Updating the progressive outlook for 5778

September 6, 2017

15 Ellul 5777/September 6, 2017

In this season of self-examination, our resolve must be not only to work harder to improve the world, but also to be the kind of people we claim we want to see.  “Progressives” should demonstrate the conviction that the world was created with love and is meant to be a better place.  Our convictions should lead us to act in a spirit of hope, and of respect and solidarity toward those we have to convince.  A progressive agenda corrupted by hate, fear and resentment — only reversing friends and enemies with the other side — only supports the worldview that the world is a hostile and lawless place with only winners and losers.

Before discussing whether “identity politics” is good or bad, let’s clarify what it means.  The progressive agenda must include a commitment from everyone to insist on equal respect for everyone.  This is as much a part of our vision for America, and the world, as is economic justice.  On the other hand, we cannot  justify people or groups who only see politics as a means of redressing wrongs against themselves, even at the price of deflecting bigotry onto someone else.  Not only are such people no better than Trump and the alt-right; they’re no different.

“Intersectionality” probably includes ideas we should practice, but the word is too academic and vague to give us the moral clarity to govern our actions.  I prefer clearer words like “mitzva” and “covenant”.  If God wants us to promote equality, this obligation is independent of our feelings and of any quid pro quo, and has no room for “what-about-ism”.  If equality is a sacred covenant we have with each other, we act against those who violate it, but not by imitating them.

I hope we can reach out across America and the world, to link with people in all communities who share a hopeful view of the world, so that we can promote a vision that inspires.  Let this upcoming birthday of the world begin a new birth of freedom and unity.


Are Adam and Eve Modern Orthodox Role Models?

October 28, 2016


by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A healthy religious culture teaches its foundational stories to its children with confidence and without embarrassment.  This is a problem for Modern Orthodoxy, which has discomfort teaching the story of Creation.  The most immediate and important reason for this is gender.  We do not have a shared communal interpretation of the story that squares with how we want our boys and girls to think of themselves, to relate to each other, and to grow up as men and women.  

To put this in perspective, think for a moment about the first Rashi on Chumash.  He explains that the Torah tells us that G-d created the world in order to secure our right to Eretz Yisroel.  For all the moral challenges of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, this remains a powerful and important touchstone for Religious Zionism – G-d gave us this land, and He had a right to…

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The revolution began in 1220 BCE

April 28, 2016

20 Nisan 5776

How can we see/show ourselves as if we personally left Egypt? Maybe by acting as if we personally saw that God hates slavery and oppression and will support the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. Then we will be able to act with the determination that even though the world has evil in it (and needs to be handled with that awareness), we do not need to sacrifice equality and social justice, and the quest for peace, to ensure our survival. Remembering the Exodus as a personal experience also reminds us that the Pharoahs will reap the consequences of their actions.

More on Israel

July 8, 2015

21 Tamuz 5775
July 7, 2015

After the last draft, I was asked on Facebook whether preserving Israel’s existence was a moral imperative. I answered that it was, and promised a further discussion.

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” makes the point that in the period of the Shoah, the Jewish people realized that to preserve our existence, we needed to achieve X no matter what, despite the cost to anyone. I agree — we can’t improve ourselves or the world if we’re dead.  But I believe (as Shavit seems to) that this requires a good deal of caution and humility in defining X, so that the moral character of the state can be preserved and enriched.

Diaspora Jews also have to acknowledge that Israel’s existence is one of the major factors that gave us the confidence to promote equality and justice and oppose bigotry.  But this being said, we were still right to take these positions, and if we want Judaism to move closer to this ideal, we can’t exempt the half of the Jewish people that can actually create a Jewish culture.

So the challenge is to support Israel and educate the public about its moral potential, without denying that it also contains harmful ideologies that we don’t pretend to support.  One thought I had was a renewed dialogue between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, with no boastfulness or inferiority.  We have the chance to create a new Jewish outlook that has the best of both cultures.

Also, I’d love to see a new Zionism that aims to create a state that has a strong Jewish character and that sees non-Jews as fellow citizens, not as the Other.

These words are not meant to be a final answer to anything, but to be points in an ongoing discussion of issues that we should all recognize are complicated.

No, liberal Zionism isn’t dead. It (still) hasn’t gotten started yet.

