Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Sermon — Israel
Rabbi David Lyon
Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776
“Israel: The Next Generation”
In case you’re new to the congregation, my name is not Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Friedman. I’m your rabbi, and I have the unenviable role of addressing you on the subject of Israel. It comes with risks; but to avoid the subject is irresponsible. The only enviable position I have is that I’m the only one with a microphone. My goal, this evening, is only to bring Judaism’s insights to bear on one of our time’s greatest debates.
Last Rosh Hashanah, I spoke passionately about the threats facing Israel from Hamas in Gaza. In the face of a Goliath-size barrage of missiles that rained down on Israel’s civilian population, Israel’s Iron Dome proved to be a David-size weapon. With extraordinary defensive results Israel persevered. We thanked God it succeeded; but it didn’t restrain the inevitable blame that anti-Israel and anti-Semites hurled upon Israel. Routinely, Israel is vilified not only for defending its population, but for even being present in the Middle East. It’s not superficial hatred of Israel; it’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, and it’s not confined to the Middle East.
That’s why this past summer, I read reams of articles and opinions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the P5+1 agreement, between China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., plus Germany, with Iran. I spent hours on conference calls with groups of Jewish and political national leaders. Some Jewish leaders were adamantly opposed. Some were reluctantly in favor. Still others were overwhelmed.
Now, the questions about the P5+1 agreement with Iran have all but come to a head; but, not before it polarized the Jewish community. So, now we must address what I believe to be the most critical question, namely, “What has all this done to the Jews?”
Our answer begins in Torah. In Leviticus 19, we learn, “Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.” This verse isn’t just about the visually impaired. We put a stumbling block before others when we knowingly breed insecurity and cause others to stumble. Talmud interprets the blind to mean anybody who is unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant, or morally blind.
Talmud teaches that in ancient times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, they marked graves with stones to ensure that Jewish priests didn’t inadvertently become ritually unclean by stepping near them or on them. Leaving an unmarked grave that resulted in ritual contamination was a violation of placing a stumbling block before the blind. (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 5a).
A modern Biblical interpreter, Nehama Leibowitz, offers the widest extension of the law; she explains, “[The] Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society; we cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, [by] “not marking the graves” and danger spots, we become responsible for any harm arising from it, and violate the prohibition: “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind…”
Today, the danger spots are very different; and, if we don’t know what they are or how to avoid them, we risk the danger of disqualifying ourselves from serving faithfully the tradition we inherited.
Our enemies would like nothing more than if we couldn’t agree, or worse, if we stopped caring about Israel’s future. Some observers claim that Tehran’s threat of “Death to Israel” is not a war cry; rather, it’s the Ayatollah’s prayer that Israel will fall on its own sword by succumbing to its own undoing.
Where shall we place our stones? The first stone we should set down is the one that would prevent us from stepping further into the fractured space of the growing fault-line of the American-Jewish conscience.
On one side of the fault-line are those who believe strongly in Israel’s security, and that it must be predicated on more than Israeli politics, specifically promises made to the ultra-orthodox at the expense of non-orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism. In a recent survey, 34% of Israeli Jews said that they identify mostly with the non-orthodox, Progressive movement. On the other side, there are those who believe that Israel’s security is the only priority.
The brilliance of the Jewish mind is the ability to consider two opposing ideas at once. In this case, they are: 1) Israel’s security as a sovereign nation; and, 2) Israel’s duty to champion Torah values, reflected in our mission to secure civil rights and social equality.
Our safest step might be in-between these competing ideas where our footing is stabilized by shared Jewish ambitions to secure the Land of Israel’s borders and the people of Israel’s broadest human values.
But last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy to win re-election left him little choice but to form a coalition with the ultra-orthodox in the Knesset. It was expedient politics. In quick succession, many of the social advances for women, civil rights for non-orthodox conversions and marriages, and social developments for immigrants and Arab-Israelis were summarily discredited or eliminated. Though none of these social advances threatened Israel’s security, they did threaten Netanyahu’s victory. His plan was short-sighted and it came at great risk.
