Rosh Hashanah Morning: The Third Pillar Shouldn’t Be the Third Rail

When I began rabbinic school in 1978 the surest way to end a conversation was to tell someone what I was studying. It’s all but impossible to remember now but spirituality — or religion, as we still called it back then — was just not a topic for polite conversation. Whether at a dinner party or on an airplane, people were more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their God.     

These days we have another essential Jewish topic that’s off limits: Israel. God and Torah are fine but our normally so talkative community avoids the third traditional pillar of Judaism. For very understandable reasons. Our historical relationship to the Land of Israel is now inextricably linked to our relationship to the modern State of Israel. For some of us that State is nothing short of a miracle, for others a problematic challenge to values of human rights and democracy and for many something in between.

          As difficult as conversations on Israel are, they are also essential. Israel, as both land and people, is a foundational part of Jewish self understanding throughout the millennia. It is woven into our prayers, our sacred texts, our history. If we avoid exploring the meaning of Israel we fail to ask ourselves basic questions about Jewish experience and identity. Here, for example, are some of the questions that elude us if we keep Israel off the table:

          What is our relationship to the physical land of Israel? Is it a place sacred to us as Jews? How did its geography impact our traditions? Does our relationship to the land impel us to travel there? Should it be a place of pilgrimage? For those of us who have spent time there what impact did the physical space of Israel have on us?

          Is Israel our homeland? Early American Reform Jews opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel because they wanted to affirm the importance of a Jewish presence throughout the world. They saw themselves as equally American and Jewish. Is America also a Jewish homeland? Is the Diaspora—Jewish communities outside the land of Israel—as essential to Jewish life as Israel? What do we think about the arguments of those Jews who affirm the centrality of Diasporic Judaism as the source of most Jewish history and tradition, asserting that what emerged from Jewish life in, for example, Poland or Spain, has been much more important to our Judaism than events in the land of Israel?

          What is our relationship to Israeli life and culture? How much can we really know about modern Israel if we don’t speak Hebrew? Why do Israelis for the most part reject North American forms of liberal Judaism? What are the distinctly Israeli forms of Jewish practice? What can we learn from them? Recently, there has been much concern among North American Jews about the exclusion of non-orthodox rabbis and practices in Israel, from weddings to the Western Wall. Should we, as Diasporic Jews have a voice in Israeli domestic policy? Should Israel be a place where all Jews are included or is it reasonable for Israelis to do things differently? If Israel is a Jewish state, what does that even mean?

          Are your heads spinning yet? I’ve listed all these questions as examples of what we miss exploring even before we get to what we might call the third rail of the third pillar: the Palestinians. This, of course, is the reason we’ve stopped talking about Israel.

Discussions about Israel and Palestine follow what the Center for Public Conversations call the patterns of long-standing political conflict:

  • Public speaking about the issue is often dominated by people who are passionately certain. People who are uncertain or have mixed views remain silent for fear of appearing disloyal, ignorant, or unprincipled.
  • Vocal groups portray themselves as the protectors of the important values or objectives and their opponents as ignorant, reckless, or motivated by selfish or destructive purposes.
  • Public debates often have a free-for-all quality. Interruptions, angry outbursts, and personal attacks are common.
  • People on each side of an argument selectively pay attention to and remember evidence that supports their views. They tend to search for evidence of lies, ill intent, and ignorance in the assertions of their opponents.
  • People use slogans, short hand, and buzz words that simplify the issues and mean different things to different people. Their meanings are rarely unpacked or clarified.
  • Few genuine questions are asked; assumptions about the meanings, intentions and values of the opponent go untested.
  • Little new information surfaces; the conversation becomes repetitive and feels old.[1]

          In the fifty years between the Six Day War and today, the State of Israel has gone from the most unifying topic among Jews to the most disunifying. Our discussions on the topic consistently create more heat than light and many of us have just given up. Even more problematic, rabbis and other communal leaders have become afraid to speak publicly about Israel for fear of endangering their jobs or splitting their congregations.

