24 June 2011

My Response to Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan weighs in here at the Daily Dish, including a meditation the rabbinic phrase, "All of Israel are responsible for one another."
I stopped short at the dictum rendered thus by Bachman: "All of Israel (read, "the Jewish people) are responsible for one another". And not for those outside the faith, including those they may injure or oppress? Moreover, in a world of Diaspora Jews, can there really not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of all Israeli governments? Or, more precisely, can there not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of a Greater Israel government, an expansionist, occupying force, deliberately designed for the long-term annexation of neighboring territory, with all the attendant compromises of forcing an entire people into subjugation? At what point, in other words, is one expelled from the community because one's interpretation of a tradition leads one to oppose its current political manifestation?
I wrote Andrew an email (in fact, in re-reading the email, I found a couple typos and fixed them) and here it is.


Hi Andrew

I read today your own weigh-in on the Benedikt-Goldberg affair and want to add quickly that I fear you may be mis-interpreting the Talmudic phrase, "All of Israel are responsible for one another."  It doesn't mean, as you seem to suggest, that in being responsible one is "endorsing" a behavior or a policy that one finds objectionable.  Rather, it implies because of one's responsibility to one's own--a core Jewish principle developed in no small part to a history of oppression and anti-Semitism, as well as moral obligation in shared relationship to God--one is obligated to be engaged with that community and, where one finds objectionable behavior, to attempt to change that course of behavior.  The key idea of the Talmudic dictum, I believe, is obligatory engagement.

To imply, as you do, that Jews are *not* obligated to care for non-Jews because Jews are uniquely obligated to care for their own is not at all the intention of the Talmud here.  Nor would that idea comport with deeply rooted commands in the prophetic tradition, articulated most clearly by Isaiah, for example, that we are both particularly *and* universally obligated.  I care for my Jewish community in Brooklyn but for my non-Jewish neighbors as well; I care for my brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel and for Arabs, Druze, Sudanese, and Filipinos living there as well.  I also care deeply for those individuals all over the world who are aided, for example, by the incredible work of my friend Ruth Messinger and the American Jewish World Service--aiding non-Jews in lands far removed from any Jewish community.  One can be obligated to one's family and one's neighbor.  That's the idea.

Your own example about being gay and Catholic is instructive.  Are you the Wicked Son for being a gay Catholic?  Gevalt!  No!  Mixing metaphors is generally never good; in this case, it sure don't help.  As an aside, I'd imagine that if you ever came to a Seder, you'd hear words from Jews telling you to fight the Church for your rights as a gay man.  Applying the Talmudic dictum here, one might say, "All Catholics are responsible for one another," which would imply fighting within the Church for gay rights (or, by implication, women priests, marriage rights, whatever...)  Leaving the Church altogether is between you and your conscience.  If I were your priest, I'd encourage you to stay and fight for what you think is right.  The body Catholic would be the stronger for it.  That's how I feel about Jews.

As a rabbi, I find this perceived notion that one can't criticize Israel without fearing ostracization to be a bit overblown.  Jews react incredibly strongly and the way we argue can be particularly harsh at times.  But in fact we have no power to excommunicate anyone.  You know the old joke about the man discovered on a desert island--giving a tour to his rescuers and shows them two synagogues:  "Here's the one I won't set foot in."  We value diversity of opinion.  Those who try to shut it down altogether are often in the historical minority.  In fact, the Talmud famously preserves minority opinion precisely because they may one day be revealed to be God's will.

I preach and teach and am active for a two-state solution; I worry about the ongoing occupation of lands won in the 1967 war.  I also see with clear eyes the violent actions and dangerous policies of Palestinians to deny Jews the historic right to the Land of Israel.  But as despairing as I may ever be about a possible solution, I never stop engaging my fellow Jews, precisely because our moral obligations to one another demand it--even if they'd deny me those same rights (as some current, right-leaning members of the Israeli government would.)  Why?  Quoting Leviticus, Rabbi Akiva famously said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" -- this is the greatest of all Torah laws.

Anyway, thanks for listening.

Take care,



Adam Holland said...

By Sullivan's line of reasoning, a commandment to love one's family would be equivalent to a commandment not to love other's families. (!)

Jon said...

I don't want to nit-pick here, but "kol Yisrael arevim zeh la'zeh" means "All Israel are guarantors for one another." See BT Shevuot 40a for a pretty thorough exposition of how the difference between the way it's frequently translated, and the precise version, plays out.

Anonymous said...

I think that joke suggests the opposite point ... he won't even set foot in the other shul!

Dan O said...

Isn't it possible that the confusion over what, "All of Israel are responsible for one another.," means is understandable by means of a misunderstanding of "walking away"?

1. Benedikt "walks away" from Israel insofar as she refuses to endorse (indeed she is enraged by) Israel's trajectory towards ethnic nationalism.

2. Benedikt "walks away" from Israel insofar as she refuses to engage with Israel and the views of Jews on Israel.

It seems to me that (1) is true, and (2) is false. It also seems to me that Sullivan thinks this. And this is consistent wit your understanding of the dictum.

So, I'm not clear that the misunderstanding is Sullivan's.

Jeff said...

This is a great response, but I think that you are giving Andrew Sullivan too much credit for good will. No one who read your original post could have possibly thought that you were advocating callousness to non-Jews, or that the Talmudic injunction that Jews are responsible to one another in any way encourages or excuses lack of responsibility to non-Jews. Using the fact of Jewish peoplehood to insinuate that Jews care only about themselves is an old anti-Semitic canard. Sullivan's opposition to Israeli policies and actions have in recent years led him several times to make rash statements that cross the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and its supporters and anti-Semitism.

Leon Wieseltier nailed it:

Sullivan desperately wants the Jews to be good Jews, to be the best Jews they can be. He wants edifying Jews. Don’t they realize that if they fail to edify, they may lose his friendship? The fools! Jews ought to determine their beliefs and their actions apologetically, so as not to disappoint “goyim like me.” This is a common phenomenon in the experience of minorities. They may awaken to their autonomy, but they must not go too far. ... Is the Jews’ claim upon American understanding premised upon their conformity to a particular politics? Is their legitimacy conditional? Sullivan’s more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone is cheap. He can keep his sorrow and he can keep his anger.