Rabbi Gordis v. Rabbi Brous: Rabbis in the ring

Who knew that this year’s most exciting Thanksgiving week sporting event would be a rabbinic version of “Celebrity Deathmatch”?

The Gordis-Brous feud had all the grit and coarseness of MTV's now-defunct claymation show in which two celebrities nastily sparred in a wrestling ring (and it usually ended badly) but alas, none of the wit that made the show such a guilty pleasure. This time it was not a fight to the death, of course, but a war of words about the very nature of Jewish conscience. 

Last week, when Rabbi Daniel Gordis published a scathing takedown of Rabbi Sharon Brous and her call for equitable empathy during the Gaza conflict, a divisive and inelegant battle began over the moral constitution of the Jewish character: Are we only for ourselves? Are we for others? Is it treasonous to sympathize with your enemy’s children?

For his opening battle hymn, Gordis chose words from Cynthia Ozick: Universalism is the particularism of the Jews. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but as a conundrum: Caring for the welfare of all people as much as one’s own makes loyalty impossible, he wrote. Which side are you on when two sides go to war?

“Taking a side doesn’t require a complete collapse of empathy for the consequences of one’s actions upon other people,” literary critic and editor Leon Wieseltier told me when I called him for his take. “What Gordis is really asking for is not loyalty; it is a kind of ethical callousness — to limit the ethical to the tribal. He says that empathy for the suffering is a form of treason unless the suffering are Jews. No Jew can accept that,” Wieseltier said. “No thoughtful Jew.”

Dealing in moral absolutes is a dangerous game; there is no perfect universalism or perfect particularism any more than there is a perfect rabbi. To be wholeheartedly for one or the other leaves no room for, obviously, the other. And what sort of world does that portend? 

Historically, had Israelis been less humane, would they have demonstrated such repeated willingness for peace? And had Palestinians been less tribal, might they have been more willing to compromise and share? Life is almost never black and white. And who would want to live in a world with only two colors? 

Yet borrowing a pitiful play from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least its leaders, Gordis and Brous seem to be arguing past one another. She says, “Have empathy,” and he says, “Choose sides”? What accounts for their stunning inability to speak the same language? 

In this tale of two rabbis in two cities, place plays an indispensable part. Their quarrel is not just a quarrel of ideas, but of divergent worldviews, at least in part a function of their environment. 

Brous lives in Los Angeles, a city that, despite its share of troubles and inequities, offers an image of worldly peace. Her closest neighbor is Hollywood, not Hamas. And every Shabbat, she has the incomparable blessing of having her husband and three young children, her sister, her parents and even her in-laws sitting safely in services where she can see and hear them. 

Gordis lives in a different setting. He inhabits an unpredictable and inconstant universe that stores the promise of peace but all too frequently erodes into a battlefield. His two children serve in the Israeli army, which means he often has no idea where they spend Shabbat, or whether or when he’ll spend another Shabbat with them.

“My sympathies here go more to Gordis, for the simple reason that he has skin in the game,” Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg e-mailed. “It is easy to feel sympathy for Gaza in West L.A., where the groups that rule Gaza aren’t trying to kill you.” 

From the comfort and remove of Los Angeles, Brous can devote her rabbinate to dreams of a world perfected, whereas Gordis, from his imperiled encampment in the Middle East, dreams only of preserving the world that he’s in.

So instead of deriding Gordis for shutting down democracy, Brous might realize that even with his demagoguery, they’re having a talmudic-style dispute on the most democratic terrain in the world: the Internet. And rather than launch a terrifically unfair accusation of treason out of primal fear, Gordis should realize he is not as friendless and alone as he thinks: Was there any significant American – Jewish opposition to the operation in Gaza last week?  Did American Jews accuse Israel of war crimes? Did they even debate Israel’s just cause?

Perhaps the lesson of this rabbinic dispute is that Brous could be slightly more tribal and Gordis just slightly more human and both could show significantly more sangfroid.

“Brous could do more to educate her followers on the facts of the Gaza controversy, rather than simply on the emotions they should be feeling,” Goldberg suggested. “She could spend a bit more time explaining the ideology of Hamas to her followers, and what it means for their own future.”

And, from Wieseltier: “If Gordis worries about excessive universalism, he should look at the ethical code of the [Israeli] army; they’ve been amazing at trying to guarantee that particularism is not all that drives their soldiers.” And, he added, “When Gordis accuses Hamas of crimes against humanity, he is not appealing to a Jewish principle, he is appealing to a universal principle.” 

Turns out, Ozick is right. Judaism is not so tribal as we think, but biblically anchored by a moral philosophy that affirms the inherent dignity of every human being. In the Talmud it says, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” 

The verse does not say Jewish life, just life. And that, in particular, is what makes the universe more Jewish.

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