Susannah Dainow's "Fallow"
If you're attending shul during the Days of Awe...

Wishing for a different communal discourse

Late last week, I was forwarded links* to two Republican organizations trying to shame Rabbis for Obama by mis-representing several of the rabbis in that group (particularly Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb) as "anti-Israel activists."

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb first traveled to Israel in 1966, when she spent a year as an exchange student at Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. She experienced the call into rabbinic service the Shavuot she was fifteen, when she gave a speech called "Man and the Moral Law." (Women didn't begin receiving rabbinic smicha in the United States until Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, but Rabbi Gottlieb was one of the first eight women ordained as a rabbi when she was ordained in 1981.) Her first pulpit was Temple Beth Or of the Deaf. She's a trailblazer in the field of feminist liturgy (I use one of her poems in my seder each year.) And she's the coordinator of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence. A few years ago I interviewed her for Zeek, along with several other rabbis, in a roundtable about Israel: Roundtable: The Synagogue/ Israeli Politics Mash-Up. She is not anti-Israel, and neither are the rest of us who have subsequently been called out.

As this has unfolded, the xkcd cartoon has come to mind:

"Someone is wrong on the internet!" Courtesy of xkcd.

The cartoon is funny because it's true. Of course some part of me wants to rise to the bait, to correct the record because what is being said is not true. And then I think: why would I allow people who misrepresent us in these ways to define the terms of the conversation? And why does it matter to me that someone is, as the cartoon says, wrong on the internet?

In the days since the Rabbis for Obama list was released, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel have responded by claiming that several of us on the Rabbis for Obama list are "anti-Israel activists" because we're members of the Jewish Voice for Peace rabbinical council. JVP seeks security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians, an end to violence against civilians, and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East. (Source: JVP mission statement.) This is not anti-Israel.

But regardless of one's opinion of JVP, what the RJC and the EIC are doing is attempting to draw lines around who is and who isn't sufficiently pro-Israel (according to their own definitions thereof), and I think that kind of policing hurts our community. This rhetoric is meant to sow divisiveness in the service of political gain. It has a chilling effect on our communal discourse. And it acts to silence many progressive Jews and to exclude us from the table. The fact that election season brings out some of our country's nastiest rhetoric is unfortunate but not surprising; but it still saddens me to experience it within the Jewish community.

It's the month of Elul. This is our time to connect with the divine Beloved; to walk in the fields with God and pour out the prayers of our hearts. As I sat in meditation on Friday morning, I noticed that my mind kept returning to this situation. As a result, these last few days, one of the prayers of my heart has been: God, why is there so much anger and misunderstanding in the world? Why, when we have so much in common, do we focus so often on our differences and use those as an impetus toward unkindness?

It's the month of Elul. This is our time to deepen our work of teshuvah, of discernment and soul-searching and re/turning-toward-God. I'm hoping that reading these posts, and finding myself experiencing a range of emotional responses to them, can feed my process of teshuvah. This offers me a shining opportunity to become more aware of the depth of my desire to build bridges and to create understanding -- and also to recognize the continuing challenges of relating to (what seems to me to be intententional and willful) misrepresentation with equanimity.

During Elul it's traditional to read Psalm 27 every day. My favorite translation is by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and rereading it lately, I've been resonating with different lines than usual. I always love the lines asking to dwell in God's house (which I sing all the time at this season.) Lately I'm also struck by "Discourage those who defame me / Because false witnesses stood up against me belching out violence." Though what I really wish is not for those who defame us to be discouraged, but for us to better understand one another.

Why does it matter to me that someone is "wrong on the internet"? Because this is part of a bigger picture of people trying to define who's "in" and who's "out;" because this is part of an attempt to define me, and my colleagues, with words we would not use to describe ourselves; because labeling us as "anti-Israel activists" is not only factually wrong, but also hurtful; because this is part of an attempt to bully and silence those of us in the Jewish community who criticize Israel's policies, and I don't think it's wise or healthy to create a situation in which anyone who critiques Israel is considered beyond the pale.

Accusing fellow Jews of being insufficiently pro-Israel is a way of creating and strengthening divisions between us. It damages the fabric of klal Yisrael, the greater Jewish community. It's only a few weeks since Tisha b'Av, when many of us study the text from the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Yoma 9b) which tells us that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, needless hatred -- generally understood to mean not hatred between the Romans and the Jews, but hatred between and among the members of the Jewish people. We haven't grown beyond sinat chinam yet.

I want us to be better than that. I want to be part of a Jewish community where a variety of political viewpoints are not only tolerated but embraced, and where our respect and caring for one another trumps our need to be right. I want to be part of a Jewish community where we can look at our differences honestly, without pretending and without divisive rhetoric -- and, when Shabbat rolls around, collectively set our disagreements aside in order to celebrate together in our varied and various ways. No matter which candidate each of us chooses to support. No matter what our politics around Palestine and Israel.

Im tirzu, ayn zo agadah -- I can only hope that if we will it, it will be no dream.


*(The posts in question are President Lists Anti-Israel Activists Among 'Rabbis for Obama' by Jeff Dunetz, a.k.a. Yid With Lid, and Anti-Israel rabbis for Obama; that same material is now circulating around the rightwing blogosphere, often alongside this Letter from ECI Chairman William Kristol to President Obama.)

For further reading:

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is latest target in anti-Obama campaign, Mondoweiss

On the Smear Campaign Against Some Rabbis For Obama by Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Alissa Wise

Does a good Jew vote for Obama?, Ha'aretz, which features an interview with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

Talking With Obama's 'Radical' Rabbi, Tablet