Rabbinical Reticence

10.11.13

What Do Jews Lose When Rabbis Feel Compelled to Dissemble on Israel?

Earlier this week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) issued the findings of a study it conducted among 552 American rabbis; in its report, JCPA found that “nearly half of the rabbis in this survey hold views on Israel that they won’t share publically, many for fear of endangering their reputation and their careers.” The report goes on:

The challenge is not only to sort out their own positions on complex Israel-related issues, but also to discern how to express views that may challenge, annoy, or even distress friends and people who hold influence over their careers and livelihood. They frequently find themselves fearful of or caught in the maelstrom of tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it.

About 12 percent of the rabbis defined themselves as “closet hawks,” while some 18 percent could be called closet doves; less than a quarter of the hawks were found to be “very fearful” of expressing their opinions on Israel and the conflict, while 43 percent of the doves were “very fearful.” All told, in the last three years, nearly half of those surveyed reported having refrained from expressing themselves on the topic “for fear of offending” people with whom they were engaged in conversation, or anyone who might be listening.

Yet more interesting numbers emerge from more focused questions: When asked if Israel should freeze West Bank settlement expansion, a whopping 62 percent agreed “to a great extent,” while only 10 percent said “not at all.” The reports finds “some considerable doubts” among American rabbis over the idea that Israel is more invested in the peace process than its negotiating partners, “with even a majority of rabbis from the largest denomination demurring from the idea that Israel truly wants peace more than the Palestinians.” Fully 93 percent of those surveyed said they are “very attached” to Israel, “a figure about double that found in many studies of rank-and-file American Jews.”

Speaking with Dina Kraft at Haaretz, report co-author and newly-ordained rabbi Jason Gitlin said:

I saw many of my classmates and younger colleagues come under attack or question by the broader Jewish community about how important Israel was to them and where they stood. They are among the most informed and knowledgeable people, and to not have them serve in the most honest and engaging way is a loss to the community.

It’s important to note (as the JCPA report does) that the group surveyed doesn’t constitute a fully representative sample of American rabbis, if for no other reason than that Orthodox clergy are underrepresented.  As such, the authors warn that “the nature of the sample obviates strictly generalizing to the universe of American rabbis”—and yet, anyone who’s been involved with two-state advocacy over the past twenty years will not be at all surprised by the figures, which if not strictly representative, are broadly characteristic of anecdotal evidence that’s been building for years.

Moreover, the findings are entirely resonant with the experiences of rank-and-file Jews as well, and I would argue are a major reason why so many of the rank-and-file have chosen to remove themselves from communal life, or give up on caring about Israel at all.

I agree with the report’s authors that the fact that so many rabbis feel they can’t be honest with their parishioners is “a cause of concern for a community that champions open and free discourse on key issues affecting it”—but I also worry about another facet to all of this.

I don’t know a single Jew for whom questioning the conventional wisdom on Israel is easy. The path from consensus to questions is generally fraught, and often both emotionally and spiritually challenging.

I worry that a sizeable minority of our spiritual leaders are “very fearful” of telling their own truth about the Jewish people’s national and spiritual homeland (a homeland to which 93 percent of them are very attached) not just for the sake of the rabbis themselves, but also for our own sake, as a people.

What do we lose when our clergy feels they cannot be honest with us? What do we lose when political argument pushes out spiritual practice? And who have we lost along the way—which intellectual giants, which tziddikim, how many Arnold Jacob Wolfs and Abraham Joshua Heschels—have broken down and walked away because we wouldn’t let them engage honestly with the challenges presented by seemingly endless conflict and occupation?

In short: When we force our rabbis to lie to us—what are we doing to ourselves?