Big tent, free speech and ‘derech eretz’


What’s the best way to build community and share Torah: constrict the approved voices until our circle is small, conformist and narrow? Or affirm that the Jewish community is a big tent, strong enough to celebrate diversity and be challenged by it?

What’s likelier to help today’s young Jews maintain and strengthen their connections with Israel and the Jewish community: impose narrow ideological litmus tests, even outside the subject matter at hand? Or uphold pluralistic standards by letting experts teach?

We at Adat Shalom had to answer those questions this week, when the Foundation for Jewish Studies asked us to be their backup site for Jewish learning with a top scholar. We are honored to host these scores of learners.

No one at Adat Shalom endorses everything that Dr. Hasia Diner, or any other person for that matter, ever said or wrote on Israel. But that is beside the point — especially for a presentation on American Jewish History.

Furthermore, we believe that Jewish values and continuity are best served by keeping our big tent stretched wide. Abraham and Sarah welcomed guests to their wide tent in Genesis 17, without fear or precondition. We should too.

We understand why the Foundation for Jewish Studies invited Diner to teach on U.S. Jewish history. I have enjoyed and cited many of her renowned volumes, on topics from the Lower East Side and Jewish immigration to American Jewish women, to the whole sweeping story of Jewry’s three and a half centuries in this land.

Separately, Diner has written of her own journey from ardent Zionism to anti-Zionism. While many of us reasonably critique Israel, hers go much further than mine, or others’ — regrettably so, even.
As the banner along our driveway proclaims, Adat Shalom supports both Israel and peace. We’ve kept our connection strong by long hosting a Jewish Agency “shaliach” (emissary) with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s great help who shares with us Israel’s culture, reality, nuance and promise. Commitment to Israel is baked into our congregational mission statement.

The progressive Zionism of many of us at Adat Shalom — in line with that of many synagogues, New Israel Fund, J Street and others — offers a needed bridge-building voice. We contribute importantly to the pro-Israel world in a “my country, right its wrongs” way. We are decidedly neither post- nor anti-Zionist. Yet we equally oppose the readiness of some self-appointed “communal gatekeepers” to censure so many, with so little nuance, as “dangerous enemies of our people.”

Jews who routinely label other Jews and seek to block their speech even on unrelated topics only alienate the rising generation and all of us who align with liberal democratic values. These timeless values, like minority rights, open inquiry and respect for all (“derech eretz”), are Jewish values.
When the Jewish community’s fractiousness and anti-free-speech tendencies are allowed to carry the day, both here and in Israel, our values are undermined — and young Jews often walk away altogether.

We impose narrow litmus tests at our own grave peril.

Meanwhile, 364 years of Jewish settlement here — which should be celebrated by all — have been expertly chronicled by Diner, a distinguished peer-reviewed historian. Adat Shalom leader Myrna Goldenberg, herself a history Ph.D., calls Diner “a superb, accomplished scholar” and “a generous mentor,” adding: “Yes, I wish she were less vitriolic about Israel, but I respect her right to speak up.” That says it all.

This controversy unfolds during Elul, when our fingers are to be pointed inward, not outward. Sure, their actions are not always just or peaceful; what about ours? Yes, others deny elements of my core story; in what ways do I deny theirs?

Elul demands humble self-reckoning, or “soul accounting” (“cheshbon hanefesh”). It invites us to be less certain, to question our narratives, privileges and assumptions. “From the place where we are [rigidly] right,” wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “flowers will never grow in the spring.”

In the name of Jewish continuity — in the name of such great Jewish values as humility and pluralism — and in affirmation of “ahavat yisrael” (love for the people and variously-expressed-connections with the land): Adat Shalom is honored to provide its sanctuary to the Foundation for Jewish Studies, on Labor Day, for the sacred study of American Jewish history. No fear; no preconditions.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.

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