By Rabbi Gregory Marx
The mark of any great civilization is its ability to be self-critical. Those nations and civilizations that continually place the blame for their suffering on others almost always fail. They seek to place the responsibility for their failures, be they economic, political or military, on the proverbial other.
We Jews know better than most what happens when a people are scapegoated for the suffering of others. Too often, not only do minorities suffer, but the failed policies of the scapegoater are overlooked and positive change is thwarted.
It is for this reason that I have always loved our biblical prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all of the minor prophets were critical of the house of Israel for their moral failings and argued that our defeat, often at the hands of the enemy at the door, were not because of our enemies’ greatness but rather because of our moral weakness.
The prophets possessed two fundamental attributes that gave them the authority to chastise the house of Israel: a critical eye and a loving heart. Not only did the prophets heap calumnies on our ancestors but they almost always spoke out of love and reminded the chastised that God would never abandon the covenant established between the divine and our people.
The prophet Samuel is no exception. “But (our ancestors) forgot the Lord their God; so He did hand them into the hands of Sisera the military commander of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and into the hands of the king of Moab and these made war upon them. … But Samuel said to the people, ‘Have no fear. You have indeed, done all those wicked things. Do not however, turn away from the Lord your God, for because of His great name, the Lord will never abandon His people.”
We see here both severe criticism and an abiding love.
Today, there are far too many so called sacrosanct “moralists” who believe that they are fulfilling the prophetic mission. They criticize our community and its support of Israel because they feel an obligation to do so in the spirit of the prophets. But they are no prophets. While they are critical, they lack love and an unwavering trust.
This past month, novelist Michael Chabon delivered a diatribe against Jewish in-marriage, and against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, in a commencement speech to the graduates and newly ordained Reform rabbis at my alma mater, the Hebrew Union College.
Speaking to the graduating class in Los Angeles on May 14, the author spoke about how he once wanted his children to marry Jews, but now opposes the idea of Jewish endogamy. He also spoke of his own atheism and dislike of obligatory Jewish rituals and asserted that the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt was fabricated.
Chabon threaded harsh criticism of Israel’s West Bank occupation throughout the speech. He particularly criticized the Jewish settlement in Hebron and the West Bank separation barrier. He questioned the idea that its true purpose is to provide security for Israelis.
“Security,” he said, “is an invention of humanity’s jailers. Anywhere you look, it is and has always been a hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.”
As for tradition and heritage, Chabon proclaimed, “Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.”
Because we wish our children to marry other Jews and carry on the traditions, we no longer have a case for our continued validity? Because Israel built a security fence to prevent terrorists from entering Israel we are jailors? Come on.
HUC and Chabon have crossed the line. The college argues that there should be intellectual freedom in our universities. I agree. But this diatribe should be left to the classroom, not to the commencement ceremony honoring the next generation of educators and rabbis who will be leading and teaching our community.
When a speaker presents a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame, then we are no longer listening to a prophet, but rather to one who holds his heritage, faith and homeland in utter contempt.
When the day comes, when a graduation speaker at a prestigious Jewish institution refers to Jewish traditions as prisons, inmarriage as “a ghetto of two” and Israel as an occupier, we have gone from honest self-criticism in the name of the prophets, which I celebrate, to abject self-loathing.
A great Jewish thinker once said that every person should, from time to time, be embarrassed by the community of which he/she is a part. Well, that time for me is now. I am embarrassed that HUC, the institution that made me a rabbi, would invite such a “prophet” who lacks the love of his heritage and his people to commence the next generation of rabbis.
Rabbi Gregory Marx is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.