Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Sebastian Gorka, evaluator of rabbis

Dr. Sebastian Gorka speaks at the International Special Training Centre's Military Assistance Course in Pfullendorf, Germany, on May 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Eric Steen

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is a colleague and a friend of long standing. He directs the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is the social action voice of the Reform movement.

For almost a hundred years, the Reform movement has supported freedom of choice for women, regarding birth control, abortion, and other matters.

As such, Rabbi Pesner upholds that position.

QED.

Sebastian Gorka knows that, and does not like that.

In a recent tweet (@SebGorka), he denounced Rabbi Pesner: “This man calls himself a rabbi.”

First: the Jewish position on abortion is far more nuanced than many of us know.

It is legitimate for rabbis and others to debate the exact nuances of that position, and to attempt to discern what proper public policy on abortion should be.

But, whatever its halachic position on abortion might be, Judaism has not sought to make that position the law of the land.

Because, Reform Judaism has affirmed the autonomy of women over their own bodies.

Second: Seb Gorka should know that it is not Jonah Pesner that calls himself a rabbi, though he surely does.

Jonah Pesner was not the first person to call himself a rabbi.

The first person to call Jonah Pesner a rabbi was the rabbi who ordained him at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The rabbi who ordained Rabbi Pesner was saying that Jonah Pesner stands in the shalshelet ha-kabbalah, the great chain of tradition, that links him to the rabbis of the present, past, and even remote past.

Rabbi Pesner has a smicha (ordination) that says: yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin. He may teach, and he may judge.

And you, Sebastian Gorka, have no say in this matter.

I support Rabbi Pesner, and I support the work of the Religious Action Center.

Full stop.

But, this is really not about Rabbi Pesner.

This is really about Seb Gorka, and what his statement represents.

Who is Sebastian Gorka, anyway?

How soon we forget.

Sebastian Gorka served as Deputy Assistant to the President in the Trump administration. He is British born, the child of Hungarian parents, and he lived in Hungary from 1992 to 2008.

He is also a right-wing ideologue, whose views have been identified with the alt-right.

He believes that violence is an essential part of Islam — a claim that baffles scholars of that religion.

Moreover, he has had links to far-right European groups.

Most notably, he had supported the Magyar Garda, a paramilitary group with fascist and antisemitic ties. It was the paramilitary wing of the Jobbik party.

That moral resume is alone sufficient to call Gorka’s competence in judging rabbis — and Judaism — into question.

But, it goes beyond this.

Gorka’s tweet falls into an interesting and disquieting pattern — of gentiles defining Judaism for Jews.

That pattern has ample historic precedent. It is part of the history of antisemitism itself — gentiles deciding what Judaism is; what it stands for; how our texts should be read and interpreted; who our leaders and spokesmen should be.

We see this on the far left.

Some activists feel quite empowered to define the “real” meaning of antisemitism for Jews. They decide, without consultation with Jews, what the lines are between criticism of Israel, and/or its policies, and when those criticisms venture into antisemitism.

We see it on the far right as well — Sebastian Gorka making the statement: “This man calls himself a rabbi.”

Let us be clear.

When gentiles attempt to define Judaism, when they attempt to define who should be called a rabbi…

They are engaging in an intellectual colonialist venture, in which Judaism and the Jewish people are the colonized.

It is the same phenomenon as non-Muslims defining Islam, and non-Christians defining Christianity — and, even, those who would like to see Israel disappear defining Zionism.

There is a word for all that.

It is chutzpah.

Mr. Gorka: considering your personal and professional narrative, let me quote Ecclesiastes to you.

“There is a time to be silent.”

This is yours.

How dare you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.