We Are Who We Know: A Story About Ideological Kidnapping

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 31, 2024 / 23 Iyar 5784

Summary: In addition to external threats, the Jewish community is facing a schism where Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews no longer speak to one another or, at best, avoid discussing Israel and the new antisemitism. Does this schism serve us, or should we engage across chasms of understanding?

Reading Time: Nine minutes

We all have thoughts on the old nature vs. nurture argument. While it can be valuable when discussing temperament or other aspects of personality, most of us understand that a large component of who we are derives from the people we know. It is why parenthood is such an awesome responsibility. A large part of who we are is because of our home environment. At the same time, sometimes a single interaction can change both the direction of our lives as well as something more fundamental about who we are.

In Mitch Albom’s novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the main character, Eddie, dies. In heaven, he meets five people who changed his life and whose lives he changed. In the process, he comes to understand the purpose of his own existence, something that was until then hidden from him.

Albom is well known for his bestselling memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie, which tracks the 14 lunch meetings he had with his former professor, Morrie, who was battling ALS. Those encounters changed Albom profoundly, teaching him about work, society, love, and death, which served as the inspiration to write The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

These thoughts have preoccupied me ever since the college campus protests exploded. While an important part of those histories is yet to be written about this time in America, future histories will of necessity track the money involved in these protests as well as the decades-long strategic ideological war that has been waged against Israel and Jews. Closer at hand, I have pondered most deeply the presence of young Jews who have taken part. Why were they there? Which encounters shaped them? How have they learned to evaluate relative evil in the world and respond to it? Who were their five people, so to speak? There is an important mystery here that the Jewish community needs to unravel.

As with the character Eddie, most of us don’t know the full impact of our lives. Sometimes, as with the people who shape us, we can be incredibly unaware of why we think what we think. Ideas don’t magically appear in our own minds. There is a history to them, one which we can study to understand better the larger, often invisible forces that shape us. Given this, I want to share two recent stories that illustrate these musings.

The first occurred on a Wednesday evening two weeks ago. I drove up to La Center, Washington, a small city of 4,000 people in Clark County. La Center is probably best known for its casino gambling, followed by some wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation. But I didn’t make the hour drive out to La Center for either of those reasons. I went because Aaron Langfus was a congregant who died in my first year here, and his family remains a part of our kehillah. In ways that Aaron could not have guessed, his story intersected with a town hall meeting in La Center’s small city hall.

A few weeks earlier, Thomas Stroehben called me. While I had never met the man, Tom is the mayor of La Center who wanted to enlist my help in composing a resolution in support of Israel and its right to self-defense. Tom is not Jewish, but growing up, Aaron Langfus was an important mentor to him. From Tom, he learned the value of honesty, hard work, and treating people fairly. Aaron also taught him about business; the lessons took, because Tom now owns several businesses in addition to serving his town as mayor. Because of that relationship, Tom came to learn about Jewish people, Israel, and the values of our ancient people. After the massacre of October 7th, he knew he had to do something; the resolution we co-wrote was the fruit of his friendship with Aaron. He invited me up to La Center because it was personally important to him that Aaron’s rabbi—or at least the senior rabbi of Aaron’s synagogue—should receive the proclamation.

Speaking personally, I would prefer that cities and municipalities don’t make any proclamations or resolutions about events halfway around the world unless those events directly impact life locally. That said, there was no way that I was not going to honor Tom’s request or the memory of Aaron Langfus. It was worth the three hours to me to be part of this great mystery in which one person’s life redirects another person’s biographical trajectory.

That’s the story of one of Thomas Stroehben’s five people. But what of the Jewish protestors, or Jewish Voice for Peace, or all the other Jews who are flirting with or committed to anti-Zionism? Who or what led them to turn away from the ancient Jewish desire to return to the land of our origins? Why has a small but increasingly vocal number of Jews begun to distance themselves from the fabulously imperfect experiment in Jewish self-rule after thousands of years of persecution and exile? For me, the reestablishment of Israel is one of the greatest chapters in our history. No one can know anything about who they truly are until they have self-rule and are forced to make excruciating choices, yet by and large, the anti-Zionist camp doesn’t view things this way.

Nonetheless, some of us have directly engaged this segment of the Jewish community; as a result, we possess a few apocryphal stories. We have attempted in good faith to learn what motivates these Jews, yet in substantial measure, the bulk of the Jewish community wants nothing to do with these outliers. I have tremendous sympathy for this large segment of the Jewish world. We are in a moment of existential crisis nationally and internationally; at such a time, giving an ear to those Jews who seem to espouse beliefs that would threaten the security of seven million Jews in Israel is difficult at best.

