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If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem – Kol Nidrei

What vows will you make this year and how might they help you create a better future?

There are so many images filling the pages of our newspapers, television screens and mobile devices, and most of them are alarming and depressing, as well as painful to see and hear: political invectives and impasses; anti-Semitism and racism; Charlottesville, white supremacists and neo-Nazis; natural disasters and mounting evidence of global warming; Dreamers at risk, DACA at the gates; corruption; starvation, homelessness; wars and refugees. We reel in dismay and seek glimmers of light to inspire hope, and every once in a while I find one.

On the morning of February 27th {2017} the Posnack Jewish Day School in Broward County, Florida, received a bomb threat which came while the upper school students were in their Monday morning prayer service. So they did what they were supposed to do. They evacuated the building and made their way to the parking lot. On the way out, one student grabbed the Torah Scroll and took it outside with him. Once in the parking lot, another student took his tallit and spread it on the hood of a car. Then the student with the Torah Scroll unrolled the Torah on the tallit, and the students of the Posnack Jewish Day School continued with the Torah service – with a Torah on a tallit on the hood of a car in the parking lot to which they had been evacuated because of an anti-Semitic bomb threat. I have a lot of issues with our Orthodox brethren, but their devotion to Torah study and prayer is not one of them.

Seven months removed from that day, I want to reflect upon words from just a week ago on erev Rosh Hashanah when I told the Talmudic story about Rav Rechumei who was so engaged in study at a distant yeshivah he forgot to come home on Yom Kippur. His wife waited for him in vain with tears of disappointment running down her cheeks. I asked, “What are we to learn from this?” and my response was, “Sacred study needs to be balanced by sensitivity. There is the office and there is the home. There is a time to be in a meeting and there is a time to be together. There is a time to talk on the phone because your calendar tells you that call needs to be made, and there is a time to be with someone you love, and you have to decide what is more important. It is not “black or white” or “this or that,” it is “both and grey.” There is a middle zone. There is a place where Rav Rechumei and his wife could have met along the way: not one lost in study and the other waiting in place. Covenant is about connection.”

I think about that in the context of Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism. The gulf is significant: belief in God as a condition of faith; devotion to kashrut; observance of Shabbat; study of Jewish texts; praying at set times; the necessity of a minyan to commence worship; the role of women in the synagogue; a life defined by halacha. I do not minimize the differences, and I am very proud to be a Reform Jew, but what we have in common is also significant. Ours is a mutual commitment to Jewish survival.

Here is another topic that tends to polarize Jewish people: God. Talking about God has been one of my major narratives in the years we have been together, but the truth is I’m not sure who is really listening because there are people who shut down and tune out the moment the word “God” is mentioned…and let’s face it, reading the name “God” in the siddur or the machzor – our Shabbat or High Holy Day prayer book – is different than listening to someone talk about God. There are folks who are perhaps intrigued by the topic, not enough to change, but willing enough to listen. I don’t know if it’s a 50/50 split or 60/40 with a nod to civility, and if you’re in that group I appreciate your patience. There’s another group among you, much smaller I think, who has a personal relationship with God and so ‘God talk’ is meaningful and those folks are considering what they are hearing in the context of what they have experienced.

In my experience, Jewish people do not talk much about God, even if they have a relationship with God. Politics and sex, yes; God, not so much, but we give each other latitude to discuss and explore, allowing for the grey area, the middle zone, of uncertainty. The poles are easy to define: you believe or you don’t believe, but in the middle is a zone, let’s call it ‘suspended disbelief,’ to allow for possibilities. Things not always “black or white” or “this or that” and we should try to arrive at a place where we see both sides: not Orthodox practice to the exclusion of Reform paths, or Reform’s emphasis on creativity to the exclusion of Orthodoxy’s adherence to continuity. Can each somehow borrow from the strength of the other?

I want to talk about something else near and dear to me in addition to God, and it is Israel. We are bnei Yisrael/”the children of Israel,” the renamed Ya’akov/Jacob who wrestled with a messenger of God, or possibly his own conscience, which caused God to rename him Yisrael. The name means “one who wrestles with God.” God wants us to wrestle with ideas and to be uncomfortable with the status quo. Wrestling with our thoughts and with God is important, but when it comes to talking about Israel, many people are already locked in their camps, and the camps are labeled “black and white,” “this or that,” and grey is almost absent – certainty is dominant – and yet an openness to different interpretations and possibilities must exist if we are to have an honest dialogue.

