My general policy is to restrict any public criticism to groups and trends within my own denomination of Orthodoxy; self-criticism is a more important and effective move than castigating others. Nevertheless, I will make an exception for the recent Michael Chabon controversy since it reflects on broader contemporary intellectual and social tendencies that merit serious reflection and analysis. As was widely covered, Chabon delivered a commencement speech at the recent Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) graduation ceremony in Los Angeles in which the popular author was harshly critical of Israel, Judaism, religious Jews, and endogamy. In a subsequent JTA op-ed, the interim president and chancellor emeritus of HUC-JIR, Rabbi David Ellenson, and the dean of the LA campus, Rabbi Joshua Holo defended the talk:
“It does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a preemptive fear of controversy. On the contrary, we know that the confidence to invite challenging ideas both defines and validates democracy in the first place… We must resist the dismissal of any and all critique as simply anti-Israel.”
Put this way, it is hard to argue with these two prominent rabbis. After all, we favor critical thinking, facing challenges, and acknowledging our transgressions. However, their presentation of the opposition to the choice of Chabon is neither fair nor accurate. Those upset about Chabon’s lecture do not necessarily dismiss “any and all” critique of Israel — rather they believe that Chabon’s particular censure of the Jewish state lacks merit. Furthermore, those unhappy with the choice of speaker were not afraid of controversy, they simply preferred a speaker with an intelligent and well balanced message.
Does Chabon’s depiction of Jews marrying within as “a ghetto of two” cohere with the core ideals of HUC?
Before proceeding to the essence of the argument, I would like to note that graduation ceremonies usually celebrate the ideals of an institution. It would be odd for an HUC graduation to feature an Orthodox rabbi ripping into the Reform community for lack of halachik commitment. Does Chabon’s depiction of Jews marrying within as “a ghetto of two” cohere with the core ideals of HUC?
Even when we justify the general decision to host a critical or challenging speaker, the specific individual selected also matters. Let us say that HUC chooses next year to host a critic from the right. I think we would all be justified in preferring Jordan Peterson or Bret Stephens over, say, Sean Hannity or Stephen Bannon. If Hannity or Bannon were invited, the community would rightly be up in arms. Rabbis Ellenson and Halo would most likely not defend such a choice as a means of inviting challenging ideas.
Those who would like to don the mantle of challenging critic should first make sure that their criticism is balanced and accurate for both moral and pragmatic reasons.
The above analogy may offend some readers; how can I compare a Pulitzer Prize winning author with darlings of the alt-right? Unfortunately, being an acclaimed author or intellectual does not guarantee political wisdom or moral decency. Mircea Eliade, Ezra Pound, Jean Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky all illustrate how great artistic talent and deep intelligence can go together with politically pernicious positions. Occasionally, it can feel as if liberals relate to noted authors as charedim relate to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah (rabbinical policy-making council). That by definition, their words carry wisdom and weight.
Those who would like to don the mantle of challenging critic should first make sure that their criticism is balanced and accurate for both moral and pragmatic reasons. Moral because we favor honesty and fairness, and pragmatic because skewed presentations cannot convince anybody who does not already agree. Did Chabon’s depictions of Israel, Jews, and Judaism in his address meet this test?
Regarding Judaism, Chabon complains about the akedah (binding of Isaac), Purim, the killing of innocent animals in the flood, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the story of Exodus. Even if we assume that we cannot offer reasonable justifications for these episodes, does that constitute the totality of our tradition? The moral beauty of the Torah’s concern for the stranger or the utopian visions of Isaiah seem quite relevant to the conversation. The intellectual depth of Torah study and the sanctity of communal ritual also merit mention. Would Chabon describe Christianity as being just the Inquisition and the Crusades or the left side of the political map as Stalin and Pol Pot?
Would Chabon describe Christianity as being just the Inquisition and the Crusades or the left side of the political map as Stalin and Pol Pot?
The religiously observant Jews Chabon mentioned (other than his brother and sister-in-law) include Baruch Goldstein, charedim with extremist views on girls’ education, and “eight hundred zealots” in Hebron described as a “riotous group of convicts.” Is that it? Does such a list accurately identify the nature of religious Jewry? If a Caucasian speaking about the African American community only focused on Louis Farrakhan and Henry Louis Wallace, would we not justifiably call such a person a racist?
Turning to politics, Chabon informs us that “nations and borders are antiquated canards,” and we should “knock down the walls and abolish the checkpoints.” He continues to say that those who distinguish between “walls that protect” and “walls that imprison” utilize ”dark logic.” This simplistic account fails to recognize that too many people on the other sides of those walls and checkpoints would like to commit mass murder and bring about the destruction of the Jewish state. Before building the security barrier, Israel suffered from a wave of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. I am also uncomfortable at seeing Palestinians pass through a checkpoint but I morally prefer that discomfort to greatly increasing the danger for the youth of my neighborhood every time they wander the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Chabon’s naïve presentation does nothing to advance the discussion. Israel is certainly not perfect but it is also definitely not the moral monstrosity that Chabon thinks it is.
Though Chabon begins by describing himself as someone who prizes “ambiguity, ambivalence….and complexity,” he then proceeds to give a crude black and white account which paints religious Jews, Judaism, and the state of Israel in the darkest of hues.
I doubt that Chabon will rethink his positions but Rabbis Ellenson and Halo can still show courage and character by backtracking and admitting that they made a serious error.
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Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem.