Liberal Judaism is (Mostly) Making the World a Better Place

There has been a fair amount of heat surrounding a recent cover article of the Jewish Journal, “Why Tikkun Olam Can’t Fix American Judaism,” and with good reason. Its author Gil Troy attacks liberal Judaism in which community is often based around tikkun olam action rather than around (as he describes them) “red lines.” He says, referring to the acceptance of intermarriage (which the editors chose to print in a bold, hot color), “How can a community survive with no red lines: not regarding belief, not regarding belonging, not regarding intermarriage, not regarding Israel?” Of course Troy is missing the fact that in the progressive movements, Rabbis are not supposed to create red lines or be judges of halacha. The whole point is to create a more universal and individual practice.
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Mr. Troy’s article continues by insulting (as he calls them) “tikkun olam-ers,” and he supports his argument by citing a recent book entitled To Heal the World? by Jonathan Neumann. Troy states, “The tikkun olam overstretch, Newmann shows, reduces modern Judaism to an ‘E-Z listening’ format, covering American liberalism — but hostile to Jewish continuity…”
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It’s enough to make any modern Jew cringe as we are attacked for what we thought was perfecting the world, not destroying it. Many Jewish leaders have come out against this article, including Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR who said on Twitter, “It is an ill-informed, unnecessarily antagonistic jab at an imaginary enemy: the pernicious, dimwitted liberal rabbi who cares so little for Judaism s/he’ll use it only to prop up the Dem Party platform.” And the irony is not lost on me that in this same copy of the Jewish Journal, there is an article about Rabbi Brous’s own son, who makes handmade dolls to raise money for the legal defense for children separated from their families at the border. The Journal enables the bashing of liberal activism and then supports its praise, 30 pages later.
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In my mind, making such an article the cover story of the Jewish Journal alienates the progressive Jews among its readership,… a mistake they should not make. For how many of us who consider ourselves liberal activist Jews still pick up a copy of the JJ on our ways out of the deli with the goal of connecting to and feeling accepted by the greater Jewish community? How many of us will think twice before picking it up next time?
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And yet, as much as as I disagree with Troy, and as queasy as I got reading his article, I am going to go out of my expected liberal commentary here and say there is one element of this article with which I do agree. It is true that some Jewish communities have become finger-wagging entities in which one who does not align with the liberal social/political agenda of the congregation does not and cannot feel comfortable (ironically, those are exactly the “red lines” Troy asks for, just [for him] drawn on the wrong sides of the issues). Now, I’m not saying that those causes they champion aren’t worthwhile. What I’m questioning is the purpose of synagogue and whether or not being lit by the same fire has to be a requirement for being part of a community.
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At my own congregation, Cool Shul, I don’t think anyone wonders about my political leanings (especially if they peek at my personal Facebook feed). If they know me, they know how I tilt. But they also know they will still be embraced by me even if we disagree. We have created and nurtured an environment that is non-judgmental, and I don’t believe it is my role as their spiritual leader (not political leader or activism leader) to tell them what to think. I offer them traditions, possible interpretations, a few innovations, historical truths and facts, and then I ask them to make up their own minds about their activism. Yes, I’m sure that my curriculum is colored by my beliefs, but I never give conclusions. I don’t tell my young students or adult congregants what to do or what causes to get behind. I give options. I invite them to express their Jewish identity and spirituality through their choices, but it is up to them to figure out who they are, what they want to support, and at what level they will use their money, their bodies and their minds to do so. Yes, I invite them to join me in supporting the causes that mean something to me, but there is no shame when they choose not to.
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To me, as a spiritual leader, I believe my job is to help my community find peace, stillness, and completeness (in other words, shalom), not force a fire of my choosing to burn within them. If marching in the streets is how they find their peace, how they can look at themselves in the mirror and believe they spent their freedom as they should, then they should go for it! However, if sitting in meditation and studying mindfulness is how they find peace, and what they need to do to be whole, then that’s how their time should be spent. If raising money, or teaching, or weaving, or painting, or registering voters, or anything else helps them in this crazy world to have the strength to carry on, that is what I wish for them. And for those who can do little more than care for their families and tend to the careers that allow for a roof over the childrens’ heads, no guilt. Their lives are full enough. The mistake some of us make is judging those who don’t choose to spend their time as we believe they should, and forgetting that inner-peace can emanate quietly but still do a world of good.
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So, yes, we need to heal the world. Some of us do that on a grand level to affect large changes. Some of us do it on a more local level by delivering meals, donating blood, or volunteering at a hospital. And some of us feel so out of control already, all we can do is find a little quiet to center us before we snap. Action before peace can be effective, but I believe it will be more effective if a little stillness comes first.
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There is a story about a Rebbe who was deeply studying Torah while his baby cried nearby in the cradle. He was so lost in his texts, he didn’t notice the wails and did nothing to soothe the child. However, the Rebbe’s father (another Rebbe) heard the cries, soothed the child, and later admonished his son saying, “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”
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This story is a double edged sword.
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For Troy and Neumann, the lesson is: there is no point in studying Torah if we aren’t aware of the cries for help around us. If we don’t soothe those cries, we have missed the point of studying in the first place.
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For those infuriated by those who won’t express their outrage at a desired level, in the same fashion, or on an agreed topic, there is a different lesson: we must listen to the cries of our children, loved ones and inner-selves as well as those outside of our immediate circles. If our minds or bodies are telling us we need a break and some self-care, we cannot continue on and ignore those calls for help unless the “doing” heals those injuries. And if our children (as has happened in my home) are showing signs of distress because our involvement in the “world out there” is causing our home lives to be strained, then we must hear those wails for attention and need as well.
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The key is not to judge. Mr. Troy should not be judging the many ways in which American Jews discover and express their Jewish identities, including an identity based more on action than traditional religion. However, we also need to remember that people need to be allowed to believe what they believe, and that some peoples’ “activism” is quiet and subtle. We need to consider the possibility that an inner-knowing, peace, and strength will eventually help us do more, not less, for others.
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At Cool Shul, my mission is to help our congregants find all of this, and then it’s up to them to decide where their feet will walk, where their signatures will fall, and for whom they will vote.
Peace photo

 

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