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Hearing but not Listening – Rosh Hashanah

September 14, 2015

I am always tempted to use today’s Torah Portion about Abraham, Isaac, Sarah – and the absent Ishmael – to talk about contemporary issues and relationships.

However, I am going to turn instead to the Haftarah Portion. It is there, in the first chapter of the first Book of Samuel, that we read that Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Channah. Penninah gave birth to sons and daughters but “God had closed [Channah’s womb], and so it was that year after year when Channah would go to the House of God, [Peninnah always] taunted her, and [Channah] would cry and not eat.” {1}

Channah wept copious tears, and you can feel her pain as she poured out her anguish to God: “’If You will truly see my affliction and remember me, and give [me] a son, I will give him to You [to serve You] all the days of his life.’ As her praying before the Eternal intensified, Eli watched her mouth. Channah was speaking only in her heart. Though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard.” {2}

What did Eli think? He thought she was drunk! He said to her, “How long will your persist in inebriation? Put away your wine”. {3} What Eli did not understand was that Channah – “speaking only in her heart” – was engaged in silent prayer.

My interest this morning is the phrase that immediately follows in the Book of Samuel: “Though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard.” I think this is a perfect description of what is happening in the American Jewish community today. We sit across the table from each other and we say to ourselves, “Your lips are moving, but I don’t hear you.”

And there are times when we hear what someone is saying, but we are not really listening. I think that I’m a really good listener – it’s likely that most of us think we are – but it wasn’t always the case.

On the drive back from dinner on one of my first dates with Susan, she asked me if I wanted to get some ice cream. I replied that I was really full so, “No.” A minute or two passed in silence – that should have told me something, but I’m a guy – and then she asked me again. And again I said that I was fine, I really didn’t feel like having ice cream. A few moments later she said, “I’d like some ice cream.” So that’s an example of hearing without listening.

The American Jewish community today is tone-deaf. Increasingly shrill voices have made it difficult to hear, much less listen. We are a community divided by the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action fashioned and supported by the P5+1 {the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members – China, England, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany}about how to best halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy for military purposes. Heated debates take place in conference rooms and on conference calls, in the halls of Congress and with the Oval Office, but are we really listening to those with whom we disagree?

The President disparaged Senators who opposed the agreement as being akin to Iran’s most militant ayatollahs; the other side accused its supporters of hastening another Holocaust.

I am not going to review what you have read in papers and on the Internet about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. You have had at your fingertips a vast array of position papers that express opinions from different vantage points. You have been beseeched to contact your Congressional representatives. You have heard analyses by politicians, policy makers and military advisors that perhaps led to clarity or, just as likely, confusion.

On August 19th, the Union for Reform Judaism – the umbrella organization of reform synagogues throughout North America – and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, also reform, issued this statement: “There is simply no clarity that would support taking a position ‘for’ or ‘against’…If the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after?…We have five principal areas of concern: deterrence; Iran’s support of terror; inspections; human rights and religious freedom.”

The very next day {August 20th}, 25 leaders in the American Jewish community proclaimed their ardent support for the Iran nuclear deal. Their names, listed on a full-page ad in The New York Times, include three former chairs of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, two Jewish former members of Congress, and nine leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Divisions are nothing new in the Jewish community. Think back to frenzied debates about the eventual sale of U.S. made AWACS to Saudi Arabia, delivered in 1986 and 1987: planes with the highly sophisticated ability to detect and track aircraft hidden from ground radar, flying at any altitude over any kind of terrain, within an area of 175,000 square miles. Israel vehemently opposed the deal, saying that the sale would allow the AWACS to track every move of the Israeli air force, denying it the chance for a ‘first strike,’ the core of Israel’s defense doctrine. The Reagan administration admonished Israel for getting involved in an American foreign policy matter.

In 1993, there was vociferous, internal debate about the Oslo Accords. Just last summer there were pitched arguments about Israel’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge, the war with Gaza: self-defense or disproportionate use of power?

Now, just a year later, we are back in our respective camps – ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and the “I’m not sures” – our tents torn by vitriol, as we count votes and lick our wounds.

Of course, there was another group and it consisted of those who did not like the deal but considered it to be the best of all realistic options, and while the majority of those polled supported the deal {53%}, only 42% said that they believe it will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next ten years.

When you look at the polls, the Israeli and American communities present significant contrasts: 53% of American Jews wanted Congressional approval of the JCPA {35% are opposed} and 70% of Israeli Jews were against it. We are two people divided with regard to a common country. From the perspective of an American Jew, the proposed Plan of Action does not look as bad as it does from the perspective of an Israeli Jew. Our common struggle against terrorism is the charoses in our relationship; with regard to Iran, it is the maror.

The URJ and the CCAR, well aware of the schism, released the following statement: “When our people gather…for the High Holy Days, members who support the deal will pray together with those who do not…If the harsh judgments and rhetoric continue between Washington and Jerusalem – and within our American Jewish community – we will be deprived of a deep commonality that binds our people together.”

