October 22, 2019

What would Leonard Fein say?

I was hunting around for a writer who could dive into the chaos that is Ferguson, Mo., and emerge with a thoughtful column.

That’s when I realized how much I miss Leonard Fein.

I have no doubt that had Fein not died on Aug. 14 at the age of 80, I would have had an email in my inbox with the usual subject line: “New filing from Leonard Fein.”

For a generation, Fein was the pre-eminent liberal voice of American Jewry.  He wrote a weekly column in The Forward and appeared regularly in the pages of the Jewish Journal.  Along the way, Fein also founded Moment Magazine and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. For a life lived in the trenches of activism, he could easily say, “Dayenu!” — any one of those would have been enough.

I often turned to Fein, not because he was predictably liberal, but because he was predictably thoughtful. He didn’t adhere to slogans or the party line, like so many of his neocon rivals. His interest was in wrestling with opposing truths and divining where the compass of Jewish history, ethics and responsibility pointed.

There’s no way of knowing what he would have made of the police shooting of Michael Brown and the riots and militaristic police response that followed.  But Fein, who came of age during the civil rights movement, consistently pushed a retreating Jewish community to see the black struggle for equality and justice as a continuation of its own.

“And because we are Jews, and not white, and not black, we must see to it, as a community, that we do not come to act as whites,” Fein wrote in a 1970 column titled “Blacks, Jews and Utopia.” “Not only because it is forbidden us, not only because we of all people ought to know better, but because we shall cut ourselves off from our own future if we do. And because we are Jews, it is too much to insist that there ought, indeed, be a special relationship between us and Negroes, a relationship based not upon a common enemy, not upon a common history, but based instead upon a common purpose, the purpose of teaching America at long last what pluralism is all about.”

For a man so committed to Judaism’s “liberation theology,” Fein bloomed during Passover, and it was then that you could most often find his voice in these pages. For him, the holiday of freedom spoke to us directly through the ages, compelling us to obliterate whatever oppression blighted our modern world. In one memorable column, he talked of hosting a Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Eisa, who left his dermatology practice to work in Darfur among the victims of sexual violence.

“Much of seder time is devoted to making slavery real,” Fein wrote in 2012, “to ensuring that all of us see ourselves, our very selves, as having passed from slavery to freedom. This we accomplish, when we do, through a fierce act of imagination. Yet even when we seek not only to go back in time but to bring slavery in all its forms forward, to our own time, we deal mostly in abstractions. It helps to be able, as this Pesach we were, to break matzah with a flesh and blood eyewitness to both slavery and freedom. It enlarges us.”

Fein’s columns were a reminder, a scold, that the continuity of Jewish life is less important than the content.

As Fein wrote in Reform Judaism Magazine, “What would Judaism be without a fundamental commitment to defending the poor and the helpless?”

In his later years, his columns focused more and more on Israel. His deepest conviction was that the occupation subverted the best values of Judaism and the future of Zionism.

 I believe that Fein’s liberal critique, rooted in his love of Israel, reflected the majority of American Jewish opinion.

“There are people on the Left whose assaults on Israel are so brutal that they make me feel at one with the settlers,” he wrote in 2010. “My concern is with the very large swath of Jews who do care, many of them deeply, about Israel’s safety, and believe that Israel’s own policies contribute to its increasing isolation in the world.”

Fein never wanted to see Israel or Judaism isolated from the world. For him, the larger purpose of Jewish particularism was to serve the universal, to make the entire world a better place. 

“There is, however, one more question, a question whose answer cannot be evaded,” he said in a speech to Stanford University students in 1997. “It is the question that our faith imposes on us, for as you will recall, the truths of religion are not contained in the answers it offers, but in the questions it asks. …

 “Here then, religion’s most insistent, most urgent question: What will you do? That question does not call for speculation; it calls for commitment, it calls for action.”

Judaism lived correctly, Fein’s Judaism, is not parochial. It is as concerned with the death of Michael Brown as it is with the knowledge of ritual and text.  It points us to care for one another, for our community, as a path to embracing the world. Judaism done right, doesn’t make us more Jewish, it makes us more human.  As Leonard Fein would have said, it enlarges us.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.