Fifteen answers for Dennis Prager

All right, I’ll admit it. I believe I’m a progressive, and I’m proud of it.
May 18, 2015

All right, I’ll admit it. I believe I’m a progressive, and I’m proud of it. I define “progressive” as “advocating inclusivity and being ready to adapt to changing world conditions.” If that is different from the idea Dennis Prager had in mind, stop reading right now. From my point of view, being a progressive means following in the footsteps of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harold Schulweis, to name two of the most recent proponents of that philosophy. With that said, I offer fifteen answers to Mr. Prager’s fourteen recent questions to progressives, whom I do not believe to be any more monolithic a group than Jews in general.

Number one: hatred from the left. Over the last couple of centuries, “the left” has come to mean “liberal” or “progressive” (as defined above), while “the right” has come to mean “conservative”. I apologize if I offend conservatives when I suggest that their basic philosophy is the protection of the status quo, if not the advocacy of a return to the conditions of some earlier time. These are relative terms, however. It might be useful to see how they might have applied in an earlier era.

Let’s think of the time of Roman domination of Israel. “The right” probably would have meant the Sadducees, who advocated the existing Temple cult. “The left” likely would have been the Pharisees. Our entire tradition was rescued and reshaped by Pharisee sages; the whole idea of reinterpreting the Torah to meet changing conditions comes from them. The funny thing about that is relativity. Our Christian neighbors give the Pharisees a pretty bad press; they think of them as “the right” and Jesus as “the left” – even though most of the teachings of Jesus strike me as thoroughly based on the earlier prophets and the Pharisee tradition.

When we return to the modern era, we might have questions about Mr. Prager’s facts. Although some of my Presbyterian clergy friends bravely spoke out against BDS, their Church – not renowned as a liberal organization – voted for it. Meanwhile, the presidents of several universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, have spoken forcefully and vociferously against BDS.

Number two: antipathy to Israel. ANY antipathy to Israel as a nation bothers me, but I do not agree with Mr. Prager’s premise that the preponderance of that antipathy comes from any particular side of the aisle.

Number three: where Judaism and I differ. Please note that Mr. Prager wrote “Judaism” as if there were universal agreement on the definition of that word. I generally follow Conservative practice, which began as the Conservative branch of Liberal or Reform Judaism. In other words, some people thought there might be such a thing as “too much reform”. There are ideas of Judaism to the left and to the right of me. I understand Mr. Prager to observe Orthodox practice, placing him on my right-hand side. If he means his choices when he uses the word “Judaism”, he has slanted the playing field in his direction. I like my Judaism and he likes his.

Perhaps we should be a little careful about the word “differ” as well. There are a few things in Conservative Judaism that I know perfectly well, but choose to ignore. Call me lazy – you wouldn’t be the first – but I could do better at my own practice. That’s not the same as taking actual exception to the tenets of my faith.

Number four: why bother with Judaism if you are a progressive? I offer a short answer to this question: for me, Judaism implies belief in G-d, while simply being a progressive does not require it. My particular belief structure includes working for the betterment of the community, which includes attendance at, leadership of, and student instruction in religious services. Gratitude to G-d is woven into the fabric of my life.

I am lucky to be employed by two congregations in various capacities, because I don’t have the money to be a member of either of them. “Opting out of synagogue and all other aspects of religious Jewish life” is a straightforward, if somewhat embarrassing, choice by families whose financial circumstances cause them to make difficult budget cuts. Yes, I am aware of committees at most synagogues that privately discuss these matters with such families. Let me suggest that we do not do as good a job in explaining how important Jewish communal life is for both adults and youth of families in any financial circumstances as we could. (If we did, there would be better Junior Congregation attendance and less soccer on Saturday morning!) I will go one more step to say that those explanations should have been made more clearly to the parents of the current parents.

Perhaps more importantly, I disagree with Mr. Prager’s notion that “progressives” who do not affiliate have ceased to be Jewish. All across America, in living rooms, in the back rooms of restaurants, and in backyards, chavurot of people who think of themselves as Jewish meet on a fairly regular basis. They are trying to do exactly what the Pharisees did nearly two thousand years ago: redefine their Judaism to meet changing conditions. Because they think of G-d and tradition differently than does Mr. Prager, he appears to write them off. I do not, although some sources of their “tradition” may not be as authentic as they could be.

In fact, here’s a question: does Mr. Prager consider “disassociation” peculiarly modern? This tension goes all the way back to Abraham’s departure from Haran. The warnings in the Torah against fraternizing with Canaanites were designed to prevent the Israelites from discovering the less savory aspects of “progressive” practice in their new land. Our Chanukah story glorifies the victory of the conservatives, who were the ones who “disassociated” at the time, over the “progressives”. Might Hellenists and Maccabees have found a middle ground without civil war? Would Mr. Prager equate Yigal Amir with Mattathias? (I’m sorry if that was an obnoxious question.)

