Israel: The People Who Struggle With God and One Another
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Kol Nidre, September 13, 2013
There’s an old story about a rabbi who auditions to be the rabbi of a new synagogue. The interview goes well, but at the end, the president of the congregation says, “Rabbi, there are just three things you’re not allowed to speak about from the pulpit: Don’t speak to us about ritual observance; don’t speak to us about social action; and don’t speak to us about Israel.” The rabbi asks: “Well then, what am I supposed to speak about?” The president says: “Jewish stuff.”
Tonight, I’d like to speak about one of those topics: Israel. We note with appropriate solemnity that this is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. It’s tempting for me to recount Israeli history and rally us to support Israel’s continued security as our one and only Jewish state.
Tonight, however, I am moved to do something different. I wish to speak not about Israel per se but about how we talk to one another about Israel. It’s all about relationships and, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “living a life that matters.” We have a great tension in Jewish tradition between the need to take care of ourselves, the Jewish people and the need to be concerned about the world as a whole. Hillel expressed this tension in his famous statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” There is a natural tension between the first two parts of this statement. They are of equal importance–particularism, concern for ourselves, and universalism, concern for others. For the most part, the tension in our tradition between these two forces is healthy. When it comes to the State of Israel, though, conversations among contemporary Jews can sometimes get ugly.
The way in which American Jews talk to one another about Israel is one barometer of the health of our relationships, particularly between different generations. I’m concerned that Israel has become a sort of third rail in Jewish conversations that is best left untouched for the sake of shlom bayit, peace in our family. Many in our community feel that as Jews we have a duty to hold Israel to the highest standards, and it’s our duty to call Israel to account when there is injustice there. Many others say, “Shah, shtill. Be quiet. Don’t wave Israel’s dirty laundry in public. Diaspora Jews have to show a united front in support of Israel.”
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles wrote recently about this tension. He says that for generations, Jews have adjusted as needed in finding the balance between concern for ourselves and concern for others. When we hold on to both, Jewish life thrives. He argues, though, that in recent years the balance is broken. “Perhaps this is the residual effect of living in the shadow of the Holocaust.” He writes that the Jewish people suffer from a collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Some Jews turn inward and think the world is out to get us and that another Shoah, God forbid, can happen any moment if we don’t take care of Israel and the Jewish people first. Other Jews feel that if we don’t aspire to the highest ethical standards and show concern for all people, we sink to the level of our oppressors over the centuries. Feinstein writes: “Instead of an active tension, we are left with severe polarization,” and says further “todays increased polarization will suffocate Judaism.” I appreciate Rabbi Feinstein’s wisdom from which I learn two things: a) there are multiple ways to approach and be supportive of Israel; and b) we need to find respectful ways for fellow Jews to speak and engage in relationship.
Rabbi Feinstein was writing in response to a particularly troubling exchange between two rabbinic colleagues last November that was a microcosm of the tension between the particularistic and universalistic camps. The two rabbis are Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous. Both, like me, are graduates of JTS. They are both highly accomplished in their respective rabbinates, and I have been inspired to quote both of them on occasion in my sermons over the years. Rabbi Gordis, a renowned public intellectual, made aliyah to Israel in the late 1990s and has provided keen insight on the life of Israelis in a turbulent Middle East. Rabbi Brous is a contemporary of mine and founded the Ikar congregation, an innovative start-up shul in Los Angeles that has attracted hundreds of young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s. They have a long-standing personal and professional relationship with each other dating back to when both lived in LA. This relationship was severely tested in a public dispute that they had over Israel.
Last November, after hundreds of rocket attacks terrorized southern Israel, Israel launched an air-raid attack on the Gaza Strip to destroy munitions and launch sites. A ground invasion by the Israeli Army was averted at the last moment when the US and Egypt were able to broker a cease-fire. Anytime Israel faces a tense military situation such as this, emotions throughout the Jewish world run high. We anguish over loss of life on all sides, and we anguish over Israel being punished in the court of public opinion over the killing of civilians when terrorists deliberately embed themselves among their own people in order to draw Israel’s fire. In response to the last Gaza showdown, Rabbi Brous published a letter to her congregation reflecting on the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. Rabbi Brous writes:
“I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives….”
