Tag Archives: American Jews

One People, One Heart

22 Sep

 

The America Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recents nuclear accords signed with Iran.

The American Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recent nuclear accords signed with Iran.

On the night of November 4th, 1995, I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem near the Mahane Yehudah market. I had spent that Saturday evening with many of my rabbinical school classmates in an exuberant Melave Malka, a festive celebration of the end of Shabbat with singing, dancing and Torah learning. In retrospect, I realized that during my walk home after the party the streets seemed eerily quiet. Finally, as I neared my apartment, a seemingly crazed man was staggering down the street toward me. As we passed on the sidewalk, he was not crazed at all, but his face was ashen. He said in Hebrew, “Someone shot Rabin.” That was how I learned the shocking news that was confirmed when I got home.

Earlier that evening in Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands gathered for a massive pro-peace rally.  “I was a soldier for 27 years,” Rabin called out. “I believe there is a chance for peace.  A great chance which must be seized.  Violence is undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy…it must be rejected and condemned, and it must be contained.  It is not the way of the State of Israel. Democracy is our way.  There may be differences but they will be resolved in democratic elections…”  (Horowitz, Shalom Friend, 16)  Unfortunately, Rabin’s final remarks became horrifically prophetic as he was assassinated minutes later by a Jewish terrorist.

I remember the atmosphere in Israel in the weeks before and after Rabin’s assassination. Posters were plastered around Jerusalem calling Rabin a traitor for signing the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Even worse were the posters depicting Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. Public criticism of Rabin did not come out of nowhere. Two years into the Oslo process, there had been an escalation of terrorism in Israel, including bus bombings, that raised public fear.  On the other hand, peace activists charged that opponents to the peace process were traitors to Israel. The nation had already witnessed the unthinkable when Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba slaughtered Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in 1994.  In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, religious Jews in Israel were publicly taunted and harassed by secular neighbors because Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was a product of the national-religious world. This was a dark time for the Jewish people. Fortunately, respected rabbinic leaders from the national-religious camp like the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,  z”l, who died earlier this year, led a communal heshbon hanefesh, examination of the soul, and many Israelis and Jews around the world took advantage of the “teachable moment” to learn from Judaism’s tarbut ha-makhloket, our culture of respectful disagreement. Indeed, every page of the Talmud is full of debate. Our tradition embraces debate. There is no one  legitimate Jewish opinion of anything. How we engage in debate is another matter.

The Torah offers a vision of what an ideal Jewish community looks like, and it’s worth reflecting on that. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites leave Egypt, throwing off the shackles of slavery and entering a new chapter as a free people. They wander in the desert for seven weeks, according to tradition, until they come to Mount Sinai where they receive the Torah. A key question that emerges from the text is why did God choose to give the Torah to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai? Why not give the Torah as the people left Egypt? Why not as they entered Israel? What was it about that particular moment when the Israelites were assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai?

In Exodus 19, the text tells us:

ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר:

“They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Sinai desert and made camp in the desert, and Israel encamped there near the mountain.” Rashi notes the verbs in this verse: vayisu, vayavo’u, vayahanu—they journeyed, they came, they encamped. These verbs are all plural. It is a collection of individuals. Then, the verb case changes: vayihan sham—It encamped there, that is, the people of Israel. Rashi says at that moment it was k’ish echad k’lev echad. as one man as one heart. In other words, what made it possible for us to receive the Torah was that we came together as a single, united entity. The message is that being one people enabled us to receive the Torah and encounter God. They had come together as throngs of individuals, each with different ideas, hopes and fears. Yet, when they came together, they received the Torah, a symbol  of their shared values and destiny.

Twenty years have passed since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jew. Yet, I fear the division of the Jewish people as much as I ever have before. Reflecting on this past summer, I believe that we have reached a new low point in the history of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the United States. I fear the consequences of our division if we do not take swift action to overcome our current predicament.

This past summer, we witnessed two acts of horrific violence in Israel, one in which a Haredi man stabbed six participants in the Jerusalem gay pride parade, killing a teenage girl. That same day, a gang of radical settlers burned to the ground a home of a Palestinian family. At the time, and 18-month-old baby boy was killed, and in the weeks since both parents succumbed to burn wounds. These two acts of Jewish terror should shake us all, our entire people, to the core, just as the terror of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir did two decades ago.  It might be easy for us to dismiss these instances as extreme, isolated acts that happened far away in a democratic country that pursues and punishes the perpetrators.

