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Dissent shouldn’t mean incivility

Jerry Silverman

The language is painful to hear, particularly coming from fellow Jews.

Knesset Member Moshe Gafni called Reform Jews “a bunch of clowns who stick a knife in the holy Torah.”

MK Yisrael Eichler criticized an Israeli Supreme Court decision allowing non-Orthodox Jews to use public mikvaot, likening it to permitting a “mentally ill person” to “come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works.”

Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called Reform Jews “a dying world” that would assimilate and disappear in another two or three generations.

We’ve seen women who were holding liberal prayer services at the Kotel pelted with rocks and debris, and the police who tried to protect them called “Nazis.”

The scars of such invective are often longer-lasting than physical wounds, searing into our consciousness.

The language also betrays something about the speakers and provocateurs, that they seem to have forgotten Jewish teachings about courtesy and civility, beginning with the Torah commandments to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and “You shall not hate your sibling in your heart” (Lev. 19:17), and including the Pirkei Avot guidance to “judge every person favorably” (1:6).

Rather than judging favorably, these critics of liberal Judaism and its adherents are speaking harshly of others without any true understanding themselves of non-Orthodox Judaism; they ignore that even Jewish practice as they know it has evolved throughout the centuries. As just one example, look at photos of the Kotel in the 1800s and early 1900s — you’ll see no mechitza to separate men from women. That was a later addition.

Because of compromises that the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were willing to make, that mechitza will remain, and women’s and mixed prayer groups will have a separate prayer space on the southern end of the Western Wall, ensuring that the Kotel remains a symbol of Jewish peoplehood, however individuals define that peoplehood.

But will we also be able to separate hate speech from political speech?

Sadly, we saw similar, sometimes even harsher, vitriol during the debate over the Iranian nuclear agreement, with some Jews not even wanting to go to their local Shabbat services lest they get into an uncomfortable debate on the accord.

Rabbis have shared that speaking about Israel from the pulpit has become difficult due to the polarization of congregants. In fact, a Jewish Council for Public Affairs report found that nearly half of the 500 mostly Conservative and Reform rabbis surveyed “hold views on Israel that they won’t share publicly, many for fear of endangering their reputation or their careers.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, suggests in a recent blog that, rather than being fearful of taking a stand on an important political situation, Jewish leaders and organizations should instead take a position and — just as in the Mishnah — also present an opposing view. “Very simply,” Kurtzer writes, “Publish the dissent. Make the decision, make the case for it, and then publish the dissenting viewpoint or viewpoints.”

Publishing the dissent, he explains, “gives voice to the losing arguments and to those articulating them, and signals confidence, humility, and a wholesale embrace of the dissenters, even in light of the failure of their dissent to become policy.”

We need to be open to listening to one another no matter what background or opinions one has. I worry most that we have lost the concept of “love they neighbor as thyself” — that is unless you practice or you share similar standings on issues.

A record 18,000 attended AIPAC’s recent policy conference, more than half of them non-Orthodox. Would the political parties and those speaking out against the non-Orthodox movement rather those thousands instead had stayed home?

I doubt it. Israel is a promise to all Jews, a gift for all Jews everywhere, not based on where you reside or what you think.

Many Orthodox movements understand this, and have found great success in reaching out to non-Orthodox Jews — discussing, sharing, debating and educating on the big and small issues of the day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid and too few Orthodox leaders have condemned some of these remarks, but more needs to be done.

We are too small a people for those unwilling to recognize liberal Jews as part of the Jewish people to close the shtetl gates to our love of Israel. We will come to Israel, and we will continue to push to celebrate the good and to be there in crisis. 

To those who don’t want to listen and sling arrows, we say: Put down your arrows, come to the Shabbat table and have a dialogue. Let’s debate and argue, but let’s stop with the awful tone.

 Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.