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Arguing is not the Way

Yom Kippur Morning
October 8, 2011

 

 

Two stories: The first you must have heard a thousand times and the other should be new.

Story #1 – Two Jews are shipwrecked on a deserted island. Years pass until, one day, a ship rescues the dynamic duo. The captain is confused, however, when he sees three buildings on the island. He asks for an explanation and one of the Jews responds: “We’re Jews so we’ve got three synagogues. One I go to; the other he goes to; and the third neither of us would step foot into.”

Story #2 - Two gentlemen are standing outside a door in the Temple that is marked Board Room. One says to the other, “What’s on the agenda tonight?” The other replies, “I don’t know, but I’m prepared to be outraged anyway.”

****

The moral of the stories: Jews disagree. Jews apparently argue with each other.

It was that way back in the days of the Greek Syrians. Some Jews were in favor of assimilating into the world of Hellenism; some Jews were adamant about remaining true to the Torah. We call that second group who disagreed with the first – the Maccabees.

Centuries later when some Jews in Germany tried to adapt Judaism to the open world of the Enlightenment, others argued that “reform” in Judaism was forbidden. These more traditional Jews ostracized the reformers. It happened back then in the 1800’s; it happened here in Springfield when Sinai was founded in 1931.

And today…Jews are also arguing. So much so that one national Jewish organization (The JCPA – The Jewish Council for Public Affairs) has published a document entitled The Civility Statement. So much so that I recently participated in a teleconference entitled – Seeking a Torah for Civil Discourse.
But, you may say, who is arguing, and what are they arguing about? Did I miss something?

Well, here’s the story: Today, Jews are arguing about Israel. A good number of Jews are angry with each other because they disagree vehemently over Israel.

The clearest example of this situation concerns an organization called J Street. J Street is an advocacy group, founded in 2008, that claims to present a “new voice” for Israel. The founders of write as follows on their website: “[J Street] gives…voice to mainstream American Jews and other supporters of Israel who, informed by their Jewish values, believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy.”

It sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Except it’s not so simple because J Street enters the political scene to the left of the major advocacy group in America which is called AIPAC – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And, to be honest, where AIPAC is inclined to represent the voice of the current Israeli government, J Street is upfront in questioning Israeli policy and in urging the US government to think more independently as well.
J Street says it is Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace. Its opponents say J Street is undercutting Israel and reducing the chance for peace.

Let the fighting begin!

In Newton, one synagogue invited representatives of J Street to speak last year. Some prominent members of the synagogue threatened to resign if J Street got a hearing.

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs was nominated to be the new President of our Reform movement, some Jews began a campaign to have his nomination rescinded. It turns out that, although Jacob has been a life long Zionist, he is also associated with J Street. The campaign to disqualify Jacobs got nowhere in the end, but you get the idea.

Leonard Fein, columnist and author, recently wrote about the senior executive of a big city Jewish Federation. The exec has passionate objections to Israel’s West Bank policies, but he told Fein he cannot allow any daylight between his Federation and Israeli policy. Why not? Because he will lose his job. The vitriol surrounding Israel is that intense.

Let me be honest right now: When I typed these very words earlier this week at home, my heart skipped a beat. I wondered how far I might get into this sermon without someone walking out on me. As many other rabbis have discovered around the country, it’s not so safe to talk about Israel today.

But what’s a rabbi to do?

What’s a Jew supposed to do on this Yom Kippur day dedicated to truth?

I could take the easy path, tell you to buy Israel Bonds, and leave it at that because the truth is Israel does need support. Only recently the Israeli embassy in Cairo was attacked. We do not know how regime changes in the Arab world will affect Israel. We also have no idea how the UN will handle the Palestinian petition for statehood.

These are dangerous times. Israel is standing alone.

This is a time when supporting Israel through such initiatives as buying Israel Bonds can be very powerful.

However…this morning I am not going to promote Bonds based on this concern. I hope you will buy an Israel Bond. You do have the material near your seats. If you complete one of the forms and hand it to the ushers at the end of the service, the Bonds office will contact you with current interest rates. They will help you decide what is right for you.

I do hope you will make an investment in Israel Bonds.

However, today I am not going to essentially scare you into that investment. I am not going to convince you that Israel needs your money because the whole world (from Iran and Turkey to the UN) is out to get Israel.

There are two reasons not to go this route.

First, the claim that everyone hates Israel gets us into trouble among ourselves. You see, if it’s really life or death, if Israel’s survival depends on my interpreting the situation exactly one way, it’s no wonder that Jews scream at each other. If you boil it down to life or death and someone doesn’t agree with your analysis of the situation, the one who disagrees becomes a veritable Benedict Arnold. He’s a traitor!

