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Dear friends, chaveirim y'karim,

 

As you may know, I split my time between Temple Sholom and serving as Director of Partnership Development for the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. In my role there, I work on organizational and creative projects, ranging from writing to fundraising. 

 

The JILV was formed in 2021 and over the last several months, we have been discussing the use of the word ‘liberal’ which is often misunderstood - meaning we both lose some people who might be attracted to our work and attract some people who come confused why we don’t champion some of their interests. 

 

It turns out the discussion about the word 'liberal' is very much on other people’s mind as well right now! 

 

I want to play for a minute with this word liberal for a minute.

 

For some, the use of the world liberal may send them away from reading further. And for others, it may say, "At last, he's talking about something for ME!"

 

Liberal, as I understand it, means NON-orthodox. NOT of accepted/general/singular (ortho) belief (doxy). Liberal is not a political standpoint but a mindset. It's not about policy-making but about orientation and disposition.

 

I don't like to refer to myself as a non-something. So, my best default is that I'm a liberal. For example, I'm a liberal Jew. I used to say 'progressive' but 'progressive' has come to mean all sorts of other things and as my wife rightly tells me, 'progressive' makes it seem as if everyone else is 'regressive' and that's not necessarily the case.

 

In a recent opinion piece by David Brooks, "The Authoratarians have the Momentum," he posits that liberalism is ceding significant ground to authoritarianism, which is never good for the Jews. When I couple Brooks' piece with a podcast (and transcript) from Sam Harris, "Campus Protests, Antisemitism, Western Values" I am quite sure we are living in a time when the Jewish people are being singled out. I pray that society at large not take its eyes off the far greater threat to Western, liberal values and the very nature of life which has been the home for the fertile ground of democracy and liberalism of the last 100 years.

 

I used to love politics. My first job out of college was working for a U.S. Congressman in his D.C. office and I thought I had the best job in the world. I was answering phones, making xeroxes, and drafting constituency correspondence. And I was paid nothing. Literally. I was volunteering. It was 1990. The world has changed significantly since then - in a thousand ways. The very liberalism which has fueled robust debate in our democracy has given way to orthodoxy on the Left and the Right and as happens in all societies, it is the Jews who somehow get caught in the middle, become the focus of blame, and receive undo attention and subsequent double standards, demonization and in the case of the State of Israel: delegitimization.

 

Our sacred Torah, in THIS week's, Torah portion has a line that inspired the kind of openness we find in the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights, which embodies liberalism and assures our safety in this country. In fact, the very concept of liberty - which does not mean anarchy or lack of law - is on one of the nation's most prized possessions: the Liberty Bell. The statement? "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants." (Leviticus 25:10) That quote deserves so much attention from its original context to the American context of colonial and revolutionary America. For right now, I hold it in light of our day and the myriads of debates about culture, politics, and social norms.

 

May we find ways to keep our country safe for liberalism and a place where we can have honest debate, operate in a fact-based reality, and strive to create compromise whereby minority opinions are respected and honored alongside the majority in power. It's a lofty ambition - but one which is surely the safest space in which a Jewish community can flourish.

 

If you have thoughts about the word liberal or want to delve deeper into this conversation, I welcome the opportunity to connect with you!

 

Rabbi Mark Cohn, 20 May 2024


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