Kol Nidre 2014: Israel: Principles of Discourse

Three Jewish mothers get together for lunch. As they are being seated in the restaurant, one takes a deep breath and gives a long, slow "oy." The second answers with another prolonged sigh: "oy." The third interrupts impatiently: "Girls, girls, I thought we agreed that we weren't going to talk about our children!”

So what’s our unmentionable, our elephant in the middle of the room? What is the one essential topic of Jewish discourse that we don’t know how to broach? A few weeks ago, a congregant advised me: “Don’t talk about Israel. What’s the point? You’ll just stir up trouble.” Another e-mailed me: “I feel sorry for you that you’re going to have to talk about Israel from the Bimah on the High Holidays.” A third observed: “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!” Nor are we the only congregation, nor I the only Rabbi, struggling with how to dialogue meaningfully and constructively on Israel. In a recent article entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote: “North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.” Indeed, just since I completed the first draft of this sermon, several articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have appeared, each describing strife in some American Jewish circles over this summer’s war in Gaza. Two weeks ago, the beloved Rabbi of a large suburban synagogue near Chicago resigned over the issue after seventeen years of devoted service to his congregation.

Despite the risk, I have decided to use the highest-profile occasion of the Jewish calendar to offer heartfelt reflections. Israel is on all of our minds, including my own. Furthermore, many of you look to the Rabbi for spiritual guidance. I have confidence that the trust and—I’ll say it—love that has developed over the past two years between us (you, my congregation, and me, your Rabbi) have developed and solidified to the point where they will not rupture by what I am about to express, even in this difficult area.

How did the American Jewish community get to this point, especially since we as a people are famously argumentative? You’ve heard the old saw: “two Jews, three opinions!” Indeed, machloqet, entering into disagreement, is the defining feature of our religion since the Rabbinic era. The Talmud is built upon impassioned debate. Hillel and Shammai, the greatest sages of them all, famously argued for three years over an arcane point of law and still never reached consensus. Prospective converts in my Introduction to Judaism class are often surprised to learn—and, furthermore, find it refreshing—that unlike the Christianity that they grew up with, in which adherents must subscribe to a single dogma, Judaism encourages a wide range of convictions. You don’t even have to believe in God to be a good Jew, so why is Israel such a difficult subject?

In his classic work The Rabbinic Mind, scholar Max Kadushin devised the term “value concept” to denote the dominant themes that pervade Jewish discourse. Examples include: “tzedek (justice),” “hesed (lovingkindness),” “Torah,” and—yes—“Israel.” These are the fundamental captions of Jewish vocabulary that all of us employ in our conversations with each other. Jewish value concepts bind us together as a distinct culture, and yet no two of us mean precisely the same thing when we invoke one of them. Take the word “Torah.” When you say “Torah,” you might believe in Holy Scripture as the word of God on Mount Sinai transcribed verbatim by Moses. Your neighbor might refer to the work that began as several different oral traditions, was later redacted, and became the primary source of guidance and inspiration for Jews throughout the generations ever since. For another Jew, “Torah” might signify, expansively, not the Hebrew document at all but the summation of human wisdom accrued since the beginning of civilization until the present day, including all of science, ethics, and philosophy. Although the word varies in meaning, one really can’t be Jewish without some connection to, or personal notion of, Torah. According to Kadushin, the Talmud abounds in contradictions because the Rabbis did not attempt to develop a logically consistent set of beliefs. Rather, they were interested in “expressing and responding to the differences of human personalities.” (The Rabbinic Mind, page 2) Rabbinic culture cohered not because people thought alike but because people had license to think differently within the basic parameters delimited by Jewish value concepts.

What are our fundamental value concepts that underlie our discussions about Israel? Foremost is the land itself. Just as being Jewish entails a relationship with Torah, it also implies an attachment to eretz Yisra’eil. The land of Israel has been inextricably associated with the people of Israel ever since Abraham. In the words of Hatikvah, “so long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sang, so long as the eye looked eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope was never lost—the hope of two thousand years.” We kept alive the dream of return in our daily worship, praying the lines: “gather us from the four corners of the earth; have mercy and bring us back to Jerusalem.” When the Dalai Lama first met a delegation of leading Rabbis in the 90s, he asked them: “what is your secret?” His people were forced to leave Tibet only fifty years ago, but no nation on Earth has survived exile through centuries of dispersal and persecution, except for Israel.

