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An Eloquent Voice of Jewish Universalism Shares His Views on the Moral Challenges Which Confront Us

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2016

By Rabbi Everett Gendler,  
Blue Thread Communications,  
494 Pages,  
(Jewish Currents, P.O. Box 111,  
Accord, NY 12404)  
Rabbi Everett Gendler is one of the towering figures of progressive Jewish  
activism and a pioneer of Jewish non-violence, environmentalism and the  
Havurah movement. He was active in the civil rights movement and went to the  
South to protest against segregation. In 1962, he was jailed with Dr. King  
and other clergy in Albany, Georgia. He believes that Zionism, Jewish  
nationalism, is a rejection of Judaism’s moral and ethical universal  
tradition. Now 87, he has spent his life working to make the world a better  
place for men and women of every race and religion. In 2013, he received a  
“Human Rights Hero” award from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  
Also in 2013, he was awarded the Presidents’ Medallion from the Hebrew Union  
College-Jewish Institute of Religion “in recognition of a lifetime  
commitment to social justice and environmentalism.” He was instrumental in  
arranging Martin Luther King’s important address to the national rabbinical  
convention on March 25, 1968, ten days before King’s death.  
Born August 8, 1928 in Chariton, Iowa, Rabbi Gendler served from 1978-1995  
as the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. In  
the late 1950s and early 1960s, he served as rabbi to a number of  
congregations, including the Beth Israel Community Center in Mexico City,  
the Associacao Religiosa Israelita in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and the five  
synagogues of Havana, Cuba. He served as rabbi of the Jewish Center of  
Princeton, New Jersey and of Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in  
In this book, his first, are collected fifty of his essays, which present  
his vision of a Judaism in love with nature and seeking harmony with the  
natural world. He has been a committed pacifist throughout his adult life.  
The longest single essay is on “War and the Jewish Tradition.” Published  
during the Vietnam era, when Gendler was a leading figure in the Jewish  
Peace Fellowship, encouraging selective conscientious objection. As a  
disciple of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama, he and his  
wife Mary have been engaged for many years in a program of teaching  
techniques of non-violence to the Tibetan exile community in India, where  
they visit each year.  
Of particular interest is Gendler’s role as the major discoverer and  
translator of the writings of Aaron Shmuel Tamarat, a Russian rabbi of the  
early 20th century, who opposed World War 1 and rejected the growing Jewish  
nationalist movement which was emerging in Eastern Europe.  
“Radical Universalist with a Rabbinic Degree”  
In the Introduction, Gendler recalls, early in his career, being referred to  
as “a radical universalist with a rabbinic degree.” If this taunt had come  
at a later time, he writes, he would have replied, “Of course I’m a  
universalist! How could I dare to be a rabbi without being concerned for all  
human beings? Abram’s original command from God, as he was sent on his  
journey and assured that ‘I shall make of thee a great nation,’ was ‘Be thou  
a blessing … in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed’  
(Genesis 12-2, 3). Not to be a universalist, not to be concerned that  
through the quality of Jewish life all human families should be blessed,  
would represent a betrayal of the original purpose of God’s call to Abram to  
become Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic traditions, Judaism,  
Christianity and Islam!”  
Originally, the accusation of being a universalist with a rabbinical degree  
was dispiriting to Gendler. “Looking back now,” he writes, “I can hardly  
believe my internal reaction. Why didn’t I welcome these words as an  
unsought testimonial to the truth of my calling, even if they were  
dismissively intended? Why didn’t I summon Amos and Isaiah to strengthen the  
He cites Amos (9:7):  
“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,  
O people of Israel? says the Lord.  
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,  
and the Philistines from Caphtor  
and the Arameans from Kir.”  