When violence is carried out in the name of Judaism, it should raise red flags for us to be vigilant not to create an atmosphere that could incite such violence. My fear is that within the American Jewish community we are sinking to a dangerous level of irreparable fracture. Debate over the recent nuclear agreement with Iran divided our Jewish community and brought about the worst possible behavior from advocates for and against the agreement. Supporters of the deal charged Jewish members of Congress who opposed the agreement with the slur of dual loyalty, insidiously suggesting that these patriotic Americans put the interests of Israel ahead of the United States. Meanwhile opponents of the deal have called supporters kapos, suggesting they are two-faced Jews who put their own political survival ahead of their loyalty to the Jewish people. This rhetoric has pitted Jew versus Jew. It is not in keeping with ish echad klev echad, “one person, one heart.”

When I express concern about how we talk about key issues of the day, I am not saying let’s just stop talking about them. We have a right and duty to voice our concerns as active participants in democracy. We look at the world now, and we have good reason to fear. We see a strand of militant Islam in the form of ISIS and other terrorist groups on a violent march throughout much of the Middle East. We see a sharp increase of vicious attacks on Jews in European capitals. We see Israel increasingly isolated when it has become fashionable in some parts to question Israel’s right to exist. And, yes, on top of all this Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

We as Jews have good reason to feel threatened and scared and angry. At the same time, taking the broad view of history, we Jews have never had it so good. We have a strong democratic State of Israel, and we are active participants in our vibrant democracy of America. Particularly in times like this, when there is much uncertainty in the world, we as Jewish Americans dare not apologize for engaging in American democracy. We dare not apologize for supporting the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to a secure national homeland. And, like caring family members who share loving criticism from time to time, we dare not apologize for holding America and Israel to the highest standards of justice.

The United States and Israel are democracies that were each inspired in their founding by Biblical values. Our societies cherish open debate and have the innate ability to redeem themselves through democracy. We have good reason to mobilize and to muster all of our tools within our democracy to create a better world. Along the way, members of our community might have different approaches to achieving a safer and more peaceful world and more secure Israel. In a time like this when contentious issues are at stake, rabbis like me have the responsibility to raise the question: What are we doing to make it possible for our community to come together, kish echad klev echad, like one person with one heart?

The rancor in the American Jewish community that we experienced this summer fell far short of the “one person, one heart” vision. I believe our democracy is threatened if we turn arguments into witch hunts. Our democracy is threatened if we brand each other as illegitimate because some other person disagrees with a policy or politician whom we support. Our democracy is threatened if we only listen to those with whom we already agree rather than engage those who see things differently.

A teacher and colleague of mine, Rabbi Brad Artson, advises that in any disagreement it is best for each party to speak in a way that makes it possible for the relationship to continue after the disagreement. We need to speak in a way that allows us to have our say and allows us to come together afterwards. We must hold in our heart love for each other despite disagreements. Instead of demonizing, we need to ask questions, such as:

“I know you’re concerned about Israel’s security as much as I am—how are you able to support this?” Or “I know that you hate war and love democracy, why aren’t you bothered by this?” This more constructive approach is borne out of affection and respect for our fellow Jews.

Twenty years after Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew, we still have much work to do to heal the deep rifts within the Jewish community. On this Yom Kippur, I ask you to join with me to speak in pledging from this moment forward to speak to our fellow Jews who are sincerely engaged with respect and dignity. Let us also pledge to moderate our rhetoric and demand of politicians that they will speak of those with whom they differ with respect.

The future of democracy at stake both in America and Israel. Our blueprint for navigating present turbulent times is the notion kish echad klev ehad. If we can truly be as one person with one heart we will merit to receive our bountiful Torah that will empower us to bring about healing into our broken world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

(Inspired in part by published sermons by colleagues Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

 

Advertisements

Pew’s call to action

18 Oct

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah's new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah’s new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Pew’s Call to Action: Vayera
October 19, 2013
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of joining Cantor Mondrow and Wilma Turk at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference in Baltimore. The Conference marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this synagogue arm of the Conservative Movement. While there’s much to be proud of in our Movement’s history over the last 100 years, the focus at the conference was on the future. In the background of practically every session was the recently released study of the American Jewish community by the Pew Research Center. No doubt, many of the findings by Pew are cause for alarm and concern and will no doubt influence decisions of Jewish organizations across the country for years to come. One piece of data that has received much attention is that among millennials, American Jews who have only known a world with the Internet, some 22% consider themselves as having no religion. This datum parallels of finding from Pew’s recent larger survey of all religions in America that found that the fastest growing religion in America is none. Of particular concern at the USCJ conference was Pew’s finding that that only 18% of American Jews consider themselves Conservative. This is down from 39% in 1990. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring these numbers and pretending they don’t exist. At the same time, the message of the survey should not be a prophecy of gloom and doom. It should rather be seen as a call to action. Indeed, I was impressed at the conference by the tremendous positive energy. While there was concern about the present, there was a great sense of hope and opportunity for the future.

