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May 9, 2014  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

More than rightness wins the argument

By Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
By Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

It’s a favorite quote of so many rabbis: elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim — These and these are the words of the Living God.

First found in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b), it’s God’s response to a debate between two rabbis’ schools. And, rather than simply announce which rabbis’ students had the right answer, God begins by telling them that, on some level, they were both right. They were both saying something with which God agrees. Since their opinions were, at least on the surface, mutually exclusive, one of them was going to have to carry the day. But, God wasn’t going to let them know which one it was until each school understood that the other side had something valuable to say, as well.

As I said, most rabbis I know love to quote this passage. But, it seems that we may have to quote it at least a few more times.

On April 30, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to not admit J Street into their ranks. The Conference describes itself as, “the preeminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues.” It is, or it hopes to be, a place where the major players in the Jewish world can come together to talk about our most important issues. And, as you probably know, J Street is a political advocacy group, founded in 2008, which describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” And, since its founding, it has emerged as a strong, and often controversial, voice that finds its support in large part (although, certainly not exclusively) among the younger members of the Jewish community.

I believe that the Conference has made a huge mistake in not accepting J Street as a member.

Let me be clear about something — I’m not a fan or a supporter of J Street. Although I agree with most of their self descriptions that you can find, for example, on their website (there’s little there with which anyone can disagree, I’d wager), when they speak up on any particular issue, especially in opposition to AIPAC or other similar organizations, I rarely like what they say. I think that their views are often Pollyanna-ish, at best, and they’ve often shown distressingly simplistic thinking, especially when they talk in terms of cycle of violence and moral equivalencies (I’m a firm believer that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a conflict in which both sides are equally culpable). So, I do not support their inclusion because I agree with them, or because I like them. I support their inclusion because, whatever I think of them, they represent a large, often passionate, pro-Israel segment of our community. And, as such, they deserve to be heard.

Many like to deride J Street as being anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic. That’s a shameful canard. I believe that J Street has at times expressed opinions which, if followed, would do harm to Israel. I believe that J Street often finds itself aligned with the opinions of those who do hate Israel, and I sincerely wish that they would consider the implications of that fact. But, I know many people who are ardent supporters of J Street, and all of them are Zionists through and through. They love Israel, and they only want what is best for our homeland. We obviously differ on what, exactly, that is. We differ quite passionately, in fact. But I will not let my disagreement with them become permission for me to slander them as haters of Israel.

It’s also worth recognizing that marginalizing or dismissing J Street is a very bad strategic decision, as well. As I said, J Street finds a great deal of its support among the youngest members of our community, and these are exactly the Jews that we should be working hard to keep engaged, rather than ostracizing them from the larger community. If we tell them to go away, we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what they do.

The rabbis of old asked why, in that ancient debate, the school of Hillel won out over the school Shammai. It’s because, our sages teach, the students of Hillel were kindly and modest. And, they took their opponents views seriously and respectfully. That, more than the rightness of their arguments, won the day.

Elu v’Elu—there are many words of the living God. I pray that we can learn to hear them all.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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