Friday September 3, 2021 – כ”ו באלול תשפ”א
Rosh Hashanah 5782 – ראש השנה תשפ”ב
5781 was a challenging year. As we come before God and our fellow human beings to bring in the New Year 5782, it is a time to think about relationships – relationships with our loved ones and friends, with colleagues, and our community members. This is also a good time, as North American Reform Jews, to pause and reflect on where we are and where we are going in our relationship with Israel.
On the eve of the New Year, we can find many reasons for despair and for hope: the bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians; the near emergence from and resurgence of the Coronavirus; the election of a new American and Israeli President; and the formation of an unusual Israeli governing coalition that brought us a 49-year-old leader of a 6-member Knesset party Naftali Bennett, as Prime Minister succeeding the 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sadly, it appears that there is little likelihood for Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State, nor a return to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians which would lead to a Palestinian state, leaving few prospects for peace between our two peoples. The previously quiet mixed Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli cities erupted into violence, pitting irate young Palestinians against extremist/racist Jewish Israeli lynch mobs roaming the streets of Lod, Acco, and Bat Yam.
As the violence quelled, the new government was sworn in and the bureaucracy got to work facing its many challenges repairing relationships and rejuvenating the economy. And we here in the Diaspora set in for our own challenges.
“Did you hear???” that over 90 rabbinical and cantorial students wrote an anti-Israel letter in the Forward!” exclaimed an exasperated senior rabbi of a large Reform congregation. Similar calls, emails, and texts came in from members of our Movement, journalists, Israeli diplomats, and Israeli Reform Jews. Some were up in arms, shocked, and in anguish, but for others, the letter resonated.
As the responses poured in (see: here, here, and here just to offer a few), the discourse, outrage, and moral reckoning with Israel were ever-present. Some demanded to expel the students from their respective seminaries, and some said we ought to listen to their “prophetic” voices.
Rather than instigate the awakening that their letter allegedly called for, the letter had the opposite effect. Instead of people pouring into the streets to protest against Israeli policy (like many did last summer in support of Black Lives Matter) and express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, many felt betrayed by the letter’s authors and responded with scorn and vitriol. The students declared: “We can only make change when we replace our watered-down prayers for peace with tears of heartbreak.” The letter created heartbreak– but not the way the students intended.
The letter, and the storm it created, reflect a microcosm of the Jewish community at large in its discourse over Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the tensions between Jewish particularism versus our commitment to upholding universal values, ideals, and principles.
While this is not the first debate in our community about these larger issues, it feels more pressing now than ever before. The increasingly extremist discourse on social media has reached new levels of toxicity, and few “clickers” and “sharers” understand the challenging context in which they are engaging.
On the eve of our New Year, I invite us all to focus not on the glaring ways we are divided but to look for the common values we share and then work together for both Israel’s sake and our own sake as North American Reform Jews.
In today’s world, we are often called upon to hold at least two truths simultaneously. As Reform Jews, we proudly champion our particularist values of Jewish identity, pride, self-preservation, defense, and the right to be a free people in our ancestral Homeland. And as Reform Jews, we also affirm universalist values. Both particularism and universalism are based on our liberal understanding of Torah and Jewish tradition.
When future Jewish leaders fail to express empathy for and solidarity with fellow Jews and fail to understand the requisite importance of Israel’s security and right to self-defense, we ought to be alarmed. And we should also be alarmed when our current leaders fail to express sympathy with innocent Palestinian victims and fail to recognize basic Palestinian national rights.
Let us strive to find common ground as Jews, regardless of our political positions, by championing both universal values (e.g. the sanctity of human life) and our people’s particular interests as supporters of Israel?
So many young North American Jewish adults, rabbinical and cantorial students, and graduates of our camps and Israel programs cite “Jewish values” of truth, justice, and simply “doing the right thing” as their rationale for their critique of, protest against, and withdrawal from Israel. This speaks volumes and ought to worry all of us who care about both Israel and our liberal Jewish values. It says that we have been successful on the one hand in inculcating in our young people universal humanistic values based on prophetic teachings. But we have failed to instill commensurate pride, a sense of ownership and belonging, and a mature nuanced connection to the people and the State of Israel. Many in the progressive camp were utterly displeased with the election of President Trump and with his administration’s policies, and so they did not turn away but rather they protested, resisted, engaged, and spoke out. It ought to be no different with regard to our engagement with Israel.
