OPINION: Masorti movement values productive debate over ideological purity

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OPINION: Masorti movement values productive debate over ideological purity

Rabbi Anthony Lazarus Magrill of Mosaic Masorti Synagogue reflects on what the response to his colleague's criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza teaches us about confronting our own moral anxiety

The Haggadah reader Hashata Hakha (This Year We Are Here) and Rabbi Lara Haft Yom-Tov
The Haggadah reader Hashata Hakha (This Year We Are Here) and Rabbi Lara Haft Yom-Tov

Earlier this year my colleague Rabbi Lara Haft Yom-Tov published a Haggadah commentary which used the language of ‘war criminals’ and ‘manufactured famine’ to describe Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Something of a new Jacobs affair ensued.

Rabbi Lara apologised, fulsomely and publicly, for inflammatory aspects of their (Rabbi Lara uses they/them pronouns) language and for publishing without prior consultation. After a lengthy and painful process, their synagogue leadership decided to draw a line under the matter.

As senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg wisely noted – notwithstanding Lara’s many and outstanding rabbinic qualities – to ignore such an apology is simply ‘not the Jewish way.’ The Jewish way, surely, is to be dan b’kaf zechut – ‘to treat each other with generosity’, accepting expressions of regret and assuming best intentions.

And yet, the controversy rumbled on – and in the most public way possible – including a recent opinion piece in Jewish News by Simon Eder, co-editor of Voices of Peace, 36 Essays in Response to 7 October. In his piece, Mr Eder rightly insists that responsible rabbinic discourse is marked by a ‘demonstrable attachment to truth’.

Rabbi Anthony Lazarus Magrill

However, searching for violations of truth which could compare with Lara’s essay, Mr Eder’s best examples were rabbis who would deny the Holocaust, or else proselytise for Christianity. At this point, surely, he has gone too far. There are issues over which I disagree with Rabbi Lara, but to suggest that their writing sits in comparable relation to ‘truth’ with these? Of course, the search for truth is an ultimate rabbinic value. But if anyone can think that to perceive aspects of criminality in the prosecution of Israel’s just war bears a conceptual resemblance to holocaust denial – well, their conception of truth must be terribly far from mine.

Amid the complex and multifaceted discourse of today’s Jewish world, it is a positive good that our communities should be led both by rabbis with whom we feel comfortable and those who inspire ‘cognitive dissonance

The situation in the Middle East throws up intense challenges to our sense of communal solidarity. What views should we voice on Israel, and on Israel’s conflict with Hamas and the Palestinian people? Can we preserve our core commitments without stifling debate and the articulation of moral anxiety? These remain open questions, both within the pulpit and beyond. Rabbis should represent their own communities and be mindful of their role as communal spokespeople; but I cannot believe that the solution to any of our pressing problems lies in discouraging rabbis from calling things as they see them. I will not compromise on my commitment to Zionism – believing that Jews, like all nations, have a right to national self-determination – but nor can I lightly sign over my right passionately to contest the way Israel is actualising that self-determination.

This isn’t solely a question of how we express ourselves, but rather of what kinds of intellectual atmosphere we hope to encounter in our synagogues. Mr Eder thinks rabbis must avoid generating ‘cognitive dissonance’. I would counter. Rabbis who fail to cause cognitive dissonance relinquish their only opportunity to help people change their minds.

Amid the complex and multifaceted discourse of today’s Jewish world, it is a positive good that our communities should be led both by rabbis with whom we feel comfortable and those who inspire ‘cognitive dissonance.’ We should not seek to muzzle them, but rather delight in hearing them engage in passionate debate.

We should aspire to lean into productive argument l’shem shamayim – for that way growth lies. Mr Eder expects rabbis to quest after the truth, yet protests when rabbis reach conclusions he dislikes. But Masorti is a movement committed to complexity and dialogue far more than to any particular politics. Ideological purity tests will get us nowhere.

It is beholden on us all to move beyond the short-term pleasures of ad hominem critique. The spirit of our movement insists on respectful and generous dialogue: the only means by which worldviews which might seem contradictory ever reveal themselves as to any extent complementary; and the only process which might ever bring us closer to something like truth and meaning.

That is the Masorti way.

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