Michael Chabon at home in 2016 (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)
Michael Chabon at home in 2016 (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

On Michael Chabon and preaching to the wrong choir

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One writer has called it a diatribe filled with harsh criticism, and while that assessment may be an apt description, I think that what Michael Chabon’s talk truly reflects is a spectacular misjudgment of the audience he was addressing at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion graduation on May 14. The opportunity to thumb his nose at some mythological, monolithic, reactionary Jewish establishment with whom he has wrestled in his mind for years was wasted at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

How could such a well-regarded and renowned author have missed the mark in such a colossal fashion? Perhaps it is partly the tenor of the times — the appeal to vanity in a cynical calculation to make a splash in the media with all of the technological reach that this entails. Or perhaps it is Mr. Chabon’s misreading of the history of liberal Judaism’s evolution, as well as its rigorous and penetrating scholarship on so many levels. I say this as a past graduate of HUC’s Los Angeles campus, and I count Rabbi David Ellenson, the interim president, as a friend and beloved teacher.

Chabon’s criticism of Israel’s occupation and the repressive situation in places such as Hebron was not novel or unfamiliar to the graduates in Los Angeles and, no doubt, may have resonated with some of them, as well as with members of the audience. However, attempting to use Hebron as a metaphor for contemporary Judaism was a gross conflation and discounting of the multiplicity of voices that comprise our tradition. And his characterizations of Jewish marriage, family and tradition, as well as the Jewish state and its misdeeds, were so simplistic and undeveloped that what primarily came across as Chabon’s craft was his reliance on straw men. For a commencement address to Reform Judaism’s best and brightest minds, this had to be an insult to more than their intelligence.

From the question by his children about why the God of the Bible was so mean, there was no counterpoint to the literalist reading by this talented storyteller. Nowhere was there appreciation of other famous Jewish sources of illumination of the Bible, such as the well-known understanding of the passage containing “an eye for an eye” as providing equitable compensation for loss.

And since Reform Judaism teaches that the Hebrew Bible was written by human beings, the characterizations and descriptions of God we encounter in the text tell us far more about the personality and psychological structures of the people who wrote them than they do about the nature of any supreme being to whom they refer.

Similarly, if we were to take Chabon’s railing against the erection of walls literally, we might wonder whether he and his wife actually live in a house in Berkeley since it, too, has walls and would constitute a prison (which he so abhors), and therefore they would reside in a sukkah year-round wearing many layers of clothes. But, of course, we know better and recognize that his analogies are mainly one-dimensional and contrived.

While Chabon’s reminder that in catastrophic times Judaism has reinvented itself throughout its history may seem to some as an astute observation, this is information that even first-year students have encountered in more depth.

How strange to target the yeshiva of the Reform movement — a branch of Judaism that has been a part of the leading edge of progress and innovation, including recognizing patrilineal descent, ordaining women and LGBT candidates for the clergy, and officiating at same-sex weddings and knocking down some walls in the process. His remarks would have been more suitably aimed at more male-dominated and xenophobic enclaves within Judaism and their less flexible counterparts in other faith communities.

And though he hedged his bets about his children “marrying in,” for Jews in general, his description of endogamous marriage as “a ghetto of two” came across as condescending at the HUC-JIR commencement. I wonder whether Mr. Chabon would feel as resolute in counseling against endogamy if he were standing before a gathering of Armenian or Kurdish clergy and community leaders. I doubt he would have the nerve or self-righteousness to exhort abandoning a similar concern for those or other groups.

If, as Michael Chabon says, the tradition of drawing distinctions is a hallmark of Jewish culture, and if the by-product of this “genetically impoverished inheritance” of endogamy has resulted in the highly disproportionate contributions we have made to the world in the areas of thought, religion, science, technology, music, art, literature, theater, journalism, commerce, finance, the law, philanthropy, Nobel laureates and beyond, then I, for one, am not yet ready to relegate “marrying in” to oblivion. Nor do I consider it “a toxin in the bloodstream.”

Perhaps Mr. Chabon’s most revealing observations were in his opening lines when he spoke of how the only emotions of his that he trusted were mixed ones. If we view his presentation on the bimah that day in Los Angeles as a confession of his deeply conflicted psyche, then it might charitably be considered an act of courage on his part.

But while I concur with Rabbis Ellenson and Joshua Holo regarding the importance of this opportunity to be exposed to diverse and critical assessments across the spectrum, even if it might result in a controversial speaker at commencement, the simplistic and pointed remarks that Michael Chabon shared with the graduating class were, in my opinion, neither inspiring, elevating nor illuminating. They were by turns sophomoric, pedantic, snide and arrogant.

Chabon failed to observe one of the fundamental principles for the task with which he was charged on that occasion and whose words are inscribed on countless holy arks in synagogues the world over — da lifnei mi atah omed — know before whom you stand.

Tom Herz

Tom Herz graduated from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus in 1983 with a master’s in Jewish communal service. He is a senior analyst at the office of the president at the University of California and lives in San Francisco.