Sunday, December 28, 2008

Community Rabbi, reporting from Gaza

[Haveil Havalim is here.]
[Jack's roundup of Gaza-related posts is here.]

In my pre-adolescent years, my outlook on Rabbis-and-Current-Events was shaped by my father’s dislike for speeches that spent more time on the New York Times than on the parshah.

For a long time I actually assumed that this was a broadly held view; after all, why would anyone expect a rabbi to have special insight into the Falklands War, Afghanistan, the Iran Hostage Crisis or any of the other events that shaped my 70s and 80s upbringing? So much so that when I did my very first interview for a rabbinic position - a synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts - and someone asked how often I would speak about current events, I said I would do it maybe once a month, if that much.

This was not the answer my questioner was seeking; he, and others present, felt that in order for Torah to be relevant to their daily lives, the rabbi would have to speak about Yitzhak Rabin more often than he would speak about Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, about modern Israel more than historical Eretz Yisrael.

Relevance! That was actually a key moment for me, as I was taught what "relevance" means to so many Jews. Upon reflection, I grasped what he was saying (although I didn’t grasp the job…). It made sense; even if I wasn’t a brilliant economist or an expert on the Far East, my connecting Torah to the comments of those economists and experts would make shul, Torah, Judaism as a whole, more reachable for many people.

In the years since that watershed evening, I have spent a great deal of time reading about topics of popular interest, from the European stock market to Central American history to the history of medical understanding of the circulatory system to quantum theory and Hadley cells and meteorology. Much of that has become useful in classes or newspaper columns or in direct conversation; some of it has simply made me a broader person.

And yet, and yet - I have never quite shaken the feeling that rabbis are overstepping when they comment, whether in shul or in published articles or in interviews, on the events of the day. Lead tehillim, promote activism, but don't interpret the news. My father’s skepticism remains with me.

And so last night, when Shabbos ended and I picked up a phone message from 69 News asking for me to do an interview on Gaza, I was reluctant to reply. Really - what am I going to say, that the viewer doesn’t already know? The analogy of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities to rocket attacks on LA or Detroit has been cited everywhere. The viewers who don’t care to remember Disengagement aren’t going to remember it because I mention it. I feel foolish even blogging about it; go check out Jameel, his on-the-scene comments have much more relevance than mine.

But, remembering that night in Worcester, I called the reporter back. As it turned out, though, I was too late; in the intervening hours since their Shabbos afternoon call, they had found another candidate.

I expect I will draft an Op-Ed for the local paper, though. As Shemuel said to Shaul, "הלא אם קטן אתה בעיניך ראש שבטי ישראל אתה - Even if you are small in your own eyes, you are yet the head of the tribes of Israel." I am, to some people, a commnunity representative. So if someone out there takes my view seriously, then I am responsible to make it heard.


  1. Years ago someone asked the Rav (Rav Soloveitchik) a question about science. His response? You tell me, you're the scientist (he had lots of MIT grad students attend his lectures). When they asked him about Soviet Jewry, he said, why are you asking me, ask someone who is an expert on Soviet Jewry?

    Anyway, I do find your viewpoint interesting, especially since I know you read Jameel first.

  2. Leora-
    Thanks! And yes, the Rav was brilliantly dry in his humor, although I had not heard that story.

  3. I was in the states before Disengagement and I was disgusted, very tempted to shout from the Ezrat Nashim, when the rabbis in two different MO shuls talked of Darfur and ignored the plight of fellow Jews and the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.

    It may be the spirit of Chana here in Shiloh, but I don't see how it can be so difficult to connect every week's parsha to current events concerning Jews and Eretz Yisrael.

  4. Batya-
    It's not a matter of whether you can connect them, or about speaking about Israel. It's about speaking on current events (as opposed to, say, the imperative for aliyah).

  5. I don't see why it has to be either current events/politics OR about making aliya. Why can't it be both or each one on a different week? At our women's parsha class, the Rabbanit always finds some way of linking the parsha to current events, politics, OR aliya. It always gives a different spin on the parsha and is for me at least, quite refreshing.

  6. Anonymous-
    Thanks for your comment.
    As I said to Batya, there is always a way to link them. The question is whether people are open to hearing a rabbi comment on politics, when he doesn't have any great political knowhow beyond that of any other intelligent person.