The Questioning Spirit

"Pot rabbi has higher calling."

So screamed a New York Post headline on Aug. 19, 2005. In the leafy suburbs north of New York City, Rabbi Steven Kane, the longtime spiritual leader at Congregation Sons of Israel, had been arrested for driving under the influence. Police found nearly an ounce of marijuana in the clergyman's possession.

In Briarcliff Manor, a wealthy enclave organized almost entirely around child-rearing, Kane's predicament became the talk of the town. In a world where cars are a frequent 16th-birthday present, many parents lived in constant fear of high school students driving while impaired. After the arrest, it was hardly unreasonable for congregants to question Kane's fitness as a moral leader. Several community meetings were held to discuss the rabbi's future. "People listen to what a rabbi says and does," one disgruntled former congregant told the New York Times. "When you have that position in the community and you get arrested while driving under the influence, it really throws a wrench in the standing you have in the community. Those are really poor choices you are making."

I knew Rabbi Kane. I grew up attending his synagogue, spending several hours a week there at Hebrew school, supplemental Torah study, and then, for a short time, participating in a Jewish teen youth group. Rabbi Kane blessed me at my bat mitzvah ceremony, placing his large hands on top of my head and chanting over me in Hebrew: "May she find favor before God and people everywhere. And let us say: Amen."

Strangely -- because I am not now a religious believer and never was -- I remember that moment as one of the proudest and most moving of my childhood. So when I read about Kane's arrest during my senior year of college, I felt sorry for him. He was a thoughtful, handsome, mild-mannered guy; too intelligent, probably, for the malaise of Jewish Westchester County, a world defined culturally, in my mind, by the crass materialism of black-tie bar mitzvah parties for 13-year olds, held in hotel ballrooms.

At 21, I laughed ruefully at the horde of twittering suburbanites obsessing over the recreational marijuana use of a young rabbi, as if it were the ethical quandary of the century. I was relieved to have escaped, and pleasantly surprised to learn, later that year, that Congregation Sons of Israel chose, despite some outcry, to renew the rabbi's contract.

I tell this story now because the Passover season is one of the few times each year when I think back, in detail, on my Jewish education. The story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt is most frequently understood as a tale of liberation, of the journey from slavery to freedom. Hence the significance, described so eloquently by my colleague Adam Serwer, of Barack Obama, our first black president, also hosting the first-ever White House seder.

And yet, if you dig a bit deeper, Passover is also a cautionary tale against assimilation. The Jews living in Egypt had not always been slaves, the Torah tells us. For a time, they were a wealthy and privileged minority group. Jews worked as advisers in the courts of the Pharaohs. Yet as the generations passed and Egypt entered into a time of war with its neighbors, the majority became suspicious of the Jewish minority. "These people will side with our enemies against us," Egyptians thought. And so they enslaved us, and then killed our sons.

Pair this narrative -- the most central to the Jewish faith -- with lesson upon lesson about the Holocaust, and you can begin to understand the oppression ideology with which American Jewish children are raised. Now look at the lives of many of these children -- cosseted, suburban, affluent -- and you can begin to understand the bipolar nature of Jewishness in America.

To be sure, a significant percentage of the United States' approximately six million Jews have no Jewish education at all, especially those who are the product of intermarriage. And a tiny handful of Jews choose to give their children a secular, politically liberal Jewish education through organizations like The Workmen's Circle, which focus on social justice and tend to prioritize Eastern European, Yiddish culture over Zionism and Hebrew.

Yet the institutions that claim to speak for the broadest swaths of mainstream American Jewry -- the three unions of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations -- explicitly teach children not to identify with the Jewish people's long, Diaspora history as a strange people living in a series of strange lands. Rather, they valorize Zionism and Israel, often discouraging any critical thinking about either the history of the Jewish state or its present-day politics.

Raised as a Conservative-movement Jew, it was not until college that I learned about Israeli history -- written by Jews -- documenting the stories of the 800,000 Palestinians displaced by Israel's founding. At synagogue, I heard nothing about the daily lives of the nearly four million stateless Palestinian Arabs living in the lands seized by Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967.

Hebrew School taught me that Israel was the Jewish people's answer to the Holocaust, and that its open immigration policies for Jews would prevent the occurrence of another genocide. In medieval and early-modern Europe, laws often prohibited Jews from owning weapons or serving in the military. One teacher told us that Jewish men were regularly forced to stand by, idly, as Gentile brutes raped their wives and daughters. But in Israel, the Jewish people would no longer be weak, effeminate, or intellectualized. In Israel, we became sabres, or prickly pears -- still sweet and loving internally, but proudly tough and dangerous on the outside. In Israel, we would carry machine guns.

So we teach Jewish children about Hannah Senesh, the brave Zionist poet who parachuted behind German lines to warn Jews about the death camps, but not about Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher who declared herself in complete "opposition" to post-war Zionist politics. "Only folly could dictate a policy that trusts distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbors," Arendt wrote of Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, which was enabled by Great Britain and the United States. In Hebrew School, I heard the tale of the biblical strongman, Samson, but not that of Baruch Spinoza, the Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose ancestors escaped the Inquisition, and who was ejected from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for questioning the existence of God and declaring "good" and "evil" to be relative concepts, ones subject to human reason and socio-cultural mores.

Yet the questioning spirit of Arendt and Spinoza is particularly important to recall during the Passover season. "The Four Questions" have always been my favorite part of the Passover Haggadah, the text that is read aloud during the seder. We learn about four Jewish children -- one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who cannot yet speak -- who ask their elders to explain the holiday's meaning.

That image of a curious child -- a child who deserves a thoughtful, honest answer -- is more crucial than ever this year, as Passover coincides with the inauguration of a reactionary Israeli government, elected on the explicit platform of denying Palestinian statehood. The foreign minister of this new government, Avigdor Lieberman, is a racist who has suggested that Israel's Arab citizens sign loyalty oaths and who has said, "Minorities are the biggest problem in the world." American Jews, many of whom feel their own minority status keenly, ought to have a great number of questions about how this regime came to power, and whether we are comfortable with its politics representing us on the world stage.

The Jewish people have a 3,000-year history of exile. The intellectual vigor of our people was fostered not only by our devotion to the Torah -- "the book" -- but also experientially, by generation upon generation forced to make sense of societies that were alien to us, and often cruel and hostile. In Israel today, that dynamic is reversed. It is Jews who have the power, as conservatives like Avigdor Lieberman know well. It is a power whose exploitation they relish.

The American Diaspora has the responsibility to grapple with this tension at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity. Certainly, if we can openly debate whether a local rabbi who drives while high deserves forgiveness, it is our responsibility to think critically about weightier matters, as well. Yet our Hebrew schools discourage any nuanced debate about Israel, the land that is supposed to be our spiritual homeland and the embodiment of our people's history and hopes. Many younger, politically-informed Jews are turned off by this willful blindness. We do not intend to perpetuate it. The question is, will our parents and their institutions join us in our questioning, or will they block our way?

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