Mishpatim: The Covenant of Justice and Conquest

By: Cantor Michael Davis

My moral education as a traditional Jew began with this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. After last week’s Ten Commandments, this week we get to the nitty gritty of Torah. Mishpatim opens with a long list of civil laws. One of the first sections of the Talmud that young Jewish children are taught is the Bavot )”the Gates”): Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra – the First, Middle and Last Gates. The Bavot are the oldest section of the Talmud: it is where the Talmud starts out. These legal discussions are an elucidation of the laws we read in Mishpatim. What do you do if you accidentally- or intentionally – break something? If you borrow something and lose it? How do youmake the other person whole? These are good moral exercises for young people. It was how Jewish morals were first taught to me.

The Midrash draws our attention to the biblical setting of Torah. The Torah was given to Israel not to Egypt to the west or Canaan to the east but in the empty desert in between.

Only in the great openness of the desert was there room for the people to take on this new thing: Torah.

How did the Israelites end up in the desert? The Bible acknowledges that this wasn’t the obvious choice. A more direct route from Egypt to the Land of Canaan would have taken the people along the coastal road, along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea (Exodus 13:17). Today that would be crossing from Africa to Asia through the northern Sinai desert, passing through El-Arish, north through Gaza into the State of Israel. The Bible calls this route “the Land of the Philistines”. God steered the Israelites away from populated lands because, as the Biblical verse teaches, the just-freed slaves were not ready for war. God knew that encountering any settled people meant war. So the people were guided southwards, away from civilization into the empty desert.

It seems that in the desert there was a willingness to try other new things too. Famously, Moses, the father of the Jewish people, married a non-Israelite woman,Tzipporah. Moreover, his father-in-law, Jethro was clergy, a Midianite priest. Last week’s Torah portion records how the novice leader Moses turned to his more experienced father-in-law for advice. Judaism is built on the wisdom of another religion.

Whereas the first part of Mishpatim is an orderly list of reasonable laws addressing commonplace situations, the end of this week’s Torah portion turns to another part of Israel’s covenant with God. Chapter 23 points to the next phase in nation building -getting land. For Israel that meant the invasion of Canaan. This portion presages the divine destruction of the city of Jericho and the Israelite war of conquest. In this section, God lets Israel know that they will need to kill, expel or enslave the inhabitants of the land. Peaceful, interfaith coexistence were good for the desert; in the land they must turn to war and – according to this section – what today we could only call “ethnic cleansing.”

Exodus 23: 20 Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. 21 Take heed of him, and hearken unto his voice; be not rebellious against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him. 22 But if thou shalt indeed hearken unto his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. 23 For Mine angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. 24 Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their doings; but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and break in pieces their pillars. 25 And ye shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless thy bread, and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee. {S} 26 None shall miscarry, nor be barren, in thy land; the number of thy days I will fulfill. 27 I will send My terror before thee, and will discomfit all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee. 28 And I will send the hornet before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee. 29 I will not drive them out from before thee in one year, lest the land become desolate, and the beasts of the field multiply against thee. 30 By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land. 31 And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee. 32 Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods.

(From Mamre, the JPS translation)

If we read this text with a contemporary religious sensibility, it is truly shocking. Nowadays, we might turn to religion for comfort, tranquility or inspiration. But this section features “the God of the Old Testament” in all His fury.I think our reaction is not just a modern sentiment. Throughout the ages the rabbis had a sense of discomfort with this text. They kept it hidden: it is tucked away at the back of the weekly Torah reading. The last part of Mishpatim is not in the beginning Talmud curriculum. Ask most Jews to identify it and they won’t recognize it.

I believe that the value of these words is in its honesty. There is no pretense that this “people with no land” was about to enter “a land with no people.” The Torah tells us that the land was already inhabited with seven peoples. And all of them were condemned by the Israelites’ God to death or exile. Or in the case of the land’s eponymous indigenous people – the Canaanites – they were to become the indentured slaves of the Hebrew invaders with few rights.

