After Haaretz published accounts of abuse by the Israeli army during Operation Cast Lead, Rabbi Arik Ascherman first reacted biblically: crying, tearing his garments and fasting for a day.
Then he reacted politically, pushing for an investigation into the claims.
For Ascherman, an Erie native and Jerusalem resident, these actions go together, as he told around 50 people gathered at Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park on June 11. His personal and political viewpoints arise from his understanding of Judaism he told The Jewish Chronicle on June 12 in an interview after the speech.
“There’s always interaction between what the text is saying to you and what you find in the text and you can’t avoid that. You can’t avoid that personal responsibility for how you understand and interpret a text or a tradition,” Ascherman said.
Ascherman is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum that promotes human rights in Israel using various tools: the media, the courts, political lobbying and even civil disobedience.
He was in Pittsburgh as part of regular fund-raising trips to the United States to raise awareness for his organization. During this visit, he received the Keter Shem Tov — the Crown of a Good Name award from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Ascherman said Rabbis for Human Rights is addressing a “moral tsunami” threatening Israel — urging Israel to investigate suspected abuse during the war in Gaza, attempting to prevent Israel from demolishing Palestinian homes in the West Bank and challenging proposed economic policy in Israel.
To many, Ascherman is the rabbi who was arrested in 2003 and brought to trial after standing in front of Israeli bulldozers headed for Palestinian houses. He based that decision and similar actions, he said, on his religious training as a rabbi, on his personal reading of the Torah and Talmud and on his self-identification as a Zionist.
Ascherman admits the risk of basing policy on a personal reading of religious texts.
“There are rabbis who will say, ‘The only good non-Jew is a dead non-Jew’ and they have sources in the Jewish tradition to base themselves on. And that’s why we can’t say that we have the only correct reading of the Jewish tradition,” Ascherman said.
He said Rabbis for Human Rights’ job is “to show that there’s another, more humanistic understanding of the socialist idea that all human beings are created in God’s image.”
Ascherman traces his ideas about Judaism to his childhood in Erie.
He decided to become a rabbi at age 7, he said, prompted by “very warm memories” of his synagogue and the way Jewish traditions brought his family together. His father, he said, worked long hours. “The one night that consistently we had dinner together as a family was Friday night,” Ascherman said.
The Yom Kippur War in 1973 also impacted Ascherman’s Jewish psyche. In carpool rides after high school football practice, he would ask whoever was driving to turn the radio to news reports about the war. “All I remember was thinking, “Israel is fighting for its survival and I’m worried,” he said.
Ascherman studied sociology at Harvard, but was rejected the first time he applied to Hebrew Union College. The school told him he needed more life experience. “That was a very painful thing to hear,” he said, “but they were right.”
He joined Interns for Peace, living in the Israeli Arab village of Tamra as part of a community work program to promote understanding between Israelis and Arabs.
After his ordination, Ascherman spent several years as a rabbi in California, first with a campus Hillel and later with a local congregation. Looking back on those years as a congregational rabbi from his current position as an activist, he said, “there is certainly a piece of my soul that very much misses the pastoral work and the teaching.”
Ascherman considers himself a Zionist.
“Zionism is a liberation movement of the Jewish people,” Ascherman said. “And it says, with all different variations, that a piece of dealing with the oppression that Jews have suffered throughout the centuries is a return to some form of national self determination.”
He believes Israel was right to respond to the provocations that prompted the Lebanon War in 2006 and the Gaza War in late 2008, but he questions the degree to which Israel responded and also whether the country might have been able to prevent the initial provocations it responded to originally.
Ascherman also believes the international community should deal fairly with Israel. He’s condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot that prompted Operation Cast Lead.
Ascherman does worry, he said, that people might misappropriate the message of Rabbis for Human Rights and use it to harm Israel. This concern fuels some of the toughest debates within the organization, such a recent decision not to publish advertisements critical of Israeli policy in mainstream American newspapers.
But he said for every word that gets twisted, more words get through.
“It may very well be that for every person that takes what we say, and uses it to say, ‘Ha! Even the rabbis say…’ I get 10 letters from people who say, “I used to have this awful image of Israel, and you’ve changed it’… That’s the other side of the equation,” he said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)