Telling You What to Do

     “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
― Aristotle, Metaphysics

      A colleague of mine posted on the internet the moving clip of Jonathan Pollard arriving in Israel this week, kissing the ground and being greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. For his efforts, the rabbi was “unfriended” (or whatever the term is) by a number of people who, presumably, do not like Pollard, his arrival in Israel, the clip or the prime minister.

      Personally, I believe Pollard is a hero of Israel, placed in an impossible circumstance in which he chose the self-sacrificial route of risking his freedom in order to save Jewish lives. And I understand (without embracing) the counterargument that he endangered Jewish liberties in America. Many Jews feared that his espionage raised the specter of the “dual loyalty” charge against all American Jews, which, ultimately, is a comment on the level of insecurity of Jews in America. This is a recurrent pattern in Jewish history. Many Jews opposed Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the State of Israel because of the fear of the “dual loyalty” indictment.

Captured spies in the recent past who were Chinese-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Christian-Americans and the like did not seem to evoke the same universal fears among their compatriots. A major objective of spy craft is to turn citizens against their own country, and it is certainly despicable when the spying country is an enemy of the host country (unlike the Pollard case, in which he was charged with spying for an ally). There have been Russian Jews in Israel who spied for Russia, as there have been American-Israelis who spied for America. I don’t doubt that Israel has recruited numerous Iranians to spy against that evil regime on Israel’s behalf.

      Of course it was a crime (do not do it yourselves) but when lives are in danger, it takes a special person to risk everything to save those lives. Not everyone could or should do it, but Pollard’s valor always impressed me more than most of his critics’ poltroonery. If we ask in our daily prayers that God should not test us, this would be one test worth avoiding.

     Nevertheless, the point here is my inability to understand why the rabbi’s post should lead a tiny but intolerant band to cancel him, as if a mere post renders his Torah unworthy of study and disqualifies him as a human being. Why couldn’t they just “entertain [the] thought without accepting it”? Not to mention rejoice in the arrival of a Jew in Israel.

     That they and so many others can’t is one of the more execrable features of modern life, and itself engendered an interesting discussion in recent months in the rabbinic world. Three sides formed during the recent presidential election. There were rabbis who averred that they openly support the Democrat or openly support the Republican, and rabbis who made a virtue out of non-partisanship and taking no public position.

      I found myself in the second group, as you might have guessed. I am still mystified by the first group but respect their opinion – at least until President* Biden demonstrates hostility to Jews and Israel, and then they will be held to account. I struggle to understand the third group – the ones who took no public position.

      In theory, their argument is plausible. In such a polarized environment, taking sides could have the potential of alienating congregants on the “other” side. Teaching Torah is more important than who wins or loses a presidential election. Rabbis should not be dictating to free citizens how they should vote. It is plausible.

      Here is why I don’t accept it. The straw man is this notion of “telling people how to vote.” I have never told anyone how to vote; I only told them for whom I’m voting when I was asked. And it would certainly be inappropriate and an abuse of the sanctity of the shul for a rabbi to endorse a candidate from the pulpit. It is not that there are legal issues (black pastors have been doing this in churches for generations); it is rather that the shul is the place of Tefila and Torah, and introducing sordid politics into the shul itself is demeaning. Had I been active in the American rabbinate, it would have been unthinkable that I would have mentioned the political wars on the High Holidays. I did preach in Israel, and there such a notion is even more preposterous.

Nevertheless, if important enough, the rabbi can make his opinions known in other forums, which is far removed from “telling people how to vote” and obviously not seeking vengeance against those who vote otherwise. I don’t know how people vote nor are they obligated to inform me or to accept my opinion on these matters. I can only share my judgment, my application of Jewish values to current events, my analysis of what is good or bad for Israel and America – and then the ballot (in many but not all states) is free, fair and secret. That is how it should be.

      On several occasions I have noted one of the paradoxes of Modern Orthodox Jewry. When I express my opinion on a certain political issue, detractors say “who is he to tell me what to do?” But when I give a psak, a definitive halachic ruling, the detractor’s response is “well, that’s his opinion.” They have it backwards!

