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Jewish “Heresies” Then and Now

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

What is a rabbi to do?

My inbox this morning includes a petition from my local Jewish Community Relations Council opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, a request from a Jewish lobby that supports a two state solution and a message from a colleague asking me to endorse a Jewish organization that promotes “democracy, equality and self determination” for both peoples. My husband suggests that I ignore all my emails and write about some topic other than Israel.

I am reminded of my earliest encounters within the Jewish world. In 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War, I joined a newly founded group called Breira (Alternative). It was the first organization in the Jewish community to publicly criticize Israel’s continued occupation of land captured in the Six Day War—the first to question the claim that circumstances left Israel no alternative (“ain breira”). At a time when there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Jewish settlers living in the territories, Breira was committed to the safety and security of the Jewish state but also supported self-determination of the Palestinian people, talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and, later, a Palestinian state. Although I was just out of college at the time, I found myself serving on the first governing board.

In the beginning, a number of prominent Jewish leaders signed on to Breira’s larger “advisory board,” only to drop off within the next year or two. Some of the departing members feared for their jobs. Ira Eisenstein, then the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had other reasons for leaving. While he had joined to support a challenge to “Israel right or wrong” thinking, Rabbi Eisenstein had come to feel that Breira extended “greater sympathy to the Palestinians than to the Israelis,” as he explained in an editorial in the movement’s periodical in February 1977.

The next month, he followed up with another editorial, “Needed:  An Alternative to Breira.” If Israel did not want to talk to the PLO and America was prepared to support them, Eisenstein wrote, who were we as Diaspora Jews to disagree?

As an applicant to RRC, I read those editorials with some trepidation. Would my career be over before it began?

But while Rabbi Eisenstein opposed Breira’s positions, he defended its members’ right to hold them.  He saw the importance of level-headed discussion among those who wanted to “establish Zion with justice.” His second editorial deplored the attacks against the organization’s leaders, specifically Hillel directors whose jobs were threatened. He added that “punitive measures… are wrong, propelled by panic.”

Fortunately for me, the rabbinical school reflected its president’s principles: Just a few weeks after those editorials appeared, I was admitted. During my years at RRC, Rabbi Eisenstein and I continued to disagree strongly on that issue, among others, but always with respect. Other parts of the organized Jewish world were not so open minded, and Breira folded within five years of its founding.

Today, according to the petition from the JCRC, I should oppose the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood because the official position of the Jewish community is “two states based on negotiations”—the very position considered outside the pale by Breira’s opponents. But now there are close to half a million Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rabbi Eisenstein’s hope for establishing “Zion with justice” looks increasingly shaky.

In retrospect, perhaps Breira’s position was sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis.

The current “heresy” involves questioning whether two states are still possible. Some Jews recall Zionist visions from the years before 1948 that included skepticism and even opposition to a Jewish state, positions advocated by leading Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Rabbi Judah Magnes. Some who care deeply about being Jewish no longer define themselves as Zionist.

I can understand why Rabbi Eisenstein worried about Breira in 1977. But my experience reminds me that ideas considered unacceptable then look sensible, if not timid, now.  As I listen to Jews discuss which positions on Israel are now kosher or treif, I realize how quickly those borders can and do change, and I admire even more Rabbi Eisenstein’s visionary commitment to keep the conversation open.

Rabbi Eisenstein understood that the philosophical pragmatism at the base of his Reconstructionist approach to Judaism required humility. Writing about pragmatism, Louis Menand said, “Beliefs are just bets on the future… There is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case. In the end, we have to act on what we believe…but the moral justification for our actions comes from the tolerance we have shown for other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case.”

I am grateful to be part of a Jewish movement that values respectful and compassionate Jewish peoplehood, that understands beliefs as bets on the future, and that welcomes new voices, even those that make others uncomfortable, perhaps especially those.


Preparing for September 10-11, 2011

The following "sample sermon" by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer appears on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights along with other resources for that weekend. The link is

“If you are Jewish and have ever been present when a Jew said something negative about Islam or Muslims, please take one step forward. Same for you Muslims. If you ever heard Judaism or Jews disparaged by fellow Muslims, take a step.”

