Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, November 12, 2021

A Light Unto...

On Saturday morning, I sat down to breakfast and opened the New York Times Magazine. I had only a few minutes to thumb past the usual columns and get a sense for what articles might await me later in the day. A couple of sections in, I flipped open a two page spread that contained a large photo of a familiar place with familiar faces. It was two Hebrew Union College students. They were standing with Mishkan T’filah prayer books in hand in the Hebrew Union College New York campus sanctuary. My wide eyes rested upon the headline: Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism.

Not a great headline from the point of view of a Zionist like myself.

The second line was a little tamer: How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel.

The main gist of the article: In the second week of May, students from various US seminaries wrote an open letter condemning the violence in Israel that was happening at that time. What was new, though, was an adamant desire for American Jews to reckon with the unequal power dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians. The letter was a departure in that “it contained several provocations. It compared the Palestinians’ plight to that of Black Americans — a group whose struggles for civil rights have long been embraced by the same establishment the letter was calling out. “American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community,” they said. “And yet,” they added, “so many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine.” It described in Israel “two separate legal systems for the same region,” and later called this system “apartheid.” It arrived amid war, violating the imperative many Jews felt to stand with Israel as the rockets fly. And it did not contain alongside its indictment of Israel’s actions a straightforward condemnation of Hamas’s aiming weapons at civilians.”

While we have become accustomed to seeing such accusations in progressive spaces, they have only secretly come to roost in liberal Jewish spaces. This letter outed the not-so-secret secret that the liberal relationship to Israel is changing - and fast. But what was most notable about this letter is that the 93 signatories represented the future leaders of the progressive Jewish movements.

You can go read the article, if you’d like. I don’t want to talk about the issue itself tonight, as much as I want to talk about another struggle it brought up inside of me. I’ve known that these sentiments about Israel have existed in liberal Jewish circles. I’ve struggled with this very topic with my friends and colleagues and even here on this bimah. But these are decidedly Jewish spaces, behind our “synagogue doors,” so to speak. Publicly, I feel it is my responsibility to maintain Israel’s good name among the nations. If we Jews don’t, then who will?

The NYTimes piece felt like a burning light of inquisition shining upon my community - like an interrogation in a detective film - splashed out for the whole nation to see and judge. The HUC Sanctuary in the picture is MY sanctuary, and there it was, open for the whole world to critique.

To further compound my troubled heart, the next day the Sunday review had an opinion piece titled: “Israel is Silencing Us.”

“See?” I thought to myself. “We get enough bad press without having to create it ourselves.”

This is the sticking point for me, and this is the age-old Jewish question: how much should we reveal to the general public about the inner life and workings of the Jewish community? Is it better to keep our business to ourselves and not give them fodder to hate us more? Or do we shirk our responsibility by not seeing justice through, even on the most public stage?

On the one hand, we know that even in the absence of fodder, they’ll develop conspiracy theories about us: blood libels, money manipulation and space lasers.

But on the other hand, history has shown that sweeping things under the rug - whether it is our own Jewish community or other religious organizations, never ends well. At best, it leads to disenfranchisement and disillusionment. At the worst, it leads to trauma and abuse.

As I mulled this over - my gut reaction and then my reaction to my gut reaction - the next public reckoning for the liberal Jewish community came along. On Tuesday, the Hebrew Union College published the full findings of an independent investigation by the firm Morgan Lewis into allegations of past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment at HUC. The seminary chose to publish the whole report - without PR spin or apologetics. The full report was sent out. It goes into excruciating detail, with reports from decades ago to today. Credible and heartwrenching stories of bullying, sexual harassment, abuses of power and fear of retaliation.

I’m lucky to say that I never experienced this. But it turns out people I know and love did.

It was only a matter of time until the headlines came. The Washington Post reported: “Reform Jewish seminary report uncovers 50 years of sexual misconduct.”

But the report, and its frank, in-your-face presentation of the disgusting and heartbreaking facts helped me make sense of this “public vs private” debate I was having in my head.

Yeah, this was airing our dirty laundry alright. The report placed a bright spotlight on our community, showing we are not exempt from any of society’s deep-seeded ills: misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more.

As I list the transgressions, I realize that the Morgan Lewis Report is like the Ashamnu prayer - when we list our sins, one by one, and beat our chests as we recount each one. We recite Ashamnu out loud, for all to hear, for all to witness where we have egregiously misstepped. In owning up as perpetrator or bystander, we seek to break the callousness from our hardened hearts, and let a compassionate light shine out again.

I am proud of HUC for putting the report out there in its terrible fullness. To sweep it under the rug, or to limit its exposure, would be to remain complicit. Its very public publication is the ultimate admission of guilt and the only way to honestly move forward with integrity. It’s like saying, “here it is: the grim reality; the shadow life of our community that we will banish with the light of justice!”

This insight transformed the way I view the NYtimes magazine article and the letter that inspired it. The students who signed the letter are speaking out in the name of justice. They aim to be shining a light on a topic that the progressive Jewish community is loath to speak about. I may disagree or want to amend parts of what they said, but I understand that their public stand - both in writing the letter and being interviewed for the Times - is pushing for a serious conversation.

We Jews aspire to be “or l’goyim,” a light unto the nations. Isaiah says that God has called us into righteousness, “and unto your light,” he says, “nations shall walk, and rulers unto the brightness of your rising.”

In shining a light into the changing views on Israel by progressive leadership, and by owning up to the extent of the transgressions at HUC, we begin to have productive conversations and authentically rise to the challenge of meeting the high standards we Jews set for ourselves. We can only be a beacon of justice if we lead by example - and in this moment, that is to expose and reckon with what we have learned about ourselves in Israel and at home.

How much should we include broader society in this reckoning? It varies. But rather than waste our time saying, “don’t let the others know,” we should spend our energies banishing these injustices from our midst.

This week, we read the words of Hosea: “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God,

For you have fallen because of your sin...take [righteous] words with you and return to the Eternal...bring the offering of your lips…”

Our voices are powerful. We should not fear retribution if we speak of justice. We are a light unto the nations - proving that from vulnerability comes honesty, which helps us to lead with integrity.

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