A camel and a scorpion are at the bank of a river trying to get across. The scorpion was too small to get across himself and so he turns to the camel and says – hey, would you carry me on you back across this river? The camel, mystified at the request, replied – “No! You’re a scorpion – we’ll get part of the way there, and then you’ll sting me. I’m not carrying you. After some back and forth the scorpion finally convinces the camel to, in fact, carry him on the camel’s back across the river. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the camel. As they are both beginning to sink into the middle of the river and about to be swept away, the camel says – “why did you sting me?” The scorpion replies – That’s the middle east!”
Since the beginning of my rabbinate I have made a commitment to myself and to my community to spend at least one sermon over the high holidays devoted to the matter of Israel. Each year I have endeavored to speak about the topic it has gotten more difficult, more fraught with deep-seated feelings, visceral reactions and complicating factors than the year before. Each year we are given fresh reminders of the every day struggle to find some working peace between two groups of people, the vast majority of whom merely want to live in peace as well as the very real struggles of a still-young country grappling with the challenges of democracy.
This year I renew this commitment.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer- in American politics, there are issues known as third rail issues-, the third rail being the highly electrified third rail on a subway track, the touching of which is to bring sure and instantaneous death. In the American rabbinate, especially in the religiously liberal American rabbinate, Israel has become a third rail issue for many of my colleagues. Merely talking about Israel for many of my colleagues ensures angering a portion of their congregation, potentially alienating congregants, even perhaps risking losing members.
Israel Salanter, a 19th-century rabbi, once claimed famously that a rabbi who is liked by everyone is not a rabbi but one who is liked by no one is not a mensch. This may or may not be true, but either way it should not be a goal of any rabbi to alienate any of their congregants, especially around an issue as important to our people as the Jewish state, and especially not on a day as Holy as Yom Kippur. That is all to say – I am well aware I may say something this morning that you 5
will disagree with. I would never expect everyone to agree with everything I say. In fact, you may disagree with everything I say. I ask that, even if you passionately disagree with all that I’m about to say this morning, you are willing to commit to the conversation and understand where I am coming from – a place of deep love and commitment to the Jewish state and a deep concern for our place as liberal diaspora Jewry in the Jewish state as well as its inhabitants.
I want to first begin with some promise.
Only a few months ago, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem ordained the 100 th Israeli-trained Reform rabbi. A growth of Israeli-trained Reform rabbis mean 6
the Reform movement is growing in strength and visibility in Israel. One of the biggest challenges to Liberal expressions of Judaism in Israel is merely awareness. It is said that the synagogue Israelis don’t go to is Orthodox. This means that, while the majority of Israelis identify as secular, their view of Judaism is formed by the Orthodox. So while they choose not to engage with Judaism in the Orthodox expression, they still see Orthodox practice as the go-to Judaism. When awareness of liberal and by liberal I mean Reform or Conservative) Judaism goes up the acceptance of Liberal Judaism goes up. Awareness of liberal Judaism in Israel 7
is at an all-time high and seems to be continuing to go up.
To this promise we can add that a new liberal congregation just won the right to build their own building in Hod HaSharon, in Central Israel. This came after years of fighting with the municipality, but in the end the courts sided with Kehilat Yonatan and they will be able to build their own dedicated congregational home. When issues such as that which Kehilat Yonaton ran into come up, Israeli courts have, by and large, sided with liberal Jewish communities.
Aside from the courts, when everyday Israelis know about and understand what liberal Judaism truly is, its acceptance goes up. Currently there are 65 liberal minyans gathering in Israel and that number is expected to grow.
I wanted to discuss the promise of the Egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall, that had been previously agreed to between the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements. You may remember a number of years ago the government, led by Benyamin Netanyahu, agreed to build out a prayer space in the Kotel plaza to allow for men and women to pray together by the Western Wall. In previous years this has 9
been something I have been able to point toward to
show the promise of liberal Judaism’s place.