September 23, 2014

5 Tamuz 5775

June 21, 2015

I’m trying to republish this post and clarify the purpose behind it:  To those of us who are convinced that God wants Jews to be as safe as anyone else, but also to advocate for social justice and equality, how do we withstand the cynics who claim for their own purposes that we can’t have both?

Recently I’ve come to ask (since I’ve seen this issue increasingly discussed) whether the Zionist ideal should ever have been an all-Jewish state.  Zionism developed in an age of romantic nationalism, but the State began when the postwar world was first beginning to deal with the results of that attitude.  Perhaps a state can be more Jewish when its Jewish community plays a large role in defining its character but has to share this role with others.

By “Liberal Zionsim” I mean the ability of Jews to use the (relative) security afforded by Israel’s existence to view ourselves as part of the world and feel empowered to promote freedom and social justice worldwide, as many of us believe to be part of God’s will for us.

We cannot allow Israel’s challenges, and even many Israelis’ disagreement with this vision, make us give up the hope that a Jewish state can help create a better world.  (Some of those who want you to choose between Zionism and human progress want to undermine one side or the other of this balance.)  So what can we do, especially those of us living outside Israel, to keep this possibility alive for Israel?  Here are some of my thoughts.

1. In the recent fighting in Gaza, it was absolutely right to support the success of Israel’s soldiers and the well-being of its civilians.  It was also right to help explain Hamas’ insidious tactics and its cruel indifference to the lives of all civilians, Palestinians and Israelis.  But now we must know for ourselves whether all the Palestinian losses were necessary.  All of us should follow all objective investigations of this (and make sure those exist), read the results, promote the favorable findings and acknowledge any bad findings.  We should also contribute to rebuilding in Gaza that’s coordinated with Israel.

Addressing Israel’s long-term direction, here are some steps we can take responsibly:

2. Push for a unity government of all democratic parties.

3. Promote the ending of the legal ambiguity of the territories.  Leaving aside a Palestinian state, the land should contain only two categories of Israeli-governed territory: the State of Israel with equal rights for all citizens; and, if necessary, zones of military administration with only Palestinian, not Israeli, civilians.  It’s legally and morally untenable to have a portion of land be Israel for Israelis and occupied for Palestinians. This is true regardless of the results of any negotiations and regardless of anyone’s reliability.

4. Learn for yourself about the political opinions of Israeli leaders and the laws and regulations being promulgated.

5. Manage your own relationship to Israel and communication with it.  Explain Israel with your own words and thoughts.

6. Most of all, if you believe you’re right to oppose racism and support freedom and social justice, don’t part ways with other progressives; educate them about Israel’s potential to be motivated by positive dialogue as opposed to threats.

It’s also time for Jews in and out of Israel to rethink our attitude toward the “outside” world.  Anti-Semitism is real, but we have to stop seeing it as an eternal cosmic force.  We need to fight the impulse to see ourselves as an isolated group that can only count on ourselves.  We need to think of well-meaning people everywhere as part of our “in-group”.

Very soon Jews the world over will gather to hear the shofar herald a new year.  We may as well stay home unless we believe that people can change, and that old enemies need not be stuck in hatred.  We owe the same confidence to Israel and Israelis that they can use their implacable determination, and awareness of sharing a communal burden, to create a society that values all its citizens and  demands their allegiance to each other.

I am prepared to keep believing that Jews can play an important role in creating a better world.  What about you?

Replying to comments

October 28, 2013

24 Heshvan 5774/October 27, 2013

Received 2 very nice e-mails on my last piece. They raise serious issues that I wanted to address on the blog to further the discussion of this topic.

1. Developments in the Orthodox world, including the charedi world, are complicated and cut in more than one direction.    Observant Jews, including charedim, are becoming more confident in taking part in the larger world and trying to influence it.  Rabbi Sacks, whom I admire, has written and spoken about this and exemplifies this.  I would only add that I’d love to see more progressive observant Jews trying to influence the progressive movement.

But on the other hand, there are beliefs within Orthodoxy, strongest among the charedim, that hinder this and also aggravate some of the other problems we’ve seen.  These include: the belief that if any idea is stated by a text or (Orthodox) rabbi, you can cite another text or rabbi to the contrary, but you can’t say the first idea is wrong.  Also, the belief that Jewish morality is self-contained and has nothing to learn from other sources.

Nevertheless, as I began, I do see developments within the community that demonstrate a great deal of potential.

