Reform looks beyond Iran decision

Rabbi Rick Jacobs:  Not a choice between right and wrong.  File photo
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Not a choice between right and wrong.
File photo

The Reform movement has decided to make a virtue out of its lack of consensus over the Iran nuclear deal. As rabbis and Jewish groups line up in favor or against the agreement, which curtails Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions, the largest American Jewish religious movement has decided not to decide.

“At this time, there is no unity of opinion among the Reform Movement leadership — lay and rabbinic alike — just as there is not unity among our membership as to the [agreement] itself,” read a statement released last month by the heads of the Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Association of Reform Zionists of America. “There is simply no clarity that would support taking a position for or against” the agreement.

Instead, the statement seeks to focus on what it calls “the day after” — the condition of U.S.-Israel relations, and of divisions in the Jewish community after the bitter run up to an expected congressional vote on the agreement this month.

“It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews. We are concerned, as well, with the possibility that some will use the debate as fuel for anti-Semitic views,” according to the statement.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an interview that the way the deal was framed — as all or nothing — made those rifts more likely.

“This was presented as a binary choice. There was a presumption that there is a right and a wrong,” he said. “In moral decision-making the hardest decisions are not between right and wrong, but between right and right.”

He referred to a similar concept in rabbinic tradition: an argument for the sake of heaven, in which both sides have a higher good in mind. Of these controversies, the Talmud says, “These and these are the words of the living God.”

The role models for such an approach are the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai in ancient Israel. “Hillel always began his argument by making Shammai’s argument,” Jacobs said. “That’s a lesson I’d like Republicans and Democrats to learn.”

What has happened instead in the Jewish community is the occasional vilification of those whose position on the Iran deal is seen as wrong. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who represents “the most Jewish district in the country,” was denounced as a traitor and an Iran collaborator after he announced his support for the Iran agreement. He was even mocked for his weight.

“If they are representative of how the Jewish community feels,” Jacobs said of those who launched the personal attacks on Nadler, “then we have a lot of learning and growing to do.”

The Reform statement called for all parties invested in the debate “to tamp down their rhetoric.”

“There must be an open and welcoming tent as we continue to debate not only the future of this agreement, but also the very nature of what it means to be pro-Israel,” according to the Reform leaders. “Calling those who oppose the deal ‘war mongers’ shuts shown constructive debate; calling those who support the deal ‘enablers of a second Holocaust’ ends thoughtful discourse.”

But asked who was encouraging these rifts to widen, Jacobs demurred, offering instead some general ideas about how to heal the divisions.

The congressional vote is thought to take place around Rosh Hashanah. Jews will be gathering when emotions over the deal are at their peak.

“In the pews, one person will be for the agreement. In the next seat will be someone against it,” Jacobs said. “It’s important for rabbis and lay leaders to talk in serious ways that do not presume that the rabbi’s view is the only one that’s right. Or privilege President [Barack] Obama’s position over Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s.”

That’s the reality of congregational life, he added. “A congregation is a group of people who oftentimes disagree about things.”

“We have a tendency to say that we are one. That doesn’t mean that we have unanimity,” he added.

There have been rifts with U.S. administrations before: over the Reagan administration’s sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1986 and the George H.W. Bush administration’s withholding of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991. U.S.-Israel relations bounced back after those lows.

“President Obama says there is no permanent rift,” Jacobs said. “I would love to believe that is true.”

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