When do we walk the path together?: Discernment in Establishing Coalitions

“See this day, I set before you, bracha uklalah — blessing and curse” (Deut 11:26).  It’s one or the other.  Elie Wiesel taught us: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. We must take sides.”

We can explore the issues, and learn from those who are different.  But then, ultimately, we must take sides.  The side of blessing or the side of curse.  Commentators say the phrase from God, saying: “I set before you” indicates free will.  It is our choice to make   We need to determine, which is the path of blessing.

I’m filled with gratitude to have seen so many of you on Sunday at the “Vigil for Those Who Stood Against Hate in Charlottesville, and on Wednesday where Rabbi Freedman spoke so powerfully, at the “Philly is Charlottesville: Unmasking Racism” march.  For when it comes to the anti-semitism and bigotry of white supremacy, the issue is not nuanced.  We take sides.  Hate does not require debate.  For we have moral clarity, that we are all created in the image of God, and your presence this week has demonstrated moral leadership.

Even as our congregation takes the clear side against bigotry, we do face some tricky questions about how to be involved, and how not to be involved.  I would like to step back, and to examine with you, some of the complexities I face when we collaborate with other groups, to respond to hate.  In this pursuit of the path of blessing, what happens when we encounter groups who share our path on one issue, but oppose our principles on another?  When do we walk the path together?  Which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the right partners for us?

First, a story.  On Wednesday night’s “Philly is Charlottesville” march, I walked for some time, with one of the organizers of Sunday’s Vigil.  I shared with this woman how much I appreciated the opportunity to speak there, but also my discomfort with some of the messages that were presented, including disrespectful attitudes, profane speech (I am very square), and militant speech.  This organizer explained to me that when she was invited to help, she knew she would not be comfortable with all that was said.  But this woman, a Jewish woman, also knew that without her enlisting rabbis to speak, the vigil would not have a Jewish voice. And the organizers would remain more distant from the issues that matter most to the Jewish community.  And so she stretched her boundaries.  This woman’s story reflects much of my recent thinking…

I have been challenged by the question: Which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the right partners for us, and I have been revisiting some of my past boundaries.

For instance: I love Israel and understand its existence and security as critical to the Jewish people.  And I also care deeply about a Two-State Solution that will offer opportunity and dignity to the Palestinians, and also I oppose the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, that is BDS, movement which I see as both anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.  So I deliberately avoid partnering with groups who make BDS their mission.  This becomes a dilemma for me when a women’s or an anti-racism initiative includes organizers or speakers, who are also BDS activists.   Do I participate, risking association with groups I oppose?  Or do I stay home, risking complacency, and risking an absence of a Jewish voice… and knowing that when I stay home, I distance these other groups from getting to know and understand Jews.

I have sought out some wisdom that has stretched me outside of my comfort zone, in the question of alliances.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently taught, that for some of us, it may be time to experiment with our restrictions.  For sometimes, the big community-wide gathering that advocates our most cherished principles, is the one with co-sponsors who offend us.  Rabbi Jacobs said, although you cannot guarantee that you won’t be associated with others present, perhaps attend the event if, for instance, a BDS organization is just one of many who is co-sponsoring.  And perhaps don’t sit next to them on the dais, or have your photograph taken with them.  It’s a helpful model– coalition, where we don’t entirely link arms– relationship, with limits.

Even so, there do exist groups, beside whom, I just cannot march.  How do we discern the difference?  Of course, there is no perfect formula.

But give the problem to a “nerdy” enough scholar, and he will try!

Sure enough, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Yehudah Kurtzer, tries to quantify a solution!  Kurtzer asks the question: What compromises are we willing to make, on other core commitments, in order to effectively organize with those who share this core commitment? Yehudah Kurtzer proposes that, we each articulate to ourselves, our highest moral imperatives.  Then, create a second, longer list of additional moral concerns. Kurtzer submits that when building coalitions, we employ a “two-third and 51%” rule.  Kurtzer teaches the ⅔ and 51% rule, means that we would build an alliance with people who share, or at least who do not operate in contradistinction to, ⅔ of my core moral imperatives list and 51% of my secondary moral concerns list.

Of course, still, not a perfect formula.  Yet, even without calculating exactly, Kurtzer’s model offers a helpful and clear message: When asking: “Which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the right partners for us,” we should consider, that we do not need to agree on everything, even when it comes to our highest moral commitments.  And, understand that the fence should not open not wide enough for every potential coalition.

I am not suggesting recklessness.  I am inviting you struggle with me, and to share your point of view.  The discernment is difficult; the balance imperfect.  But these days, I feel much more compelled to be challenged to consider new approaches, and bring new ideas to groups who do not really know us, then I feel afraid to be associated with the wrong group.  Because, the greatest risk I see is that we will stay home too often.  Irrelevant, silent, not taking sides–these are the most dangerous risks to Reform Judaism–to prophetic Judaism.

Reform Jews takes seriously our responsibility to have an impact.  It is who we are.  To turn for a moment to our history: This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Reform Rabbinate’s resolution, in support of women’s suffrage.  Not only was the policy controversial in its time, the Women’s Movement leadership, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was known for anti-Semitism; we in 2017 are not the first generation, to work for causes with those we oppose on other issues.

For the rabbis 100 years ago, ultimately, it did not stop them.  In the summer of 1917, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis, published these words: “We feel it is our solemn duty as ethical leaders and as preachers of a religion, which has stood throughout the centuries, for justice and righteousness, to assert our belief in the justice and righteousness, of the enfranchisement of the women of our country.”

For the Reform rabbis 100 years ago, and for us today, coalitions can challenge our boundaries.  But if we let go, enough to peak over the fences we have built, I think we will see: When we walk the path with an organization we oppose, we are not at risk of supporting that organization’s cause; we are cautious because the people with whom we stand, say something about who we are.  The question is, does staying home, say more about who we are.  Sometimes it may.

As we face the moral imperatives of our time, may we remember Elie Wiesel’s words: “We must take sides.”  For, as the Reform rabbis said 100 years ago: We are of a religion, which has stood throughout the centuries, for justice and righteousness.  The challenges are complicated and the path is thorny, but let us not shy away from hard questions, That we may hear the words of Torah:  “See this day, I set before you, bracha uklala — blessing and curse,” and that we may choose blessing!