2. How to address concepts like “am segulah”, “am kadosh”, etc?  Those of us who believe in human equality shouldn’t help promote anyone who does use these sources to promote chauvinistic agendas.  I have seen other very serious and respectful explanations of these kinds of terms.  To cite a few:

Mamlekhet kohanim: As mentioned on that discussion on Oct. 5, it can very logically mean a nation that relates to the other nations in the same way as Kohanim relate to other Jews: required to stay separate in some ways, but for the purpose of serving the larger community, not just themselves.

Kadosh: As explained by Yeshyahu Leibowitz, specially dedicated to the service of God, but not on a superior level and not with the inherent spiritual power that is God’s alone.

Segulah: I’ve seen the explanation comparing this to an artisan’s love for a special tool: it has a special status, but because of its usefulness to the artisan’s underlying purpose.

All of these do, of course, retain a belief in a special role for the Jewish people, though not a special nature.  I could respect a religion that recognized no special role for any human group, but it wouldn’t be the one I was born into and am proud to continue.

To conclude, those of us who believe that human beings are fundamentally equal, and that what unites us is greater than our differences, must be willing to oppose those who disagree.


Avraham, Yitzchak and new ways of thinking to trump hate and fear

October 15, 2013

11 Tamuz/June 24, 2018

I’m (obviously) refreshing and editing this post from 2013.  My only regret about this piece is being too cautious to add that after my father’s passing, the burial and unveiling both took place at the hour Israel was mourning Yitzhak Rabin z”l.  It was that assassination that gave urgency to my concerns about notions of exclusivity and insularity within Judaism.  The last two years have given this a whole new meaning.  I don’t think those Orthodox Jews misled by Trump were guided by any one issue, not even the embassy.  Obama and maybe even Bill Clinton could have regained the support of some of them, but not all.  The deeper issues, within Judaism and worldwide, are tribalism, resentment of the Other who won’t concede their inferiority, and the feeling that respect power for one person must be at someone else’s expense.  All of these spring from the underlying conviction, despite what people think on a conscious level,  that the universe is a violent and meaningless place with no moral destiny.

At a human level, we all have to reach out to each other in solidarity and with the confidence and conviction that our efforts will be rewarded, and with the patience to accept that the work will last a long time.  Within the Jewish community, we need to have the conviction that God’s purpose is aimed equally at all humanity, and the courage to challenge texts and religious leaders.  In recent years, especially since 2016, I have been proud and honored to find Rabbis and lay people committed to this vision.  I intend to work with you in the decades ahead.

11 Cheshvan 5774/October 15, 2013

This is dedicated to the memory of my father, Avraham Atik, who passed away on 11 Cheshvan six years ago.  Like the original Avraham, he thought for himself and treated everyone with respect, with no awe before the powerful and no condescension toward people in more modest surroundings.  He was never afraid to question assumptions that others left unexamined, and never confused love and sentimentality.

I recently attended a discussion among several Manhattan rabbis dealing with the Jewish relationship to non-Jews and the world at large.  All the speakers emphasized the need to respect others and prevent our children from denigrating non-Jews.  All acknowledged the tension in Judaism between universalism and particularism.  And this was only one of many recent instances of modern observant Jews confronting this important topic.

But confronting this issue has to go beyond being nice to others and not returning to phrase “she-hem mishtachavim la-hevel va-rik” from Aleinu.    Significant aspects of Jewish thought have been influenced by long-standing beliefs that Jews are inherently superior and should hold themselves apart from the world; that Jews are inherently different — regardless of a Jew’s actions or commitment to mitzvot — and that God cares less about non-Jews..  These ideas have become assumptions that underlie many people’s religious convictions, especially in religious Zionism and (which is related) the mystical ideas that influence all strands of charedi thought.

Those of us who want to be part of a better world need to be aware of this and encourage traditional Jews to change their ways of thinking in a radical direction.  If we believe in repentance, we should have confidence that this is possible of anyone — including ourselves.  For Jews, the challenge is to commit ourselves to the convictions that what unites all human beings is more important than what divides us, and that the universe was created with love and is not a place of senseless struggle where only the strongest survive.

If Judaism has the confidence to be part of the world, we can achieve a lot of improvement and also make ourselves more secure.  If Judaism had the confidence it should that it has a message for all of humanity, what if that message appealed to even 10% of the world’s population?