I’ll never forget looking out from the window seat as a twelve-year old, glimpsing the brown shoreline when it first appeared above the distant horizon of the sea, watching it get larger and larger as the plane approached, eventually making out buildings, then sunbathers on the beaches, my heart swelling with joy and anticipation. How to explain the thrill of homecoming, when I had never set foot in the country before? Many of us feel a visceral, inexplicable, quasi-mystical sense of belonging and love for the land itself.

A second, distinctly modern value concept entwines every consideration of Israel—namely, the Holocaust. Our collective Jewish psyche will forever bear its indelible scar. As a defining marker, the Shoah rivals, if not supersedes, the first momentous event of Jewish history, yetziyat Mitzrayim. Just as Torah imposes a religious obligation to “see ourselves,” every day of our lives, “as if we personally went forth from Egypt,” so too the martyrs of the Holocaust charge us with the sacred task of inculcating in our children from generation to generation the message of “never again!”

What are the dreadful lessons of the Holocaust? For a number of us, “never again” means “never again will we Jews render ourselves vulnerable, defenseless, and at the mercy of adversaries out to destroy us.” Belatedly after World War Two, much of the world came to recognize the imperative to establish a Jewish homeland. That the modern State of Israel was founded on the heels of Nazi genocide feels nothing short of miraculous. However, seventy years later, anti-Semitism intensifies anew, not only through the incendiary proclamations of the Hamas charter and Islamist leaders throughout the Middle East but even at peace rallies in the West. Apparently, Europe’s shame at having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in its midst is wearing off. For these reasons, memory of the Holocaust ensures that Israel’s security remain a top concern.

However, “never again” has an additional, universal application: “never again will we sit idly while a group of human beings—any group—is marginalized, persecuted and threatened.” Thus, many Jews cited the Holocaust when they positioned themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and rallied against the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. Closer to home, our unhappy legacy as victims of atrocities, from Pharaoh to Hitler, admonishes us lest we cause the suffering of others. “Do not oppress the foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) When some of us criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, we are not “self-hating Jews.” Rather, we act according to the loftiest prescriptions of our tradition, as well as with full awareness of our age-old experience of persecution.

The notion of am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel—as distinct from eretz Yisra’eil, the land of Israel—yields a third pertinent value concept. We involve ourselves with the State of Israel’s concerns for the elemental reason that so many of our fellow Jews live there or plan to make aliyah (move there), including our own loved ones, members of the Beth Shalom community, and some of you here tonight. Israel has now surpassed the United States as the country containing the largest Jewish population; in a few years, one out of every two Jews in the world will live in Israel. Its security entails the fate of six million of our sisters and brothers. The Rabbinic dictum, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh, “all of Israel is responsible one for the other,” directs us to stand up for our own kin before we advance the interests of others. A key principle of tzedakah ranks commitment in concentric circles. One must tend first to one’s family, then one’s community, then the Jewish people generally, and, finally, all of humanity (to which in our day we might add: the natural world). (cf. http://shma.com/2011/10/ creating-a-tzedakah-standard/) Therefore, when the news and social media attack Israel, we take it personally. Loyalty impels us to come to her defense as we would for a close relative.

However, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh confers an additional obligation: to be responsible not only for the safety and wellbeing of fellow Jews but for their actions as well. Many of us shudder if the culprit of the latest public financial or sexual scandal seems to bear a Jewish-sounding name, lest his offense reflect upon us and upon our faith. Hoche’ach tochiach et amitecha, exhorts the Torah, “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk,” (Leviticus 19:17) implying greater license to censure one’s own relation than a person with whom one has no connection. Some contend that because Diaspora Jews lack Israeli citizenship and have not endured the hardships of war, they do not have the right to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. However, this argument disregards our close affiliation with each other no matter where we live. We are all one people the world over. We share in each other’s suffering, and we partake of the same destiny.

It is instructive that in the Holiness Code, “love your neighbor as yourself” follows closely upon the heels of “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk.” Reproach must be grounded in love. It is precisely our devotion to Israel that underlies any disapproval we may express. Once again, the analogy to Torah as a value concept is relevant. One might decry certain passages that one finds repugnant, such as the verses in the Book of Numbers that condone the utter destruction of Israel’s enemies, but being Jewish means that love of Torah resides deep within and complete detachment is impossible. Likewise, one might deplore certain Israeli operations and modes of conduct, but love for am Yisra’eil precludes turning one’s back on fellow Jews.