So before I tell you that Israel’s physical survival is at stake (even though I do believe there is some truth to that claim), I’d rather talk about Israel in much less loaded terms. We’re liable to hear each other better if the stakes are a little less extreme.

There is another reason why I would like to invite your support of Israel without telling you Israel will die unless you do what I suggest.
I want to appeal to you differently because the do-or-die approach doesn’t speak to everyone in this room.

It does speak to some of us. Jews who are old enough to remember 1948, when Israel was attacked by every major Arab country, have a gut sense that Israel’s survival can never be taken for granted. If you lived through the Six Day War in 1967, you also know what I know: When push comes to shove, the rest of the world might very well desert Israel.

Finally, if you remember the 1972 Munich Olympics, then you, like me, know that Israel lives on the edge. Our memories and experience have bound us to Israel in a visceral way.

But here’s the critical point: Jews who have not had the experiences of 48, 67, or 72 feel differently about Israel. Research has indicated that young American Jews (especially those under 35) feel less attached to Israel. They are attached. But having grown up in a world where they have (thank God) not seen Israel’s physical existence seriously challenged, young Jews tend to be more moderate. They are more willing to look at Israel with a critical eye. They are willing to discuss Israel and even critique Israel without believing that wrong words will destroy the Jewish state.

I am not making this up. Significant research about American Jews bears me out. So please don’t lose your temper now. Let’s not argue. Let’s figure this out.

In fact, let me make a suggestion: Just as I told you last night, that it is legitimate for Jews to struggle with the meaning of God, I am suggesting this morning that it is also OK for individual Jews (you and me) to struggle with the meaning of Israel in our lives.

The survey about God you will receive tomorrow will invite you to share your honest and probably very different feelings about God. Is God real for you or not? What questions do you have about God?

I’m asking these questions for one overarching reason: Just in case you think your faith or doubt regarding God put you outside what is acceptable, I want you to know that can’t be. Your questions are precious.

In the Book of Genesis we are told that the very word YISRAEL means “one who struggles with God.” Bottom line: Some of us are here at Sinai because of our answers about God. Some of us are here because of our questions. But…we are all here.

The same holds true when it comes to Israel the country. We don’t all have to see Israel the same way. Some of us are here and we do “support” Israel because we have that gut feeling about Jewish solidarity. We remember Golda Meir. We saw the movie Exodus. We remember the struggle to free Soviet Jews.
All of this makes us diehard supporters of Israel.

But the fabric of Jewish life has never been sown from only one cloth, which means that other Jews here define their feelings for Israel in a different way. And that’s OK.

Perhaps I can put it best by imagining a Sinai Temple alumna who is (let’s say) 28 years old. She’s here today visiting from Boston where she has her first job. She grew up here at the Temple.

If she’s 28, she’s old enough to have participated in our fabulous celebration of Israel at 50. She was 15 years old in 1998 and she may have fond memories of how we celebrated Israel’s 50th birthday by baking 50 cakes and eating them in the Oneg Shabbat Room. (We repeated the cake festival in 2008 with 60 cakes.)

At any rate, she grew up here hearing me tell stories of David ben Gurion and the struggle to create the State. I shared my best pro-Israel sentiments with her all the way through her life at Sinai. But then she went to college, studied political science, and probably followed her heart and soul into various liberal causes as many Jews do.

She may also have met some Palestinians along the way and she very likely came to know their story about the land of Israel and its meaning for them. She may also have learned about the Women of the Wall and how liberal Judaism has to struggle so hard for acceptance in Israel. She may have read about the huge gap between the wealthy and the poor in Israel. She may have been struck by the inequality of Arabs who are citizens of Israel and form fully 20% of Israel’s population.

This Sinai Temple young adult may believe that Israel’s most pressing need is to fulfill its own Declaration of Independence.

"THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights… “

So is this young Sinai graduate wrong to expect a great deal from Israel and to be critical of Israel for not fulfilling all of its promise?
I would be hard pressed to tell her she is wrong.

For there are thousands of Israelis who also believe Israel hasn’t yet lived up to its potential. This summer weeks of protests for social justice took place in almost every city across Israel. The rallies culminated in September when 450,000 Israelis attended rallies around the country asking for a better Israel.
According to all the research done on American Jews of the 21st century, this social justice approach is the one that speaks most significantly to younger Jews. They know about the threats directed against Israel by its external enemies, but the fact is that our young Jews have grown up in a world where Israel has to prove itself worthy of their special concern.