As it stands right now, the Kotel is classified as an Orthodox synagogue and, as such, is administered as such and which upholds the same interpretation of halacha, Jewish law, as an orthodox synagogue. This means that men and women must approach the Kotel separately, divided by a mechitzah, a divider of sorts separating the mens’ section, which takes about 60% of the space in front of the Kotel from the womens’ side. It also means that an Orthodox rabbi dictates norms right now and since this has been the case, it has meant 10
women are not at liberty to carry read out of Torah, lead their own prayer groups, or sing out loud.
This agreement was, at the time, lauded by Reform and Conservative leaders and pointed to as a glimmer of hope for the place of liberal Judaism in Israel. Unfortunately this glimmer has grown more faint as the Netanyahu government has gone back on the agreement and we are now back to the status quo, with monthly Women of the Wall gatherings, (a group of passionately engaged women of all denominations who are fighting for the right to pray out loud, led by women) being attacked, accosted, shoved and sworn at. Ultra Orthodox men have previously attempted to tear Torah scrolls from the arms of men and women carrying the scrolls to the gathering, and recently a Women of the Wall prayerbook was found burnt by the hands of religious zealots. At least, and I say this only a little bit sardonically, women carrying torah scrolls have stopped being arrested by way of a court order.
The power behind this treatment of liberal expressions of Judaism is the Rabbanut, a state-empowered rabbinate which determines what legitimate Judaism is for the Jewish state. The rabbinate doesn’t only hold animus toward Reform and Conservative Judaism, it has been caught attempting to delegitimize any that don’t 12
conform to their narrow interpretation of Judaism, including hundreds of rabbis worldwide. A couple years ago, a black list of 160 rabbis was leaked from within the rabbanut, listing the rabbis whose opinion on an individual’s Jewishness would no longer be accepted by the central rabbinic authority of Israel. What was notable wasn’t the dozens of Reform or Conservative rabbis on the list, what was notable was the majority of the list was made up of Orthodox rabbis, including the entire Orthodox rabbinate of Argentina. This is a power play to strengthen the rabbinate in a time when they are more threatened than ever, and with good reason. Add to that the rabbinate’s questioning of the legitimate Judaism of Ethiopian Jews serving in the IDF, and we begin to get a picture of a rabbanut that is not only attempting to increase their power and using some questionable tactics to do so.
Religiously we know what we are facing – the tactics have changed and the intensity with which the rabbanut is fighting back against liberal Jews has increased, but we should see this as a sign of encouragement, as the stronger the fight against means the stronger Liberal Judaism in Israel is becoming and we are continuing to make headway despite the frustrations I have just discussed.
Politically, we are facing new challenges –
You may be aware of the so-called “Nation-State” law passed earlier this year by the Israeli Knesset.
For those who aren’t, the Nation-State law emends the Basic Law, Israel’s foundational code of laws – almost but not quite equivalent to a constitution and essentially does three things –
It states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” – overlooking the almost 2 million non-Jewish IsraelisArabs, Druze, Bedouins who call Israel home.
It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis and Druze — to a “special status.” Think of this as the equivalent of efforts to establish English as the national language here in the United States – with all of the ethnic and nationalistic implications – placing a higher value on one group of citizen’s spoken language over another’s and throwing into question the support Israel’s minority citizens will have in accessing governmental services or conducting business.
And it establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”
This enshrines in Israeli Basic Law support for further building of settlements in the West Bank. While it would be a shallow assessment to say settlements are the biggest barrier to any eventual peace Israel may find with the Palestinians, I believe settlement building has been a big obstacle to the peace process and will continue to be so long as it is enshrined in the Basic Laws.
The situation is not terribly promising for those of us who count ourselves among the politically Liberal Jewish American friends of Israel. 17
Many American Reform friends of Israel are finding themselves increasingly without a political home when it comes to Israel. More troublingly, many are finding themselves less able to harmonize support of Israel (with the issues I have just spoken about) with their personal political views –many have taken a big step back from speaking in support or interacting with Israel as an issue or a subject– or, unfortunately, have begun moving away from support of Israel completely.
There may be some of you who have decided I am only
seeing the bad, I’m unwilling to see the good in the Jewish state, our only homeland. Doesn’t the rabbi know that, when things go bad for Jews anywhere, Israel will be there? How can we survive as a people without a Jewish state? It’s a moral imperative to support Israel no matter what!
