Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and many of his congregants might think he’s a hero.
As the spiritual leader of Beth Shir Shalom, a synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., Comess-Daniels is the rabbi who made headlines after Rosh Hashanah for delivering a High Holiday sermon denouncing presidential adviser and onetime congregant Stephen Miller for his role in the since-rescinded policy that resulted in the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the nation’s southern border.
“The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my or our Jewish message,” Comess-Daniels said in the sermon, which was livestreamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page. “That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.”
Comess-Daniels apparently felt compelled to speak out not only about the policy, but about its reported author, because “some of my colleagues and others are concerned what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community.”
Miller, whose family has ties to Pennsylvania and belonged to the synagogue when he was a child, was not in the synagogue and is not a member. That he, a public figure, was not available to challenge the personal attack, is not particularly problematic; nor is the idea that the rabbi ostensibly engaged in politics from the pulpit, especially considering that repealing the so-called Johnson Amendment forbidding tax-exempt organizations like houses of worship from endorsing candidates has been a pet cause among many Republicans.
From a Jewish perspective, in fact, how Miller — or any proud Jew who serves his or her country as a policymaker in Washington, D.C. — squares his Jewish identity with the policies he advocates is a fair question. And while there’s an important case to be made for High Holiday sermons to err on the side of inspiration instead of denigration, Judaism has much to say about the great public policy questions of the day (although most would be surprised to learn that Judaism rarely comes down exclusively on one side or the other).
My problem with Comess-Daniels instead lies with his making the issue of the nation’s migrant crisis about him and his synagogue. Far from being a crusader for Jewish values — as the news coverage and viral posts cast him — he instead became a caricature of a religious fanatic, seemingly deluded into thinking that what he said into the microphone was, to borrow a phrase from the non-Jewish world, the gospel truth and that his congregants were duty bound to inculcate it into their lives. Not only was Miller a bad Jew, the rabbi in effect told his flock, but he must have gone astray because Comess-Daniels failed as a rabbi and Beth Shir Shalom failed as a synagogue.
That kind of hubris doesn’t make a hero. It makes a demagogue.
Now that the High Holidays have passed, our community will soon be turning to Sukkot, a holiday that puts a premium on Jewish unity. So it might be helpful to ponder what exactly a true Jewish hero looks like.
I suggest that the late Ari Fuld, the 45-year-old Jewish activist who was tragically murdered by a Palestinian teenager Sept. 16, offers a good example. Fuld was stabbed outside of a supermarket frequented by Israelis and Palestinians near his hometown of Efrat in the West Bank, but managed to fire his weapon at his fleeing attacker. (A woman came forward this week to say that Fuld’s injuring the terrorist saved her from being attacked herself.)
Fuld, a vigorous defender of what he believed is the right of Jews to control and settle in Judaea and Samaria — lands that the Palestinians envisage for a state of their own — moved to Israel from New York City after graduating high school. He attended yeshiva in Jerusalem and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, becoming a paratrooper. He went on frequent speaking tours and worked for Standing Together, the nonprofit that supports Israeli soldiers.
That Fuld chose to live in Efrat didn’t make him a hero. That Fuld fought pugnaciously for a right that other Jews disagree with didn’t make him a hero. That he stood up for Israeli sovereignty and the protection of Jewish lives did. That he saved a life when he was so close to death removed all doubt.
We in the Jewish community will always find ourselves on opposite sides of political debates. Like any family, we will always find ourselves disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, with each other — on theological questions, issues of religious practice, Israeli policies and American politics. But the heroes among us will see the differences as secondary to our common Jewish identity. And when called upon, they’ll defend it with every fiber of their being.
May Ari Fuld’s memory be for a blessing.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.