So, what are we to make of this?

I have come to read sections like this, like the bloody wars of conquest in the Book of Joshua too, as Biblical acknowledgements of human nature and the ways of the world. These sections are included in the canon because war is unavoidably a part of life. That was so three thousand years ago and is still the case today. By including this section in the canon, the ancient rabbis acknowledged the ugly realities of the world. In trying to talk to other Jewish leaders about the reality of life on the West Bank I have encountered the objection, “but this is so harsh!” If our social world is all polite and kind, where do we find the language to speak and the concepts to think about the wars and atrocities we know are happening in the world? The Bible does give us the language to talk about what we know is true. But by excluding the end of Mishpatim out of prayer and liturgical readings, while keeping the beginning of Mishpatim within the Talmud in the curriculum, Judaism laid out for us a path of constructing our moral universe in an often violent, unjust world.

It is up to us to decide:

War or peace and justice.

The Bible includes both.

The Rabbis of old established a Judaism that chooses peace.

Which will we choose?

Reclaiming a Tu B’shvat of Liberation

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

Today marks Tu B’shvat, the Jewish festival that celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud Tu B’shvat marks the dividing point for the tithing of trees. Throughout the centuries, this festival has been announced by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms that proliferate throughout the central and northern parts of the land of Israel.

As a celebration of the natural world and the tentative beginnings of spring, Tu B’shvat has been celebrated in different ways during different eras of Jewish history and through a variety of Jewish cultural contexts around the world. But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel, Tu B’shvat has become, for many Jews, almost exclusively associated with the Jewish National Fund’s fund raising efforts to plant pine forests throughout modern-day Israel.

In the previous blog post, my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Davis eloquently underlined the darker legacy of this particular Tu B’shvat observance, noting that the JNF’s mission to create Jewish facts on the land has led to tragedy for the Palestinian people.  Might there be a way to decouple Tu B’shvat from this destructive legacy of colonialism and disenfranchisement? I’d like to suggest one possibility:

I’ve long noticed the power of celebrating this “harbinger of spring” in the colder climates of the northern-hemisphere diaspora, where we are barely one month into winter and the landscape is filled not by the white of newly-budding almond blossoms, but by the white of snow-covered trees.

While some might think this would be an unlikely setting to celebrate Tu B’shvat, I actually find it quite profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the midst of a Chicago winter. It comes to remind us that even during this dark, often bitterly cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees. In the chilly diaspora, we can celebrate the invisible forces of liberation reborn underground even as the prison of winter seems to reign above.

Thus we observe Tu B’shvat as a welcome reminder that spring will always follow winter; that even in the coldest and darkest of times, the unseen power of liberation will inexorably rise up.

I encourage you to reclaim Tu B’shvat as a celebration of liberation: seasonal, spiritual, political, or all of the above.

Occupying Tu Bishvat

By: Cantor Michael Davis

After January 1, how many New Years are there? The beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashana. Your birthday. The Talmud introduces one more, Jewish practice: the “New Year of the Trees” – Tu Bishvat (15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat). This year that happens to fall on the evening of January 15. It may be the dead of winter in North America, but in Israel/Palestine all it takes is some winter rain to bring life back to the desert plants and flowers. The trees there are also producing their first blossoms. While the major holidays celebrate Jewish history and the stories of ancient miracles, the Bible also sets them in the agricultural cycle. For example, Passover is “Chag Ha’aviv,” the

Spring Festival in addition to being “Chag Hacherut,” the holiday of freedom. By contrast, Tu Bishvat is unique among the many Jewish holidays in that it does not commemorate any miracle, except for the never-ending miracle of nature.

The Talmud’s interest in the trees’ new year was quite practical. Farmers were required to tithe their fruit and this priestly tax was regulated around the tree’s annual cycle. The holiday’s ancient origin lived on in the following centuries in the form of a celebration of fruit. When I was growing up in England, we celebrated Tu Bishvat/ the 15th of Shevat the traditional way: by eating 15 different types of fruit. Since there aren’t really 15 types of everyday fruit, after we had worked our way through the fruit bowl of apples, pears and oranges, we turned to dried fruit: dates, figs and raisins and even obscure fruit like carob. How better to celebrate the appearance of tree blossoms than to enjoy the fruit that emerges from the flower buds?

