What’s So Bad About Excommunication?

Much of Jewish political discourse focuses on drawing borders and determining who is “in” and who is “out.” This dysfunction, primarily as it relates to Israel and Zionism, has led to attempts at ostracizing and outcasting not unlike the traditional rabbinic herem, or communal excommunication.

From the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations’ rejection of J Street to Hillel International’s reaction to Open Hillel, to be labeled a “leftist” by the conservative-leaning mainstream is to be branded and ultimately outcast as a heretic, a “self-hating Jew,” or even an anti-Semite.

Reflecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s practice of building up “existentialist threats” and exploiting populist fears, especially around Iran and BDS, Jewish leadership often seems encouraged by the short term effectiveness of invoking the Holocaust for rhetorical and psychological impact. Indeed, Jewish leadership has a long history of exploiting communal tragedy for the sake of control over the community.

While these attacks may sting, they are not as devastating as they seem. In fact, it can be vitally important to Jewish continuity itself for so-called “deviant” members of the community to find our own voices, speak out and refuse to be marginalized.

Baruch Spinoza, regarded as the first modern philosopher and the first secular Jew, was excommunicated from the Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam.

Spinoza went on, more than a decade following his excommunication, to publish his classic works Theological-Political Treatise and The Ethics, altering civilization’s conception of an active anthropomorphic deity and laying the foundation for modern Western philosophy.

At the climax of World War II, Kaplan outraged the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada by publishing a Sabbath Prayer Book, striking such references to ancient doctrines as divine election, the idea of a personal Messiah and restoration of the Temple cult sacrifices from its liturgy. Kaplan was excommunicated in New York City in 1945, but went on to lead the establishment of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Writing of the 1945 rabbinic excommunication of Mordechai Kaplan, Zachary Silver claimed, “For an excommunication to have any weight at all, the person being excommunicated needs to abide by the decree and to feel keenly the disgrace of being ousted from a small and closed community.” Clearly for Kaplan this was not the case.

As liberal and Democratic Jewish opposition grew to Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address before a joint session of US Congress leading up to the recent Israeli elections, Iowa Republican Representative Steve King explained, “I think many of them no longer have ties to Israel,” said King. “They are secular, they are Democrats by political affiliation and by their nature they are leftist.”

Born-again philo-Semites and authoritarian demagogues like Rep. Steven King fail to understand that Benjamin Netanyahu is not Israel and that Israel is a secular state that is governed by a civil law, legislated by an elected parliament and interpreted by an independent judiciary. Instead, these American legislators will oppose any territorial compromise with the Palestinians that may prolong Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. So, how Jewish is that…?

Our American Jewish establishment leadership will regard Rep. King as a “true friend of Israel” while failing to lead very many American Jews at all; most of us already recognize the likes of Rep. King for the shamelessly cynical political opportunists that they are, and we will go on saying so.

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