It was short-sighted, because Netanyahu presumed that only he held the reins on Israel’s well-being. Netanyahu’s main opponent in last spring’s elections, Isaac Herzog, would have done little less than Netanyahu to secure Israel’s security, but not at the expense of social and civil issues dear to many Israeli and American Jews.
It was a great risk, because the predictable fallout after Netanyahu’s reelection was the loss of support of many American Jews, principally young and emerging Jewish leaders. Their affection for Israel is waning and many elders wonder why.
It’s happening for two reasons. First, the distance in years from the Holocaust leaves this generation no visceral feeling for Israel’s Zionist ambitions. They were born into a world that knew Israel. They lack a connection to the ’67 war and the Yom Kippur War. Second, the values we taught our children to champion are losing ground in Israel, a land we want them to love, but they can’t find reasons to embrace.
I can empathize with young American Jews who see America as a beacon of civil rights and social equality. Notwithstanding our own struggles to secure civil rights for mostly African-American youth and to resolve women’s rights once and for all, we have celebrated victories for issues in a democratic process that validates the role of young American Jews. The persistent failure to achieve social equality and civil rights disenfranchise young American Jews from Israel. As the only western-style nation and parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, Israel has failed to validate that role precisely in the place we told them they could dream about living a fully Jewish life.
Though not all proponents of the deal were young American Jews, many of their parents and grandparents sided with them, too. They put their stones on places to outline a pathway described by our President. Though the deal falls short in many categories, they believe that the deal might serve the cause for peace that has, as of late, succeeded only in failing.
I can also empathize with those who oppose the Iran deal. They have just as many places to put their stones to help us avoid our demise. Protests against the agreement raise the fact that America, Israel and the entire Middle East region are at risk of increasing Iranian hegemony. The boundaries between Syria, Iraq and Iran already don’t exist in the ways we think of them on conventional maps. ISIL has secured large swaths of the region.
There is real fear embedded in the fragile relationship between America and Israel, and between Israel and her neighbors. Iranian funds which will likely fortify terrorist groups beholden to Iran for its authority and its financing will multiply Israel’s challenges to defend herself. In the next 10 years, conventional weapons will flow more easily into the hands of Iranian proxies that already ring the borders of Israel and threaten her timid allies.
The fact is that beyond 10 years, Iran will become a nuclear threshold state and unseat the current balance of powers between nations. And, at least to Americans and Israelis, one consequence that none of us can fathom is the destruction of the State of Israel, our greatest Jewish hope.
They also want to put down stones to avoid anti-Semitism that comes from questions about Jewish loyalty to America or Israel. We want to celebrate our achievements in America and the real contributions we’ve made to the very fabric of this country. None of that should ever be open for judgment.
Embedded in these facts are fears that cannot be easily tamped down. They are the feelings that swell inside us because they are inextricably sewn into the fabric of our people.
If we still question this agreement and its benefits for America, Israel and the Middle East, then we are duty-bound to put stones on the places where our leaders should avoid stepping for fear of destroying themselves and us.
For all intents and purposes, the Iran deal is done. We shouldn’t stumble badly because of leaders who opposed the deal. We shouldn’t stumble badly because of leaders who supported the deal, even reluctantly. But, we should be very careful not to stumble because of leaders who agree with the deal without reservation.
So, what will happen the day after the deal goes into effect? I must admit that the search for an answer will not occupy most of my time. I’m not a political expert. As a rabbi, my time will be best spent on the unity of the Jewish people; and, as a Reform Rabbi, my greatest duty is to affirm our Reform movement’s place on the spectrum of Jewish practice where God, Torah and Israel have a place at our tables, and, without qualification, should have a place at tables in Israel, too. And, we should beware the steps in front of us when some Orthodox Jews put down their own stones to prevent themselves from stepping on Reform Jewish claims on Torah.
