David Rotem: Give the Brother Some Love

6 February 2014
By: Rabbi Andy Bachman

I’ve never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem.  I don’t think I’d recognize him if I bumped into him on the street–whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon.  He’s a guy doing his thing and I’m a guy doing mine and that’s just fine.

He spends his Saturdays in the synagogue (or so I presume) which is exactly where I spend mine.  He talks to my God in Hebrew and I do the same with his.  We both wear tefillin and tallit each day.  And we both keep Kosher (though, given some of his more recent outbursts, I guess it’s safe to say he’s more strict than I am about where I eat.)  I love Israel and though I’m not sure how he feels about Brooklyn, he’s certainly welcome here anytime.  We’re a tolerant lot.  I’ll take the Vegas odds that we’re both circumcised.  And we both wear glasses.

Here in New York there is a lot of tension of the rising income gap; over-testing of students in schools; perceived racial tensions in police tactics; a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths; union contracts and universal pre-K; diminishing library budgets; and always, the fear that New York remains exposed, like many great cities in the world, to the terror threat.

Jerusalem, to be sure, has no shortage of challenges.  A stalled peace process with Palestinians; a rising income gap across the country; affordable housing shortages and university budget cuts; diminishing water resources and environmental challenges; the integration of Haredi populations into the public sector; the threat of a nuclear Iran; a creeping al Qaeda presence in Sinai and the Syrian border of the Golan Heights; Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It’s a big agenda in both cities.  Just thinking about it can take up your day.

So I’m not sure what the benefit is, exactly, in David Rotem declaring, among the many things he could be declaring these days, that “Reform Judaism is not Jewish.”  Unless the benefit, from his perspective, is to foster a hermetic, exclusive, extreme, one-dimensional definition of Jewishness, which cuts against the historical reality of the ongoing development of the Jewish people for the past three thousand five hundred years.  I mean, it’s his right to espouse that.  But he’d be radically wrong.

After all, we no longer sacrifice animals to God; or sit in the dark on Shabbat; or stone people to death for capital crimes (not to mention gouging out their eyes); we don’t have Kings, Prophets and Priests (in the Biblical sense) and even though Mel Brooks stopped making movies, at least we still have Larry David.

One can argue, as the 12th century Maimonides did in Guide for the Perplexed, that God’s demand of Israel’s animal sacrifice was God’s deployment of other cultures’ idolatrous practices (the impulse to slaughter an animal being so primal, being so great) in order to teach Israel that the people ought to worship the monotheistic God of the Jewish people, not the pagan deities of other cultures.  One can (and many indeed have) further conclude that this Maimonidean maneuver is an example of the evolutionary adaptability to ever-changing Jewish civilization in an ongoing relationship to its God.  Or you can not conclude that.  And you can even vehemently disagree.

But the disagreement doesn’t deprive one side of its Jewishness.  It just means that two Jews disagree on something:  a phenomenon, both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, that’s as old as the hills.

David Rotem, I’d guess, is not his real family name.  An Orthodox man born in Bnai Brak in 1949, with a name like “Rotem,” which in Hebrew is a desert plant and remains a favorite among those who rejected the Diaspora in favor of an authentic new Hebrew culture linked inextricably to the land, is a modern construct.  So is the education he received at Hebrew University.  Without Napoleon and other European emperors granting Jews emancipation and citizenship in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jews would never have been able to enter universities.  Without universities, there’d be no critical analysis of the meaning of history and ancient texts.  Without that, there’d be no philosophical or politically scientific basis for Zionism, not to mention the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and yes, David, even Reform Judaism.

Who were the Rotems before your own version of an intolerant Zionism?  Simple Jews, no doubt.  Just trying to make ends meet.  Like my people, with their new names, trying to survive from Minsk to Milwaukee to Brooklyn.   Your family found refuge in our people’s ancient homeland, a commitment I honor and defend from the relative ease of the Diaspora each day.

But just because I don’t observe God’s law exactly as you do, don’t drag us all down into your fundamentalist rantings of the same sectarian divisiveness that is tearing apart our Muslim neighbors as well.

We’re meant to be a light unto the nations.  To prove that despite our difference, we can get along.  That’s how we do it here in Brooklyn, in Tel Aviv, and even in certain neighborhoods in our beloved Jerusalem.

So don’t waste your breath putting me down, turning “Reform” into a curse.  There are rockets aimed at you from the borders, internal divisions far greater than whose Shabbat is holier.  Your insults are pushing away your brothers and sisters who commit no sin other than merely respectfully disagreeing with precisely what it is God wants of us.   But we’re in agreement over the bulk of the message and that ought to be enough.

Cain, who slew Abel, arrogantly challenged God with the outrageous and disingenuous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We know the answer.  And so know this, dear brother, that I’m looking out for you.  Keeping you, dear brother, when I ask you not to make your brother the enemy.

I’m your friend.

The bulk of Jews have lived more years in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel, a mind-boggling fact that begs the question:  how, despite the violence and bloodshed of Jewish history, did we survive?  The shul I daven in, dear brother, is the one that is built on the principle of tolerance, accommodation and good relations with our neighbors, and, when it’s unavoidable, disagreement “for the sake of heaven.”

So for heaven’s sake, cease your vituperations.  Give the brother some love.

With internal and external threats, you need all the help you can get.

This article is reposted, with permission, from


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