I have a deep love for Israel. I love being there. My Jewish self is most alive when I am there: the sites, sounds, aromas, and conversations with Israelis who are searching for solutions to real on-the-ground challenges. Israel is a 24/7 think-tank. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, in his work “Songs of Zion the Beautiful {#21}” writes: “[Jerusalem] is the city where my dream-containers fill up like a diver’s oxygen tanks.” That is exactly how I feel when I’m there. It is exciting to be in Israel, a country filled with competing and creative ideas, where the stones resonate with history, and the past impinges on the present in ways we cannot imagine in this country, though we have recently had a taste of it.

The Psalmist wrote, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” {1} and it is something I have sworn to never do. I speak not just of Jerusalem, the crown jewel in Israel’s ancient orbit – Tel Aviv is the dot.com to Jerusalem’s spiritual sighs of anguish and hope – but I speak of my feelings for the entire country: a country riven by doubt and determination, by passion and pain, by the constant hope for peace and internal conflicts keeping it at bay. Where do we stand in the midst of this? To some degree the response is generational and political, and another factor is the gradual erosion of memory, especially of the Holocaust era and the history of the State of Israel. Where we stand also depends on how open we are to seeing the other side – Palestinians – and for Israel’s most vehement critics to try to understand Israelis and their hopes and fears. What has changed over time is the orientation of many American Jews toward Israel: neither instinctive loyalty or pride, but indifference, embarrassment, or hostility.

The younger generation of American Jews has no memory of the time when Israel’s survival was at stake in June of 1967, no memory of Yom Kippur 1973 when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and it was about to collapse, no memory of intafadas that saw Israelis die on buses and in restaurants, at Seders and in nightclubs. And my generation has as difficult a time relating to December 7, 1941. The litany of grief fades over time, save for those who mourn those who could not be saved.

My generation of American Jews focuses on issues of Israel’s security and survival. We are concerned about Israel’s soul, but we want to do everything we can to ensure Israel continues to exist in a world increasingly hostile to it, and to have the time to resolve critical issues within and beyond. The younger generation is more concerned about Israel’s soul. They are not indifferent to Israel’s future, but they are vitally concerned about the present: how Israel treats its citizens and the Palestinians, and theirs is a real concern Israel is losing the moral fiber that is part of its self-definition as stated in its Declaration of Independence: “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of shrines and holy places of all religions.” {May 15, 1948}

All that still matters! As does the reality of checkpoints, and walls, and Gaza, and ‘price tag’ revenge, and settlements hastily erected, and the quest for a two-State solution, and the hatred that spills over and within borders, and the rockets and the tunnels, and the praise of suicide bombers and the dedication of streets in their names, and the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein – an American born physician who made aliyah – where reverence is paid to his memory for having opened fire on Muslims bowed in prayer in the Cave of the Patriarch in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 Muslim worshipers and wounding 125 before he was beaten to death by the survivors of the massacre. Goldstein’s grave has become a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists who gather there to place stones of homage upon it and sing songs in his memory. It goes on and on.

And yet…during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war in Gaza, there was an entry point into Israel so people injured in Gaza could come to hospitals to receive medical attention. Frontline IDF soldiers in Gaza, in the heat of battle, treated civilians injured during the combat. Syrian civilians are welcomed across Israel’s northern border when they seek medical attention.

And yet…forty-five years after the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics massacre of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists of the organization called Black September, Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Movement posted Facebook photos and text titled “The excellent, heroic operation in Munich” praising the killers… forty-five years after the massacre.

You would think it easy for Israelis to turn their backs, and close their minds and hearts to any dialogue with Palestinians, and many do…but not all. At the recent Ophir Awards ceremony – Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars – the movie ‘Foxtrot’ won seven awards, including Best Movie. It is the story of a couple in Tel Aviv and their son’s military service at an isolated checkpoint, and it explores the volatile issue of the occupation and how it effects those who partake in it as part of their service in the IDF. It was slammed by Israel’s Culture Minister, Miri Regev, for “undermin[ing] the State of Israel,” calling it “a disgrace [that] shamed the reputation of the IDF and contempt for the State.” In his opening speech at the Ophir Awards, film director Shlomo Maoz said, “Every human society should strive to be better and improve itself. The basic and necessary condition for improvement is the ability to accept self-criticism. If I criticize the place where I live {Israel}, I do it because I worry.” The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, and now Best Film at the Ophir Awards, and it will be Israel’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards to be held in March 2018. The willingness to be introspective and self-critical is part of the Israel I love.

