Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 21, 2015
The last week there have been two news items I have been following. Of course the tragedy in France and the frightful expansion of reach of the Islamic State. And also the protest movements on various college campuses by groups demanding more vigorous responses from University administrators regarding racism but also the insistence of creating safe spaces on campuses where they do not feel threatened. While the two news items seem to be very different – the Islamic State is an insidious terror network that threatens the lives of thousands of people around the globe and the campus protests another manifestation of the demand for political correctness – the two are motivated by a similar anti-liberal approach that questions the underpinnings of our Western enlightenment values. This was pointed out by articles by Jonathan Chait the writer for New York Magazine on the current P.C. culture affecting US campuses and Maajid Nawaz, founder of Quilliam Foundation a British organization that fights extremism. Regarding Political Correctness on campus Jonathan Chait wrote, “P.C. thought substitutes a model of group rights for the liberal model of individual rights. It dismisses liberal arguments for universal rights as a defense of privilege…. From the liberal standpoint, the liberal respect for individual political rights provides an essential guardrail against abuse. A liberal would predict that illiberal ideologies will inevitably abuse whatever power they obtain. And that prediction has been borne out repeatedly….Liberals correctly believe that prejudice is embedded deeply in our social structures and our consciousness, and have to be accounted for in explicit ways. It is necessary to empathize with the perspective of others… But PC demands far more than this. Even while placing issues of identity at the center of nearly all politics, it deems these questions beyond legitimate disagreement…. Many adherents of PC openly reject free speech. “I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here,” announced the vice-president of the Missouri Students Association. In writing against laws that would make intolerance illegal as a way to respond to extremism in Europe, Maajid Nawaz wrote this: “For liberalism, if it is to mean anything at all, is duty-bound to support the dissenting individual over the group, and to support the weakest in society...[How shall we deal with intolerance in all its manifestations in civil society?] Any form of extremism that stops short of encouraging violence should remain legal, while civil society should rightly name and shame it, just as has been done with racism over decades. A consequence of banning expression that causes mere offence and controversy, come in the form of banning speech that is offensive to fundamentalists and Islamists too. This is how blasphemy laws creep in. It is far better to maintain legal tolerance whilst encouraging civil society to debate and engage with the bigotry inherent in Islamism, while explaining and educating why questioning religion is a right. Applied to the controversial topic of women wearing a face veil, this approach would therefore defend the legal right of a woman to wear it, while supporting the right of liberal activists who question this deeply misogynist practice, to continue to do so.” In reading these two defenses of liberalism two things stand out – liberalism is concerned with the individual and liberalism is dangerous. Dangerous in that it moves us out of safe spaces, out of comfort zones. To be a liberal is to place oneself into a kind of exile. This brings us to Jacob. For this week’s Torah portion VaYetzey begins with Jacob leaving, “He went out”. Jacob is sent into exile by his parents and he obeys them. But each has a different motivation – Rebecca fears for his safety, Isaac wants him to find an appropriate wife from the old country. Nevertheless he is on his own. The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, taught, Jacob left all the support that came from living in the home of Isaac. There he was privileged due to the merit of his father and mother. He also left behind all the holiness of the Land of Israel. In doing so he inserted himself into a spiritual level that would be empty of all support except for God. This is what is meant when the Sages say that he instituted the Evening prayer. Obviously it is not within the power of one who sits in darkness to pray - as in the aphorism , “One who is bound cannot free himself.’” Leaving all support systems behind him Jacob moves into the world of the night. But it is here that he finds himself and in the words of Aviva Zornberg he finds his ground of truth. What does the Sfat Emet mean, “Obviously it is not within the power of one who sits in darkness to pray”? He means that prayer the opportunity to reach out to the Divine is, associated with light and openness and tranquility. But Jacob intentionally inserting himself into darkness, putting himself into exile, finds that here too it is possible to find God and to be sustained by his values. The Sfat Emet has a message for his Hasidim, “And for us to, we can learn from this tradition of Jacob… we also have difficult challenges that come from the yoke of exile and from the yoke of our evil inclination which strives to rule over us at all times. By choosing the path of our forefathers we can trust in God that ultimately no danger will come upon us and we will merit to exit the darkness and come into the light.” Aviva Zornberg points to a remarkable irony in the life of Jacob. Jacob is imagined in his early years to be a character who inhabits inner spaces. He is “a dweller in tents”; the midrash tells us he learned in Shem and Aver’s yeshiva for 14 years; Laban shrewdly comments in this week’s Torah portion “you were longing for your father’s house”. And of course we are known as Beit Yaakov or Beit Yisrael. Desiring that “safe space” where he can find tranquility and comfort and protection is what he yearns for, and yet he of all the patriarchs is not offered that. Abraham also has to leave his home but he is directed by God to do so. Jacob, his grandson, leaves home, and God is silent. In fact it is only after he leaves and inserts himself into a place of darkness, and uncertainty that God speaks to him. God assures Jacob that eventually there will be tranquility, eventually he will return to the land and his people will inherit the Land and the world will be blessed through him and his descendants. But to get there he must go through exile and dark places. This is the challenge to us today as well. We all prefer comfort and tranquility. But the willingness to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations, to be part of challenging conversations is the way we grow. We don’t have to change our foundational principles but we can gain empathy and appreciation for different points of view, and perhaps some of our notions will change and modify. That is what the recent speaker at the Jewish Federation was suggesting. As an Orthodox rabbiHe could not get to a point of compromise with approaches to Judaism that he does not agree with, but at least he expressed a sympathy in listening and respect for different views. But even to achieve that level of sensitivity requires a willingness to listen and engage with others outside of one’s comfort zone. This is the danger of the Islamic State which demands all subjects to follow its dictates. This is also the danger of campus protests in which students demand safe spaces where there right to be protected from ideologies and considerations they don’t like. The willingness to enter into dark spaces and find the light in them is the hallmark of our liberal tradition and our Jewish tradition as well.