The ten Jews and ten Muslims participating in this exercise were not surprised by what they saw. Almost everyone in the line stepped forward. As emerging religious leaders, these men and women were spending four days together sharing their stories—sacred, communal and personal –at a retreat organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Now,” the facilitator of the session continued, “If you spoke up every single time that happened, please take another step.”

Almost everyone stayed exactly where they were. They had chosen to attend this gathering because they knew their communities had trouble speaking about each other. They wanted to learn more so that they could become better leaders. And they all agreed that there was much work to be done, beginning with themselves.

That scene came back to me as I sat down to prepare for the fall high holidays, arriving this year on the heels of the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001. As in years past, I reviewed the catalogue of sins that the traditional prayerbook provides to help us recall specific instances of transgression. Once again, I was struck by how many of the sins involve speech. By one count, 17 of the 44 acts enumerated are explicitly performed by speaking. “For the wrong we have done before You…. with the speaking of our mouths… we have defamed… we have lied…we have shamed…we have gossiped and slandered…we have spoken ill. “ This last phrase in Hebrew is lashon hara.

The Jewish tradition has made much of those last two words. The teachings on lashon hara are astonishingly thorough in their concern for every nuance and detail of how a Jew might harm his neighbor through words. It is not hard to stretch those teachings to apply to individuals who are not Jewish. It is more of a stretch, but an important one, to think about lashon hara in terms of group defamation.

Contemplating the anniversary this weekend, I recalled some of the hateful speech that I heard in the last decade. Particularly this past year, Americans have witnessed a disturbing growth in uncharitable, negative speech about Islam and about Muslims as a group. I have heard Jews speak on these topics in ways that are ignorant stereotypes, at best. At worst, they are toxic rhetoric. When these Jews are not people who defame “liberals,” “illegals,” and the other groups often attacked along with “the Muslims,” it is particularly disturbing. From neo-con scholars to activist bloggers, certain Jews have been vocal participants in the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their harsh words have found receptive ears in some places in the Jewish community. I am not alone in worrying that the anniversary of 9/11 will serve as an occasion to stir up more fear and hate.

The Jewish traditions around lashon hara developed in a time when monitoring speech about those of other faiths was not the norm. Different religious groups formed very different communities of moral concern, and ignorant or hostile opinions about the religious “other” were unremarkable. Of course, Jews know this well, having been the victims of malicious speech about our own group. Although we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the victims of hate, our relative power and security in America challenges us to push our tradition into somewhat new territory. If we take seriously what Judaism teaches about the power of words (“they create worlds”) we want to look carefully at how others, in this case Muslims, can be hurt by the words spoken about them, including words spoken by Jews.

That brings us to the second part of the exercise at our Muslim-Jewish retreat. Our Jewish participants confessed to having sat quietly by while family members, friends or congregants repeated opinions about Muslims that had the power to hurt. I have done so myself. Last month, I reconnected with a Jewish friend from my youth. When I told him that I was working on issues of Jewish-Muslim relations he said, “I am Islamophobic and will not apologize for it! Their religion tells them they will be rewarded in heaven if they kill me. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of them?”

I did not know where to begin, so I did not start at all. I remembered the important teaching about tochecha (rebuke), the famous line in Leviticus 19:17. “You will surely rebuke your fellow; you will not bear a sin on his account.” While the plain sense seems to be that you will be responsible for your fellow’s sin if you do not speak up, Rashi reminds us it may also be saying that in rebuking you may incur your own sin, that of shaming your fellow in public. Luzatto, with a different spin, points out that if you rebuke in the wrong way, you will only intensify the sinner’s attachment to his actions, and you will then be responsible for the sin increasing. With all the potential down sides, it seemed best to remain silent. I remember, however, how we Jews felt about those who were silent when we wish they had spoken on our behalf.

Perhaps focusing on the moral obligation of tochecha, rebuke, may be misdirecting our energies. Paired with a concern for lashon hara is another important Jewish value, hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good. The Jewish tradition offers us the concept of speech that is healing (“a healing tongue, marpeh lashon, is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4). What if we spent more time thinking about the potential of speech to reconcile, to elicit from people what is best inside them, to promote the good? I incline toward a vision of lashon marpeh, speech that heals.