What is that “deep commonality that binds our people together”? Certainly ‘passion’ and ‘hope’ are core Jewish markers, but both are ephemeral. What are the constants?

Yehudah Mirsky – associate professor at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israeli Studies – has written a timely, important and challenging article titled “How Do We Want to Live? The Meanings [note that ‘Meanings’ is plural] of Jewish Belonging in Our Time.’ It appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of the quarterly journal Eretz Acheret, published in Israel.

I first came across Eretz Acheret while on a week-long seminar in Israel in 2004, and I had the opportunity to meet its editor. It is a cutting edge journal because in contrast to magazines that write about the lives of Arab Israelis, one edition of Eretz Acheret was devoted to articles written by Arab Israelis describing many of the challenges they face with Israeli bureaucracy that tends to be ‘slower’ delivering basic services to their homes…such as making sure that when the electrical grids in their neighborhoods break down, they are repaired as quickly as those in the neighborhoods of Jewish Israelis.

The current issue of Eretz Acheret – which literally means “Another Land” but is given what I think is a softer translation as “A Different Place,’ perhaps because this 71-page edition is sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs – is one of the most thought provoking that I have read in a long time, which is high praise for a publication that pushes the reader to think critically rather consistently.

Naama Cifrony, its editor, defines Mirsky’s article as the endeavor “of exploring…’meaningful belonging’”. {4} We should think about adding that phrase to our congregation’s logo: ‘The Intimate Community – Meaningful Belonging,’ assuming we can agree what it means.

Mirsky refers to “three distinct dimensions of Jewish identity: nation {group, ethnicity or peoplehood}, universal ethics, and the sacred”. {5}

“Nation” to me is ahm Yisrael/”the People of Israel” wherever we are in this vast world, and also eretz Yisrael/”the land of Israel.”

“Universal ethics” is what moves me beyond the border of the tribe because of this verse in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image”. {6}

I am inspired by Israeli member of the Knesset, Stav Shaffir, elected in 2013 at the age of 27, the youngest female Knesset member of all time. She earned her credentials as a leader of the 2011 Israeli social justice protests, Israel’s biggest ever, that focused on housing, public services, income inequality and democracy. In January of this year {January 21, 2015} she addressed the Knesset, saying, “True Zionism is to be concerned for the weak…to watch out for each other: to be concerned about the future of all the citizens of Israel…When we sing Hatikvah, we sing it in the fullest sense of the word. “Hope”: a politics of hope. A politics that has a future. A politics that looks forward and wants to make here better, more secure; that wants to fix the relationships between the different parts of Israeli society; that believes in equal rights, in equality of budget, and believes that every Israeli deserves to live a truly good life. That is true Zionism. That is,” she said, “’the hope.’”

I hold Israel to a higher standard. I am keenly aware that there is a double standard in the world when it comes to Israel, but I am a descendant of our prophetic tradition that demands that Israel be, in the words of Isaiah, “a light unto the nations” {7} and so I am entitled to demand a higher standard for my People. Tzedek tzedek tir’dofe/”Justice, justice shall you pursue”. {8} I want us to be better! When I say “us,” I mean ahm Yisrael and eretz Yisrael.

‘The sacred’ is the keen awareness of everything that surrounds us that is nurturing and good, and fills us with awe. The sacred is the spark of awareness that motivates us to be healers, and brings us closer to one another despite our differences.

This past March, we hosted The Parents Circle Families Forum and we welcomed Israeli peace activist Robi Damelin and her friend, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian. Damelin’s son, David, a member of the IDF reserves, was killed by a Palestinian sniper, and Aramin’s 10 year old daughter, Abir, was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet at the age of 10. Instead of seeking revenge, Damelin and Aramin have chosen the path of reconciliation. They are two of more than 600 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families who are hearing each other’s stories and trying to see ‘the other’ as also created in the image of God. Did I mention that Aramin is completing his doctorate in Holocaust studies? When I heard Robi and Bassam speak that evening about their shattering experiences, their striving for dialogue, and their quest for peace, I thought to myself, “There are rays of light in what often feels like overwhelming darkness.”

The darkness is the existential threat to Israel, both beyond and within. The former is evident – Iran, Syria, Russia, Hamas, Hezbollah, Turkey and ISIS – and so too is the latter. The internal threat is personified by the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks upon the homes and mosques of Israeli Arabs. Hateful words hastily painted, they are threats that carry the message, “Get out while you can.” The perpetrators are not only supported by some Haredi rabbis and their followers, they are protected by them, and so they are rarely prosecuted.

Just six weeks ago, we were horrified by an arson attack on the home of a Palestinian family on the West Bank {July 31st} that resulted in the death of an 18-month-old boy. His father succumbed to his injuries on August 9th and his mother died of her burns four weeks later. Suspected arsonists have been arrested but none have been charged. They are smug in their arrogance that they never will be.

