I have celebrated Shabbat several times at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, affectionately known as BJ. Its prayer service conveys a powerful ruah and kavana — spirit and personal dedication — which invariably draws me closer to the Source of my being. Along with thousands of New York-area Jews, I have long admired the rabbis and leaders of that synagogue for their courageous stances and their progressive values.
No wonder that The New York Times earlier this month reserved front page space two days in a row to report on a controversial e-mail that BJ’s rabbis sent to their membership. The statement applauded the decision of the United Nations General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinian Authority to that of nonmember observer state. I said to myself, “Good for them for standing up for what they believe,” and I also said, “I wish they had done it differently.”
Here’s what I liked. Too many rabbis today fail to speak out on issues of conscience. Too many of my colleagues have lost their prophetic voice. Too many rabbinic leaders avoid the subject of Israel altogether because it has become so polarized that they fear repercussion. I admire the BJ statement because it affirms the responsibility of the rabbis of America to weigh in on the central issues facing the people of Israel. Indeed, a significant number of Israelis, who are on the front lines, have urged the Jews of America and their leaders to become more vocal on these matters.
I also admire what was implicit in the statement (but unfortunately not expressed), that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing fast, that continued settlement initiatives are counter-productive, and that the PA, being the only potential partner for those negotiations, needs the support of all of us who seek a just and secure peace. These are positions embraced by recent U.S. administrations both Republican and Democratic.
What do I wish the rabbis had done differently? First, I wish they had been more careful about how they developed their communication. In a follow-up e-mail, they apologized for including, without approval, the names of BJ’s cantor, president, executive director, and director of Israel engagement. They also acknowledged that the e-mail was an incomplete version that failed to recognize the diversity of their synagogue membership on this issue and failed to emphasize that they were speaking only for themselves. These errors undermined the message, conveying the impression that it was synagogue policy. My advice: Next time, take 12 more hours and get it right.
And if they feel so strongly about this matter, and I am pleased they do, they should have offered their membership a pathway to learning and to action. One example: There are responsible, effective organizations that focus every day on Arab-Jewish relations, restarting the peace process, and a two-state solution. Groups such as the New Israel Fund and J Street, among others, are committed to continuing dialogue among American Jews and to taking steps “the day after the resolution” to advance the peace effort.
And let’s not forget, the resolution that the PA brought to the UN is not all benign. We know, for example, that it opens the door for the PA to bring a complaint against individual Israeli leaders to the International Criminal Court, the consequences of which can be profoundly threatening to those individuals and to the Jewish state. No small matter!
Their e-mail also lacked balance. It noted that the resolution addresses a “needed sense of dignity and purpose” for the Palestinian people. This is a necessary prerequisite for the peace process to move forward. But humane leaders ought not speak about such matters without calling on the Palestinian people to reject terrorism and anti-Israel attacks in any corner of their society.
My rabbinic colleagues across our nation share diverse positions on the Arab-Israeli struggle. I respect this diversity because we are nearly all unified by our profound devotion to the Jewish state, the Israel Defense Forces, and all of its citizens. I would need to search far and wide to find colleagues more devoted to Israel — in word and deed — than the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun. I pray that the discussion which their e-mail provoked will lead to honest, effective conversation about how we can all become more engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution built on justice and peace.