Liberation of All Peoples  
Gendler notes that, “Amos and Isaiah thus unite in the assertion that God  
works toward and welcomes the liberation of all peoples. Indeed, the holder  
of a rabbinical degree had better be a universalist! How else could he or  
she serve adequately and with integrity such a universalist God, whose  
liberating concern extends to all peoples and all persons? Sadly, I had  
forgotten the penetrating words of our dear friend from Princeton, Erich  
Kahler, who characterized the Jews (in ‘The Jews among the Nations,’ 1967)  
as ‘a tribe directed toward the achievement of an all-embracing, super-  
ethnic humanity … The substance of its particularity is universality … a  
tribe directed toward humanity at large.’ Nor did I remember Heschel’s  
trenchant remark about idolatry: “What is an idol? Any God who is mine but  
not yours, any God concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.’”  
The narrowness and intolerance which causes some rabbinical groups to  
decline participation in marriage ceremonies in which one party is Jewish  
and the other is not is troubling to Gendler. He writes: “I remain convinced  
that the current movement guidelines for rabbinical practice with respect to  
intermarriage are woefully inadequate. The official discouraging of  
officiation when one member of the couple is not Jewish, even when there is  
a commitment to rearing anticipated offspring as Jews, is both pastorally  
problematic and strategically inept. What are the personal consequences of  
denying young people our presence and blessing at the very moment when they  
make the relational commitment that enables the next generation to come upon  
the scene? Usually these are not strangers; they are the young people we’ve  
educated and come to cherish. This is both personally painful and, I think,  
destructive of the future of Judaism.”  
To his readers, Gendler offers this hope: “I dare to hope that my essays  
will offer … some guidance for the future … At first glance, they may seem  
out of touch with some current political atmospheric readings — the strong  
conservative winds, the tightening boundaries, the turning toward the past,  
the enchantment with fundamentalist doctrines that are ascendant in Jewish  
life in the 21st century. Yet my reading of the long-range spiritual  
forecast, Biblically anchored, predicts that the overall direction of future  
Jewish and human development will find accurate markers in the spirit of  
these collected essays. They represent, I hope, both the appreciation and  
celebration of the particular Jewish tradition along with their  
reappropriation and expansion in light of current expansions and  
opportunities. They also, I hope, are largely faithful to Erich Kahler’s  
description of the quintessential Jewish character of tribal universality,  
and to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s depiction of idolatry as the exclusion of  
any person or people from the caring concern of the true God Who Unites Us  
Judaism and the Natural World  
There is much in these collected works about Judaism and natural world. “I  
was born in Charlton, Iowa,” writes Gendler, “and lived there eleven years,  
in a small town surrounded by the open country where nature was omnipresent.  
Des Moines, the ‘city’ of my adolescence, also enjoyed nature’s presence —  
as did I. Not that I was conscious of it at the time. It seems to me, in  
retrospect, that not until my ordination from seminary and a period of time  
spent in Mexico City did I become more fully aware of nature.” He came to  
understand Judaism’s deep connection with nature and the cycle of life:  
“Small wonder, then, that a folk desirous of maintaining some significant  
connection both with cosmic rhythms and with the self should preserve its  
lunar festivities … a vital and relevant Judaism for our age must begin to  
reclaim seriously its nature heritage.”  
At one time in history, Gendler notes, it may have been the proper task of  
Judaism to struggle against nature cults, since they represented human  
subjugation to nature. Yet, he writes, “Over the centuries … the reverse has  
occurred, reaching a frightening climax in our age: the almost total  
alienation of human beings from nature. Consequently, one of the crucial  
religious tasks of our age is to work towards human integration with nature  
… From the earliest biblical accounts of Adam in the Garden until the  
‘blooming deserts’ of modern Israel, the land has served as the basis of the  
Israelite economy and Jewish religious rituals. Each of the three major  
pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot — is based on the  
agricultural cycles. So precious was the land that there is an obligation to  
rest it every seven years, an agricultural Sabbath parallel to the Sabbath  
Our kinship with other creatures is addressed by Gendler in a 1967 sermon,  
which anticipated contemporary concerns about factory farming and its impact  
on the creatures we “process” into food and our own spiritual sensibility:  
“Those familiar with the creation story in Genesis have perhaps noticed that  
the sea animals and the birds which fly by receive the same blessings as  
men: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (1:22). One notices also that the beasts of  
the earth as well as men are invited to the banquet provided by the herbs,  
fruits and growths of the earth’s surface (Genesis 1:30) … Nor is the notion  
confined in the West only to the Jewish tradition. One great figure of  
Western culture is surely Francisca of Assisi, called St. Francis by the  
Church, who was known for his great friendship with other creatures … .In  
the ‘Mirror of Perfection,’ St. Francis urges the emperor ‘to make a law  
that men should make good provision for birds and oxen and asses and the  
poor at Christmas-time.’”  
