Perhaps we should call it “Spinoza’s Revenge.”
In 1656, Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders pronounced a cherem—excommunication—on Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher who contested the Torah’s divine provenance. Spinoza became the founding father of secular Jewry on the eve of the Enlightenment. In a twist, the drive to excommunicate dissenters is now led by many who would consider themselves Spinoza’s heirs. From the pens and pulpits of the American Jewish left come the writs of cherem for those with unacceptable political opinions.
This wave of McCarthyism didn’t start with the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, but that is where we shall begin. On the morning of October 27, Robert Bowers took to the social-media service Gab and announced: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” Bowers then, according to police, burst into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and shot dead 11 worshipers. His social-media presence appears to have been saturated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and neo-Nazi refrains. He reserved special anger for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the storied refugee agency, because it was a symbol of what he and others believe to be the Jewish drive to flood the white blood out of America.
The fact that President Donald Trump was accused of inciting the violence was unsurprising; Trump is accused, fairly and unfairly, of responsibility for every extraordinary action in America. But what happened next was a genuinely ugly moment for American Jewry, one that may have done lasting damage to a Diaspora community already prone to division and atomization. Like the Lords of the Ma’Amad in Amsterdam nearly four centuries ago, the declaration of excommunication went out. In the words of the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer: “Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.”
The sentiment was echoed by GQ’s Julia Ioffe. “A word to my fellow American Jews: This president makes this possible. Here. Where you live. I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live was worth it,” she tweeted.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris, shocked at what appeared to be a celebrated Jewish journalist accusing pro-Israel Americans of complicity in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, asked Ioffe to clarify: “Let me see if I get this right. As a nonpartisan Jewish group, can we support the embassy transfer, Nikki Haley’s voice at the UN & doubts about the Iran nuke deal w/out being labeled enablers of anti-Semitism, or must everything this White House does be declared dead on arrival?”
Ioffe’s response to Harris was to implicate the AJC in the tragedy: “As the head of your group, you decide, not me. It’s on your conscience, not mine.”
Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi and left-wing activist, took to Twitter to endorse Foer’s cherem pronouncement. So did Chris Edelson, an American University professor and presidential historian. Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman praised Foer for his “appropriate fury and moral clarity.” Michael Kazin, an editor at Dissent magazine, called it “beautiful and necessary.”
If this were an overheated emotional response, it would be no less ghastly but perhaps more understandable. But it isn’t. The cherem impulse is not an aberration born of grief, and it represents both a corruption of liberal Jewish institutions and a poison in the bloodstream of Diaspora Jewry.
Naming, shaming, and ostracizing specific prominent Jews has been a regular feature of political commentary for as long as there has been political commentary. Over the past few months, liberals have been aghast at the Trumpian attacks on George Soros, the Holocaust survivor and major left-wing donor and activist. But they think nothing of directing their own ugliness at Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish casino magnate and Republican donor. Long reviled for his support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson became the focus of an obsessive dog-whistling campaign by the Obama administration for his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. In his declaration of cherem, Foer named Adelson and Jared Kushner, as well as former top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn, whose great evil was that he had not quit in protest of the president’s atrocious response to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march in 2017.
Cohn and Kushner were targets of a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank, who likened them to “court Jews,” whose historic role was “to please the king, to placate the king, to loan money to the king.” He might “beg the king for leniency toward the Jews, but, ultimately, his loyalty was to the king.”
Ioffe’s attack on the AJC, meanwhile, echoed one from Rabbi Jacobs in the Washington Post in November 2016. Groups that indicated they were open to working with Trump once he took office—among those referenced were the AJC and AIPAC—were, Jacobs wrote, acting the part of the “Court Jew.” Such people had succumbed to greed, willing to “sell out” their values “in the name of one-off successes.” Jacobs even invoked the memory of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel to designate her fellow Jews as collaborators with evil.
There is one fact of life in 2018 that complicates this narrative of the pusillanimous Jew appealing to the supposed tyrant in the hopes of staving off annihilation or penury: the existence of the state of Israel. But liberal Judaism’s pulpiteers have a ready-made response: Israel’s the problem. Two versions of this predominate: one, that Israel’s strength has deceived Jews into weakening their position in America; two, that Israeli policies are to blame for the bloodshed.
“Dear @netanyahu,” Jacobs tweeted two days after the Pittsburgh massacre, “please stop embracing dangerous autocrats. If the last few millennia didn’t teach you that such leaders are bad for the Jews, this past Shabbat would have.”
Former Anti-Defamation League official Harry Reis was more explicit. In his telling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Minister Naftali Bennett, Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman “are enablers and defenders of @realDonaldTrump’s hate and the white supremacists who support him.”
The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson took the next logical step in this progression and—ironically, endorsing a key neo-Nazi talking point—proclaimed: “The bizarre and terrifying nexus between Israel and white nationalism actually starts to make sense when you understand the ethno-nationalist literature. Extreme right Zionists and anti-Semitic white nationalists have the same core beliefs.”