I suggest that we adopt a more expansive approach that enables our deeper attachment to and relationship with both the Zionist dream and the reality of Israel – perhaps in ways similar to the “American dream” and the reality of the United States.
In 1931, the historian and author James Truslow Adams wrote in his book The Epic of America: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.
The Zionist Dream transcends political party identification and partisan ideology. Reframing our discussion in terms of the Zionist Dream allows us to forgo simplistic binary reductionism. It prevents us, on the one hand, from dismissing as “antisemitic” those who disagree with us if they renounce Zionism in left-wing circles or and, on the other hand, from dismissing as “colonialists” if those who eschew blind support for Israeli right-wing policies in occupied territories.
Our Zionist dream is about wrestling with the reality of Israel as we confront today’s challenges and embrace the complexities.
The psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck once advised that we ought to:
“…abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience — to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
The challenge here is for us to bring nuance and to offer multiple perspectives that enable people (from religious school students to adults) to make informed decisions and arrive at educated opinions. Our goal should be, in the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman:
“We can support Israel in living up to its ideals by helping those already highly connected and committed to Israel grapple with its challenges—and shortcomings—head-on. Likewise, we can help all those troubled by some of Israel’s actions to cultivate an enduring and meaningful connection with an imperfect country living in challenging times.”
When we read Parashat Nitzavim this week (and again for many of us on Yom Kippur) we understand this moment in time when we stand together before the Creator.
“אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃”
“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel…” (Deuteronomy 29:9)
As we stand together as Klal Yisrael (the totality of the people of Israel) we can find common ground in the importance of connecting to and supporting the people and the State of Israel. As a collective, we cannot shy away from the pressing issues in Israel and abroad. If we want to be taken seriously, we cannot ignore:
The Occupation – Israel’s military rule over the territories conquered in 1967 and the Palestinian people who live there. It is an occupation that was meant to be temporary, but after 54 years no longer appears to be.
The Ultra-Orthodox Monopoly on Judaism in the Jewish State – That Judaism in the democratic State of Israel is run by the Ultra-Orthodox monopoly which does not allow for official recognition of non-Orthodox streams and Movements, neither allowing for freedom of religion nor freedom from religion.
Let us find common ground by supporting and building on the achievements of our Reform Movement.
In March 2021, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative Movements will be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the “Law of Return” and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
If up until now the doors of Israel were open to anyone born Jewish or who converted abroad in a recognized community in either Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform conversions, now those doors will be open to anyone born Jewish or who converted in Israel as well in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform ceremony.
“Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative,” said then Opposition Leader and current Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, “We all need to live here together with tolerance and mutual respect.”
The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Jewry praised the High Court’s ruling in a letter on its website as nothing less than “official recognition by the Israeli government of the vital role Reform and Conservative Jews play in the religious life of the Jewish State.”
This court victory will reverberate beyond the handful of claimants who were in legal limbo for over a decade. The recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel symbolizes the first major crack in the 74-year stronghold on Religion and State set by the Status-Quo agreement that David Ben Gurion and the Agudath Yisrael agreed to prior to the establishment of the State.
Just weeks after this landmark victory we celebrated another victory in the election of Rabbi Gilad Kariv to Israel’s Knesset. Landing 4th on the Labor party’s list, MK Kariv now chairs the influential Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, and is the first Reform rabbi to hold elected office in the State of Israel. MK Kariv’s mere presence has incurred the wrath of the Haredi parties, and already in a few short months, he has made major waves.
Our Movement is doing serious work in paving the way for recognition of Reform [and other liberal streams of] Judaism. We are also working towards a shared society between Jewish and Palestinian-Israelis, and actively working to combat racism in Israel.
