Though it first appeared in December with little fanfare, a recent article in the NY Times and many related blog postings have stirred up quite a controversy surrounding Prof. Alvin H. Rosenfeld's paper for the American Jewish Committee, entitled "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism."
This article has been on my mind for some time now, and I seem to keep intersecting with it or with the controversy surrounding it. I even included a story about the controversy in this week's C.Ha, a weekly Jewish teen e-magazine that I edit for Torah Aura Productions.
I won't go into great detail-you can find out all you want about the paper, and the paper itself, on the web. Basically, the paper accuses several prominent leftist Jews who have been critical of Israel of effectively aiding and abetting anti-Semitism. Though Rosenfeld responds to his critics that his intent is not to stifle debate, and is careful in his paper to include the words: "Criticizing [Israeli] policies and actions is, in itself, not anti-Semitic" he appears to believe that some criticism is over the top, and is illegitimate.
Well, this was the last thing I expected to be writing about in my Random Musing this week. And then I was reading through the haftarah for Yitro. It's from Isaiah chapters 6 and 7, with a little endcap from chapter 9.
The haftarah tells of Isaiah's encounter with the Divine and the message he [Isaiah] is to deliver to the people. [Scholars both medieval and modern believe that chapter 6 really belongs at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, as it is truly part of the Divine "call" to prophecy which begins so many other prophetic books (whereas Isaiah starts with the prophet's visions.) The haftarah contains the "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" uttered by the angels in Isaiah's vision and incorporated into Jewish worship. After the appearance and utterance of these angels, and subsequent earthquake-like activity, the prophet Isaiah is awestruck. He says
Woe is me, Said I. I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips. and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet these eyes of mine have seen the Sovereign, the G"d of heaven's hosts. (Isaiah 6:5, JPS)
An angel then proceeds to touch the prophets lip's with a coal, thus burning away his iniquities. Then G"d calls out wondering who shall be sent to the people. And Isaiah answers, in an echo of his ancestors: "Here I am; send me."
It's a powerful piece of text.
Then, as I began to explore various commentaries about these words, I came upon a story from the midrash that the angel brought a coal to Isaiah's lips not to cleanse him, but rather to punish him for defaming the people of Israel. The midrash contends that while G"d permits Isaiah to defame himself, it is not appropriate for Isaiah to also defame all of Israel at the same time. The midrash goes on to say that Isaiah then strongly repented of his error and sought to make redress by being a strong supporter of Israel, and for this G"d rewarded him by allowing no physical harm to have come to him from the coal to his lips.
Commentary after commentary I encountered referred to this Midrash. It simply cannot be coincidence that this ties in so directly with the furor over the Rosenfeld paper.
We have to ask why G"d would have been upset with Isaiah's condemnation of the people Israel. Was it once again vanity rearing it's ugly head? Yet surely G"d knew the stubbornness and obstinacy of this covenanted people. G"d must have known that the people of Israel were fraught with unclean lips.
Is G"d saying "don't say anything bad about Israel" ? I don't believe so. I believe G"d is saying to Isaiah (and thus to all of us) "don't presume to know the minds of others, and most certainly not that of a whole people." And I also believe G"d is saying to Isaiah "you do not lead a people to righteousness only through harsh criticism. You must remind them of their strengths, their goodness, and their capability to do what is right in the eyes of their G"d."
G"d knows that the free will G"d has given us can be used for good or for evil. G"d knows that we are not perfect, and that we often sin, sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally. Nevertheless, G"d has made a covenant with the Jewish people, and perhaps it is wise on our parts to show respect for G"d's choice and recognize that within us is the ability to serve G"d with gladness, and help G"d to with the work of ongoing creation that is our universe.
Well, all this being said, I still don't find myself fully in agreement with what Professor Rosenfeld has stated. Nor do I find myself fully in agreement with his critics. There is a point where constructive criticism becomes destructive criticism. How to determine where the line falls is the difficulty. And, since I assume the good intentions of even Israel's harshest critics among the Jewish people, I can only conclude that if some utterance of theirs did cross this elusive line, that it was an inadvertent sin at best, an act committed in the midst of deep passion regarding an issue of great import.
Surely we learn from this haftarah and the related midrash that while we are free to be derogatory toward ourselves, we are not equally free to speak derogatorily of an entire class. Both Professor Rosenfeld and his critics ought to keep that in mind. If we turn this into a "leftist Jews vs.. rightist Jews debate" we will surely live to regret it.
Add the end of the haftarah, the rabbis tacked on a piece of text from chapter 9. Messianic in nature, it has be co-opted by the Christian Community. Reading the text will clearly illustrate why:
For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. (Isaiah 9:5, JPS)
Jewish sages have interpreted this prophecy as referring to Hezekiah. Clearly Christians have a different "son" and "father" in mind. The verse go on to state that G"d will call this child the ruler of peace, and that he shall preside over an eternal peace for the descendants of King David. It is to the final words of the haftarah that I now call attention.
Lovers and critics of Israel alike are driven by their passions. That is the nature of human beings. Yet we often fail to make room for the passion of the One whose passion will triumph over all:
The passionate determination of the G"d of heaven's hosts will bring this about. (Isaiah 9:6)
I'm in no position to lecture or warn G"d, but I will warn all of us - the root quf-nun-alef - which is the base of the word "kinat" that the JPS committee translates as "passionate determination" - can mean passion, yet can also mean zealousness, or even jealousy. Both the future of the people Israel and the nation Israel are at stake. We would do well to pay heed to how our passions play out.
(In Memory of Florence Melton z"l)
Adrian ©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
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