Citing the mistreatment of animals in the “factory farming” so prevalent  
today, Gendler argues persuasively that, “… it might even occur to us that  
the issue of respect for animals is really the issue of respect for life as  
such. Great seers such as Ghandi and Schweitzer also suggest that life is a  
continuum, and that one cannot make arbitrary cuts anywhere in the chain  
without doing injury at all levels … The issue of the treatment of God’s  
beasts is, I suspect, in a subtle way, also the issue of the treatment of  
other human beings and ourselves as well.”  
Prophetic Objections to Zionism  
In his discussion of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret (1869-1931), Gendler shows  
how prophetic his objections to Zionism would turn out to be. He notes that,  
“… elements of injustice, residues of unrighteousness … were embedded in the  
very beginnings of the Zionist movement. These need full, yet sympathetic,  
acknowledgement if ever a peaceful future is to become a reality.” In  
response to the Hebron riots of 1929, Tamaret wrote “Three Unsuitable  
Unions.” He found that the Zionist attachment to modern nationalism  
compromised both Jewish values and Jewish identity. Gendler writes that,  
“Tamaret took seriously the idea that Jews have a Divinely directed moral  
mission in the world, and while a fully observant halakhic Jew, he  
understood our purpose in universal ethical terms. Hence the pain and the  
passion of his recognition that if Jews were to adopt the time-dishonor end,  
ethically tainted tactics of violent statecraft, a grievous moral injury  
would be inflicted on all of humankind.”  
A rabbi in a small town in Poland, Tamarat, Gendler points out, “saw and  
articulated the profound ambiguity. From the very beginning, of settlement  
in a spirit of dominance rather than of sharing. Not for him the empty  
reassurance of ‘a land without people for a people without a land.” Such  
idle words did not set him at ease in Zion. Vividly, he portrays what we  
might, perhaps, designate … as the original sin of the political Zionist  
settlement: ‘… the Zionists hid their eyes from the fact that the actual  
place was not a newly-discovered, unsettled island located at the far ends  
of the earth, but was a place already inhabited by a people which was sure  
to feel the ‘nationalist’ and ‘sovereign political’ aims as a needle in its  
living flesh.’”  
In an essay translated by Gendler, Tamarat declares that, “Political  
Zionism, as developed thus far, clearly imperils the character of Judaism,  
which has survived so many centuries free from the defilements of  
‘nationalism’ and ‘homelandism’ … Judaism is at root not some religious  
concentration that can be localized or situated in a single territory …  
Neither is Judaism a matter of ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern  
nationalism, fit to be woven into the famous three-fold mesh of ‘homeland,  
army, and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of  
spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines  
of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah: ‘Its measure is  
greater than the earth.’ (Job 11:9) … the true locus and center of Judaism  
is within the heart … Wherever on all this earth such a Jew is found, there  
is the place of Judaism.”  
“A Jew in the Diaspora”  
In an essay entitled “To Be a Jew in the Diaspora,” written in 1975, Gendler  
examines the changing meaning of the word “Zion” as it related to Jews and  
where they lived. “For many centuries,” he writes, “following the Exile,  
which began with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70-135 CE. Zion served as a  
point of spiritual reference for the Jew. Prayers sought mercy for Zion,  
psalms were recited singing its praises … Yet throughout those centuries,  
Jewish life for the most part had its effective centers in the places where  
Jews actually lived. Jews prayed, studied, celebrated, and organized their  
communities where they happened to be … At no time during that long stretch  
of time was Zion treated as a particular place offering vicarious  
experiences for Jews elsewhere. As messianic expectation did not fall prey  
to other-worldliness, the hope for Zion did not succumb to other-placeless.”  
