When Rabbi Jaffe-Gill explains her Judaism and Zionism…
In the Letters to the Editor Section of the New York Times on November 24, 2023, Virginia Beach Tidewater Chavurah’s Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill published her opposition to Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. After being a school teacher and a Reform cantor, late in her professional life, she became a Rabbi, graduating the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2014.
She wrote, and I quote in full:
“Judaism’s core strength is its portability, which has allowed it to survive, against punishing odds, for more than 2,500 years. It is tied to faith and peoplehood, not real estate. That belief doesn’t make me an anti-Zionist, but it does make me a non-Zionist. My faith may have been created on land within the borders of the state of Israel, but it has been shaped by many forces and people around the globe over the years. And my cultural roots as a Jew lie in Eastern Europe, where all my great-grandparents were born.”
We cannot credit the Rabbi for the designation of Judaism as a portable religion. In 2014, Anita Silvert penned: “Judaism is a pretty portable religion. It’s designed to be so.” In a lecture a few months before this, Henry Abrahmson, at the time Dean of Touro University, suggested “the Mishnah created the possibility of creating a ‘portable Judaism’.”
There is even a 2007 book, authored by now Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and Classics at San Diego State University Risa Levitt Kohn, entitled “Portable God: The Origin of Judaism and Christianity”. Judaism really seems to get around and go places.
To top it off, or rather, to go to a nadir, there’s Daniel Boyarin’s “A traveling homeland. The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora“, who borrowed Albert Memmi’s term, from his novel “Le Scorpion” (p. 254), of a journey when one equips oneself with one’s “petite patrie portative” – “small portable homeland”. Memmi, however, writes, as Afifa Marzouki phrases it, of “a round trip where the going always merges with the return, where the return competes with the going for its very existence, its reality”.
For Rabbi Jaffe-Gill, and her likeminded true believers, however, it is clear there is to be no “return”.
Once again, the New York Times, in its century-long battle against Jewish national identity, as seen in California Member of Congress Julius Kahn’s February 16, 1919 op-ed, “Why Most American Jews Do Not Favor Zionism”, promotes and highlights extreme minority opinions that are then mainlined into its reporting angles as in the case of Israel but also local Jewish news as in the matter of funding for Chassidic education. Negativity is highlighted and the journalism never fails to draw criticism as being biased and unethical.
Virginia Beach is not a prominent Jewish location with less than 200 Jewish families. Jaffe-Gill’s “synagogue” itself is a traveling entity with services being held at private homes. Nevertheless, her opinion is an opinion. And it seems to be within the latest anti-Zionist trend in Reconstructionist circles.
That may make Jaffe-Gill feel justified and it may delight the owners and editors at the New York Times, but it doesn’t mean that that position is correct or even justified.
Judaism’s portability, to the extent that it is, was intended to enable Jews to maintain their identity, assure their community existence and permit them, under severe circumstances, to survive and eventually return to the Land of Israel, there to be able to fulfill to the fullest extent possible, the Torah commandments. The purpose was not to allow Jews like Rabbi Jaffe-Gill to feel so comfortable that she, and others, could twist Judaism about and declare it not what it is.
I am sure Jaffe-Gill knows the last verse of the Bible (assuming the Bible still is a Jewish text for her) ends with the words: “Whosoever there is among you of all His people–the LORD his God be with him–let him go up“. And that was a non-Jewish King speaking.
Even in her rabbinical studies she must have come across the non-stop process of Jews returning to the Land of Israel as recorded in the Talmud, various Rabbinical responses, history books (by Jews and non-Jews), including Hassidim, Yemenites, Persians as well as Jews from all over. It is an unavoidable fact of history.
It is obvious that for Jaffe-Gill that her “cultural roots” override her religious obligations. If she is proud of that and defends it, that is one thing. But to recalibrate Judaism and Jewish history to fit her own comfort zone is quite another.
Lucky for her, the editor of the NYTimes Letters to the Editor section is on her side. For the rest of we Jews, all we have is God and the Bible.