“Tonight I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism and the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need during the Holocaust.”
Those words were spoken before a crowd of several thousand Jews attending an AIPAC Policy Conference in March, 2007. The speaker was Pastor John Hagee, the evangelist who heads the group Christians United for Israel – the very same Pastor Hagee whom Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie now accuses of “insult[ing] the survivors” of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was referring to a speech Pastor Hagee made about a decade ago, about Jeremiah’s prophecy that G-d would one day “bring the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave unto their fathers” (16:15). In the next verse G-d proclaims that He will send “many fishers” and then “hunters.” The latter word was interpreted by Mr. Hagee as referring to Hitler, leading the pastor to regard the Holocaust as part of a Divine strategy to move Jews to the Holy Land.
One needn’t agree with the pastor’s take on history; or accept his assumption that simple people can identify events with prophecies; or even consider him to be in command of the facts (in his speech, he has Theodore Herzl, a resolutely secular Jew, invoking Divine command as the reason Jews should move to Palestine). But nothing in fact could be more Jewish than to accept that, no matter how inscrutable, G-d is just; and that as we look into the maw of tragedy we are to look inward as well.
And so, while the Reform rabbi may have seen the Christian minister’s words as “an affront” to those who perished in the Holocaust, I saw only an attempt, imperfect but without malice, to discern the fulfillment of a Jewish prophet’s words in recent history.
It is possible that Rabbi Yoffie’s harsh judgment of Pastor Hagee’s sermon reflects a broader disconnect between the two gentlemen. The Reform leader has long disdained the pastor’s politics. Hagee, after all, is a social conservative, believes that Iran should be militarily disabled and strongly opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As such, his position profile is something of a reverse image to that of the Reform movement.
The Jewish clergyman might also have resented the Christian one’s reference, earlier this year at a Reform temple in Los Angeles, to the object of Christian veneration as “a Reform rabbi” (intended as a compliment, no doubt).
But one suspects that what most profoundly divide the two clergymen are issues of theology. It is the pastor’s belief, but apparently not entirely the rabbi’s, that: The Torah is the word of G-d (“Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah says it is”); G-d chose and charged the Jewish People with heeding His laws (“[The Jews are] the chosen people, a cherished people… with an eternal covenant that will stand forever”); and the Torah explicitly warns us of the repercussions of forsaking our mission.
That latter thought is in fact recalled at each Jewish festival, when Jews include in their prayers the words “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land…” It is, moreover, the dominant motif of the liturgy of the annual Jewish mourning-day, Tisha B’Av.
As it happened, the very Sabbath following Rabbi Yoffie’s rebuke of Pastor Hagee, Jews the world over read one of the two portions of the Torah that relate how the Jewish People’s refusal to honor their holy mission will result in the loosening of the reins holding evil at bay. The paragraphs speak of punishments so terrible they are read in an undertone. But they nonetheless must be read, audibly and carefully, because they speak to most important Jewish fundamentals: that the Torah’s laws are real, and that it is built into the very fabric of the world that the Jews must heed them. Those who do evil, Pharaoh, Hitler, et al, are fully culpable for their acts – “Merits are brought through the meritorious,” says the Talmud, “and iniquity through the iniquitous” – but calamity is not causeless.
It would appear that Rabbi Yoffie does not accept these truths. He believes, as he has written, that Jews “must examine each mitzvah [Torah commandment] and ask the question: ‘do I feel commanded in this instance…?’”
Thus, at a recent Reform convention, he could disparage what he called “the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe… an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions,” and proudly recall how “we fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason.”
Many of us Orthodox Jews tend to not be comfortable with Christian evangelists. Most, after all, want Jews to accept Christianity, which a Jew is enjoined against doing, even on penalty of death. Although Reverend Hagee has clearly stated that he has no such designs, he nonetheless remains a Christian evangelist. And for Biblical interpretations, we Jews look elsewhere.
At the same time, though, an inescapable irony emerges here:
Interpretations of Biblical prophecies aside, the pastor’s approach to Torah (that it is true), Jews (that they are chosen to serve G-d) and history (that it is Divinely guided) is the Jewish one; and the rabbi’s, tragically, is not.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]