          But there is a new urgency to finding a way to talk about Israel and Palestine that does not divide us. Increasing numbers of younger American Jews are vocal critics of the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the U.S. government’s relationship with Israel. According to the Pew Research Center:

          Five times as many American Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 think the United States is “too supportive” of Israel as those over the age of 65. Only a third of Jews between the ages of 18 and 49 believe Israel’s government is making a sincere attempt at peace with the Palestinians…[2]                   

If we want younger members to be part of our community we must be willing to welcome, not merely tolerate, them. Having a spiritual home cannot mean hiding who you are and what you believe.

          Because of their discomfort around the issue of Israel, younger Jews are avoiding synagogue engagement, becoming involved in political organizations such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. Some of them are active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is modeled on the South African anti-apartheid boycotts of the 1970s and 80s.  After Hillel International created guidelines for Hillel chapter activities that prohibited engagement with any group supportive of BDS, Swarthmore College students began the Open Hillel movement, arguing that no Jewish student should be barred from Hillel based on their views about Israel. The challenge presented by Open Hillel is the challenge presented to the larger Jewish community as well: is membership in the Jewish community determined by what we think about Israel?

          On the face of it, that should be an absurdity. Individuals are Jewish by birth or choice. While conversion to another religion has always excluded someone,  Jews, especially Reform Jews, have never had a political litmus test for inclusion. This is no time to start.

          What I hope we can start is to create an Open Congregation and to do that we will have to talk about Israel in all its dimensions. Rather than seeing this as a problem, we can perceive the gifts these younger Jews bring to us: their desire to be part of our Jewish community, their passion for social justice, and their deep concern for what happens in the State of Israel. It also gives those of us who have avoided the topic the opportunity to reflect on our own values and responsibilities concerning this essential aspect of our Jewish lives. Some of what we can experience though such engagement is described by the authors of a manual for Jewish groups:

Participants in Jewish dialogues about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually hope to find increased connection, healing, respect, safety and hope. In addition, they may want to talk through their dilemmas so that they can figure out for themselves how to respond to the conflict in a way that feels authentic, informed and constructive. Participants typically want to be known for who they know themselves to be, rather than through the distorted lens of a stereotype or label. They may also want their energy to be directed toward security, justice and joy, not drained by fear and aggravation. They may want to feel proud of-and supported by-their full community, not just individual  members.[1]

          Throughout North America, Jews are increasingly finding such a path to talk about Israel in a way that heals rather than harms. Recently, the national organization, Resetting the Table, did a series of workshops for teens and adults here in Rochester, sponsored by our local Jewish Federation. Other groups such as the Compassionate Listening Project and Encounter Programs sponsor both local groups and trips to Israel and Palestine. The purpose of all these organizations is to foster “dialogue as a conversation in which the participants’ primary goal is to pursue mutual understanding rather than agreement or immediate solutions.”

          I would like to invite you to join me in creating such a conversation here at Temple Emanu-El. Please let me know how you would like to participate, whether organizing or attending or in some other way.

          This sort of dialogue has a profound impact on those who participate. Each Saturday morning, a group of us engages in a similar way with Torah study. In the course of exploring the text we find we also examine our lives, our beliefs, and get to know each other in a way we wouldn’t otherwise. We accept that, like Judaism generally, there is endless variety and possibility in how we understand the topic and find sustenance and pleasure in our diversity.

            The Hasidic leader, Hayim of Zanz, loved to tell the following  story:  

             A person had been wandering about in a forest for several days not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly she saw someone approaching her.  Her heart was filled with  anticipation.  “Now I will learn which is the right way,” she thought.  When they neared one another, she asked, “Please tell me which is the right way out of this forest? I have wandering about fo several days. The other person answered: “I don’t know the way out either, for I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been going, for that will lead you astray.”

             Reb Hayim would then conclude:  “My friends, together, we need  to find a new way because the way I came in won’t get us out, and the way you came in won’t get us out, but maybe together, we can get each other out. Now let us look for a new way together.”

Shanah tovah and metukah – may we find a new way together, making this a sweet and happy year.

[1] Constructive Conversations About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Guide for Convening and Facilitating Dialogue in Jewish Communities in the US, The Public Conversations Project with the Jewish Dialogue Group, 2005

[2] Pew Research Center, A Portrait of American Jews, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-5-connection-with-and-attitudes-towards-israel/

[3] Constructive Conversations About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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