In modern times, Zionism claimed Tu Bishvat as a tree-planting festival. In the Jewish tradition of collecting small change for charity, the most prominent pushke, or tzedaka box, has been the ubiquitous blue JNF (Jewish National Fund) box for planting trees. My siblings were given “tree planting certificates” in honor of their birth. Tree planting in Israel became a central expression of Jewish charity, no more so than on Tu Bishvat. To date, the JNF has planted a quarter of a billion trees on over a quarter of a million acres of land. A fascinating new study (soon to be published) by scholar Dr. Rhoda Rosen tries to understand the Zionist afforestation project and place it in the broader context of modern history.

An early administrator of the JNF argued that tree planting was the easiest and fastest way to stake a Jewish claim on the land. Some of the founders of the JNF’s afforestation project were trained in British colonial India, where planting forests was a means of claiming land for the crown. Under Israeli law (based on a mid-19th century Ottoman law), planting trees on somebody else’s property can transfer ownership and void previous claims to the land.

My first home in Israel was in a little village in the Jerusalem hills. On the bus to school in Jerusalem, I could see the pine forests stretching from the crest of the hilltops down to the dirt trail at the base of the slopes. Sometimes, I would go on hikes along these trails, passing through the deserted stone buildings of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem. Close up, I could see the man-made stone terraces hidden by the trees.

Occasionally, you would come across broken stone walls tracing the shape of a ruined house. The pines blurred the lines of previous ownership and concealed the destruction of Palestinian civilization that happened with the birth of the State. Rosen shows how over 80% of the forests were planted after the birth of the State of Israel, many of them on land vacated by the departing indigenous population. Some 80% of the Palestinian population left in 1948, never to return. And this project continues with JNF’s focus on land in the Palestinian areas of the State of Israel in the Galilee and Negev and the secretive planting of trees in the West Bank. (In a call-in interview that JNF just posted on YouTube, the organization’s CEO, Russell Robinson, does not answer a caller’s question about JNF tree planting over the Green Line.)

So, it is appropriate to point out that the forests of the Jewish National Fund forests are not fruit-bearing, but pine. It is deeply symbolic then that the early 20th century Eastern European settlers chose a non-native, barren tree. Symbolically and in a real sense, this foreign tree displaced the olive trees of the indigenous population.

The JNF’s lasting legacy for Jews around the world, beyond the awareness of the importance of trees, is to establish Tu Bishvat as a significant holiday. While other traditional dates on the religious calendar have disappeared from the lives of all but the Orthodox, Tu Bishvat continues to be a significant date for liberal Jews.

For activists and those trying to reclaim Jewish ritual for non-nationalistic Judaism, how do we reclaim Tu Bishvat?

On Wednesday evening, the eve of Tu Bishvat, eat some fruit – fifteen types, if you like. Focus on the fruits of Israel/Palestine. Jewish liturgy, following the bible, celebrates figs, dates, pomegranates and olives as the special fruits of the Land of Israel. In particular, the ancient culture of olive trees is under constant threat by settlers and the state. So, buy some Palestinian olives or olive oil. Celebrate the natural abundance of the land in solidarity with its indigenous people.

 This lovely story from the Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) uses the fruit tree as a metaphor for a blessing:

When they were about to say farewell to each other, Rabbi Nachman said, “Bless me, master. Rabbi Yizhak said, “How shall I bless you?I think of a man on a journey in the desert. The man was hungry, tired and thirsty. He came upon a tree bearing sweet fruit, casting generous shade on the ground with water flowing plentifully by its roots. The man picked some fruit off the tree and ate it. Then he drank some water and lay down to rest in the tree’s shade. When he was ready to get up and leave, he said, “O tree, how shall I bless you? If I were to say, may your fruit be sweet – but your fruit are already sweet!; that your shade be generous? it already is!; that water should flow by your roots? – it already does! So, let me bless you that all trees that are planted from your will be just like you.”