Liberals have thus unwittingly been reprising the old “Zionism equals racism” calumny with the 2018 version: Zionism is borderline Nazism. In a Facebook advertisement for a Boston rally for the week’s victims of “white supremacy, antisemitism, and nationalism,” organized by the local chapters of Workmen’s Circle, IfNotNow, and Jewish Voice for Peace, the list of victims of the Pittsburgh massacre was followed by the names of three Palestinians killed by Israeli self-defense strikes in Gaza. “May their memories be for a blessing,” ends the post.
So there you have it: The Jews are the authors of their own destruction, supporters of Israel are disloyal Americans, Zionism is a first cousin to Nazism, right-wing Jews are Nazi collaborators, and Trump-supporting Jews should be expurgated from Jewish communal life.
Why are they fixated on excommunication? And why is it so important to reject this particular abuse of communal self-policing?
Regarding the first question, there is a great irony here: Liberal laymen and clergy are deploying one of the most heavy-handed rabbinical retributive powers on the menu. Indeed, they are playing with spiritual fire. According to Jewish law, one infraction that earns you excommunication is the act of inappropriately excommunicating someone.
A Talmudic story illustrates this. Rabbi Eliezer is arguing with his fellow sages about the purity status of a vessel. He is outnumbered but persists and calls forth several supernatural acts—such as declaring that if he is correct, the nearby stream will flow backwards, which it then promptly does—to prove his case. The other sages are unmoved. They rebuke Rabbi Eliezer for abandoning argument in favor of the supernatural and for ignoring the majority opinion. The sages decide to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva, delivering the bad news to Rabbi Eliezer, is dressed in black, as if in mourning—or even, some commentaries say, to make it seem as if the sages have put themselves in separation. One of the other sages was traveling on a boat that nearly capsized; the waves abated only when the sage appealed to God.
The upshot: the sages may have been within their rights to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer, but they incurred God’s wrath for doing so. Judaism is not a religion that equates what we can do with what we should do. Nor does it take isolation lightly. We are warned in Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
But of course the religion we’re talking about isn’t Judaism, is it? It’s progressivism—the Torah of Liberalism. In leftist politics, isolation is the first, not the last, line of defense against upsetting ideas. What we’re seeing more and more is the blurring of the two. Jewish clergy and officials at Jewish organizations invoke God in the name of partisan squabbles. It’s why, after Charlottesville, liberal Jewish groups like the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association announced that they would cancel their annual High Holy Days call with the president. Counsel and reconciliation are pillars of Jewish High Holy Day preparation, but these groups answer to a higher authority, apparently. The Central Conference also boycotted the previous year’s Chanukah party organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—whose very raison d’être is channeling the American Jewish community’s fractious instincts into some semblance of a unified spirit—because it was being held at a Trump hotel.
The manipulation of Jewish theology to settle political scores is not limited to what one is permitted to do or where one is permitted to go. It also covers permissible thoughts. As Karol Markowicz observed at National Review: “After every horrible mass shooting, when we should be mourning together, looking for solutions to stop future attacks, consoling the families of the victims, there’s an immediate rush to make sure conservatives know they do not belong to that wider American community feeling the pain. Worse, there’s a constant allusion to the fact that those on the right are responsible for the slaughter. Republicans spend the time following these attacks not in mourning like they should be but beating back the sickening idea that they inspired the shooter.”
This is revolting enough in a political context. But Foer, Ioffe, Jacobs, and their acolytes have found a particularly repulsive use for it: interrupting Jewish mourning. You would think rabbis would know and respect the primal sacredness of Jewish mourning. To violate a Jew’s attempt to accompany and honor the dead, and the attendant spirit of communal integrity, is inexplicably cruel—both to the mourner and to the mourned.
Such is the totalitarian suffocation of left-wing politics in 2018. Which brings us to why the cherem impulse must be rejected unequivocally: The reason speaks directly to the type of society we want the America of the future to be.
In June 1945, the Agudat HaRabbanim, an Orthodox group in New York, issued a formal declaration of cherem against Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the founder of Reconstructionism. His textual deviations were deemed too radical even for Conservative Judaism. The cherem failed to take hold in the Jewish community, and that failure, wrote Zachary Silver in the American Jewish Archives Journal in 2010, marked “a watershed moment for a wider Jewish community, coming out of wartime and wrestling anew with the meaning of democracy and freedom in America.”
In postwar America, the cherem smacked of “old world” power structures. “In a pre-emancipated society, the herem affected every part of an individual’s life, since the central Jewish authorities controlled every aspect of community life—social, economic, and spiritual,” Silver wrote. Excommunication was, then, “an attempt to regain control of New York’s Jews.” It was an affront to a Jewish community reeling from the Holocaust and to the American ideals of free thought and free worship.
The Jewish Theological Seminary refused to fire Kaplan, despite its numerous objections to his scholarship. “I spent my entire career trying to ensure the Seminary’s academic respectability in the American academic world. All I had to do was declare one teacher that I disagreed with and fire him, and I would have ruined the seminary’s reputation forever,” JTS President Louis Finkelstein later recalled.
This is the question before us: Will the American Jewish community permit the hijacking of its faith by the sheerly political? Proclaiming such actions at odds both with the country and with the faith they knew, American Jews rejected fanatical suppression in the past. We must do so again.