On the other hand, there may be some of you who are asking themselves – the rabbi just got done telling us all of these troubling things happening, but he said it’s unfortunate that liberal American Jews are not supporting Israel as much as we used to be – how can that be? How can he support Israel despite all of what he just told us?
By the way, this is why I called this subject the third-rail for Rabbis.
I also count myself amongst those Jews who call themselves a friend of Israel. A lover of Israel. Someone who sees the great importance of a self-governed Jewish state that can defend itself and that is a beacon for democracy while staying true to the core of what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state. I am committed to Israel being a Jewish state and a democratic state equally and I fear that the past year has served to endanger the important part of the equation called democracy.
My friendship does not mean blind support of governmental policies and laws that I believe erode the foundations of the democratic Jewish state of which Theodore Herzl, the father of the modern state of Israel dreamed. My friendship of the state of Israel is the same type of friendship that would compel me to stop a friend from doing something that I believe to be a threat to their wellbeing – like asking for their keys before getting behind the wheel after having too much to drink, or saying no, I don’t think that baseball bat is the best way to get rid of that wasps nest.
My friendship of Israel, my support and love for Israel dictates that I speak up when I see it taking steps that I believe go against its founding ideals.
This is a time when we may be tempted to pull away from the matter of Israel. A time when we see troubling trends here at home, and we may feel like we just don’t have the energy to spend on speaking out here at home and also fighting for something better in Israel. We may feel like it’s hard to stay in that friendship with a country that seems not to want liberal Jews.
Yes, we may be tempted, but we must not give into that temptation. We cannot take the easy way out of this situation. It took thousands of years for our people to find its way back to the Holy Land and we cannot give up on it now.
We must lean in, but no longer in the traditional way. We can no longer send our money to a few pro-Israel groups and hope our funds go for the efforts with which we agree.
We cannot afford to send our money to organizations that help to maintain a status quo that is trying moving us farther and farther away from acceptance.
We can no longer expect that our support of Israel will automatically translate into our having a seat at the table.
We have a responsibility to ourselves, our community and to our Jewish community members everywhere to lean in. To support Israel, but in a targeted way, through donations to organizations that are advocating for our priorities – for rejection of an ultra-orthodox rabbinate bent on maintaining a monopoly on Judaism. WE must fight and advocate for acceptance of liberal Judaism through organizations such as IRAC the Israeli Action Center, Women of the Wall, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and other organizations that fight for the rights of liberal Judaism, to make a welcome home in the Jewish state for the largest communities of Jews globally, the liberal Jewish community.
And to be truly a friend to Israel, we all should strive to understand the reality Israel is facing. We have to stop relying on hearsay and second and third hand accounts from perspectives other than our own.
The situation is far more nuanced than news reports and targeted press releases suggest and we can not rely on unreliable narrators to help form our opinions.
You have just heard my perspective on what is happening in the Jewish state, but that is firstly a very much, a 30,000 foot view – a surface level glimpse into a couple issues from my perspective. We must strive to understand the complex situation first hand so that we can speak knowledgeably about issues facing Israel today. From relationships between Jewish communities, to the rabbinate, to new legal realities, to settlements, to the currently very stalled Peace process with the Palestinians, we must understand the connection we have to that special important little strip of land that millions of our fellow Jews call home, and that many other Jews call the feeling of security in a world feeling less secure.
This is why I know it is time that we take a trip together to Israel to try to understand ourselves- to experience Israel today with all of its struggle and promise. We will travel the country to experience the deep and undeniable connection between our history and the land, to experience the various cultures, languages and foods, the history, the geography, the struggles of the Jewish state, and to strive to understand the realities of the situations I’ve spoken about firsthand – truly striving to dig deep into issues that we want to understand. We will meet with knowledgeable people, visit important sites, we will experience the beauty of the land, the deep connections between Torah and the land and we will do what we can to understand the conflict, the matter on the ground ourselves, so that we can speak authentically and with firsthand knowledge of what is happening.
The best way to understand what’s truly happening in Israel is to experience it firsthand and to do it with members of your Temple Emanu-el family – please join me.