With best wishes for a beautiful, ethical Tu Bishvat!

 If you would like to honor the tradition of tree planting, click here to plant a tree for peace.

Hanuka: Dedicated to Resisting Militarism Through Peace Education

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

As we approach Hanuka, the Festival of Lights, we can either promote the rabbinic message of Hanuka as dedication to spiritual illumination and peace education  OR emphasize Maccabean militarism as necessary to achieving victory over opponents. Many in the Jewish community will try to promote both, but that is impossible. Our tradition warns us: either choose the way of the book or choose the way of the sword. If we choose the sword, we can no longer be faithful to traditional nonviolent values associated with the book.

The rabbinic tradition largely supports nonviolence: “Not by military might and not by force of arms, by My spirit.” This is the prophetic verse chosen by the sages to illuminate Hanuka! Today, many Jewish people believe military strength is the way to achieve lasting security. While all states have had legitimate security needs, militarization and military occupation were traditionally regarded as evil. Yes, evil. The prophets continually denounced militarism. The sages believed that even lifting one hand to threaten another is ‘rasha‘, that is, violent, unjust and a sin. “Once the arrow is released from its bow, not even the mightiest warrior can bring it back.” Militarism has a life of its own which breeds corruption, systemic violence and the degradation of humanistic values. Militarism is not Jewish.

I find it ironic, given current Jewish loyalty to Israeli militarism by mainstream Jewish institutions, that Hanuka’s traditional emphasis on active nonviolence arose during Roman Occupation. The rabbinic sages framed the holy day as a reminder that our spiritual power comes from remaining steadfast to compassion and good deeds. We are told to think of ourselves as cohainim, spiritual educators. We don the cohenet mantle and light a menorah in the window at sunset, as people return from the market place, in order to create a public witness to our faithfulness to upholding human dignity and love. This is the true source of human strength.

Hanuka also means education. Light symbolizes Jewish dedication to rekindling the altar of peace education! Great is peace, was the message of the sages. This meant refusing to cooperate with Roman militarism. The sages initiated a boycott which forbade the buying and selling of military equipment to either Romans or Jews.  Jewish rabbinic law forbid Jews to derive pleasure or benefit from any products that promote systemic violence. Yes, BDS has Jewish roots in rabbinic tradition. So, how do we increase light today? By supporting resistance to Israeli state militarism through peace education as well as noncooperation with militarism through BDS.

If you use olive oil to light your menorah, please listen to Iyad Burnat in the video above and remember that the olive tree has been tended by Palestinians in the holy land for millennium, and, thus, traditional knowledge about the olive tree has been largely kept by the Palestinian community to this very day. A collective tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. The Annexation Wall, which, when completed by 2020, will be twice the distance of the Green Line in the West Bank. As for security: 85% of the Annexation Wall is NOT on the Green Line. 

The true miracle of Hanuka today is giving public witness to the absolute necessity of putting militarism aside and rededicating our commitment to human dignity as a force more powerful for achieving security and peace.  And lest we forget, the children of Gaza are dying. I have learned from many young Gazans that they regard education as their main form of nonviolent resistance to Occupation. Education gives them hope. The message of nonviolent resistance is alive and well among Palestinians. Israelis would benefit from listening and responding to the traditional messages of Hanuka instead of promoting the Maccabees on steroids. 

Too good to be true: a drash for Parshat Vayishlach

By: Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom


Four out of five successive chapters of Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4 – 36:43) – the genealogies of chapter 36 provide slim pickings – pack in suspense, fear, violence avoided and violence let loose, and a narrative that continues to color our lives, especially those of us who are attentive to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
The drama rises and falls twice in this parashah, once leaving us relieved, once leaving us troubled, But in both cases, there are loose threads that are tied and untied throughout Jewish history. The same is true for the promise of the land, which is repeated now for the sixth straight week. Here are my reflections on what all these could mean for us.

