Wright and Wrong


Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
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Back in the fall of 1995, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, announced that he was quitting his New Jersey synagogue because of the rabbi’s inflammatory rhetoric on Middle East issues. Foxman and his family had been members of the Orthodox congregation for more than 20 years and had deep roots there, he wrote in a local community weekly, but he could not remain in a synagogue where the rabbi “spews hate and vitriol toward the elected leaders of Israel.”

Tensions were at a fever pitch in Israel that spring and summer over the negotiations with the Palestinians launched by Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Opponents of the talks were denouncing Rabin in such violent terms that some officials fretted about an outbreak of political violence, perhaps even an attempt on Rabin’s life. The Israeli tensions were echoed in the Diaspora, particularly among Orthodox rabbis and essayists who opposed Rabin’s policies as a betrayal. Foxman’s rabbi, Steven Pruzansky, was one of those opponents. He had publicly hurled some strong epithets at Rabin and his government, most recently calling them “the Rabin Judenrat,” That was when Foxman quit. It was just five weeks later that the prime minister was shot dead.

Some readers might find the incident reminiscent of current headlines, and they’d be right. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has been flagging badly of late, as opponents have battered him over the inflammatory rhetoric of his longtime pastor and spiritual mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright is prone to denounce America in extreme terms, to praise Louis Farrakhan and even to accuse the government of creating the AIDS virus to eliminate blacks.

When Obama’s ties to the pastor came under fire, the candidate first responded by saying he rejected Wright’s vitriol but could not “reject the man himself.” Last week, after Wright raised the stakes in a series of outrageous public appearances, Obama sharpened his response and repudiated the pastor.

Critics are now asking what took him so long. They ask how a self-described uniter could attach himself for so many years to someone so divisive. They ask how Obama could have failed to anticipate the current blowup, and what that says about the strategic and moral judgment of a man who would be commander in chief.

Obama’s defenders have a few questions of their own. Why, they want to know, should a candidate have to face what amounts to a religious test for office? Why is Obama being called to account for his spiritual attachments when other, whiter candidates like Mitt Romney and John F. Kennedy were given passes on the racism, sexism and homophobia of their own churches? Why do the questions keep coming long after Obama has answered them all? And, pointedly, since when are public figures supposed to sever close relationships because of views they don’t even share? Who would take that sort of leap?

Well, Abe Foxman would, for one. His 1995 resignation from his synagogue suggested that there is a concrete moral standard to which leaders can aspire — and against which, perhaps, they can be judged.

Foxman himself seems to be avoiding such conclusions. Asked by reporters last week whether he thought his run-in with his synagogue taught anything about the Wright affair, he demurred, noting that Pruzansky had come to the congregation only a year before, so there was no intimacy between them. He thought Obama had dealt with the issue decisively and it was time to move on.

Foxman may have had another thought on his mind. The Wright affair shows signs of turning into another black-Jewish confrontation. Jewish activists seem to be the second most vehement group, after Republican officials, in denouncing Obama’s religious ties. The Internet has been lit up for days with messages from Jewish alarmists warning of Obama’s threat to the Jewish people, and retorts from non-Jews blaming Jews for Obama’s troubles. If the goal is to ward off antisemitism, it doesn’t make strategic sense for the Jewish community to take positions that will only create more hostility.

There’s another reason to tread lightly. Pruzansky still holds his New Jersey pulpit. He has actually grown in esteem and prominence within the Orthodox community over the years. Someone might claim to detect a double standard here.

Nor was Pruzansky’s verbal violence against Rabin in that summer of 1995 a mere isolated incident. Nine years later, in 2004, Pruzansky spoke out against Jews, starting with Foxman, who dared criticize Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” He warned that Jewish criticism would be taken as anti-Christian bigotry and would incite antisemitism, not prevent it. Pruzansky characterized Jewish anti-bias watchdogs like Foxman with the Hebrew word rodef or “pursuer,” a biblical term for one who comes to kill you — and who must be killed pre-emptively. It was the use of that term in 1995 that reputedly inspired Rabin’s assassin.

Rabbinic use of incendiary language against foes has deep roots. The Talmud forbids it repeatedly, warning scholars to “be careful in your words,” and elsewhere relating a tale of verbal violence against the eccentric Rabbi Eliezer that leads to his death. The practice wouldn’t have been condemned if it weren’t commonplace.

Once, when Jews were hounded and powerless, verbal incitement might have been considered harmless. In the modern world, where rabbis’ listeners are free to walk the streets and carry guns, incendiary language poses a real threat. But the practice shows no signs of going away.

Just this past March, one of the most influential scholars in the Orthodox world, Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University, told a group of students in Jerusalem that if Israel moves to divide Jerusalem, “someone should shoot the prime minister.” The remark, captured on a cell phone and posted on YouTube, caused a minor uproar but quickly disappeared. Students and associates said he was naive and didn’t understand the implications of his words. He left Israel abruptly the next morning, by some accounts to avoid felony charges. Once back in New York he apologized, and Yeshiva University said the case was closed.

Closed indeed. Schachter retains his nationwide stature as one of America’s most respected rabbinic law authorities. He is one of three American rabbis authorized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to oversee Orthodox conversions to Judaism that meet stricter Israeli standards. He was one of three members of a committee set up this year to choose a new head for the Beth Din of America, the nation’s largest rabbinic tribunal. Respect for his learning and sophistication is such that his rulings are generally considered final. Well, except on trifling matters, like shooting prime ministers.

This wasn’t his first naive gaffe. In 1998 he was caught, again in a chat with students, characterizing the liberal Orthodox breakaway group Edah as “a sort of internal Amalek.” The biblical tribe of Amalek, alert readers recall, attacked the Israelites in the desert after leaving Egypt, and incurred such divine wrath that Jews were commanded to exterminate the evil tribe down to the last infant and cow. Calling someone Amalek is tantamount to a death sentence.

Observers of the Orthodox community say that outsiders’ criticisms of the rabbis are wildly overblown. They say that outsiders don’t understand the dynamics of the Orthodox world. Besides, they say, nobody really listens to the rabbis anyway. Congregants and students understand that their rabbis sometimes need to let off steam. Sort of like a crazy old uncle.

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