Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

The Palestinian Gandhi?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post Magazine, February 11, 2011, p. 41

While reading this book I showed the table of contents to two colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel project, a “Jewish Values Project” reconceptualizing modern Zionism.  Chapters asking “What are States For?” “Can Values Bring Us Together?” and “How Can We Move the World?” startled them.  “Who wrote this?” they asked, worried that someone had “our” take. When I showed them the title page, they broke into broad, relieved, smiles.

Sari Nusseibeh’s book What is a Palestinian State Worth? should be received with great joy – and relief. People seeking Middle East peace have long asked “where is the Palestinian Gandhi,” straining to hear a voice calling for civil disobedience, then peaceful reconciliation, amid the thuggish chorus championing violence and Israel’s destruction.

The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi permeates this book.

Invoking India’s prophet of peace, Nusseibeh teaches that “acts of goodwill infinitely outnumber those dictated by selfish greed and hate, which pit individuals and nations against one another.” He compares the parallel partition attempts as Britain’s Empire crumbled after World War II in the Indian subcontinent and Palestine.  Most important, Nusseibeh tries applying the “Gandhian imagination” to today’s Middle East, urging combatants to affirm their common humanity, choosing, as he puts it, life over rocks.

This thoughtful philosopher, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, seeks “a moral order based on human values” appreciating that “peace matter[s] more.”  Without finger-pointing, he challenges Palestinians and Israelis to envision a peaceful future freed from their parallel prisons of anger, fear, and mistrust.  He asks: “How much killing can a group suffer or commit before the suffering and the loss of life begin to outweigh the values on whose behalf the killing is being committed? “

Nusseibeh counters the cycle of violence with “the human imperative,” insisting that “respect for and preservation of human life, rather than violation of life in the name of any cause, should be what guides both Israelis and Palestinians in their pursuit of a just peace.” By emphasizing “core human values,” Nusseibeh sees just how confusing both Israeli and Palestinian identities are.

In one of many bold deviations from standard, simplistic Palestinian propaganda, Nusseibeh dissects Ahmad Tibi’s dueling identities.   A harsh critic of Israeli rule over Palestinian Israelis, Tibi nevertheless serves in Israel’s Knesset and bristled when an al-Jazeera reporter asked him if his village Taybeh should join the new Palestinian state he so ardently champions. “As a Palestinian, Tibi argued in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state,” Nusseibeh explains. “But as a Palestinian Israeli” he resents any attempts to sever his political connection to Israel.

In highlighting the Palestinian’s “jigsaw identity,” Tibi’s “Byzantine polemic” raises the book’s central question of what is a Palestinian state” for?  Taking a “utilitarian” view of states, transcending the nation-state’s conventional contours, Nusseibeh questions whether Palestinians need an army, clear boundaries, even their own currency. Nusseibeh would accept a demilitarized Palestinian entity with islands of control creating an “archipelago” intertwined with a more conventional Israeli state.  This arrangement would address the Palestinians’ need for basic civil rights guaranteeing “peace and stability without oppression.”

“Ours is primarily a down-to-earth affair of longing to live normal lives in our homeland,” he writes, explaining that the suicide bombings of the early 2000s, made him wonder “what the state we were fighting for is worth.”   Valuing quality of life above all, Nusseibeh invites Palestinians – and implicitly Israelis too — to stop “looking upon their own patriotism as a religious or national cul-de-sac, and begin viewing it instead as an overarching affinity with the land and its multifaceted racial as well as religious history.”

These out-of-the-box arrangements require creativity, flexibility, and trust.

In that spirit, although I disagree with some of his interpretations, Nusseibeh’s brief history of the conflict is far more balanced than the accounts most undergraduates get today in Western universities.  Without citing them, he acknowledges points made by experts Palestinian propagandists target – or ignore.

Acknowledging the fluidity of the “nomad[ic]” Palestinian population and Arab identity before 1948 confirms the work of Joan Peters. Palestinian apologists have blasted her 1984 book From Time Immemorial for debunking the myth that every Palestinian in 1948 lived in the same village for centuries. And in blaming “the Nakba” on Palestinian “leaders’ mismanagement and bad planning,” Nusseibeh echoes Efraim Karsch’s important but overlooked book from 2010, Palestine Betrayed, showing how violent demagogues like Haj Amin El Husseini undermined their own people’s dreams.

One great book does not a Gandhi make. When leaks about any Palestinian concessions trigger indignation, when popular uprisings against Arab dictators risk breeding Islamic radicalism not democratic reason, when Nusseibeh is marginalized politically, his vision seems far-fetched. He is realistic enough to ask, in one chapter, “Who Runs the World, ‘Us,’ or Thugs?” Nevertheless, he updates Theodor Herzl’s Zionist cry “if you will it is no dream,” by channeling a Gandhian teaching, emphasizing “faith in human being as makers of their own destinies.” These days, simply dreaming, taking these first steps toward rethinking, is revolutionary, inspiring, and brave.

