From the Rabbi - February 2012 Print
 Dear Friends:

In mid-January, we took a group of CBI teens to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Selena Auditorium.  Of course, the star of the production was Tevya, and he displayed his characteristic conversations with himself and with God.  Part of his inimitable style was to consider alternative ways of approaching any problem: “On the one hand,” he would say, “but then again on the other hand.”

Tevya was caught up in a world that was changing in radical ways.  On the one hand, he was deeply connected to traditions that he had grown up with and that he desperately wanted to pass on to the next generation.  But on the other hand, he also recognized, however reluctantly, that new values and new practices were encroaching on the life he had always known.
Sholom Aleichem’s conflicted hero lived in a Russian-Polish shtetl over a century ago.  Yet his approach to life is as modern as 2012.  We understand that most serious issues have at least two sides, and we devote great amounts of energy and time to contrasting these various perspectives before we make a decision.
That is how we act, but it is not a universally-accepted procedure in the Jewish world of today.  Among the ultra-Orthodox, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, there are Haredim who contend that there is and can be only one answer to any question.  Their understanding of Torah represents the only possible, only correct approach to any issue; nothing else can be envisioned, and everything else is “treif.”  Their way of dealing with problems is authentic for them and legitimate within their worldview, but it is as foreign to us as the now-nonexistent shtetl of Anatevka.

More than forty years ago, I heard Elie Wiesel talk about the concept of Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel.  Aside from the feelings of loyalty and affection that nearly all Jews have for the modern State of Israel, he suggested that this phrase encompasses two very different types of Jews.    (As I recall, he was talking to rabbinical students about the Vietnam war and their choice either to oppose the war by refusing to serve as military chaplains or to swallow their opposition and serve because the men and women drafted into the military had no choice and needed them.)

There are Jews, he said, who love the tradition of Israel.  For them Jewish laws, ideology, theology and ritual practice are the ultimate criteria for any decision.  There are Jews, Wiesel taught, who accord priority to the “-isms” of being Jewish and who expect Jewish people to conform and submit to them.
On the other hand, Wiesel suggested that Ahavat Yisrael meant love for the people, for Jews as a group and as individuals.  When the needs of this Israel come into conflict with the strictures of the “-ismatic” Israel, Jews who understand the mandate in this manner put the needs of real people ahead of the theories and Jewish ideology.  In fact, Wiesel said, people are the essence of any authentic Jewish ideology.
I have chosen to be a liberal Jew because I am committed to this latter understanding of Ahavat Yisrael.  Traditions are certainly important to me, but people and their needs come first.  I know myself, and I am definitely closer to one end of the continuum of Jewish practice and values than to the other.   Each of us can find a place on this spectrum.  Where to locate yourself is a challenge that offers you the opportunity to think about yourself, to learn and know about yourself as a human being and as a Jew.
    Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi