September 29, 2014
One hundred years ago the whole world engaged in what they called at the time “The Great War”, but later came to be known as the First World War. Many of you are probably familiar with some version of the well-known story told of two soldiers fighting hand to hand combat, as war was mostly fought in those days. As the Russian soldier plunges his bayonet into the chest of the enemy, he hears the Austrian soldier cry out Shema Yisrael, and with the word ehad takes his last breath. When the Russian soldier realizes he had killed one of his own brothers, he went out of his mind with grief.
This story can perhaps be understood as an anti-war polemic; after all aren’t we all brothers? But as a Jewish story it illustrates the particular dilemma early 20th-century Jews faced as they set out to embrace the idea of modern civic nationalism as a replacement for the old ethnic form of nationalism. Most Jews were convinced and were willing to give their lives to the more universal ethical values and principles of their modern civic nation, and yet still felt deeply loyal and connected to their traditional ethnic ties to the Jewish nation.
One hundred years later, the battle between civic and ethnic nationalisms still rages on around the world; tribal fanaticism seems to be on the rise, threatening the very premise of the modern open society. We find ourselves still wrestling with our own issues of identity and belonging, but for most Jews the old ethnic ties have already largely given way to their civic identities.
However comforting the traditional community once was for giving our lives definition and meaning, we are not willing to return to the ghetto-like mentality that often closed us off from all but our inner, trusted circle, we are not wiling to give up living in the open society, and rightfully so. On the other hand, even though life in the global village can be exhilarating with its endless potential for borrowing across cultures as we form our own identity, it can also leave us feeling adrift and at times hollow. So how do we navigate between the inner and outer circles of our lives?
This question was raised for me in the Torah story we read today. For the first time I understood it in a way I never saw before. I always thought the first part about the birth of Isaac and the creation of the first Jewish family was the essential story for us and never really understood why the later part about Avimelekh was included. But then I noticed something very interesting, that Abraham behaves very differently in these two different contexts.
In the first part of the story about birth and family, Abraham never speaks. He silently carries out his duty of circumcising his son on the eighth day; when Sarah tells him to banish Ishmael and Hagar he acquiesces, again in silence. Although he hears God’s assurance that this is all for the good, he is anguished and suffers in silence. God reassures him and so he silently sends Hagar and Ishmael away.
In contrast to this story of a family torn apart with no real dialogue ever taking place between any of them, Abraham has a very different encounter with a non-Jew, Avimelekh. The foreign king tells Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do, so make a pact with me.” Abraham has his worth and success confirmed by an outsider, the non-Jewish king. And so Abraham enters into dialogue, with real give and take. Abraham opens up and expresses what is really bothering him to which Avimelekh says, “I didn’t know… you never told me! Lo higadeta li.” And through an exchange of their different perspectives they resolve their differences and make a peace pact at Beer Sheva. Abraham then plants a tamarisk tree and calls God “El Olam,” God of the universe. According to rabbinic lore the tamarisk, eshel in Hebrew, was an acronym for the activities Abraham engaged in. He provided food, drink and lodging.
So at the end of this painful story about the emergence of his own particular, Jewish family, Abraham defines his God as a Universal God and makes his religion one of universal hospitality.
Sometimes it’s easier that way. How often do we find people, often great people, who are hugely successful on the world stage, or in their careers, but don’t have nearly the same success on the home front? And sometimes we need to travel away from home in order to find ourselves. But that is not the concluding message of this story.
The story of Abraham purposely raises a dialectic, as the Bible so often does, forcing us to think and wrestle with the conflicting views. In this case, the issue is the tension between the inner and outer realms of our lives, the particular and universal dimensions in which we all live. While in this story Abraham validates the importance of the universal dimension and uses it to redeem himself, it is not necessarily a rejection of the inner, particular aspect of his life. Despite all the difficulties and pain it brings him, creating a particular family shaped by his own culture and unique set of values informs everything else he does. What this juxtaposition of two contrasting stories tells us is: we need both aspects in our lives. It may be easier to come to terms with others in the outside world than it is with family because the stakes are not as high; the existential threats and ties are not as deep. But ultimately, Abraham’s story tells us, we need both.
When I was in Nepal this past winter, I was deeply touched by the open-hearted warmth of the Nepali people I met. Everywhere we went, I felt embraced by the heart-felt “Namaste,” and truly felt the blessing of “my soul, the Life Force in me, reaches out to yours.” But I also felt a very special connection with the Israeli volunteers at Tevel Betzedek with whom I worked. It was a bond that went deeper than the very human connection I felt with the equally lovely Nepali NGO workers at Nyayak Sensar, the sister organization whose name also means “a world with justice.” Beyond the gratifying humanitarian work with which we were engaged, I shared with the mostly secular Israelis studying and debating Jewish texts, celebrating Kabbalat Shabbat and sitting around at night with guitars singing contemporary Hebrew folk songs. I shared a culture that resonated much deeper for me than the Nepali folk songs I learned from my Sherpa guide. Nepali culture was fun and entertaining. Jewish culture was meaningful. My experience with Nepali people broadened my humanity. My experience with Israelis deepened my sense of family and self.
In the Preface to our mahzor, my late teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, z’l, gives a similar message for these Days of Awe. He explains that the festival calendar is divided into two fundamental motifs. On the one hand, most Jewish holidays celebrate particular events that shaped the collective identity of the Jewish people, beginning with Passover that celebrates the struggle for freedom. But Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur have no connection to any particular event in Jewish history. They celebrate the creation of the world and have universal significance—that “all of humanity is morally accountable to God. Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur bring us into moral dialogue with the world.”
“We live in the polar rhythm of family intimacy and universal solidarity. Those in the Jewish world who seek to bring us back to a mentality of Jewish isolation and suffering have not learned the message of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Those who abandon the depth of commitment to the family and Jewish historical intimacy in the name of universalism have not yet learned the lesson of the total Jewish festival year. To live as a full Jew is to live in both rhythms.”
When he originally wrote these words, it was in the context of his book on the Israel –Palestinian conflict. Rabbi Hartman raised this issue of the need to live in the tension between our particular ties to the Jewish family and our universal connection to humanity in order to say we need to view the conflict from both perspectives. We cannot have tribal loyalties exclusive of universal concerns, but neither can our concern for universal morality and ethics be to the exclusion of concern for the well-being of our own family.
The growing inability within the Jewish world to accept this dialectic and tolerate opposing points of view on Israeli politics is a huge problem for all of us. It has inhibited many rabbis from addressing the situation for fear of alienating and losing members. Sadly, even we who like to consider ourselves a fairly open-minded, rational congregation, as congregations go, have lost about a half dozen members over the past several years, half of whom felt we were too far to the left and half who thought we were too far to the right and there was no room for their views to be expressed. It is this walking away from each other that is for me, as a rabbi, the most troubling aspect of the politics around Israel.
Even more striking and worrisome is the growing difference between Diaspora and Israeli Jews as reflected in their views on this last war in Gaza. A Gallop poll at the end of July found only 42% of Americans believed Operation Protective Edge was justified. Among older American Jews aged 65 and up 55% thought it was justified, but among younger Jews aged 18-29 only 25% thought so. Israelis, on the other hand, who normally sharply disagree on most political issues, were united with 95% agreeing on the necessity of the war against Hamas. Amos Oz, well-known author and long-time peace activist, perhaps best summed up Israel’s perspective when he addressed his literary audience in Berlin by posing the following questions: “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”
The Israeli consensus on the necessity of the war, however, does not mean there weren’t vociferous expressions of protest against their government’s policies, and widespread sympathy for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. Yes, Israel has also seen a growing intolerance, for dissent where until recently such debate was much more widely accepted than in the Diaspora. And yet, at the same time, there was also in Israel a growing consensus that a two-state solution must be pursued, now more urgently than ever. The story is complex because Israel is complex. Families are complex.
We’ve got to talk. That is my plea and my prayer for us and the Jewish people this Rosh Hashanah. IF we, the people whose very identity, Yisrael, means “wrestling with God and man,” if we, whose Talmud and major ethos was founded on debate– fiercely argued debate, but one in which the minority opinions were part of historical record, because debate is a crucial ingredient to building the open society– if we cannot conduct an ongoing civil dialogue amongst ourselves I fear we have lost the most important battle of all.
Several weeks ago on Shabbat Shoftim, I spoke on the topic of the ethics of war and the war against Hamas. Following my talk a diverse range of views were in fact expressed and seemingly tolerated! But as I said then, the role of the rabbi is not, in my view, that of political pundit, nor is the synagogue a political forum. As a synagogue community, on Shabbat mornings our purpose is to learn and share our views of Torah, the evolving collective wisdom of the Jewish people, and consider current events from that perspective.
In discussing the ethics of warfare, for example, the Torah states that when you approach a city to do battle you must first call out to it in peace. What does that mean? According to Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, this obligation to seek peace applies in all circumstances. However, “calling out for peace,” as he explains, is not some vague well-meaning wish. It means discerning whether the enemy acknowledges and agrees to follow the seven laws of Noah, that is, the basic universal ethics incumbent on all humanity. In other words, is there is a common language of ethics and values everyone can agree upon, beginning with the recognition of the sanctity of all human life and the prohibition against murder? Can we establish an agreed upon basis for peace?
As a community of Jews, our discussions around Israel ought to be informed not only by the narrative found in the news media, which has its own bias, as AP journalists Matti Friedman in Tablet and Richard Behar in Forbes Magazine have well documented. As Jews we also need to know our own narrative, and I’m not talking about a narrative of “we’re right, they’re wrong.” And “they” could be referring to Jews as well as non-Jews who don’t support our view. Rather than arguing over the viability of left-wing, liberal Zionism vs that of the right, we should be re-engaging with the narrative of the original Zionist debate.
Zionism was meant to give political agency and self-determination to the Jewish people worldwide, to fulfill ourselves as Jews and as human beings on the world stage. Zionism was meant to take us beyond our self-concerns and tribal loyalties, and bring back into Jewish life a public, communitarian concern for universal “freedom, justice and collective well-being, or shalom.” That’s what it says in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: “Israel will be … based on ha-herut, ha-tzedek, ve-ha-shalom, the principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel.” Statehood was a means to that end, not the end in itself. The questions about Israel we ought to be talking about are: “What is the place of Jews in the world today? What are our shared interests as Jewish citizens of the world that we could act on collectively?” (Yossi Klein Halevi).
Ask yourselves what we, as the Jewish People, have been able to express and accomplish collectively as a result of having our own state. Several things come to mind:
• The invention of drip irrigation that has revolutionized agriculture and made the desert bloom not only in Israel but around the world, as I experienced in Nepal.
• In the arts, the Idan Reichel Project brings together musical artists from over 90 countries to sing in Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopian, Spanish, and host of other languages to create a unique Israeli blend of world music.
• In the area of human rights and humanitarian aid, NGOs like IsraAid and Tevel Be-Tzedek have been at the forefront of rescue and relief work around the world, bringing Israeli expertise in treating trauma victims to Jordan, Haiti and Japan as well as promoting quality of life in developing countries like Nepal.
This list, far from comprehensive, gives just some of the accomplishments of the Zionist project that excite me and make me proud of what our people and Jewish civilization has brought to the world. It turns out that we can most successfully fulfill our universalist aspirations by expressing them from out of our own particularity. As Cynthia Ozick famously, “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar we will be heard far. If we blow into the broad end, we will not be heard at all.” No matter what, we cannot give up on the Zionist dream!
As one of my teachers at the Hartman Institute put it, “Zionism and taking Israel seriously should demand of us a willingness to confront what Israel does well and what it does not do well, and should empower us to be change-agents in making possible the Israel we imagine.” (Yehuda Kurtzer, blog, Times of Israel.)
In order to be change-agents for making possible the Israel we imagine, we need to think more seriously about what kind of Jews we want to be and what kind of Jewish community we want to be engaged with. I know from the 20% of you I met with over the past several weeks as the first component of our Reimagining Dorshei Emet project that most of us want to belong to a socially progressive, participatory community that helps us to flourish as Jews and as human beings. We highly value the intellectual integrity and the open discussions held here at Dorshei Emet and we want our commitment to Israel to be expressed with the same honesty and openness.
We need to talk more, openly and honestly, not only about Israel, but about all those things that matter to us personally. And it is for that reason I have committed myself to helping us create the safe space in which to do so.
Safe space is created when viewpoints can be expressed without cynicism or being judgmental, without disregarding or the need to be defensive. Safe space is created when we listen deeply to one another, respectfully, without wounding or neglecting the other. Safe space allows for diversity within the larger collective. That is the kind of community I want to belong to, and I hope you will join me in creating it.
We need to create the space to have “courageous conversations” not only about the universal and particular aspects of our identity, but also about matters of the heart within our own family. Those are the hardest conversations to have, but those are what matter most. And our difficulty around Israel is that it represents both our universal aspirations and our existential fears and needs.
I’d like to be part of a community that can be responsive to a universal “Namaste,” but at the same time goes out to greet and heal the world with our own particular expression of “Shalom.” And I invite you this year to join me in imagining how we might do that.