Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016: Leaning In To Israel

I have a confession: Sometimes, I want to walk away from Israel. For many reasons, I could succumb to this feeling of disconnect, just turn my back on Israel, and never give Israel a second thought, and here are a few reasons why for me:

  1. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, out of touch with the average Israeli Jew, is openly hostile to any form of Judaism that does not fit within their narrow definitions of Judaism.
  2. Israel, an authority over millions of Palestinians, is at risk of losing its democratic nature.
  3. Israel’s government and many of the Israeli population seem to have a very different set of values than me.
  4. Israel has one of the largest poverty-wealth gaps in the world.
  5. Israel has serious internal divisions, some of which are bitter, hostile and acrimonious: the secular/religious divide, Ashkenazi/Sephardic/Mizrahi ethnic and cultural divisions, a failed political Left Wing and increasingly strong Center and Right, tensions between Jewish citizens and Arab citizens.
  6. Supporting Israel in any way is increasingly met with hostility and anti-semitism in the public sphere, especially on college campuses.
  7. And so on…

But disconnect is the symptom of deeper feelings, of frustration, sadness and anger towards Israel, which are all connected to my underlying deep love for Israel. It’s complicated. The disconnect is one of my emotional survival strategies pulling me, tempting me, saying, “Just disconnect. Become indifferent.” This past summer, the celebrated Jewish author and educator Elie Wiesel passed away, and in recent years, he often spoke to people about this indifference:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.

The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.

And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I struggle with my negative feelings about Israel. To ignore them, to choose indifference, would take away the heartache, but it would also take away my connections to the love, the beauty, the faith and the vibrant Jewish life that also exists in Israel.

I choose not to become indifferent towards Israel. And yet, I will not ignore the flaws and issues that Israel faces.

Here is the old narrative, that was what I was raised with, and may or may not work for us any more: since Israel is critical for Jewish survival, one cannot criticize Israel, for fear of being called a self-hating Jew.

Many people, especially younger people, are not sure if they can both support and criticize Israel at the same time. The rose-colored Israel taught about in the U.S. for decades simplifies Israel’s complexities and shortcomings. We need to abandon this outdated narrative, and talk about Israel in a new way.  How can we express anger and criticism, at the same time that we love and support Israel?

I found an answer for myself to this question in Harold Kushner’s “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.” During the course of Job’s dialogue with his companions, Job gets angry at God, who as far as Job can see, has not let him know why he is suffering as much as he is.

Kushner asks us: “Are we allowed to be angry at God? Does Job’s anger enhance or lessen our opinion of him?”

Kushner responds: If one cannot be angry at God, how can one whole-heatedly love God? If a relationship with someone cannot be fully expressed, if one cannot offer a criticism for fear of an angry response, then they don’t have a full, healthy relationship with God, or their spouse or anyone. For Kushner, Job’s anger is heroic, honest, has integrity, and an unwillingness to pretend to have a piety he would like to feel but cannot. Honest anger is better than calculated flattery.

In Deuteronomy, Moses also expresses his anger at God for not letting him enter the land of Israel. Prior to this, Moses speaks about revering and serving God, and following God’s commandments, and but a few short chapters later, after expressing his anger, Moses speaks about loving God: “You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” You cannot love anyone wholeheartedly unless you can express anger towards that person when circumstances warrant. Being angry at someone who matters to us need not shatter a relationship.

Israel is important enough to engage with fully. If we are frustrated at Israel for the way it behaves as a state, but we feel we cannot speak out, we are emotionally compromised. If we shut down the loving critique of others, we keep others from expressing their wholehearted love of Israel. We need to express that love, praise and critique. It is not easy. For me, the story that we have been telling about Israel no longer works. We need to tell Israel’s story in a new way, and it needs to be complete, with eyes wide open.

I recently heard the American-Israel journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, and he talked about “talking about Israel”:  We each need to find our own way to talk about Israel – as Jews who are not citizens of the state of Israel, and yet who are linked to Israel, the land, the people, the state, by a shared history and a shared destiny. We Americans are part of the most powerful Jewish community in the world, and, yet, we are one of the most ignorant. Only ten percent of American Jews claim to be able to hold a conversation in Hebrew. We don’t know enough about Israel, its past or its present, myself included. We must remember how to tell our story as a people. We need to relearn this.

We know Israel is not perfect, nor is it evil. We cannot simply replace one simplistic narrative with another one. We need to tell our children, our grandchildren about Israel in a comprehensive holistic way. Israel can handle it. They are tough.

Here are some of the primary reasons why Israel matters to me:

  1. Israel is the our ancestral homeland. Almost the entire Torah is about the journey back home to the land of Israel.
  2. Israel is the our spiritual center. During prayer, we turn towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been on our minds and lips every single day for two thousand years. During the Festivals, we say: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Israel is where Judaism emerged, survived, evolved again and again.
  3. Israel matters to me because it is Jewish, the place where the fullness of Judaism can be lived out. Writer and thinker Rabbi Danny Gordis, with whom I often disagree, wrote that “ethnic and national diversity should be encouraged and promoted. People thrive and flourish most when they live in societies in which their language, culture, history and sense of purpose are at the center of public life.”
  4. Israel has been and still is a haven for Jews escaping persecution. Israel’s existence continues to be critical for  the physical survival of the Jewish people.
  5. Israel is where majority of Jewish life is and will take place. Seventy years ago, only 700,000 Jews lived in Israel, while 6 million lived in the U.S. Today, Israel is where half of the roughly twelve million Jews in the world currently reside, and each and every one of those lives matters to me, even the ones with whom I profoundly disagree. In only a few years, Israel will be the place where an increasingly significant majority of Jews will live, and where the majority of Jewish life and creativity will be taking place.
  6. Israel is amazing and inspiring because it is an example of the power of a people to infuse 4,000 years of history and tradition into the building of a modern state that embodies the highest aspirations toward which humanity can reach.
  7. Israel matters to me because it is a nation where democracy has flourished, intellect is celebrated, there is an abundance of artistic genius and technological innovation, and economic success.