In her commentary in Rabbi David Teutsch’s newly published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, Rabbi Vivie Mayer recalls the midrash in which Aaron, the first high priest, reconciled people to each other by telling each of two disputing parties that the other one was ready to make up. On first reading, this story sounds like Aaron told untruths. That would bring us right back to the litany of sins on Yom Kippur, “our lips speaking lies.” But Mayer sees it differently. She suggests that Aaron was telling the truth, the deeper truth that can be seen by the eyes of someone who is looking for the good. By speaking that truth, Aaron brought it to fruition.

In closing, I return to my friend who wears his Islamophobia with pride. What would lashon marpeh mean in that situation? First, it would mean acknowledging vulnerability, the assumption that we always have and will be victims, an assumption that is all too real for many Jews. Then, it would involve seizing opportunities to fill the information vacuums that leave us open to manipulation by those who would divide us. Finally, it would require speaking early and often about the positive interactions and promising practices in the world of emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders. My own resolution for this new year is to step forward every chance I get to repeat words of kindness, to offer people positive stories to replace negative ones, to use my words to create worlds of respect and hope.


RRC's Muslim-Jewish Retreat for Emerging Leaders

Emerging Jewish Muslim Leaders Retreat
2011 Retreat “Alumni Facilitators” Professor Homayra Ziad and Rabbinical Student Diana Miller, pictured at 2009 Retreat.

This week - from June 13th-16th, at the Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut, 24 Jews and Muslims will gather for four days to learn together, establish relationships, and imagine the future they hope to build together. This will be the second retreat in a series that RRC has planned part of a larger goal of creating a network of emerging Muslim and Jewish leaders. Four alumni from the first retreat are returning to help facilitate this event, along with RRC Multifaith Studies faculty members and guest scholars.

As in the past, the group will focus on the Joseph/Yusuf saga, a narrative found in both Torah and Qur’an and on the fascinating history of interpretation in both Muslim and Jewish traditions. From learning texts together, we will move into sharing in other modalities, including storytelling, the arts and creative ritual. We plan to also share our challenges leading our communities toward greater understanding and cooperation. We will explore the "promising practices" we have each found in our work, and bring our collective wisdom together as we move into the future. 

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40 Days and Nights in Jerusalem

Reverend Dr. Wil GafneyThe Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney is an Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is an ordained Episcopal priest, a member of the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and also a member of a Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre. Wil is a good friend and partner to the Multifaith Studies Department at RRC. Twice in the last few years, Wil co-taught with Rabbi Melissa Heller our course, Hevruta:  Jewish-Christian Encounter through Text. Recently, she left Philadelphia to spend 40 days in Jerusalem, writing and thinking, and of course, blogging.

The curious reader who checks out Wil's blog will be rewarded, not only by the thoughtful observations and stunning photography, but also by the opportunity to see the Israel/Palestine conflict through a unique perspective. As Wil herself acknowledges in her first entry, she comes to this situation, like anyone, with "baggage." Here is Wil's description of her own:

Jerusalem is important to me as a Christian, as a woman who prays in synagogue, as a person committed to inter-religious dialogue, as a woman who seeks peace on the earth in my lifetime, and as an American voter who communicates my desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to my elected representatives.

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Building Trust Makes True Engagement Possible

Tamara Cohen (RRC ’15) worked as an RRC Multifaith Intern in 2010-1l with Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia that brings high school students together across religious boundaries.

Walking the WalkIt's 12:47 am. I am lying on an air mattress on a classroom floor at the Academy of Notre Dame in suburban Philadelphia. Upstairs, twenty-two teenage girls half of whom are students here at Notre Dame and half students at the nearby Barrack Hebrew Academy, are giggling together as they quiet down for the night. I have been leading this group all year and tonight they taught me what interfaith work is really all about.

Earlier in the evening, we sat around a table and passed a basket with small pieces of colored paper. On them were printed questions that the girls had come up with, questions they felt that they had not yet dared to ask one another. One by one, with respect, genuine curiosity and courage, they reached into the basket, selected a question and entered into dialogue with one another. The questions were not easy ones.

