Sign of the Times

It seemed a small story. It was covered in a small way by the New York Times and in even a more modest way by the Wall Street Journal. But it’s a major signifier. It’s a reminder that virtually all people in positions of authority are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of those who are not – including people in positions of religious authority.

Hard on the heels of the recent U.N. vote in which the General Assembly decided by an overwhelming margin to grant Palestine non-member state status – the vote was 138 for and 9 against (including the U. S.), with 41 abstentions – the rabbis of a large Manhattan synagogue sent an e-mail to all their congregants that strongly and enthusiastically supported the U. N. vote. “The vote at the U. N. yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” wrote the rabbis. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition.”

The blowback was immediate. While some members of the congregation applauded the rabbi’s sentiments, others were appalled and a number were even outraged. One congregant, Alan Ripp, put it this way: “We are just sort of in a state of shock,” he said. “It’s not as if we don’t support a two-state solution, but to say with such warm embrace – it is like a high-five to the P. L. O. and that has left us numb.”

Whatever the merits of the arguments on both sides, the point is that followers (such as Ripp) forced their leaders to retreat. In no time flat the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshrun sent a second, subsequent message that was, in effect, an apology. First, they corrected the record, saying their first letter should not have included as signatories the names of lay leaders such as that of the board president (!). Second, they wrote they had intended to “honor the diversity” of viewpoints in their community, and expressed regret at “the feeling of alienation that resulted from [their] letter.”

It likely will be a while before the congregants of B’nai Jeshrun get past this tempest. It likely will be a while longer before the rabbis of B’nai Jeshrun send another e-mail to their collective congregants without very, very deliberate forethought.

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