I appreciate Rabbi Stern’s insightful and eloquent plea for the American Jewish community to make a concerted effort to begin building bridges to the Muslim world and to the American Muslim community in particular. It certainly is one of the gravest areas we need to address as we do a communal cheshbon ha-nefesh (spiritual accounting) ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
Another area that needs urgent attention–equally dire and even more frustrating because it is self-generated–is the tenor of discussion within our own community as different segments act in increasingly polarizing ways and use increasingly provocative language in an attempt to delegitimize others.
Just some of the sordid examples include the demonization of the Conservative movement after its decision earlier this year to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Another is the refusal of former President of Israel Moshe Katzav to refer to Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism as ‘rabbi’ in June. Meanwhile, Orthodox rabbis in Israel disenfranchised Orthodox rabbis in North America by refusing to accept their conversions in all but a small number of cases. On the other side, rhetoric has heated up in some parts of the Jewish world decrying Israel’s settlement policies, while Noah Feldman bashed Modern Orthodoxy (subscription required) for its supposed hypocrisy in attempting to maintain traditional observances while living fully in the modern world (at the same time, ultraorthodox papers have bashed the movement for being too far to the left!).
This lack of tolerance and frank effort at demonization threatens to undermine one of the core tenets of Jewish identity: that we are one people and, even when we disagree (as Jews have down through the ages) ultimately it’s still a disagreement between family. I believe this sad state of affairs, where leshon ha-ra (wicked speech) and sinat chinam (baseless hatred) are so casually accepted as part of doing business poses an even greater existential threat to the Jewish community than Islam ever could. Because if we can’t get our own house in order then we’re in no shape to take on any of the external challenges confronting us.