Too good to be true x 2: idyllic scenarios deposit themselves at Jacob’s feet in our parashah, but Jewish history goes a different way (“Yeh. Well, history is going to change!”)

Genesis 32-33: Esau embraces the brother who took advantage of his distress to take his birthright, and then tricked him out of his blessing, but is reluctant to accept any compensation. Only after Jacob implores him, Esau agrees to take the offering. Esau doesn’t want the encounter to end, and suggests they journey together, but Jacob declines. Esau offers Jacob an escort, which he also declines. They meet only once more, to bury their father, Isaac, and if Jacob ever makes good on his promise to visit his brother Esau in Se’ir (v. 14), the text doesn’t tell us about it.

Genesis 34: 9-10 Hamor wants to make the marriage of his son Shechem, to Jacob’s daughter Dinah, the rule rather than the exception, so that the two tribes intermarry and live together. Jacob’s sons agree, on condition that the people of Shechem undergo circumcision, and they state that this will result in the fusion of the two tribes into one people עם אחד!, (v. 15-16).

Read on their own, these two offers of brotherly love and neighborly absorption seem so wholesome, a fitting reconciling resolution to the decades of fear and hatred that simmered throughout the childhood household of Jacob and Esau, and a promising end to the wanderings of Abraham and his descendants which so often featured jealousy and conflict with their environment. Viewed, however, through the lens of subsequent biblical tradition and centuries of post-biblical Jewish history, not only are they roads not taken, but treacherous roads that would have obviated this story of ours before it ever got started: Esau was first understood to prefigure the people of Edom who cheered the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. Psalm 137 and the book of Ovadia), then the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple, and finally the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom in general. As for Shechem and his townspeople, the Torah considered the indigenous people on the land to be
immoral idolaters and, ever fearful of their power to seduce the Israelites into worshiping their gods, prohibited Israel from co-existing with them.

Must we, in the name of tradition, maintain the these prejudices towards the descendants of Esau and Shechem? I would argue that not only should we be free to read the biblical text on its own without lenses tinted or stained by lachrymose or belligerent history (although it is certainly liberating to see how much richer the story becomes and more masterful the storyteller emerges); read this way, we can embrace the story of Jacob as our own as we find ourselves struggling with the perennial family issues of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, in the personal sphere, and questions of Jewish communal values in the collective sphere.

Sympathizing as we do with Jacob’s relief in encountering a placated Esau, we are chastened enough by our own family experiences to be saddened when we see how hard it is for Jacob to dislodge intrafamilial suspicion built up over the years and how easy it is for him to decline the invitation to rebuild a relationship that perhaps never was. Surely, the intermarriage pendulum doesn’t swing for us to the extremes that we find in Genesis 34: we’ve made a great deal of progress institutionally (e.g., keruv and conversion) and live in a prevailing climate of wait-and-see since those days. However, in Israel, where demographic concerns are a live wire, a love story that radiates physical survival has a higher resonance, and makes us wonder whether religious affiliation can become a greater curse than it is a blessing.

Making the Promised Land a land of promise

A Catholic missionary nurse I know who devotes her life to treating the poor and championing their rights can’t quite understand what troubles me about the largess that is Israel’s reward for being God’s people. For her, Israel’s chosenness is but a model of God’s love for all creation. However, I am not the only one who has reached the sad realization that our sacred story has  also inspired less harmonious thoughts. This is the sixth weekly reading that contains the promise of the land, renewed to Jacob after being first made to his grandfather Abraham, and then his father Isaac. How can we, who believe that all who trace their roots back to Abraham — whether via Jacob and Isaac, or Esau or Ishmael, should be living together on the land — deny that it’s meant to be only ours? What follows are some of my suggestions, and I’m open to hearing yours:

“I give to you the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to your descendants after you I give the land” –Gen. 35:12

1. In other Genesis passages of blessing (Gen. 12, 18 and 28), we find the formula נברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה – all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you/will bless themselves by  you/will pray to be blessed as you are. The blessing is inclusive and does not marginalize the Other. Israel’s existence will be in harmony with the world, and beneficial to it. But here it is missing. Perhaps, in the wake of the deterioration of relations between Jacob’s family and the people of Shechem, the redactor found it hard to hold on to the optimism upon which an inclusive world outlook depends. I’d like to think it is not a significant omission, and that we’re allowed or even expected to add it on on our own.