I’d like to highlight two pieces of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, that seem relevant in light of the Pew report. The first comes from the very beginning of the portion; the second from the end. The portion opens in chapter 18 with God appearing to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent. In today’s Jewish community, we have many of our fellow Jews who are outside the tent of the synagogue and the organized Jewish community. Some find the rituals and prayers to be complicated and unfamiliar. Some find the synagogue buildings large and imposing. Some find they do not know anyone and therefore to cross the threshold is a major obstacle. The conference of this past week reminded us that many of our fellow Jews are eager for a sense of community and deeper meaning in their lives. Those of us within the tent need to make greater efforts to bring our fellow Jews into our synagogue and our community. This is an ongoing challenge in a time when there are many competing demands on people’s time, energy, and resources. I do believe that a sense of sacred community and the unique blend of tradition and modernity which we call Conservative Judaism has a compelling message. We need to work creatively and passionately to bring more of our neighbors and friends into the tent of Jewish life, and specifically Temple Torah. We are in the midst of a strategic planning process that I hope, once completed, will strengthen our role a warm, welcoming, open tent for Jews in our area across generations.

Parashat Vayera closes with the story of the Binding of Isaac, or “Akeidah.” As Abraham and Isaac, along with the two unnamed lads who accompany them, near the end of their journey, the text reads: “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar” (Gen. 22:4).

Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 23) offers the following comment:
As they approached the place and saw it from afar Abraham asked Isaac, “Do you see what I see?” And Isaac answered, “I see a beautiful, majestic mountain, and the cloud of glory hovers over it.”

He then asked his two young servants, “Do you see anything?”

They answered, “We see nothing but a wasteland.” Abraham said to them, “Remain behind here with the donkeys.”

The two lads are supporting cast members who typically get lost in the psycho-drama of the narrative. Yet, the rabbis in their careful reading of the text take note that they were left behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain. The rabbis ask why that is, and their answer is that they were not filled with a sense of awe. They did not sense the presence of the divine in creation. Abraham saw the makom, the Place (which, in rabbinic Hebrew becomes another name for God); the lads saw a wasteland. Therefore, Abraham excluded them from further participation in this momentous occasion.

Of course, we can ask numerous questions about the lads and presume our own course of action if we were in their shoes. We might gather from the text that of course Abraham excluded them. Why would he want them snooping around, given what unfolds? If we were there, would we surreptitiously follow our masters up the mountain? Would we call the police when we saw Abraham raise his knife? Would we run and tell Sarah (Oh, yes, she does die suddenly in the next chapter, doesn’t she?)? This particular midrash overlooks all of these questions and directs our attention to the broader atmosphere.

Abraham and Isaac are not without their faults. Abraham follows God’s instructions in an unquestioning way that is incongruent with the Abraham who argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac, for his part, is passive. He may well be an adult already but is willing to go along with his father’s plan. His willful passivity (assuming that to be the case) demonstrates his own lapse in concern of the sanctity of life in the name of serving his God. In reading the text one is left with little doubt that the main characters were deeply scarred by this episode. God never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Sarah dies.

All of this is true, and still the rabbis writing the midrash above were bothered by those two anonymous youths at the bottom of the mountain whom we never hear from again. Abraham and Isaac, for all their faults, are looking for the spark of the divine in their lives. They are imperfect in their comprehension of it, and they are hurt in the process; however, they still care. The rabbis interpret the two lads as indifferent to the divine presence, and indifference is taboo in the Torah and in the annals of Jewish interpretation.

One astounding statistic in the Pew Report that has not received enough attention is that when people were asked if they had a positive or negative sense of Jewish identity, 94% responded positive. That is really incredible. 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. It’s just that the majority of them don’t presently feel engaged by Jewish institutions, for whatever reason. We should not be like Abraham’s assistants who lost hope. We should rather be like Abraham and Isaac who, according to the midrash, sense an opportunity to encounter the divine. We should seek out opportunities for deeper engagement with fellow Jews who may be seeking meaningful involvement. Let’s not write anyone off. In every challenge lies opportunity. As the rabbis interpret, at a momentous time in the Bible, two youths were pessimistic and indifferent and were excluded from further participation. A message we can take from Parashat Vayera is that it’s in our power to open our tent, bring people inside and encounter the divine through our shared community. May we be so blessed.