Later, she writes, “However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”
Rabbi Gordis responded with an article in the Times of Israel a few days later in which he criticized Rabbi Brous for being too even-handed. “Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community…which side is good and which side is evil?” The end of Rabbi Gordis’s article gets highly personal, and this generated the controversy:
“As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?”
Gordis continues, “I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.”
It is clear at this point that two well respected and thoughtful rabbis have different perspectives on Israel. Yet, respect of the other is crucial even amidst disagreement. Living a life that matters requires civil discourse. The question is whether this discussion has gone beyond civil.
It wasn’t long before Rabbi Brous responded:
“Wielding the power of the pen, Gordis sets me up as a straw (wo)man, a representative voice of a naïve Jewish ideology, one that is willing to jettison allegiance to the Jewish people for the sake of some self-congratulatory humanism. Such Judaism, he claims, is ‘utterly universalized… almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts.’”
“What is shameful is that Gordis knows what many of his readers do not. For years my teacher and friend, he knows precisely what is the character of my Judaism, he knows just how deeply Jewish traditions and texts run in my blood. But it is far easier to cast aspersions on a straw man than engage in discourse with a real live colleague who shares his concern for Israel, the Jewish people and its future but nevertheless sees things differently than he does.”
Rabbi Gordis then wrote a rejoinder. He attempted to take back his more inflammatory personal statements while restating his strong commitment to Jewish particularism, the Jewish concern to take care of ourselves first and foremost.
He writes: “I believe that four thousand years of Jewish tradition are committed to the proposition that particularism is key to who we are, and that the inability to love our people before we love others cuts out the heart of one Judaism’s great sustaining characteristics.”
By this point, numerous other commentators were weighing in on the Gordis-Brous Internet spat. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, whom I quoted earlier, served as kind of an online referee. He writes that they are both Jewish intellectual heroes struggling to inspire contemporary Jews. “That is what makes their controversy so painful to witness.”
Rabbi Feinstein says: “So incendiary is Rabbi Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Brous, it obscures the simple fact: He needs her. First, he needs her Torah.” Rabbi Feinstein says that Rabbi Brous’s teaching of Torah has engaged younger Jews, teaching them to interpret their universalism and humanism through traditional Jewish lenses.
“Second,” Rabbi Feinstein continues, “he needs her conscience. The voice of Jewish particularism needs the balancing voice of Jewish universalism, else it turns chauvinistic, narrow, and cruel. Too easily do we fall into a narrative of victimhood and wallow in attitude that overlooks brutality and excuses all moral infractions.”
“Finally,” Rabbi Feinstein says, “he needs her moral vision. The primary task of Zionism, as Gordis so well understands, was to make a safe place for Jews and Jewish life. But that was never its sole purpose. Zionism was always an expression of Jewish moral aspiration.” For example Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren went on American TV during this conflict and explained in detail how Israel was taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. Because of its moral vision, Israel resisted a call by some to carpet bomb Gaza. Such moral vision is what makes Israel a Jewish state. Rabbi Feinstein clearly favors Rabbi Brous’s concern for more than just Jews in Israel but also the values for which Israel stands. In so doing, he reminds us that there are multiple ways in which we can express our support for Israel and that we can and must be respectful of one another in doing so.
As we think about issues of global Jewish importance, like Israel, we have to consider not only the issues at hand. We have to consider how community conversations about Israel serve as a litmus test for our relationships with one another. We can argue issues passionately, but we must remember that concern for both ourselves and the outside world are integral parts of our rich Jewish heritage. Yom Kippur is a time for us to reconnect with one another, with the synagogue and its traditions, with the Jewish people, with Israel and with God. In this new year, let us not shy away from discussing the vital issues of our day because we fear to offend. At the same time, let us always remember the human beings with whom we share dialogue so that we may listen and be strengthened by our differences. We are a richer, more vibrant tradition because we value both ourselves and others. Finding the balance between the two is sometimes challenging, but our effort to strike that balance is part of living a life that matters. May we all be so blessed.