Number five: “haters” and the definition of marriage. Look, Leviticus 18:22 is perfectly clear on how G-d feels about homosexual activity. Here, as in so many other places in the Torah, it is crucial to apply a more modern sensitivity to that issue. I do not understand homosexuality to be a pagan religious practice, nor do I see it as a disease that has to be cured. It’s just the way some people are. If such people want to contribute to the Jewish community, it is essential for us to open the doors and let them in, with all the benefits that accrue to traditional couples. Although it is not biologically possible for them to fulfill the very first commandment of the Torah, we should allow them to answer for that omission directly to the Almighty when their time comes. Separately, exclusion of faithful homosexual couples seems to be contrary to federal law, although I am no expert.

Number six: a rabbi’s “private” opinion about gay marriage. If those rabbis are willing to fulfill the tenets of their movement, who cares what they believe in private, but I would ask how those rabbis got that far in their training without realizing the problem.

Number seven: choice of marriage partner. Who cares what I want? My children have to live with their spouses. I have seen both. My elder daughter married into Orthodoxy and wholeheartedly adopted it. My son married a non-Jew long after becoming disaffected with religion in general. I care very much for both my son-in-law and my daughter-in-law because they make my own children happy.

Number eight: do I want my children fully Orthodox or fully secular? My answer is “neither”, but I don’t disown my children for their choices. “Fully orthodox” seems to me to be a little bit insular, while “fully secular” seems to me to ignore the work of G-d in the world. I’m sorry if I cannot meet Mr. Prager’s “black or white” choices.

Number nine: cross-dressing rabbi. Again, Deuteronomy 22:5 is clear about the Torah’s stance on this subject. My personal answer to Mr. Prager’s question is “yes”, but I consider it a very conditioned reflex.

Number ten: the danger of fundamentalism. I believe Moslem fundamentalism to be the most dangerous today because it has turned into extremism. I’ll have more to say about this subject in later questions. Let me be clear, however: ANY fundamentalism is a threat to my progressive leanings. Let me recommend that Mr. Prager and all who see this essay read The Ornament of the World by the late Professor Maria Rosa Menocal. The record of tolerance in medieval Spain led to advances in every area of human endeavor as well as prosperity and social status for Jews surpassed only by our lives in the United States. Only when that tolerance was replaced by the Inquisition – a form of Christian fundamentalism – did all the glory of Spain die out.

Number eleven: how often do I listen to conservative opinions? Daily. Some of my best friends espouse them, and they are still my friends. Many AM stations are filled with them – including your opinions, Mr. Prager – but because we live in the United States, we get to choose. An opinion without facts to back it up is nothing more than hot air. Honest disagreement over facts should not devolve into ad hominem attacks, but why should I choose to listen to opinions based on what I consider inaccurate “facts”?

Number twelve: pro-Israel events staged by conservative Christian groups. Yes. In fact, I attended and performed musically at such gatherings, because both the leadership of the particular group and a fair number of my congregants at the time spoke Spanish. I am extremely grateful for their friendship towards Israel. At the same time, I think it entirely appropriate to examine the motives for their friendship. Individuals may be altruistic, but it is not so easy for organizations.

Number fourteen: nuclear Iran vs. climate change. I know I went out of order. I might stay up because of the thing that might kill me tomorrow: Iran. Why must we compare these two severe situations, however? We first have to devote resources to prevent being killed tomorrow, but does that excuse us from taking action today to head off what most scientists consider a serious long-term threat?

Number thirteen: differences with the Torah. This question had to come last. I am not so bold as to suggest that I am “smarter” than the Torah. But seriously, people have been having differences with the Torah since we received it! Isn’t the Talmud a book of responses to situations where the Torah was too general, too harsh, or perhaps did not address the situation at all? Haven’t the famous commentators made their names for their willingness to address tough questions the Torah posed? Mr. Prager may have scored debating points over Professor Dershowitz for his announcement, but does he advocate all the severe physical punishments in the Torah, for example? I suspect that given the choice between the literal Torah and the rabbinic interpretation, he would go with the latter.

Here is my number fifteen: how does G-d test humanity? Start with number thirteen. Can Mr. Prager reconcile our idea of a universal G-d with the clear command of a “Canaanite genocide” mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:17? Can he see how Moses “took the fall” for the Almighty in the Deuteronomy story of the Spies when the text in Numbers says their mission was a commandment? Can he understand the nobility of a Jewish doctor, recently deceased, who was Chief Medical Officer at Spandau Prison?

All of these things were tests. Sometimes we passed, sometimes we failed. Our Bible is even-handed about recording both. I have lived a progressive line – inclusivity combined with love of G-d – because I think that is the best way to pass these tests. Mr. Prager, if your way works for you, great, but please do not disparage those of us who arrive at a different opinion honestly.

Jay Harwitt has served several Southland congregations in musical capacities.  He holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia Business School.

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