By: Rabbi Josh Weinberg October 23 2020 ה’ במרחשוון תשפ”א
Theodor Herzl likely never imagined that the World Zionist Congress that he initiated over 123 years ago would still be convening. And he certainly never imagined that instead of being in the same convention hall, Zionists from around the world would be able to convene from the comfort of their own homes and to debate pressing contemporary issues facing Israel and the Jewish people through a magical screen.
Herzl, the one who envisioned the Jewish State, insisted on a state-building role reversal. Rather than establish a state and then a parliament, he insisted on creating a Parliament of the Jewish people first. Thus, Zionism’s birthright came with a democratic foundation. From its inception the Congress gave Jews from around the world and across the ideological and political spectrum a voice in this Zionist project – a feature that persists even seven decades after the establishment of the State.
This year the Parliament of the Jewish people should have convened in Jerusalem this week, as it usually does. But, alas, we all needed to bring a bit of Jerusalem to ourselves through our screens as delegates from San Francisco to New Zealand participated in this unique online Congress. The 38th Congress brought with it more than its fair share of political ugliness, divisiveness, and conflict. In the days and hours leading up to the Congress, our Movement was faced with a troubling proposal that disproportionately would apportion power to the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. There is no question that these parties have grown in electoral strength, while the pluralistic Movements and the progressive Zionist left have lost power. That power shift makes all the more challenging our job of implementing our Jewish values of equality, tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.
All this leads me to consider the Biblical figure of Noah who is introduced in this week’s parasha. He is famously described as אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו – “A righteous man; he was blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). The commentators wrestle with the implication of the added qualification of “in his generation?” If he was truly righteous, why not just say so without an addendum? According to Rashi (11th century France quoting from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a):
“…Had he [Noah] lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.”
I am of the latter camp, that Noah was only a Tzadik relative to the norms of his time but by comparison to Abraham he would have not been anything special. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Noah and what it means to be righteous in one’s time and generation.
Despite its exalted status as the Parliament of the Jewish People, the World Zionist Congress has a reputation of not always being emblematic of all that is fair, good, and decent about the Jewish people or the political and bureaucratic process.
Typically, there is a lot of yelling, interrupting, arguing, name-calling, and in-fighting. To succeed at the Congress, we Reform and progressive Zionists must excel at the political game and, at the same time, rise up above the din and nastiness in order to remind the world why we came to participate in this arena: that Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people are central to our Jewish identity. We cannot afford to absent ourselves and take our movement out of the political maelstrom. Our goal is hold our ground, rise above the fray, and lead with our values – not just out of concern for personal (or party) gain but for the sake of all we believe in about the Jewish people. It’s not easy, as Rashi reminds us.
It’s not easy because the Congress makes budgetary decisions and every participating organization has real and significant budgetary needs. It is hard to not be motivated by power, influence, and funding. That’s the struggle – to be righteous in our generation,. when everyone else is vying for power, portfolios, and positions of influence, we must always advocate for those Jewish values and interests that we hold dear. Let me be clear, our Reform Movement in Israel depends strongly on these National Institutions (i.e. World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, and Jewish Agency for Israel) as critical sources of funding our movement because the Israeli Reform movement receives no funding from the Israeli government as do many Orthodox movements. At the same time, we want to strive to be tzadikim and not sink to the level of those who are corrupt, dishonest, or only ‘in it’ for themselves. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into the patterns of egregious behavior that we confront in our political adversaries, we might risk losing both power and our integrity. We need to fight for what we believe in, but always with candor and with our values leading the way. And now we have five years to build and work to further our values and support our Movement to rise up above the fray and be tzadikim in our times.”