I am not a film critic, but we are all, at times, critical of Israel and that’s fine, but I am here tonight asking you to engage with Israel and to advocate on behalf of Israel. Given the pressure exerted by the BDS Movement and hostility on college campuses in America, voices raised on Israel’s behalf are critical.

Israel does not get a ‘pass’ on addressing issues yearning to be resolved, and many of them do not require negotiation with Palestinians, though I fervently hope that day will come. Allowing women to pray with the Torah in their midst at the Western Wall is important. The matter of Orthodox recognition of non-Orthodox conversions does matter. Conscription of Orthodox Israelis into the IDF has been shelved and it still matters. Treatment of Arab Israelis and Palestinians is of critical importance. These same discussions take place in Israel!

I want to share with you the words of George Steiner in his interview with French journalist Laure Adler. Steiner was born in France in 1929 to Viennese Jewish parents. He arrived in America at the age of 11 with his family, a month before the Nazis occupied Paris. He would always feel like a survivor, and it would profoundly influence his later writings. He became an American citizen in 1944.  He is a philosopher, educator and literary critic. It is his interview, part of the 2017 publication A Long Saturday: Conversations by George Steiner with Laure Adler that resonates in me:

“For several thousand years, approximately from the time of the fall of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat, or torture, or expropriate anyone or anything in the world. For me [he said], it was the single greatest aristocracy that ever existed. When I’m introduced to an English duke, I say to myself, ‘The highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.’ Or tortured another. But today, Israel must necessarily {I stress this word, and would repeat it 20 times if I could} [he said], necessarily, inevitably, inescapably, kill and torture in order to survive; Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity. Well, I’m a confirmed ethical snob, I’m completely arrogant ethically; by becoming a people like others, the Israelis have forfeited that nobility I attributed to them. Israel is a nation between nations, armed to the teeth. And when I look from the top of a wall at the long line of Palestinian workers trying to get to their daily jobs, standing in blistering heat, I can’t help seeing the humiliation of those human beings in that line, and I say to myself, ‘It’s too high a price to pay!’ To which Israel answers, ‘Be quiet, you fool! Come here! Live with us! Share our danger! We are the only country that will welcome your children if they have to flee. So what right do you have to be so morally superior?’ And I have no response. To be able to respond, I would have to be there, on the street corner, giving my spiel, living the daily risks there. Because I don’t do that, I can only explain what I perceive as the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity.”

I believe we do have the right to respond to Israel even though we do not live there: to express our concerns and our support by offering ideas about how to make things better. Write to the Israeli embassy in Washington. Support NGOs and national organizations that engage with Israel in the spirit of true dialogue. Whether you line up with AIPAC, or Americans for Peace Now, or J-Street, engage with Israel and wrestle with Israel. Read the frequent on-line articles by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, and Daniel Gordis of the Shalem College in Jerusalem, and Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. If you want to feel connected to Israel, you have to have the same conversations here they are having there.

There is something else to consider: among American Jews, it is the Orthodox population which is most consistently and fervently supportive of Israel. Play it forward: given the birthrate among Orthodox Jews, future generations will swell in number and much about Israel will seem neither foreign or problematic. So our engagement with Israel – and when I say “our” I mean the non-traditional American Jewish community – is critical right now if we desire Israel to truly become an inclusive society, accepting of differences, supporting the rights of all its citizens, and negotiating with the Palestinians who are part of the torn fabric that might yet be made whole.

I love Israel. I love being in Israel. I love the intensity of conversations about everything swirling around Israel and within Israel. I have felt the tension of being in Hebron, the tranquility of Jerusalem on Shabbat, the energy of Tel Aviv, the sand under my feet on the shores of the Mediterranean and the beaches of Eilat. I have spoken with the leader of the settlement movement in Efrat and the mother of a son killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, and I have walked the halls of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa and the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. You cannot always be in Israel, but you can always advocate for Israel.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin

 

 

 

{1} Psalm 137:5