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August 18, 1995 - Image 120

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-08-18

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Holier Than Thou
On The West Bank?



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ere is a little quiz:
1. What distinguished
American rabbi, in the
Passover Haggadah he
published in 1983, wrote these
words: "Despite the fact that
there is tension between partic-
ularism and universalism, be-
tween chauvinism and
cosmopolitanism, both are part
of the Jew's life cycle. That they
can be reconciled is an important
motif of the Kiddush. By making
reference in this blessing to both
the creation of the world and the
Exodus from Egypt, we affirm
that there is no conflict between
the two."
And also: "We remember that
our cup of celebration cannot be
full to the brim if our redemption
was brought about as a result of
the destruction of human be-
2. What distinguished Amer-
ican rabbi, who later made aliyah
and now lives in Israel, said this
in 1984: "I don't say it with pride,
I don't say it with joy, I don't say
it with happiness, [but] if you're
fighting for fundamental sur-
vival, there's very little emotional
energy left for anything else ... If
I am a Jew living in a foreign
host country, I don't have that
much responsibility. The truth
is, I can walk down Broadway
and I can see a bag lady, and I
can see a drunk, and it's not cor-
rect but it's normal and human,
and I'm not justifying it, but I can
say to myself 'It's not my bag
lady, it's not my drunk,' and to a
certain extent, I can evade re-
sponsibility for those people."
No one contributed more to
the rekindling of Jewish enthu-
siasms is the 1970s than the au-
thor of both these statements,
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, then of
Lincoln Square Synagogue in
New York. And Rabbi Riskin,
given his views on the limitations
built into living in "a foreign host
country," had the intellectual
grace to pick himself up and
move to Israel — where, pre-
sumably, he would not feel the
conflict he acknowledged feeling
here. He could be Rabbi Riskin
of the God universal rather than
Rabbi Riskin of the inevitably
constricted Diaspora condition.
Well, not quite. As those who
follow the unfolding story of set-
tler civil disobedience in Israel
know, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has
become one of the noisier chau-
vinist protesters. In his early
years as rabbi of Efrat, a village

Leonard Fein is a free-lance

writer based in Boston.

between Bethlehem and Hebron
— meaning, of course, a village
in the West Bank — Rabbi
Riskin saw himself as a moder-
ate, reaching out in kindness to
Efrat's Arab neighbors.
But now that there's momen-
tum to the prospect of a "rede-
ployment" of Israel's troops, and
the area where Efrat is situat-
ed seems likely to be included in
a Palestinian state, no more Mr.
Nice Guy for Rabbi Riskin. I
haven't spoken to Rabbi Riskin
in some years. I imagine, were I
to refer him to his own Passover
Haggadah language, he'd focus
on the "life cycle" to which he al-
ludes, and assert that this is a
time for chauvinism. And per-
haps, notwithstanding his em-
phatic view that Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin is a "radical," he'd
assert that with regret, just as
he seemed to regret his inability
to regard the bag lclies just out-
side his New York synagogue as
"his" bag ladies.

Holiness is about
peacemaking, not

But lest we who observe these
events be seduced by the evi-
dence of Rabbi Riskin's internal
conflict, conclude there from that
he's surely no wild-eyed extrem-
ist, that he is a settler with soul,
we should bear in mind that the
issue here (as Rabbi Riskin him-
self would surely agree) is not the
soulfulness of the actor but the
wisdom of the action. The "but
he's such a nice person, so sensi-
tive" argument is relevant only
to the sorrow with which the ob-
server must view the rabbi's ac-
The rabbi's civil disobedience
is not the issue, not at all. It's jar-
ring to encounter civil disobedi-
ence in Israel, but all of us who
celebrate a free society, the more
so those of us who applauded civ-
il disobedience when it happened
here on behalf of civil rights,
must not only accept that "it can
happen there," but that the fact
of its happening is a healthy de-
No, it's not Rabbi Riskin's civ-
il disobedience that saddens, and
angers. It is, instead, the abso-
lutism that informs it. Extrem-
ism in defense of virtue may be
no vice, but it is not a virtue to
prefer land to peace, and that is
what the Riskin position (shared,

HOLINESS page 122

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