2. The land can provide a home without it having to be our exclusive possession. In other biblical passages, the idolatry of the indigenous people of Canaan is seen as a threat to Israel’s covenant with God, but there is no mention of that fear anywhere in Genesis; on the contrary, they are often depicted as God-fearing. For many decades now, interfaith understanding has taken the place of interreligious polemics: both Christianity and Islam are acknowledged as monotheistic religions even by traditional halachic authorities, let alone in our spiritual niche, where our commonalities with other faiths are gladly prized and celebrated.

3. While this is not made clear in this chapter, the promise of the land must be seen within the context of the covenant with God, which, as we learned in chapter 18, demands moral sensitivity. In the Jacob story, the Torah frowns on dishonorable behavior three times, twice in his depriving Esau of the birthright and the blessing, and again when his sons trick the people of Shechem into circumcision. Jacob has to go into a twenty year exile because of the former, and live with the animosity of his neighbors in the latter; the descent into Egypt is precipitated by sibling rivalry among Jacob’s children, a family curse which began two generations earlier with the limited moral vision Abraham displays towards Sarah and Hagar.

4. The promise of the land was always conditional upon moral behavior, and dispersion upon the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah was understood as punishment for sin, as well as that which occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple. Could the challenge of honorable coexistence with the Palestinians be today’s test of our moral standards, and the condition for our prospering in the land? Can there be a bigger betrayal of the land as a place of refuge and blessing for all than the way it has become the anchor for our privileged lives at the expense of refugees, the millions of Palestinians we have kept from returning to their homes since 1948 or who have emigrated since because of the oppressive conditions of the occupation, and most recently, the African migrants to whom we turn a cold shoulder like the world did to us when the Nazis came to power?

Looking for Water: a drash for Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


Isaac dug his father’s wells anew.
This doesn’t mean he just treaded old ground.

Avraham had plumbed the earth’s deep wisdom.
Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.

Isaac opened up his father’s pipes
so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.

In all who drank, a memory arose:
water, shared in the desert, saves a life.


When Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi
found a spring, the herdsmen quarreled: “This is ours.”

Frustrated, they named that place Contention.

He dug another, they fought again: Dispute.

This trend should sound familiar. Today, who drills
– and who drinks only the infrequent rains?

What new name might we choose if we could build
a world where everyone gets enough water?


Source of all, flow through us like the rains.
Turn the spigot of abundant blessing.

Teach us we won’t die, parched and alone,
but live renewed like hillsides kissed with dew.

When we can share the stuff of which we’re made,
what makes our earth the firmament’s swirled blue,

then we will find the ample space we need
to share this earth as kin with all who thirst.

(And let us say: Amen.)

“Isaac dug his father’s wells anew.” Genesis 26:17.

“But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, ‘The water is ours. He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.” Genesis 26:19-20 

“And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.” Genesis 26:21

“In today’s world, ask: / who may drill, who only gets the infrequent rains?” See The Gap in Water Consumption between Palestinians and Israelis, B’tselem 2013.

Justice and Equality for All?

By: Cantor Michael Davis

At a time that the Jewish community in the USA is getting smaller, it has gained a new text to study. The Internet is full of rabbinic interpretations of this of the recent Pew Survey on Jewish Life. As a leading rabbi in American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, the Reform movement, New York rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch’s response in the Huffington Post is significant.

