Speaking About Israel on the High Holy Days
Presented by the New Israel Fund
Rosh Hashanah 5771
TALKING ABOUT ISRAEL FROM THE PULPIT
Talking about Israel from the rabbinic pulpit, especially on the High Holidays, can be the easiest thing in the world.
Easy?! Yes. Nothing is easier than telling your congregation what it expects and wants to hear. For certain kehillot, nothing is easier than shaking your head in your disappointment. We are losing our way, betraying our dreams, eroding our moral stature … you know the drill. In other kehillot, nothing is easier than shaking your fist, repeating the familiar vow to resist the Jew-hating Goliaths and standing faithfully with our beloved David.
We should be neither so obvious nor so oblivious nor so lazy. Each of these approaches might make us and our congregants feel better for a moment, but neither will help us build a better Israel or a better world. As rabbis for hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls, we owe them something deeper than cheerleading or moralizing. We owe our communities subtle reflections on Israel (whether on the holidays or ordinary Shabbatot) that will refine our Zionism: inspiring them with the achievements of Israel and Israelis – as well as contemplating the challenges we face, and helping Jews rise to the occasion of meeting them. Now that can be challenging.
In this letter, let me share some reflections on why this project can be so difficult and some kavvanot on how we might succeed in this aspect of our rabbinic work. First, let’s look at two difficulties and traps.
To speak wisely, you must know what you know and know what you don’t know. Most of us Diaspora rabbis follow Israel with serious interest, read newspapers, and visit regularly. None of that makes us experts. Our kehillot probably include people at least as well informed as we are on such topics. So I try to punch my weight. I try not to tell them what we can both read in the New York Times, or on Haaretz.com. I figure that what I have to offer my community is not my own informed opinion of what is going on in the public square – not necessarily wiser than their own – but rather the opportunity to contemplate questions and values emerging from religious tradition.
That doesn’t mean I presume to report God’s policy positions, for there are no such things. Many of us object when the religious right or George W. Bush or messianic settlers blithely declare what is moral, religious or “Torah-true;” but I bet that some of us believe inwardly that we ourselves know perfectly well what God favors on any number of contemporary topics, from gay marriage to the two-state solution. That approach creates more problems than it solves. For political policies are human controversies in all-too-human society, over which reasonable people can disagree. As the Talmud’s greatest tale (the “Oven of Akhnai”) insists, human disagreements can only be addressed through persuasive dialogue, not through divine oracles. Unlike God, who transcends categories of hawk and dove, Israel itself is a multi-partisan society, a community of argument, agreement and dissent. I want my synagogue to be the same. So when I speak about Israel, I most anxiously avoid saying anything that suggests our shul can be a home only for those who espouse “correct” political views. Instead, I think rabbis speak about Israel successfully when they do not identify religious teachings with given political programs, but when they invite reasonable discourse even with those with whom they disagree.
So, if rabbis cannot offer expert commentary about Israel and should not identify Judaism’s political platform, then what should we offer?
We can help people fulfill mitzvot. Ultimately, that is our job as rabbis: to help people identify what God and the Torah demand of them, give them the tools to perform their duties, inspire them to become the virtuous Jews they should be, and help them make a better world.
An overarching mitzvah in this project is ahavat Israel, the loyalty and care we are obliged to extend to our fellow Jews, as it is said: love your neighbor as yourself. This may seem overly tribal in our global age, but this mitzvah remains near the top of my ethical list, for we owe deep loyalty to our family members, whose history and destiny we share. To me, such a Zionist commitment is manifest, among other ways, when people visit Israel, support its economy and defend it against unjust accusations. It also demands that we show a sympathetic awareness of Israel’s unique security predicaments.
Much has been said over the years – in the past year especially, with the renowned Peter Beinart essay – about American Jewry’s failure to tolerate dissent or critical discourse about Israel. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps some of us work with congregants who seem unwilling to hear anything about Israel but the rosiest, most romantic images. But I would argue that rabbis can win moral authority for critical discourse on Israel by manifesting ahavat Israel, showing loyal, sympathetic commitment. Even the most defensive synagogue communities will find greater tolerance for criticism and dissent when their rabbis are clearly eager to labor with their Israeli brothers, sisters and partners on solutions that will improve society rather than not merely point to problems.
So when I speak about Israel, I try to nurture my community’s commitment to the Jewish state. Indeed, only such commitment can authorize critical engagement at all. On what grounds should I try to influence Peru or Bulgaria? I am not threatened by the risks those nations face, nor will I enjoy the benefits when they thrive. But with Israel it is different. Rabbis speaking about Israel should affirm that we bear at least a junior partner’s share of Israel’s burdens and benefits, and therefore we bear at least a junior partner’s responsibility for building a better society.
But while we cannot do that work without love, we likewise must recall the Sages’ observation that real love requires telling sometimes painful truths. No person and no society is already perfect; like everyone, Israel needs loving, responsible friends to help it grow by confronting its challenges. It may be tempting to declaim about Israel’s failings, or equally tempting to rush to Israel’s defense at every suggestion of its shortcomings. But how will either approach help your congregants fulfill mitzvot? Our job is to mine the sacred tradition for compelling, eternal values, and then identify our deeds and duties that would live out our values in action.
In these terms, a successful talk about Israel would include asking a congregation to reflect on some of these elements of classical Jewish history, texts and ideas:
- Narratives of exile, wandering and homecoming, destruction and rebuilding;
- Economic mitzvot, such as those that restrain the exploitation of the vulnerable, and demand sharing resources with the suffering, including foreign workers and immigrants;
- Ethical duties, such as fairness and equality before the law, including for ethnic minorities;
- Intellectual values, affirming that all Jews should have access to Torah learning and be encouraged toward spiritual development, and indeed that all people have a share in productive human wisdom;
- Meta-ethical organizing principles, such as the fundamental worth of every human being, created in the image of God.
And not just reflect on those themes, but to do something about them! Successful synagogue talks about Israel ultimately arrive in action. As the Sages said, Lo hamidrash ikkar, the point is not the exposition, ela hama’aseh, but rather the deed.
It is important therefore to recognize those Israelis working to refine this society for which we share a measure of responsibility, and to support their efforts, materially and spiritually. Once, Diaspora Jews fulfilled the mitzvah of binyan Eretz Israel, building up the Land of Israel, by supporting halutzim, or pioneers, as they founded physical settlements. Today, responsible friends of Israel support new halutzim by supporting the social activists who are shaping a more just, more peace-loving society. For instance, Israeli activists seeking fairer economic and legal treatment for ethnic minorities, such as Arab citizens, are fulfilling the classical mitzvot to care for the stranger, the vulnerable and marginalized. When we rabbis lead our congregations to become their partners, we in fact help Jews share in these mitzvot. Activists laboring to increase religious pluralism are spreading access to Torah throughout society; may it be our privilege to help our communities share in this mitzvah. The New Israel Fund, of course, is a central organization that can help you find such partners, and connect you and your communities to do the mitzvot of supporting their work.
It may not be easy to talk about Israel to Diaspora Jews today, but it seems to me wise for rabbis to engage this topic, because few themes are so important to the Jewish people. The creation of a thriving Jewish society and state in the land of Israel in the 20th century (especially in the wake of the Shoah) is probably the greatest achievement in our people’s long history. And given Israel’s very real challenges in the coming decades, one of our jobs as spiritual leaders is to inspire the Jewish people to its necessary work in safeguarding our national home. Through your words, you can help Jews work to fulfill the commandment of binyan ha’aretz, building up our historic homeland, as it is said [Leviticus 25.18]: And you shall perform my commandments and keep my laws, and you will dwell on the Land with confidence.