Between Two Worlds, and a question about the nature of Judaism

Yesterday I saw Between Two Worlds, a new documentary about dissent and division within the Jewish community, by the talented Berkeley filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow.

The screening was part of the 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and the festival itself was featured in the documentary — in particular, the brouhaha two years ago when the festival aired a film about the pro-Palestinian American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of homes in Gaza.

Filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow in Jerusalem

There’s enough food for discussion in this movie to fill a month of blog posts. It skips hither and yon within today’s American Jewish community, from a somewhat snippy take on the Birthright program that arranges free tours of Israel for young Jews, to a classically overheated debate at U.C. Berkeley over boycotting Israel, to a particularly troubling segment on plans by the L.A.-based Museum of Tolerance to build a branch of the museum on top of a seven-century-old Arab cemetery in Jerusalem. (Unbelievable!)

One of the things I liked the most was the way Deborah and Alan wove their own families’ stories into the mix. Deborah’s father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a a very active Zionist, only to have one of his daughters convert to Islam. Alan knew his mother as a suburban housewife and liberal activist with the American Jewish Congress — only to discover, after her death, that she had been a member of the U.S. Communist Party for over a decade as a young woman.

Deborah and Alan’s narratives about these opposite-yet-parallel parents were nuanced, compassionate, and filled with unanswerable questions. Every time the film returned to them, I felt my shoulders relax and imagined my blood pressure dropping — a welcome change from the dire “us versus them” rhetoric that permeated the sections about politics and public debate.

But none of that is what I want to write about.

What I want to write about was one small question raised in Between Two Worlds:

Is Judaism inherently a liberal religion?

This is something that has crossed my mind a lot in the past year or so. Historically, American Jews have been overwhelmingly liberal — voting Democratic and supporting progressive causes such as civil rights, feminism, anti-war movements, and organized labor.

But how much of this is inherent to Judaism as a religion and culture? And how much is due to the specific historical experience of American Jews over the past hundred or two hundred years?

There is certainly a large progressive strain within Judaism-the-religion. The central story of all Judaism is the Exodus, a flight from slavery.  The Torah and Talmud tell us repeatedly: “Treat the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And the voices of the Jewish Prophets are often progressive voices. On Yom Kippur we read a passage from Isaiah in which God excoriates the Jews for carrying out religious rituals while neglecting social justice:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Okay. That’s the Judaism I know and love. BUT….

It’s also possible to interpret Torah in a way that looks nothing like Freedom Seders and marches against genocide. Consider the ultra-Orthodox — basing their entire lives around Judaism, but in a way that rarely touches on the concerns or needs of anyone outside their immediate, insular community.

And Israel today… With the right wing holding the political reins, the country seems to be stepping down a road that veers increasingly away from democracy and civil liberties. The Knesset recently made it illegal to advocate boycotting goods from Israel or the Occupied Territories. Last year the Israeli Cabinet approved a law that, for the first time, required non-Jewish candidates for citizenship to swear a loyalty oath. Right-wing politicians have been trying to hold McCarthy-like hearings on groups involved in progressive issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and religious pluralism.

Maybe the liberal heart of Judaism that I’ve always taken for granted is a mere historical blip. Our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered pogroms; they toiled in garment sweatshops; they crossed borders legally and illegally in search of better lives.

When those generations are a distant memory, will Jewish liberalism also become a memory?


Note: Between Two Worlds will be showing at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco from August 5th through the 11th. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman will field questions after the Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening shows. Whether you end up agreeing with the filmmakers’ perspective or not, I promise it will give you something to talk about afterwards over a glass of ________ (wine, beer, coffee, tea, Slivovice, you fill in the blank).

And for an interesting take on the rise of the right in Israel, see this piece by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet magazine.


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