Clearly, Nusseibeh has the words and concepts – in English for Harvard University Press. Can they be translated into Arabic and sold to the Palestinian street, then translated successfully into Hebrew?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

The struggle to save Soviet Jews – Book Review

quixotic protests for freedom eventually triumphed

By GIL TROY, Montreal Gazette, 10-23-10

Jewish  schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of  Soviet Jewry  outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Jewish schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of Soviet Jewry outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Photograph by: PETER BROSSEAU, GAZETTE FILE, Freelance

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

By Gal Beckerman

Houghton Mifflin, 608 pages, $33.95

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When the Soviet secret police detained the dissident Anatoly Scharansky, one of his KGB interrogators mocked the movement to free Soviet Jewry as limited to students and housewives. Scharansky -today Natan Sharansky -a chess master constantly outwitting his tormentors, feigned surprise. The KGB provided photos of rallies. Scharansky demanded more evidence, thereby getting the KGB to update him about the grassroots protests that saved his life.

Soviet dissidents like Scharansky, along with the students and housewives the KGB disdained, star in Gal Beckerman’s compelling new book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Beckerman, a young journalist, shows how scattered American and Soviet-Jewish protests in the 1950s and 1960s gradually gained momentum, until Soviet Jews’ fate became a central U.S. political issue, a diplomatic Cold War hot potato, and the symbol of “all that was repressive and evil about Soviet society.”

The movement achieved popular-culture immortality when Gilda Ratner, caricaturing a senile granny, asked on Saturday Night Live why everyone was fussing about “Soviet jewellery.” The movement achieved political immortality when the Soviet Union collapsed. “If the first half of the twentieth century gave us the ultimate example of Jews as victims of history,” Beckerman writes, “then the second half gave us -in addition to the establishment of Israel -this triumphant story, one in which Jews grabbed history and changed its course.”

To help modern readers appreciate this achievement, Beckerman illustrates how marginal the calls to grant 3 million Soviet Jews the right to emigrate first were -and how oppressive life in Communist Russia could be.

Two decades after Communism collapsed, many forget the Soviet dictatorship’s evils. Even at the time, many Western elites minimized them. In tracing the rise of the “refuseniks” -the Jews the Soviets blocked from emigrating -Beckerman catalogues the Soviets’ sins against their own citizens. Jews suffered doubly, prevented from embracing their distinct identity while nevertheless frequently targeted as different.

Anyone who deviated from the Soviet line risked harassment, imprisonment, exile, even death. Beckerman marvels: “Living in a totalitarian state, these were people who decided, almost out of nowhere, to assert an ancient identity, turn themselves into pariahs, risk everything, and become living proof of man’s capacity for bravery -all so they could be Jews.”

Many also forget how quixotic the movement abroad first was. Most Jewish leaders preferred private pleading to public protesting. Many leading Americans were too enamoured of Communism’s egalitarian aspirations or too fearful of nuclear destruction to embrace the cause. When the movement grew in the 1970s, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his powerful Secretary of State Henry Kissinger bristled as Senator Henry Jackson, backed by a growing chorus of Americans, demanded that Soviet citizens enjoy basic human rights before relations between the two nuclear superpowers improved.

Yet powerful forces galvanized the movement. American Jews were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and sobered by their community’s failure to save European Jews during the Holocaust. When a young Holocaust survivor named Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence in 1966, he solidified the link, prodding America’s once-silent Jews to defend Russia’s now-silenced Jews. While wary of enraging the Soviet superpower, Israel saw 3 million Soviet Jews as a source for Zionist renewal and population growth. And within the Soviet Union, the trauma of the Holocaust, the thrill of Israel’s Six Day War victory, the lure of Jewish tradition and some human beings’ indomitable resistance to having their state crush their souls, helped propel ordinary people from conventional if constricted lives to these dissidents’ historic achievements.

Alternating his focus between the Soviet and U.S. sides of the equation, Beckerman effectively captures the movements’ parallel successes at the grassroots and the highest levels of government. But Beckerman ignores the movement’s global reach. The crusading housewives and students, lawyers and politicians, in Canada, Britain, France, Australia, and elsewhere in the West were essential. They added resources to the fight. They increased the pressure on the Soviets. And they made it harder for the Soviets to dismiss the pleas as simply another U.S. Cold War tactic.

In April 1987, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, hosted a Passover seder for leading refuseniks at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. With a skullcap perched on his head, Shultz said: “You are in our minds; you are in our heads. … But never give up, never give up.” They didn’t -and good people throughout the world didn’t, either. Beckerman reminds us how lucky we all are that the refuseniks’ democratic and spiritual aspirations triumphed over the Soviets’ police powers.

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