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Muslims and Jews in America: A Valuable New Resource

Muslims and Jews in AmericaThis month, Palgrave Macmillan published a wonderful new resource, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities, co-edited by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. The editors have gathered an array of articles by scholars, communal professionals and activists that explore the engagement of Jews and Muslims in America. Together they provide a comprehensive review of the well publicized flashpoints of tension and conflict between Jews and Muslims and also the emerging dialogues, encounters and educational programs designed to enhance relationships. In the end, the book left me surprisingly optimistic about our communities’ prospects for a shared future.

Many of the flashpoints of recent years will be familiar to readers of this volume. Keith Ellison reminds us of the uproar in 2007 around his choosing to take his ceremonial Oath of Office with his hand on a Qur’an. Debbie Almontaser revisits the episode in 2008 that deprived her of her job as principal and New York City of its first Arabic language charter school. Omid Safi provides a careful study of the propaganda film, Obsession, and explores how in 2008 this diatribe against Muslims and Islam, disguised as a documentary, was distributed to 28 million people. And Aaron Hahn Tapper tells of the 2010 disruption of a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren by members of the Muslim Student Union, an event that was followed by pressure from Jewish organizations such as Hillel and ZOA to ensure the students were punished.

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Yona Shem-Tov: A Young Leader to Watch

Yona Shem-TovYona Shem-Tov, the newly appointed executive director of Encounter Programs brings to this position a remarkable set of experiences as a multifaith educator and activist. Last night I learned more about Yona while attending a Gala to honor the outgoing director of Encounter, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.

Yona was educated in Toronto in a Jewish day school, so she comes to this work with a strong grounding in her own identity and tradition. At the same time, Yona has always appreciated national and cultural diversity. Her mother survived the Holocaust as a child in Europe; her father was born in Iraq and was part of the first airlift of Jews from that country to Israel in 1951.

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Valarie Kaur: A Young Leader to Watch

Valarie KaurValarie Kaur, a 2011 graduate of Yale Law School, is also an award winning documentary film maker. As the newly appointed Executive Director of a new multifaith initiative called Groundswell at Auburn, she exemplifies the young leadership that is making multifaith work so exciting today. Valarie is part of the most religiously diverse generation in American history. Coming into adulthood in "the ashes of September 11th," Valarie, like many other emerging leaders, is embracing the challenges of pluralism in remarkable new ways.

When I entered this field in the 1970's, a typical "interfaith" event included Protestants, Catholics and Jews. I remember a Jewish mentor telling me that talking to Christians was a good idea. "Tell them not to teach hateful things about Judaism and not to convert our children." Of course, there were those whose vision was greater than that, and in a future post I hope to write about the pioneers of interfaith work in America whose efforts should be honored.

But today, I want to call attention to Valarie and her generation whose spiritual drive, inclusiveness and passion for justice should hearten the most cynical soul.

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Multifaith Seder: Food, Immigrant Experience and Justice

Michael Ramberg (RRC, 2012) who is serving this year as a Multifatih Intern with the New Sanctuary Movement and Congregation Mishkan Shalom helped plan this event.

Multifaith SederLast Friday night around 130 Jews, Christians, and friends gathered at Mishkan Shalom synagogue for a pre-Pesah (Passover) multifaith seder which I helped to organize as part of my internship with Mishkan Shalom and the New Sanctuary Movement. In many ways the event resembled a traditional seder. We ate seder foods--matzah, maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish), haroset (a sweet, chunky paste, often made from apples and nuts), hardboiled eggs and parsley dipped in salt water. We asked four questions and drank four cups of wine. We sang Dayenu, and it all took a very long time--par for the course for a traditional seder.

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Bringing Jews to Church

Gateway to Religious Communities




Leslie Hilgeman (RRC, 2013) is spending her one year Multifaith Internship at the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.

Here are some of her reflections:

Here’s a moment I never expected to encounter when I entered rabbinical school – inviting Jews to come to church!

This year as a rabbinic intern at the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, I am coordinating a program called Gateway to Religious Communities.

Bryn Mawr Presbyterian ChurchEach Fall and Spring members of the public sign up to visit a series of congregations over a few months’ time. Most recently we visited the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, in Bryn Mawr.

At each congregation we visit, we attend a worship service. We meet with a leader before hand who explains the service, and then afterwards there’s a Q & A where we talk about what we saw and experienced. And we talk about faith.

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