Israel is part of me. I am vitally interested in what happens in Israel and to Israel, and I have no idea where that places me relative to your feelings about Israel. I have always been grateful that I can share my thoughts with you from the bimah and, far more important, in the give-and-take of individual and small group discussions. The benefit – indeed the blessing – for me is that in listening to you, I can learn and grow. The goal of listening is not to change minds: it is to better understand where each of us is coming from and why we feel the way we do about pressing issues at home and abroad.

This is why, as a congregation, we traveled to Israel in October, a year ago, on a journey that we created and called ‘The Voices of Israel.’ We went to the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa to learn about programs that foster people-to-people interaction among Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis. On the Golan, we met with Elaine Hoter, a woman who lost a son to terrorism and responded by writing a book on loss and grief in the name of reconciliation. In Nazareth, we met with Ramzi Matar, a Christian Arab, who spoke about what it is like to be part of the Christian Arab minority in Israel. In Efrat on the West Bank, we met with settler leader Eve Harow. In Jerusalem, we went to Karen b’Kavode – the humanitarian aid program of the Israel Religious Action Center – where we packed boxes with food to be delivered to needy people of different faiths and ethnicities in the City of David. Along the way, we wrestled with competing ideas and, in so many ways, the richness of the experience was not just where we were, but also what we heard, learned and discussed.

Reform synagogues are populated mainly by members who identify themselves as liberals and Democrats. Those are two of the reasons that I’m comfortable here, and yet some of my most engaged and worthwhile discussions have been with members of our congregation who are politically conservative and are Republicans. I imagine there are times that they are not comfortable expressing opinions here that run counter to more liberal viewpoints.

My closest friend in the world is a Republican, and I assure you that is not the punchline of a joke. He lives in Florida, and that makes our dialogues on the phone less intense than they might be in person, and since we met in 1978, Lou has helped me stretch my thinking.

I know that some members of our congregation are not always comfortable raising difficult questions, what some might call “inconvenient truths” about Israel, and perhaps might find it difficult to keep an open mind upon hearing responses to what they ask. It cuts both ways, and I think we need to create more opportunities for us to come together to wrestle with difficult issues in our community, country and the world.

This is why we commenced our Kabbalat Shabbat program last year. Kabbalat Shabbat – “welcoming Shabbat” in a different way: a brief half hour service at 5:30 followed by dinner at 6 o’clock, and over the meal we discuss a predetermined topic, and then we gather in a large circle to share our thoughts, our ideas, and our visions. One evening’s discussion was based on an article that appeared in Moment Magazine – its title was ‘An Eleventh Commandment, Anyone?’ – and another night we based our conversation on an article in the New York Times Magazine, ‘Can Mapping Neural Pathways Help Us Make Friends With Our Enemies?’ I invited psychologists and psychiatrists who are members of our congregation to join us over dinner, not as a panel of experts, but as congregants whose wisdom fortified our discussions. We will continue our Kabbalat Shabbatdaven-dine-discuss’ experiences in December, January, March and May…and more if you like…

We listen to each other. We do not get together for the purpose of changing each other’s minds. We gather here, in our synagogue, to try to understand the merits of different opinions. I invite you to be part of our Kabbalat Shabbat conversations.

I also invite you to launch a new initiative with me, called See’chote/”Conversations.” While Kabbalat Shabbat evenings are devoted to the discussion of a predetermined topic, See’chote would be open-ended. I’m going to borrow a page from our president’s playbook – “our president” being Shelley Chamberlain – that she brought back with her from the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar, a four-day symposium that she attended this past April in Atlanta, as did immediate past president Jeff Cohen in April of 2014.

Since its inception 17 years ago, more than 1,400 new presidents of reform synagogues gather to hone their leadership skills and to return home with new ideas that will benefit their congregations. One of the ideas that Shelley brought back, in the context of what I am calling See’chote/”Conversations,” would be for us to meet one evening here at the synagogue or at someone’s home: conversation topics would be written down on index cards, placed in a hat, and one would be drawn out every 15 minutes, over an hour, for spirited discussions. Or two every 45 minutes over an hour and a half. If one topic finds traction that merits further dialogue, the following See’chote gathering could start with that topic and then move to others drawn out of the hat or a box. We gather, we learn and we learn more about each other: open minds, open hearts.

It is a delicate balance: how to take positions without alienating those opposed to what you believe, and the ability to do so begins with civil discourse. Let us have the courage to wrestle with competing ideas and the patience to engage them.

I want you to know that now when Susan asks me if I want some ice cream, I say, “Yes, of course.” Then I ask her, “What flavor do I want?”

I hear and I listen.Let us all endeavor to do the same.

{1} I Samuel 1:6

{2} I Sauel 1:12-13

{3} I Samuel 1:14

{4} Eretz Acheret, Summer 2015, p.7

{5} Eretz Acheret, Summer 2015, p.68

{6} Leviticus 19:18

{7} Isaiah 42:6

{8} Deuteronomy 16:20