The Talmudic tradition has a name for the person who dissents from an important belief or dogma. That one is called the Kofer Ba-Ikkar, one who refuses to affirm some important principle of Torah or Jewish life. It is not often used as a compliment. Anyone who has served on the board of an organization, however, knows the dissenter is an invaluable member of that group. She or he may come at an issue from an angle that others had not considered and, while sometimes annoying fellow members who expect a quick decision that will get them home early, may prevent a resolution that would be deleterious to the purpose of that community. Sometimes the Kofer Ba-Ikkar raises objections that others have not considered or are not sufficiently bold to suggest.
From time to time a rabbi will find herself in the position of dissenter, telling her congregational board that such and such a practice should not be permitted or that a moral stand must be affirmed even though it may offend a donor or group. “No, we cannot serve that food.” “Yes, we have to observe that festival on its appointed date even though it conflicts with a civic event or final exams.” “No, the congregation must not defend home demolitions or settlement expansion by Israel even though it is, after all, Israel.”
That last one has gotten me into hot water repeatedly for many years. I always felt as though I was the one of only a few who saw that the emperor had no clothes; that is until I started a chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (The Covenant of Justice and Peace), an organization that was pro-Israel but recognized the need to work for an end to Israel’s occupation and for two states, Israeli and Palestinian even during the Second Intifada, a time when few in the Jewish community were willing to discuss such a direction. I soon became a member of the organization’s national board and found myself working with a couple of dozen other Jewish leaders, extraodinary individuals, who realized that the emperor needed a robe, and quick.
Sometimes, the established members of a group find themselves particularly perturbed by dissenters and the American Jewish establishment did all it could to ignore us or just plain vilify us when necessary. Brit Tzedek organized petitions and letter writing campaigns; lobbied members of the House and Senate; organized many American Jewish communities and their rabbis, and shouted from the rooftops when Israel acted in a way to obstruct peace. We also shouted when Palestinians obstructed but there were no Palestinians in the leadership of Brit Tzedek. This was a Jewish organization focused on what Jews and the Jewish State might do to bring justice and peace.
I am deeply proud of the work done for nearly a decade by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, which is now a component of J Street. We helped change American Jewry’s willingness to acknowledge that blind veneration of Israel was corrosive of human rights, harmful to Israel, and damaging to the religious integrity of American Jews. Because of this organization and others, like Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Center, my political representatives are more effective and my congregants are far more clear sighted when they see the emperor. And I believe because of this small but powerful nationwide movement, Israel will one day be more secure, more hopeful, and more just.
Rabbi John Friedman