With the coming of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of  
Israel, Gendler writes, “a radical transformation occurred. The State of  
Israel became widely identified with Zion … the power-political unit Israel  
inherited a religious aura from the repository of ideals long associated  
with Zion, though it is far from clear that those ideals were intended to  
issue in a modern nation-state established by military-political means … By  
identifying the State of Israel with Zion, other interpretations of what it  
might mean for Zion to be approximated within time and space were  
The religious aura surrounding Israel, in Gendler’s view, “has tended to  
make many Jews, both in and outside Israel, less critical of particular  
policies of the Israeli state than they might otherwise be … .The reduction  
of various interpretations of Zion to but one, the modern nation-state  
Israel, both distorts the past and limits the future … the vicarious living  
through Israel by Jews elsewhere (produces) serious negative results.”  
Life in America More Free Than in Israel  
The entire notion of “diaspora,” Gendler argues, leads to the view that “the  
most significant Jewish fact of my life is my not living in Israel.  
Subjectively, however, I find that this fact hardly matters at all. I live  
my Jewish life in this place at this time.” Beyond this, he declares, his  
life in America is far more free than it would be in Israel: “Were I a  
woman, would my personal liberties in relation to marriage and divorce be  
enhanced by my living in Israel? Hardly, for the male dominance of Orthodox  
laws defining personal status, backed by State power, would reduce my  
liberties significantly … As a conscientious objector to war, unless I  
happened to be an Orthodox Jewish female, my situation would be far worse as  
an Israeli … Were I an Israeli with concerns about life and politics in  
Israel extending to the situation of the Palestinians, and were I to  
undertake there direct action of the kind in which many of us here in the  
U.S. participated during the civil rights movement … would I find the  
political atmosphere more respectful of civil disobedience than I did here?  
I think not . … It seems to me that, as a Jew concerned with issues of  
social justice, my freedom to participate in dissenting political activity  
is probably greater here in the U.S. than it would be in Israel.”  
When it comes to the efforts to get Jews in the U.S. and other countries to  
immigrate to Israel, Gendler challenges the use of the term “Aliyah” to  
describe such an action. He writes: “‘Aliyah?’ To use this term for  
immigration to Israel by Jews is already to weight a discussion. Bias is  
built into the term, for at root, ‘aliyah’ means ‘ascent, going up.’ It is  
the term used for being ‘called up’ to the Torah, hence has further  
overtones of religious duty, of merit, of goodness. In short, it is a heavy  
term, value-loaded; and as presently used, it implies that immigration to  
Israel by Jews is without question a meritorious act … At the same time that  
any Jew anywhere is granted free entry to Israel, and citizenship, many  
Arabs face restrictions on becoming Israeli citizens, even if they were born  
in Israel proper … It seems to me that there is a basic religious and moral  
question to be confronted.”  
That moral question, Gendler notes, is this: “Can one person’s true Aliyah  
depend on another’s yeridah (descent, misfortune, deprivation)? If, indeed,  
we all have One Father, this seems hardly possible … Such policies do not  
strike me as merely the aberration of a particular government. Unhappily,  
they seem to me inherent in political Zionism as it has developed, and I  
doubt that any change in such policies is likely under any imaginable  
government in the near future.”  
“Nonviolence in Theory and Action”  
In an essay written in 1997, two years into a retirement that has been  
keeping Gendler busy for 18, he recalls the courses he taught at Phillips  
Academy, among them “Nonviolence in Theory and Practice,” which focused on  
the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and which “was one  
way to continue my earlier participation in the nonviolent movement for  
social change, explored both the dynamics and the philosophical and  
religious explications of spirit flexing its muscles.”  