So far, the examination of three value concepts—the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the somber legacy of the Holocaust—has focused on the substance of our conversations on Israel, but what about the manner of discourse itself? Returning to the example with which we started, the Talmud sets forth the exemplars of upright disputation: “Any argument for the sake of heaven is destined to endure… What is an argument for the sake of heaven? This is the one between Hillel and Shammai.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) The key characteristic of meaningful and constructive dialogue is described by the phrase lesheim shamayim, literally, “in the name of heaven.” Heaven represents the source of ultimate Truth that transcends human understanding. The operative value concept is humility, which Max Kadushin termed yir’at shamayim, “awe of heaven,” the idea that we bow in reverence before the unknowable. As the Talmud asserts elsewhere: “The disciples of Hillel were kindly and humble. They would teach both the words of Shammai and the words of Hillel, and, not only that, they would give Shammai’s position preeminence over their own.” (bEruvim 13b)

Humility, the acknowledgement that each of our perspectives is limited—on Israel, or on any significant topic for that matter—engenders tolerance and respect for one another. We recognize that our own subjective ties and experiences shape our own mindset, and we acknowledge that different ties and experiences may produce divergent worldviews for other individuals and, certainly, for other groups. If we were to construct a composite narrative of what is happening in Israel by compiling all of the undisputed facts plus all of our personal opinions, even then, we would still fall short of telling the complete story.

If we could find a way to dialogue about Israel without splintering our beloved community, no conversation would have to remain off the table. My highest vision for Beth Shalom is that we be a holy community: judging one another lechaf zechut, that is, ascribing to one another only the best of intentions, forgiving one another’s limitations, and grounding all of our interactions in our basic caring for one another. As we prayed together in the invocation just a few minutes ago: “How fine it is to gather, people with firm beliefs, together with people with questions in their hearts, in the house of a God who values deeds of caring and justice far above the recitation of creeds.” Many of us hold solid opinions when it comes to Israel, and many of us harbor strong doubts. If you believe that the land of Israel is the inalienable inheritance of the people of Israel, a claim rooted in the Bible, justified by ancient precedent, and cemented through thousands of years of joint association, you are welcome here. If you maintain that above all, we must staunchly uphold solidarity with Israel in the face of anti-Zionist and especially anti-Semitic rhetoric, you are welcome here. If you fear for the safety of loved ones and fellow Jews living in the State of Israel, who have endured repeated attack since its founding, and before, you are welcome here. If you are sympathetic to the plight and suffering of Palestinians, you are welcome here. If you grieve for victims on both sides and mourn the devastation of war, you are welcome here. If you are outraged by certain decisions of the Israeli government, you are welcome here. If you worry that the moral fiber of Israel is eroding, or that Israeli society is losing its sense of national purpose and direction, you are welcome here. If you wake up every day in awe and gratitude for the privilege of living in the age that witnessed and experienced the miracle of Israel’s rebirth sixty-six years ago, you are welcome here. If you fear that Israel will not be around in another sixty-six years and are willing to go to any lengths to prevent such a tragedy, you are welcome here. If you hold several of these sometimes contradictory concerns simultaneously, you are welcome here. Above all, if you express the truth of your own heart and the yearning of your own soul, you are welcome here.

The principles that govern how we talk about Israel apply to speech in general. We are about to utter many words on this Day of Atonement. If our expressions of atonement are to signify anything, we must adhere to the value concepts that bind us together as Jews. Just as love for am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel, informs every discussion of eretz Yisra’eil, the Land of Israel, and medinat Yisra’eil, the State of Israel, may our underlying love and concern for each other here, in this community, ground every prayer we are about to recite and every vow we are about to undertake. Just as the Holocaust casts a shadow over Israel, now and forever, may we remain aware of, and compassionate toward, our own and each other’s brokenness and suffering throughout the coming day and the coming year. Finally, may all of our utterances be lesheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven and in the name of heaven. May our ongoing humility be the gateway to forgiveness—for ourselves, for our community, for all Israel, and for the world.