Even so, disengagement is a mistake of epic proportions, for we are witnessing a schism in the Jewish body unfolding in front of us in real time, not so dissimilar to the rifts that gave birth to the Qumran community who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. If we don’t address this schism, it won’t magically disappear; it will only grow wider and deeper, which brings me to the second story. A number of days ago, I had a Zoom call with five members of Portland’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. The background for this meeting began before the pandemic, when a member called me to see if I would be willing to use some of the dialogic skills that those of us who are part of Israel360 have been developing over the past seven years. Those skills include things like non-violent communication, a commitment to engage in difficult conversations, and a courageous willingness to defend the values of curiosity, coupled with a belief that conversational taboos are dangerous to society as a whole. Their hope was that I could lead them through a facilitated discussion.

With the pandemic over, they were asking if I would be willing to revisit those earlier discussions and to host a panel or small-group gathering here at Neveh Shalom. These individuals feel that the organized Jewish community has turned its back on them. I mentioned earlier the way that it is hard to listen to those Jews who would like to see the safe haven of Israel dismantled, even here it is important to be even-handed. Most of the JVP individuals I met are not spurned by the organized Jewish community per se. Rather, they themselves choose not to be involved and have relegated themselves to being “single-issue, not in my name” Jews. In a certain sense, by removing themselves from the dimensions of Jewish life that are not connected to Israel, they are “centering” the Zionism that they so dislike. Their absence from the religious, social, and cultural life of synagogues like Neveh Shalom, unintentionally states that the only part of Judaism that matters is Zionism. They just happened to be against it.

The individuals with whom I met told me that their goal is not to convince anyone of their opinions; they simply want to be heard. They still need to complete some groundwork, and I need to more thoroughly think through if this is a project that would benefit our congregation. The contours and details of such an evening are essential in my decision-making process. As we all know, both God and the Devil are found in the details.

This is not simple or easy. Israeli friends with whom I have spoken feel that if people stand against their very existence, engagement is both a waste of time and dangerous. It is also true that many of us are living with a renewed sense of vulnerability and fragility that hasn’t been experienced since the Shoah. The ground has shifted underneath our feet. For many of us, Neveh Shalom is a solitary haven where we can unabashedly feel safe in our Jewish skins. CNS must remain a bastion for us in troubled times.

Yet I have staked my rabbinate on a willingness to host difficult conversations. There is nothing more Jewish. How do we balance these conflicting sensitivities and needs? Sometimes how we think about a dilemma can shift the emotional valence and free us so that we don’t get derailed by our powerful commitments, fears, or even our righteous anger. One useful approach to this is turning to our sacred texts for insight.

Given that, there is a very potent concept in the Talmud: k’tinok sh’nishba dami. This translates as “someone who is likened to a Jewish child who is taken captive and raised among non-Jews.” Its origins concern the halakhic status of someone who actively flouts Jewish law and tradition. Would it be right to hold them to the same standards as someone who was raised within a committed and learned Jewish environment?

In our sacred literature, such individuals are often treated with leniency in terms of religious observance and legal responsibility, recognizing their ignorance rather than willful non-compliance. The concept is used to encourage outreach and education, promoting inclusion within the Jewish community.

As I think about this schism in which we find ourselves, it has been useful to consider how this concept can be applied to most Jews whose secular education outstrips their Jewish knowledge. Our minds have been colonized by foreign ideas; although much of that learning is valuable, such as the study of science, we are facing an extreme form of ideological kidnapping even as many Jewish bodies remain literally held in captivity. We are who we know, and too often, even our thoughts are not our own.

My older son just returned from college. While his Vermont campus didn’t face the sort of extreme protests we witnessed at Columbia and at Portland State, it was not immune. Something that he shared with me stuck. “Virtually every Jew involved in the protests in Vermont had no connection to Jewish life or religion.” They were, in other words, like an infant held in captivity. We never had a chance to develop their Yiddishe neshamas, their Jewish souls. Additionally, at other campuses, some of the Jewish protestors are part of the Jewish community. While I acknowledge that members of Jewish Voice for Peace might take umbrage at being compared with infants who were captured, this concept isn’t for them. They obviously get to identify themselves, so they believe that they stand on the right side of history, just as I am entitled to think their beliefs are misguided and dangerous.

Rather, this concept of a child held in captivity provides for those of us who feel emotionally connected to Israel a way out of the dilemma this schism presents. It is an opening in the way we think about those Jews so that we don’t write them off.

It is worth noting that we have been here before. When large numbers of Jews began to marry non-Jews, the organized Jewish community viewed these people as dangerous and an existential threat. At the time, it was imagined that they were actively and intentionally spurning the Jewish community, which worried that if the trend in intermarriage continued, the Jewish people would disappear. Yet over the decades, as we grew less fearful, we found a way to welcome them back into the fold. In the end, this level of reciprocal trust resulted in a strengthening of the Jewish community. So many of our mixed-heritage families are deeply committed to Jewish life and to raising proud Jewish youth. Clearly, this analogy is imperfect; interfaith families loved who they loved and didn’t actively seek to harm the Jewish state. Yet even an imperfect analogy can still enhance our understanding.

None of us can say whether something similar is possible here, but I think the risk of engagement with anti-Zionist Jews is less dangerous than sitting shivah for them. Like Eddie, we can never know whose lives we change.

What do you think? Let me know.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.