He recalled that his temple in Massachusetts “has experimented over the  
decades with reincorporating into its regular worship elements of nature in  
Judaism that were ancient, authentic, but often overlooked. Among the widely  
satisfying results were fresh ways to celebrate the cycles of the sun, the  
phases of the moon, the succession of the seasons, and the times for  
planting and harvesting. These fruits of our liturgical life contain, as do  
all fruits, seeds for further planting; in this way, life renews itself  
again and again. The seed is simultaneously the end of one life cycle and  
the beginning of the next. It symbolizes the constant renewal of life, the  
annual proclamation that death is indeed followed by resurrection.”  
This thoughtful book concludes with a conversation held in May 2015 between  
Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush and Rabbi Gendler. One question Bush  
asked is: “And who are the Jews, to your mind? Who are the Jews of the  
Bible, of history, of today? When I say, ‘I am a Jew,’ what would you like  
me to mean?” Gendler replied that, “I would like, when any one of us says,  
‘I am a Jew,’ for that … to have a value overtone. I would like it to mean  
that I am someone who is committed to, and appreciative of, and active in,  
the preservation of the rich gift of Creation, of beauty, of the wondrous  
deliverances of the human spirit. I would like it to imply the appreciation  
of sustenance, and support for the liberation of individuals and of peoples  
from unnecessary constraints. There are necessary constraints, of course:  
The loss of all boundaries is terrifying, not liberating. But the expansion  
of freedom, that’s what I would like being Jewish to mean. To say ‘I am a  
Jew’ means I am associated with a group of people whose basic dedication is  
to these goals. Some of them will do it in our traditional ceremonies,  
others will do it in less distinctive, more general fashion — but we all  
have a feeling of relationship to one another.”  
Israel as a Substitute for Deity  
When it comes to Israel, Bush points out that “non-Zionism” is “particularly  
unusual for a contemporary Jewish book.” Gendler responds that, “Yes, and  
it’s the one Jews seem most concerned about: Israel. So let me say that I am  
overwhelmed and delighted by the outpouring of scholarship and culture and  
sheer fruitfulness of Jews living together and sustaining institutions in  
that land, but I have personally not found visiting Israel a positive  
experience … My painful feeling has been that Israel has become a too-  
available substitute for Deity or even values in defining Jews and Judaism.  
Israel-centrism is a great danger for Jewish identity, and the behavior of  
what I have seen since the 1967 war called ‘imperial Israel’ is a great  
danger to Jewish values … You know, the number of non-Zionist Jews in the  
American Jewish community is quite sizable. And in my congregations, people  
who shared my discomfort with Israel, especially with its displacement of  
the Palestinians, had a place to come.”  
On his 85th birthday, Rabbi Gendler and his family set up a website called  
the “Gendler Grapevine,” to give small grants of seed money to carry on his  
work, particularly involving environmentalism and social action, at Jewish  
summer camps, seminaries, synagogues and other institutions. He says that,  
“Hopefully, too, this book will find its way into the hands of individuals  
with similar sensibilities to mine, and help them enter into a mindset in  
which the universe has some direction, an overriding purpose … The wager on  
us humans may have been one of God’s less wise decisions: The Divine could  
lose, we could really destroy what we have been blessed with. But my sense  
is that there’s still a good chance of transformation, there are stirrings  
among human beings in so many positive directions. If some of my insights,  
and some of the joys I express in my writing, can help tip that balance,  
I’ll be very, very satisfied.”  
A Book to Enrich the Soul  
Sharon Strassfeld of the Jewish Catalogue writes that, “Rabbi Gendler has  
been ahead of the curve on every major issue facing the world, before any of  
us saw with any clarity things that were eminently clear to him. This is a  
book that will enrich the soul and delight the mind with its age-old fresh  
Rabbi Gendler has made a notable contribution in making the world a better  
place for all of us. Whether or not one agrees with all of his views, the  
wisdom in these pages deserves as wide an audience as possible. •  

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