We cannot fathom a future for the Jewish people without the Jewish homeland. We support Israel. We travel to Israel. But, without a place where Reform and Conservative rabbis’ conversions and marriages are recognized, a place for women at the Western Wall to pray with a Torah, and a better peace plan with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be too long of a hope for many young American Jews.
While there is much life left in Israel’s diehard supporters, including me, it remains the inheritance of the next generation. I can’t promise you where they’ll be in the future if you and I can’t come together now to prepare them for their Jewish responsibilities.
Our duty to the next generation is not to put a stumbling block before them. We must be willing to put stones on places where none of us should tread, and highlight new ways to walk as one people here and in Israel; a place that respects our past and is faithful to our future.
Social and civil issues that we champion in America are reflections of our democratic expectations for Israel. Our global perspectives and expectations cannot be denied, and our passions know no borders. If we, as American Jews, welcome the stranger, as we’ve been taught to do, then we can’t become strangers, ourselves, when we cross the border into Israel. We don’t have to apologize for rendering our Torah in 2015 manifestly differently than it was rendered hundreds of years ago. We have to be able to find examples of our Living Torah in the lives of all men and women.
Our tasks are not lighter because the debates over the Iran deal are mostly behind us. Our tasks are heavier and they are ours. Despite thousands of years of bearing the privilege to live by Torah, we haven’t learned how to lighten our responsibilities. The answer doesn’t lie in giving it away to others, nor does it lie in shunning it altogether. Rather, our duty in the New Year lies in embracing its most enriching values.
The P5+1 deal with Iran has a trajectory that takes us out 10-15 years. If, in the same 10-15 years, we use our own distinctive political power in the Reform Movement to effect meaningful alterations in the social and civil landscape of Israel, we can arrive in the year 2025 or 2030, with many more American Jewish supporters of Israel.
I promise that the duty doesn’t fall on your shoulders, alone. If it did, I wouldn’t blame you for recoiling from it. Appropriately, the duty falls on us as a congregational family. Congregation Beth Israel and its clergy will lead the way. We’ll show how we can secure the safety of our beloved Israel, and at the same time, secure the values that will enable us to feel proud of the ways God and Torah are celebrated by all and not co-opted by some.
Beth Israel has succeeded in this regard. Our Israel Advocacy Committee ensures that our voices are heard on matters of a strong American-U.S. relationship. Our Israel advocacy committee ensures that the values dear to us as Americans are heard in Israel, too. We do it through the auspices of the Reform Movement in America and Israel, in cooperation with AIPAC, where I serve on the National Council, and the CCAR, where I serve on the national board.
These national organizations, though often labeled for their historical positions, are very receptive to the goals we share for Israel. A late summer program in the Gordon Chapel with AIPAC on the Iran deal proved that a civil and respectful educational evening could take place. Together, we agreed that nothing less than a secure and democratic Israel will satisfy us.
The future is never certain, but this I can say with confidence. We can build the people Israel into a nation that reflects the values we all find in Torah, and turn benign negligence or blind indifference into active support and religious pluralist advocacy. Then when Iran or any other nation or terrorist group comes up against the Land of Israel and her people, Jews the world over won’t question how to support Israel. In the future, young and old will stand with Israel more confidently; and, Israel will be for us a standard-bearer of values rich in tradition and brimming with contemporary meaning.
Speaking of young American Jews, on March 12-22, 2016, Rabbi Adrienne Scott, David Scott and Nancy Picus will lead a family trip to Israel. What a great time for you to introduce your children and grandchildren to their Jewish homeland. And, on May 29, 2016, Rabbi Herman and I will be leading our next adult congregational trip to Israel. It’s not just a sight-seeing trip; it’s a deeply connecting experience with our history and our future. This is the time. This is the year to be awakened by the Shofar not only to open our hearts, but also to open our eyes to see and understand that the exceptional place called Israel is still the hope of the Jewish people. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will this New Year.