Rabbi Hirsch speaks for all synagogue professionals when he promotes the synagogue as one of American Jewry’s best hopes for rejuvenation and growth. To that end Rabbi Hirsch calls for expanding synagogue membership to include unexplored constituencies, including Jews who don’t believe in God (23% of all Jews). Right now, I am teaching an introductory class in Judaism on behalf of the Reform movement. In our class on god, it was clear that many of the students do not have a belief in a living God.  Rabbi Hirsch speaks a truth that clergy have long known: synagogues are home to believers and non-believers alike. And a majority of Jews accept this. The Pew survey found that 68% of American Jews accept non-belief in God as compatible with being Jewish.

Rabbi Hirsch’s recipe for growing the Jewish community continues with an enthusiastic endorsement of the State of Israel. He is the former senior official of the Reform movement’s Zionist arm. His New York synagogue has hosted senior Israeli military officers and continues to promote the State of Israel as a Jewish value. He asserts: ““Israel makes American Jews better Jews: Israel awakens long dormant components of their Jewish identity.”  After all, 43% of American Jews in the Pew survey report that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”

In charting a future that will respond to the needs and aspirations of 21st Jews, Rabbi Hirsch surprisingly gives only passing mention to a key finding of the Pew Survey.  In response to the question: “What is essential to being Jewish?” over half of American Jews(56%) replied: “working for justice and equality.” Yet Rabbi Hirsch does not find social action to be significant.

My concern is with Jews who do care deeply about Israel but do not agree with Rabbi Hirsch. Many Jews who are alive to the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine are supporting the Palestinian non-violent call for civic engagement through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). They care enough to act in solidarity with the Palestinians, holding Israel accountable to bedrock Jewish values, American values: justice and equality for all. Yet these Jews have been repeatedly attacked by major Jewish organizations who reflect Rabbi Hirsch’s point of view. Witness the ADL and JCPA’s attacks on Jewish Voice for Peace (disclosure: I am a member of JVP’s  Rabbinical Council). As clergy in the Reform movement I am dismayed at my own national organization’s regrettable silence in the face of these attacks.

Far more important than how Jews treat each other is the fate of the Palestinians themselves. The Reform movement is largely silent (or acts too late to have an impact) on any Israeli issue that does not affect Reform Jews, here or in the State of Israel. It is a sad truth that, when it comes to Israel, our enthusiasm and energy are given not to justice and equality for all, but are reserved for the interests of our own community. Justice and equality for Palestinians is still off-limits in our national Jewish institutions and in most synagogues. The word “Palestinian” itself is taboo in practically all pulpits, except as a pejorative or in an Israeli context.

But the Pew survey shows that the large Jewish organizations are way off the mark here. On the question of who is included in Judaism’s “big tent” there is a dramatic divide between the leading American Jewish institutions and regular American Jews.  In response to the question: “What is compatible with being Jewish?” 89% of American Jews affirmed: “being strongly critical of Israel” is indeed compatible with being Jewish. The Reform movement, along with other branches of Judaism, is concerned with the shrinking Jewish community and seeks ways to reach out to build a larger movement. So why are Jews who support justice and equality for Palestinians through a non-violent political campaign not welcome in our synagogues?

This is the Jewish way. This is a machloket l’shem shamayim - a debate of well-meaning people on both sides. V’sofah l’hitkayem  - it will endure. This issue is not going to disappear. Inclusiveness is also the path of good sense. The best way to reach out to more Jews is to embrace an inclusive vision. Caring about Palestinian rights will bring in Jews who care about this issue.

I would challenge Rabbi Hirsch to accept into his synagogue the overwhelming majority of Jews who accept other Jews regardless of their views on Israel.  Let us bring the Jewish commitment to justice and equality into the synagogue. Let us address this Jewish taboo: what is being done on a daily basis in our name as Jews to the Palestinians. Sure, let’s debate the issues as Jews; let us not silence this crucial debate.  Barring Jews who support the Palestinian call for BDS from the Jewish community is not the way to enlarge the Jewish community.

Or, to put it in the context of the Pew survey: why are Jewish supporters of  justice and equality for the Palestinians kept out of the synagogue while Jewish atheists are welcome to pray in the House of God?