Let us resolve to live with hope instead of fear and be open to loving anyone who has the same openness toward us.  Let us never believe that hatred is inherent and immovable.  Like Avraham, let us be confident that our ideals will prevail if they reflect God’s will, regardless of their popularity now.  And let the story of Yitzchak remind us that nothing evil is inevitable, and nothing good is impossible.

Repentance, redemption and love

July 22, 2013

15 Av 5773/July 21-22, 2013

Tonight is Tu b’Av, one of the matchmaking dates in Jewish tradition.  Today it’s an Israeli version of Valentine’s Day, and I’ve heard that starting from today, we can extend New Year’s wishes.

I think it’s significant that the season of teshuva/repentance starts with love.  Maimonides (Mishna Torah, Laws of Teshuva ch. 7:3) writes that we must repent not only for evil deeds but also for evil character traits.  In this spirit, humanity needs to repent for the sins of bigotry and senseless hatred between human beings.  Jews and the Jewish community share in this need.

Many Jews have lamented the lack of respect and understanding between Jews, and I share this concern.  But it’s pointless, and not even desirable, to expect this to improve if we tolerate prejudice toward others.  A fortress mentality does not foster open and loving character traits.  Further,if you share the conviction that God intends people to respect each other and accept obligations to each other, it follows that prejudice draws the same consequence as any sin.  If someone wants to sin, Heaven permits him (Yoma 38b).  If we persist in hating the “other”, Heaven will permit us to become unable to love “our own”.

But if someone wants to improve, Heaven will not only permit but will encourage her (Yoma 38b).  Let us cultivate the state of mind described in the Haftara for Yom Kippur morning:

“Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor to your house, when you see the naked, cover him, and do not hide from your own flesh….If you remove from yourself the yoke, finger-pointing and evil speech, and draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul… then God shall lead you always… and you shall be like a watered garden and like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:7-11).

The weeks leading up to Rosh haShana also feature the prophecies of redemption.  If we dedicate ourselves to a vision of a just and cooperative world, we may achieve more than we thought possible.


R. Soloveichik at Shearith Israel

June 24, 2013

16 Tamuz 5773/June 23, 2013

Just after his appointment at Shearith Israel (“Spanish-Portuguese”) and the lively discussion that followed, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik spoke yesterday at Ohab Zedek.  My information, from everyone I spoke to who was there, was that he eloquently emphasized that Jewish Americans have been able to integrate into American society without having to assimilate.  Since we can participate in public discourse from a Jewish perspective, we should do so.

I thoroughly agree with this statement, and R. Soloveichik poses a challenge to progressive Jews (like me) to influence progressive thought in the direction of mutual obligation, respect for intellectual diversity and self-restraint.

But R. Solovieichik, intentionally or not, also challenges himself and his political allies.  His erstwhile friends and heroes (in terms of politics) have supported a cruel, harsh and anti-social agenda that I would call Dickensian if I didn’t have religious sources that would call it “the ways of Sodom”.  I would want any pulpit rabbi, of any viewpoint, to avoid too much political involvement.  But to the extent that R. Soloveichik feels comfortable integrating his religious convictions with his role as a politically engaged citizen, will he try to restore empathy, solidarity and the sense of community to the conservative movement?  And can he?

Israel after the election

January 27, 2013

16 Shvat 5773

Steps that need to be taken by Israelis, the new government and others:

1. Beyond military service and taxes, Chareidim need to deal with other Israelis in a respectful dialogue and with the awareness of living in a shared country.  Don’t act like the sole owners of the country.  Israel also needs to reform the role of the religious establishment so that Israelis can create new, authentically Israeli ways of being religious.

2. The new government needs to renew peace offers and keep them on the table.  But with full awareness that any reasonable offer may still be rejected, the new government also needs a backup plan that protects security while maintaining democracy, tolerance and hope.

3. Time for the West to learn how to motivate a Jewish state.  Many Israeli Jews don’t want a state turned inward and marked by fear and resentment, but Jews have good reason to feel threatened and react accordingly.  But there is much in the Jewish tradition to engender hope and generosity when Jews feel accepted.  So any approach to the conflict between Israel and its neighbors has to show Israel, convincingly, that its isolation will be over.  Getting this wrong poses great dangers in our age.  Get this right and Israel can add more to the world than its friends can now imagine.