In his landmark 1953 essay, Israeli Professor Ernst (Akiva) Simon wrote:
“Toward this end, there must be a renewal of the spirit of prophetic criticism. That spirit was not the special property of the era of the prophets: it belongs to all of us who are heirs to their words and students of their message. The prophets of Israel sought to enlist all of life, beginning with social relations and ending with foreign policy, under the banner of holiness.”
Remember, the Prophets were embedded in their communities. Fleeting prophets or outside voices rarely get heard. So, if all politics are local, then it’s upon us to support the institutions, NGOs, and activists on the ground with whom we agree and who are making a difference, and to get involved in helping to bring about positive change in partnership with Israelis.
We also have to listen to each other.
Being dogmatic and dismissive no longer works. If we want others to listen to us, we must listen to them even when it challenges us and makes us uncomfortable. The Talmud helps us to understand this role:
“אַף אַתָּה עֲשֵׂה אׇזְנֶיךָ כַּאֲפַרְכֶּסֶת וּקְנֵה לְךָ לֵב מֵבִין לִשְׁמוֹעַ אֶת דִּבְרֵי מְטַמְּאִים וְאֶת דִּבְרֵי מְטַהֲרִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי אוֹסְרִין וְאֶת דִּבְרֵי מַתִּירִין אֶת דִּבְרֵי פוֹסְלִין וְאֶת דִּבְרֵי מַכְשִׁירִין ” ~(חגיגה ג’ ע”ב)
“So too you, the student, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.
~ Hagigah 3b
We can continue to regard those who challenge us, such as the authors and signatories of the rabbinical and cantorial student letter, as null and void, and call for their expulsion. But that’s not going to change their views or make them go away.
So, where can we find common ground?
Let me offer a few suggestions on how to think about the challenge of Israel in contemporary Jewish life and where we can make common cause on what’s important and where we can make a difference:
- As Jews, we can love, feel connected to, and be in close relationship with Israel and at the same time abhor policies that we believe violate fundamental human and civil rights.
- Context is everything. Anyone can be critical of Israel. In a democracy, every aspect of society is open to critique. It’s easy to share a meme, an Instagram post, a simplified slogan, but responsibly sharing educated and sophisticated criticism requires knowledge and understanding. The challenge is to criticize in context. Let us commit, this year, to familiarize ourselves with the issues, the history, and the context (neither IDF service nor a Ph.D. is required) and internalize the context of our critique? This won’t make the issue about which we are critical go away, but we might discover interesting things along the way.
- Try to see yourself as part of the larger Zionist and Israeli narrative. Israel needs us, and we need Israel. If you can, go to Israel, and try and learn the language. See with your own eyes what Israel’s reality is instead of relying only on the subjective reports of others. Immerse yourself in Israeli society and culture. Bring with you the traditions, customs, and values that you learned in your community. Israel is a lush and colorful tapestry of stories, customs, ethnicities, languages, and cultures – many of them are Jewish and some not. Weave your yarn into its fabric and see yourself in the beauty of it all when you step back.
“Let us hear your voice; For your voice is sweet, And your face is beautiful” (Song of Songs 2:14).
The 20th-century philosopher Simon Rawidowicz pushed this notion:
“The Diaspora of Israel must build the State of Israel with all its strength … and the State must recognize the Diaspora as of equal value, and an equally responsible co-builder and co-creator of all Jewish life.”
On the eve of the New Year, I ask you to commit to three things:
- Study and Education: Will you read two books on Israel this year? One, by someone with whom you might disagree? Join our Zionist Beit Midrash to engage in the ideas around Israel, Zionism, and Jewish Peoplehood.
- Support our Movement: Will you join ARZA and become an overseas member of an Israeli congregation?
- Will you find a project that can bring people together across the ideological and political divide? Find the common ground on which multiple generations and a diversity of viewpoints can agree and work together (e.g., Eco-Zionism, the environment and the Shmita year, our Movement’s shared society projects, our humanitarian aid work with Keren B’Kavod, Kibbutz Lotan’s sustainability work, and more…)
Make this year the year of learning, engagement, and of building community around our shared and sacred values. כי אם לא עכשיו אימתי, because “if not now, when?”
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah,