Judaism's fifth column
Barbara Kay, National Post · Sept. 28, 2011 | Last Updated: Sept. 28, 2011 3:06 AM ET
Every year a few weeks before Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year that begins this evening, I have a freewheeling conversation with my longtime rabbi - and friend - about potential themes for his Rosh Hashana sermons. I tell him what's Jewishly on my mind, he listens politely, then usually ends up sermonizing about something completely different. But it's a nice 30-year or more tradition we both enjoy.
We are both of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism - the youngest, smallest and most intellectually liberal of Judaism's four denominations. Yet my rabbi is (thankfully) a sermonizing traditionalist. He mines the holiday's designated sacred texts, as well as wide-ranging homilies and parables, for intelligent application to contemporary dilemmas. The content varies, but his hortatory objectives are constant: Encouragement toward personal ethical stock-taking and reinforcement of cultural identity by spiritual and other means. My rabbi always demonstrates true ahavat Yisrael: A love of Israel (though not always uncritical) and devotion to Jewish unity.
I rather like the fact that my rabbi is open to what I have to say, yet feels no qualms about rejecting it. He is his own man when it comes to communicating what he hopes will be his most inspirational words of the year. In this, and his refusal to politicize his pulpit, he seems to be unlike many other liberal rabbis today, for whom political solidarity with the left trumps specifically Jewish concerns. Many of them seem to see nothing wrong in taking High Holiday direction - or pastoral direction in general - from people with a political or ideological agenda that has nothing to do with, or even subverts, Judaism's fundamental values of ahavat Israel and united peoplehood.
For example, in 2009, President Obama instituted his annual White House "Day for the Religious," now in its third cycle. On that day, he uses conference calls with massed rabbis to download thematic guidelines for their High Holiday sermons. In 2009, he urged 1,000 rabbis to "tell the stories of health-care dilemmas to illustrate what is at stake." At political stake for Obama, of course. Not for Jews - or not particularly for Jews. In 2010 and 2011, he pushed his plan for job creation and his prowess in Mideast peacemaking.
(Imagine, if you can, George W. Bush or Stephen Harper telling 1,000 rabbis, "I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reforms," because "We are God's partners in matters of life and death," as Obama did. The media would quite rightly have tarred and feathered them for crossing church-state lines.)
It's troubling that these rabbis don't find Obama's interventions inappropriate, or not enough to say so publicly. Surely, the annual opportunity to speak to a full congregation - no other holiday or Shabbat service competes with the crowds that turn up on the High Holiday's three service days - should be inspiration to provide guidance in becoming better Jews, and therefore better human beings, not better Democrats. Still, while he had no business telling clerics what to say to their flock on a holy day, Obama was not proposing themes actually in conflict with Jewish values, a saving grace in the light of far more problematic partnerships certain liberal rabbis have embraced.
Take the Israel-bashing group, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP). The Anti-Defamation League rates JVP amongst the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America (Naomi Klein sits on its advisory board, so you can imagine). Membership, according to its website, comprises both Zionists, anti-Zionists and "many non-Jewish Americans." The intellectually corrupt and terror-laundering version of Mideast history outlined on their website is a tiresome brief for the demonization of Israel we are all too familiar with from the extreme left.
So, as a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue, I am embarrassed to note that of the 11 actually accredited rabbis on JVP's Rabbinical Council (most of the 27 listed are self-anointed), eight - or 73% - were either trained or were ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). Since Reconstructionist Jews account for only 3% of the American Jewish population, that is disconcerting.
JVP is by no means the only anti-Israel political group in which Jews and some liberal rabbis or rabbinical students are front and centre. One has to wonder what the motivation is for these young people entering the rabbinate. And one has to wonder as well why the leaders of liberal rabbinical colleges are not doing their due diligence in weeding out radically anti-Zionist students, or publicly distancing their institutions from them. For according to the mission statement of the RRC, ahavat Israel is a "core value" of the rabbinical training program. If shilling for JVP falls within the definition of ahavat Israel, I fear to know what hatred of Israel would look like. And if I were a rabbi, I'd sermonize on it.