As I go over each of these reasons, I can hear in my heart a little voice saying, “Yes, but…Yes, but…” Each of these points has many “Yes, buts…” We must include them in how we talk about Israel. Today, I will touch upon two of them.

I am deeply concerned for the lives of every single Palestinian, first and foremost because they are human beings and have inalienable human rights. [I am aware of the acts of injustice in Israel’s past towards the Palestinians, and of some Palestinian’s glorification of violence.] I am troubled by path Israel’s current administration has taken towards its occupation of the Palestinian people, and of the injustices that they live under on a daily basis. Also, I am terrified of what a continued occupation would mean for the heart and soul of the democratic state of Israel. I hold out the hope, however slim, for a two-state solution. I hold out the hope that there can be truth and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, where Israelis and Palestinians will one day become the closest of friends and partners in the region. I do not see how to get there today, but that does not extinguish my hope for that future. In the words of Shimon Perez, z’’l, “Despair is not an option.”

I am deeply troubled by the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, by the attitude of most Israelis towards rabbis, by the polarization between the secular community and the religious community, by the politicization of religion in Israel, and the increasingly fundamentalist actions and views of the Chief Rabbinate, who wields power but commands little respect. I hold out hope that there will be a dissolution of this institution, a clean separation between religion and state, and a wider appreciation for the full range of ways that Jews around the world freely express their Judaism.

Headlines and news about Israel focus on the intense political, security, and military issues that Israel faces, and, yes, they are distressing. At the same time, they can not and should not tell the entire story, no more than can the story of U.S. be reduced to its headlines.

I call upon all of us to deepen our relationship with Israel; to read voraciously about Israel and its history, to better understand Zionism past and present, the chaotic Middle East, and Israel’s present day situation; to talk about Israel with people who agree and, more importantly, disagree with you; to develop relationships with people who live there, and with some of the many organizations doing remarkable work there to make Israel the nation that Judaism insist that it can become.

I call upon us all to learn more about Israeli culture, its musicians, its poets, authors, painters, sculptors, its scientists, technology innovators, economic movers and shakers, its athletes, its comedians, and more.

To conclude, I want to share a story from the Talmud that can provide a new narrative framework for how we think about Israel, and the story centers on the relationship between two sages: Rabbi Yochanan, a master of Torah learning, and Resh Lakish, who formerly was a master thief and brigand. They met while swimming on day, and formed an immediate connection. Rabbi Yochanan even arranged for his sister to marry Resh Lakish.

One day they were debating in the Beit Midrash, and when Resh Lakish offered an answer to a questions about the manufacture of weapons, Rabbi Yochanan snidely brought up Resh Lakish’s unsavory background, which led to a major falling out between them. During this time, Resh Lakish died, and the other Rabbis tried to make Rabbi Yochanan feel better and sent a bright young student to him as a measure of comfort. Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, the young sage, sat before Rabbi Yochanan, and to every statement that Rabbi Yochanan would say, Rabbi Elazar would say to him, “There is a source that supports you.”

“He said, “Are you like [Resh Lakish? Resh Lakish] – when I would speak of a matter, he would challenge me with twenty-four objections, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law. And you say, ‘there is a source that supports you?!’ Do I not already know that I have spoken well?!”  [Rabbi Yochanan] went out and tore his clothes and he cried and said, “Where are you [Resh Lakish]? Where are you  [Resh Lakish]?” And he wailed until his mind left him. The Rabbis asked for mercy for him, and he died.”

Just as these two sages comes very different backgrounds, share a common Torah, and engage in serious debate about it, Jews in Israel and the U.S. and Diaspora come from very different places, and yet share a common heritage, and should engage together in what it means to live out the Torah’s ideals.

When these two sages had their no-holds barred debates for the sake of Heaven, something new was created, something that neither of them could have imagined before. Not just decisions on matters of law, but a fuller understanding of the law, and of each other. Israel and we don’t need yes-men. Israel and the worldwide Jewish community need each other: to debate the issues, the way in which the state makes decisions, the way in which the diaspora relates to the state. Support is not saying, “You’re right.” Support is saying how they might be wrong twenty-four different ways, and then to be willing to hear twenty-four ways in which they still might be right.We need to sharpen each other.

What emerged from these sagely debates was a profound friendship, a relationship so strong that neither could live without the other. We need to engage with Israel at this level: deeply, and profoundly, so that each of us knows that we have the other’s back, and at the same time, each one can say to the other: not like that. We must show Israel other ways of being Jewish. Israel must show us what it means to be Israeli.

We need to see Israel as it is, warts and all, and love Israel and be angry at Israel, and debate, with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might. We cannot turn away. We cannot become indifferent.

  • The opposite of indifference is life.
  • The opposite of indifference is faith.
  • The opposite of indifference is art.
  • The opposite of indifference is love.

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