From experience, I know that some right-wing American Jews will indeed disagree with my argument that Israel must stop West Bank settlement and more aggressively pursue a two-state solution. But someone who is alienated by the very fact that I’ve been invited to speak doesn’t really want to know about the issues discussed daily in Israel.

Getting defensive, though, implies that I need to defend myself. And the real question isn’t who I am or what I’ll say. The question—though it sounds surreal to ask it about Jews—is whether disagreement is acceptable within the Jewish community.

I assume that if your Reform congregation decided to show Trembling Before G-d, the documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, or to hold a discussion on same-sex marriage, you wouldn’t refrain from doing so because social conservatives might object. Likewise, I doubt you’d cancel your interfaith events even if a Chabad rabbi told you he finds them inappropriate.

Yet when it comes to Israel, the room for open discussion shrinks in much of the American Jewish community. Friends in the States tell me of Israeli programming in their congregations that consists almost entirely of “Israeli advocacy” from right-wing speakers. Jews with left-of-center views on Israel are alienated but fear voicing criticism of the prevailing approach. So the question of how best to support the Jewish state—no small question—supposedly gets an exemption from the Jewish propensity for debate.

Yet that propensity isn’t a superficial ethnic stereotype. As we both know, it’s a value deeply rooted in Judaism. The Talmudic aggadah that best expresses the need for debate and its proper limits may be the one fromTractate Baba Metzia (page 84a):

Reish Lakish, a bandit chieftain, was convinced by Rabbi Yohanan to change his ways and become a Torah scholar. He became Rabbi Yohanan’s study partner and brother-in-law. One day in the study hall, the sages were debating when the manufacture of a knife or sword is completed, a question relevant to the laws of ritual purity. Rabbi Yohanan said heating blades in the forge completed the process; Reish Lakish said they were finished only after being polished in water. Rabbi Yohanan said, “The bandit knows his business.”

Reish Lakish was deeply hurt by the reference to his former life. When Rabbi Yohanan refused to apologize, Reish Lakish died. Rabbi Yohanan was terribly pained by his friend’s death and by his own part in it. To comfort him, the sages assigned another rabbi to study Torah with him. Each time Rabbi Yohanan stated his opinion, the new partner, instead of challenging him, brought texts to prove he was right.

Rabbi Yohanan got even more upset. “When I said something to Lakish,” Rabbi Yohanan said, “he brought 24 arguments against me, and I brought 24 answers, and so the tradition flourished. And you bring a proof for my opinion? You think that I don’t know that what I said had a basis?” He went mad mourning for Reish Lakish and died.

To oversimplify the story’s lessons: There’s no place for personal insults, but an argument about the most important issues is the way we deepen our understanding of them.

If I come to speak, I hope that through an open discussion we’ll all reach a fuller understanding of critical questions about Israel’s present and future.


Gershom Gorenberg’s most recent book is The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

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