I have been uncomfortable for some time now with the phrase “the intelligence community.” It is appearing in the news more frequently again as we confront the threat of ISIS and the radical jihadist terrorism that is spreading like a cancer.
What bothers me about the term, which is an official designation of a group of 17 national intelligence agencies created by executive order in 1981, is that I don’t think these agencies form a community. In my view, community requires a combination of compassion, commitment, and covenantal critique.
The intelligence agencies may be a utilitarian group that coordinates its various functions and shares information, but a community emerges out of a deep concern for each other, a shared vision or mission, and an ability to critique one another in order to enhance the common good.
A crucial component of community, which appears prominently in the latter chapters of Genesis in the very Torah portions we are reading publically during these weeks, is the admonition “not to fear.” When Joseph and his brothers come together to re-create a communal bond that has been threatened by callousness, betrayal and violence, Joseph no less than three times urges his brothers not to fear, al tirau. Joseph knows that fear can destroy the fabric of community and as the Jewish narrative moves from Genesis to Exodus and the Israelite community is in need of new energy and a new sense of mission, the words “do not fear” are voiced again and again by Moses.
Fear destroys community since it generates a feeling of suspicion and mistrust that undermines the common bonds at the core of community. Our national intelligence agencies come together as a result of the fear that we may miss important information or lack coordination in our fight against various enemies. While that is certainly a noble purpose, it is not a good or sufficient basis for building a vibrant community.
Our country is experiencing a political rhetoric that plays to our worst fears and insecurities. The calls to shut our shores to Muslims around the world and to monitor the mosques in our neighborhoods will only weaken our community and its ability to respond to the threats we confront. Instead, we should be celebrating the shared values and offering a loving critique of those values, ideas and practices that generate obstacles to achieving our common aspirations.
What we need more than ever is not only a more effective intelligence community, but an intelligent and deep understanding of what our national community needs in order to flourish. As this important political season unfolds, I hope we can become a more intelligent community, one that knows how to strengthen our shared commitment to build a world in which human dignity, creativity and justice are the foundations on which we stand.
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is President of Hebrew College.