      A psak is a psak, not an opinion, and must be heeded. Even then, I would never characterize a psak as “telling people what to do,” which sounds abrasive. (There is a subset of Modern Orthodoxy in which a psak is also just an opinion, and they reserve the right to search for a more suitable opinion that coincides with what they wanted to do all along; it’s a small subset.) An opinion is just that, an opinion, and one can agree or disagree. If I announce to the world that I am a Yankees fan or a Mets fan, I am not demanding that all Jews follow suit. Such is an opinion, or a preference. Learning the difference between a psak and an opinion is a prerequisite to understanding and learning anything from a rabbi. And if it is purely an opinion, well, educated people should be able to “entertain a thought without accepting it.” Maybe they will re-think their opinion. Maybe they will find logical flaws in the rabbi’s argument and have their own opinion confirmed. Maybe they will even begin a discussion with the rabbi, exchange ideas and learn from each other. Wouldn’t that be something? The echo chamber can become quite tedious, although these days it is never lonely. Maybe rabbis can even demonstrate to all others that it is possible to disagree without becoming disagreeable, without making personal what is essentially political.

      I have always believed that rabbis should never shy away from addressing the major, even controversial, issues of the day. To do so makes the rabbinate appear irrelevant and disengaged from what is most on people’s minds at any particular juncture. That is not to say that every sermon – or, indeed, any sermon – must simply be an account of the week’s headlines with a cute spin from the sedra. That would be very provincial and a waste of time. What it does mean is that the good rabbi knows what is on people’s minds – fears, issues, concerns, insecurities – and tackles them directly with the wisdom of Torah and Chazal.

      Decades ago, newly married and still a civilian, I remember one Shabbat in particular when, on the previous day, a horrific terrorist attack had taken place in Israel in which Jews were murdered. The rabbi chose to speak that morning on the topic of toothpaste on Shabbat, important in its own right but something that left the congregants quite deflated.

      To make a virtue out of non-partisanship is as short-sighted as to make a virtue out of the rank partisanship that now afflicts America, in which Republicans and Democrats take turns (investigations, impeachments, the propriety of confirming Supreme Court Justices in the last year of an administration, challenging the Electoral College results, etc.) crassly switching sides in each argument without even a pretense of integrity, a smidgeon of sincerity or the faint memory of their previous positions.

     What is even more troubling is how this pungent partisanship forces partisan Jews to criticize Israel in order to rationalize their support of their party favorite. For example, Jews who now coalesce around the Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, an obvious Jew-hater and Israel-basher by any reasonable definition, excuse his hostility and cover up his sins, should take a good look in the mirror. It is high time for an identity check. The same goes in spades for Jewish politicians (all Democrats) who look the other way at anti-Jewish statements made by their teammates that would feign apoplexy over if made by a Republican.

     That being said, from a rabbinical perspective much depends on personality and goals. There is a rabbinic model in which the status of toothpaste on Shabbat is an inescapable and weekly reality that is more meaningful and unchanging. It will impact people’s lives, certainly in the short term. Those rabbis eschew all news as immaterial to their primary focus, and Jews have the right to choose those rabbis to guide them. It is a legitimate approach even if it creates a leadership void, as reaction to public events is usually limited to the expression of platitudes.

     It is harder to justify that approach in the modern world, and rather than display an intense focus on Torah it can also result from an unwillingness to take sides, make anyone unhappy, or a dearth of knowledge. Then it panders to the spirit of intolerance rampant in society and is tantamount to self-censorship.

Teaching is about sharing ideas and values, and shaping minds, which is wholly different than telling people what to do. The latter is coercion, typical of tyrannies, and not teaching at all. It also convinces no one of anything.

      I would rather stand with Aristotle, and show respect to the educated mind that can endure listening to a contrary opinion, and even entertaining an idea without accepting it.

     Jews, and the world, could use a few more educated minds.

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