The Case for Rabbinic Neutrality
I’ve had the good fortune of being away for the past month, having left for Peru precisely on the day the Iran Deal was concluded. That distance, both temporal and geographic, has afforded me the luxury of studying the agreement without rushing to judgment. Not that “Iran away” from the topic (sorry), because if you are a citizen of this earth and care about our future, this subject will find you wherever you go; even the highest peaks of the Andes were not distant enough to avoid it. Though, I must add, we were totally without internet in the Amazon Rainforest, and it was sublime. Four blissful days where the top story involved howler monkeys staking out new turf or an unobstructed toucan sighting.
But all good things must come to an end, and I’m back. Since people expect rabbis to chime in on these things, here goes.
I’m staying neutral.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe strongly that rabbis are obligated to raise their voices on key moral issues, especially with regard to Israel. I’ve never shied away from that. And with the High Holidays looming (who could have imagined a more perfect storm, with Congress likely to vote right smack in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), rabbis have become perhaps the most vigorously lobbied beings on earth who don’t happen to work in the US Capitol.
I returned home to an inbox filled with infomercials and requests to sign this and that petition: from AIPAC, a letter against the agreement signed by more than a couple of dozen Connecticut rabbis and plans for a massive lobbying airlift to Washington in early September. From J-Street, a national petition in favor of the agreement thus far signed by over 300 rabbis. Rabbis are affixing their John Hancocks to lots of letters these days, rabbis whom I respect and admire – on both sides. There is real pressure to sign on, to take a stand on this “existential issue.”
(Jean-Paul Sartre just texted me from heaven, saying 1) Let’s stop overusing the “e” word before it becomes a cliché, and 2) Sacre bleu! There’s an afterlife!)
I’ve always claimed that a nuclear Iran would be an exi… untenable threat to Israel and the world. I recognize the urgency of the moment.
That’s why I’ve decided – for the moment – not to sign anything.
I do have my views on the agreement, and they are evolving daily. Not laying them out in detail now gives me the luxury of refining my perspective as more facts emerge. But I feel, regardless of my opinion, that in the current climate, my role is best served in not being partisan, for three main reasons:
1) Someone needs to lower the temperature.
No one should feel good about the tone of the current debate. The stakes could not be higher, for Israel, for American foreign policy, for the world. For most American Jews, the current debate is both extremely emotional and equally complex. There are sound arguments on all sides. But as the tone of the conversation has become increasingly strident, accusations of anti-Semitism and dual loyalty have poisoned the atmosphere.
Iran might be many months or years away from a nuke, but within the American Jewish community, damaging meltdowns are occurring with alarming regularity. And right now, that concern must be weighed into this entire picture. Rabbis need to be the “adult in the room,” especially when so many federations and Jewish organizations are choosing to go the partisan route.
2) We need more humility injected into the conversation.
Rob Eshman, publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, played out the various scenarios that could follow the September vote. I found his final comment most compelling:
Frankly, I don’t know what all this means for the future of American Jewry and U.S.-Israel relations, and I doubt anyone else does either.
No one can foresee what the world will look like in 2030, and we can only guess whether that world would be better off with an up or a down vote in Congress next month. In other words, we need to go into this conversation with the utmost of humility, precisely the quality that has been most lacking in public discourse thus far.
As America marched into the 20th century, an essay in The Atlantic predicted that by the year 2000 we’d have abolished war, and the poor would be living in high-rise “abodes of happiness and health.” The Ladies’ Home Journal predicted that “all mice and rats would have been eliminated, along with the letters C, X, and Q.”
Long range predictions have a way of coming up very short, which is a reminder to all of us that lots can happen in fifteen years. We also must admit that no security safeguard is infallible, including those built into this deal. Yet neither is the prospect of military action without unintended consequences. We’ve learned that the hard way. So both sides to be more humble. Rabbis are experts at being humble…I can humbly attest to that.
3) Finally, there are the upcoming High Holidays themselves.
So many American Jews, particularly young ones, have been turned off to Israel and to Judaism, and the Days if Awe are the only chance we have to welcome everyone into the room to show Judaism in its best light. If the goal of our services to create the optimal atmosphere for spiritual growth and communal harmony – and if we also hope to strengthen fraying connections with Israel – Rosh Hashanah is precisely the wrong time to be manning the barricades for an issue that is so polarizing and divisive.
So while I can pretty much guarantee that not everyone will agree with everything I say over the High Holidays – I have no doubt that I’ll touch a nerve here and there – I can promise that I will do my best to ensure, regarding the Iran Deal, that my shul’s sanctuary and lobby will be a sanctuary from lobbying. A number of Jewish leaders – and a US Senator – will likely be sitting there. They deserve a moment of unlobbied reflection too.
Which is not to say that this matter should be ignored between now and then. On the contrary, we need to conduct a respectful and humble fact-based conversation, weighing the advice of scientists and seasoned diplomats, while understanding that no one is infallible. We should, by all means, engage politically and contact our representatives, but we should avoid the temptation to let our voices become echo chambers for someone else’s talking points.
American Jews need to educate ourselves and come to our own reasoned conclusions, chewing on the highly detailed – and cautionary – Ross-Makovsky-Satloff assessment of the deal, and the more supportive letter from 29 nuclear scientists; factoring in some interesting compromise proposals out there as to how Congress might make the current deal far stronger without having to vote it down; speculating on the various end game scenarios once the vote is behind us; reading what the military and security experts are saying. These are all important factors to weigh. Most of all, we should encourage dialogue between the political parties, telling our representatives in Congress and every Jewish organization that above all, we want Israel’s security to become a non-partisan issue once again.
And tell them to ramp it down a notch.
No one is totally right or totally wrong. We should echo the humble words of the Talmud, as God adjudicates a dispute between Hillel and Shammai: “These and these are the words of the living God.” The deal is neither a disaster nor a godsend. It’s got strengths and weaknesses. I believe that neither its affirmation nor its rejection would place Israel in immediate peril and that either way, Israel and America will need to move swiftly to meeting the next challenge, which will include monitoring Iran and strengthening US and Israeli modes of deterrence in the region. Let’s keep our eyes on that prize.
So for now, my vote is for… passionate neutrality.
If rabbis can set that example, American Jewry might even come out strengthened from this ordeal.
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