They learned to be liberals from us, their classic Zionist parents, and it is their liberalism which defines the nature of their Zionism.

For them, it’s not Israel right or wrong. For them it’s Israel when it’s right, when it’s moral, when it’s just.

Friends, I am not making this up or even encouraging it. I actually wish it was the old days when every Jew (or at least most Jews) were united around Israel. We were unabashedly proud of Israel in almost every way. We were, you might say, young and in love.

In 2011, however, it’s just not that way. Our community embraces Israel in a more varied and tentative way.
As we approach faith differently, we apparently approach Israel differently.

So what do we do?

On Yom Kippur, when we admit our shortcomings and when we do so with a communal viddui recited by all of us no matter how different we are from each other, I believe we don’t shout each other down. We don’t push someone out of the tent because we believe he is wrong.

Instead, one of us who is 68 listens to one who is 28.

One of us who fears for Israel’s physical security listens to someone who believes the Palestinians are authentic victims of history. One of us who is offended by Israel’s settlement policies on the West Bank listens to someone who worries that without the West Bank Israel would not be able to resist a military assault.
One of us who worries about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees listens to someone who knows that 600,000 Jews had to flee Arab countries when Israel was created. These Jewish refugees were absorbed into Israel within a few years; the Arabs have refused to absorb the Palestinians refugees to this very day.
One of us might be critical of Israel’s military. That person thinks of the December 2008 war in Gaza that caused so much death and destruction. That person expresses his concerns and then listens to someone who describes how Israel’s army has painstakingly developed a whole doctrine called “tohar neshek” – the most humane way to wield force in the ghastly circumstance of a war.

Then again, the one who knows about Israel’s attempt to do war right listens to the one who believes that sometimes even Israel overdoes it.
So it goes. Jews – all of us – in this together with only one Israel.

And let’s face it: If we are flawed and fallible, how could we expect Israel to be different? On Yom Kippur, if we believe we are worthy of forgiveness and love, how could we not extend that same forgiveness and love to Israel? How could we not at least listen and learn from other Jews and their perspectives on Israel?
This afternoon I want to give you an opportunity to model the kind of Israel conversation I am imagining with you now.

At 1:30 p.m., I invite you to the Magen David Room where we will watch the video of a dialogue that took place at the March convention of the Reform rabbinate. Two speakers came to the podium on the evening of March 30. Peter Beinart was the first. A former editor of The New Republic, Beinart had become both famous and infamous for writing a stinging critique of the traditional American pro-Israel position.

You’ll hear him speak on this video, but here’s the most important point. The second speaker was Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch who disagreed with Beinart totally. Hirsch is equally passionate, and what counts for me is that the two of them were invited to speak together. No censorship. No shouting. Each expressed vastly different perspectives on Israel. Each spoke out of love.

In the end, one almost feels each speaker was right and all of us at the convention who heard them walked away with stronger commitments. Their differences made us better advocates for Israel. You’ll see what I mean if you see them in action this afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

*****

And when all is said and done, a final story that has resonated with me ever since I first shared it with you in a 2002 sermon.

It’s about Marla Bennett, a graduate of UC Berkeley, with a fellowship in Jewish education at Hebrew University. In a letter from May 2002, she wrote, “I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half, and my favorite thing to do here is to go to the grocery store. I know, not the most exciting response from someone living in Jerusalem these days. But going grocery shopping here as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting in the hungry mob at the bakery – means that I live here. I am not a tourist; I deal with Israel and all its confusion, joy and pain every day.

“It’s also been difficult. Just a month after I arrived the current Intifada began. My time here has been dramatically affected by the security situation. I avoid crowded areas and alter my routine when I feel threatened. But I also feel energized by the opportunity to support Israel during a difficult period.
“There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now. I have a front row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”

Marla Bennett was one of the American Jews killed in the cafeteria bombing at Hebrew University two months after she wrote these words.
But that’s not why her story remains with me. It’s rather part of my consciousness because of Marla’s recognition that Israel is unique. It is a project that no other generation of Jews has been able to join for 2000 years.

Regardless of when we were born or how we understand Judaism, Israel is a singular spot on the earth for us Jews. It is where Jewish history is being made each and every day.

I do hope you have or can begin to imagine that sense of the moment.

I do hope you share or can be open to sharing at least some of my passion for Israel.

Israel - a front row seat for the history of the Jewish people.

Israel – May all its dreams and hopes come true because we care and because we lend a hand as best we can.

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