[Rabbi Brown]: The New York Times ran a story the other day, suggesting that Israel was just too complicated a topic for clergy to explore with their congregations – in light of the heart-breaking summer we just lived through. One rabbi interviewed in the story advised that clergy should take the easy way out, and use their High Holy Day remarks to address the non-controversial rise of worldwide anti-Semitism.
[Cantor Becker]: Bear with us, because if the choice is between ignoring Israel and ignoring the New York Times, then we will have to choose the latter. It is precisely at times like these when we need to engage courageously on Israel and talk about her, rather than pretend that she doesn’t exist. Our collective Hebrew name, Yisrael, implies that we wrestle with big issues and serious questions, especially on this day of days when we consciously examine our deeds.
[Rabbi Brown]: I’m so delighted that Cantor Becker has agreed to join me in conversation. Although this is a little bit of a different “sermon experience,” we hope our dialogue will invite you to join the discussion…with us, and with each other, in the days ahead.
I begin…filled with an immense pride for our synagogue. During a summer in which the number of tourists traveling to Israel plummeted,[^1] we stepped up and represented.
I know that everyone joins me in expressing gratitude to those who traveled to Israel this summer...that you all kept your travel plans...that you all made it there safely, and most importantly: that you all returned in one piece.
We continue to hold in our prayers those who serve in the Israel Defense Forces: who helped to keep our people safe, and who continue to defend Israel during this season of uncertainty. May the One who protects us protect them, their families, and all of our Israeli brothers and sisters in the weeks and months to come.
During this season in which we naturally reflect on the state of the Jewish People - I am reminded of a teaching from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.
In 1948, he wrote that: "Those who despair of Jewish survival in the Diaspora, by maintaining that only in the Land of Israel can Judaism survive, [they] evade the urgent task of rendering Judaism viable in America. Long-distance building of Eretz Yisrael is no less important than building it on the spot [...]. Until Jews realize that the Jewish problem [of anti-Semitism] in the Diaspora and the Jewish problem [of anti-Semitism] in Eretz Yisrael are one, they are running away from reality and defeating their own purpose."[^2]
I have long been taken by that piece of Kaplan's Zionist thinking. It's sort of the opposite of the absurd 'What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' I have always believed that what happens in Tel Aviv touches us.
I wonder if you might begin by sharing a reflection or two from your travels. Has your experience affirmed Kaplan's sense of a connection between Israel and the Diaspora?
[Cantor Becker]: The answer to your question is undoubtedly a complex one, but my most recent experience in Israel highlighted that we American Jews are inextricably linked to our Israeli brothers and sisters, perhaps even more deeply than we realize.
To explain, I need to step back and describe the feeling of being in Israel during a crisis like the one we experienced this past summer. As tensions mounted, the human connections intensified. It seemed that all of us – Americans and Israelis-- were under attack and, suddenly, we were in this together. Almost instinctively, I took on a sense of personal responsibility for the Israelis around me and an obligation to play some role in the survival of the State whose very existence felt as if it was being called into question.
The group that traveled with me described the power of their encounters with Israelis. I think of the shop owners who thanked us from the bottom of their hearts for staying and helping to keep them from closing their doors. I think of how we waited anxiously for our tour guide’s cell phone to ring to get an update on his son, a young soldier in the IDF.
Perhaps because of the uncertainty that surrounded us, we spoke to people we might not have engaged otherwise and quickly learned about who they were at their core. I think of the soldier on our flight from Eilat who savored the plane’s delay because it meant he could spend a few more minutes in the airport with his young daughter, memorizing her face, smoothing her hair and fixing her tiny headband. I think of the taxi driver taking my family to the airport, an immigrant from Tajikistan who told us that he was off to Gaza the next day to drive a tank and—in almost the same breath-- that last week he had become a first time father.
As moving as it was to stand in solidarity with Israelis, the fact is that at times our trip was difficult. For those of us who are unaccustomed, it was frightening to hear the sirens and run into the bomb shelters. For those of us who witnessed a successful Iron Dome interception, we were transfixed, stopped in our tracks. Israeli resilience inspired us and we carried on, but-at times—with hesitation.
In that sense, I’m reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, friend and colleague of Mordecai Kaplan, who once wrote: “Israel is a personal challenge, a personal religious experience.” These words rang true for me frequently. I was challenged to take a stand and to align my actions with my values, especially when news of anti-Semitism throughout the world began to spread. At that moment, there was no distinction between Israeli and American. All of us were Jews, engaged in a Jewish crisis and the need for a Jewish state was overwhelming. I wondered, "What if Israel could not survive this latest battle? What if the countries that surrounded Israel were planning to rise up against her and overtake us?" These questions, too, linked me to Israelis who live with these realities day after day.
[Rabbi Brown]: I'm haunted by the image of the new-father-taxi-driver who was heading off to Gaza. I’m wondering if he’s okay. I’m filled with gratitude for the members of the IDF because they stand up and serve...not just to ensure the safety and continued existence of Israel for them and their families - but for us as well. Indeed, one of the great challenges for us in thinking about Israel, and speaking about it in the Diaspora, is a sense of modesty that comes with being aware of the fact that young Israelis are putting their lives on the line for us, not the other way around.
You mentioned the Heschel text, which included the notion of 'Israel as challenge.' I'm curious if your trip compelled you to wrestle with any of the moral questions that came up during the war.
For me, as I sit here writing these words, I find myself struggling to express my Israel-Challenge.
Part of me thinks that there's no need for introspection at all. Palestinian terrorists have willfully launched rockets from the Gaza Strip into the State of Israel more than 11,000 times between 2005 and the spring of 2014. [^3]
And since the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge, an additional 1000 rockets have rained down - threatening not only our Israeli friends, but you and the rest of our synagogue contingent.
We all know that if Al Qaeda, or another terror-loving group shot even one such rocket from Mexico into my old backyard in Southern California, our military would respond, and Americans of all political stripes would be behind it. Even now, we can feel some of those forces at play as Americans begin to support military intervention against ISIS because of the threat that they pose to us and our interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Israel, too, has seen widespread - even near-universal - support for Operation Protective Edge. According to the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, 95% of Israelis supported the war at the height of the conflict. That is unheard of, given Israel's usual hyper-partisan, fractured landscape.
And yet, Jewish religious leaders on the right and left have asked eyebrow-raising questions. My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, just published a controversial article suggesting that Israelis might be required to do teshuvah, or repent, for the deaths of the 1500 Arab civilians that perished in the war this summer. Though he acknowledges that Israel was 'coerced' into the war because of circumstances outside of her control, nonetheless (citing Jewish law) he writes that "even in an ostensibly coerced case [of killing another for purposes of self defense] we are indicted if we do the act [at all] eagerly […]."[^4]
Rabbi Michael Marmur framed the question a different way, when he recently noted: "The day will come when the mist will clear. On that day we will understand that no person can be bombed into moderation, and that military force cannot resolve the most profound issues. On that day we will understand that forces of extremism and fundamentalism have to be countered with vigor by forces of moderation and understanding."[^5]
Rabbis Landes and Marmur are essentially raising the same question in two different ways: should we be morally challenged by Israel's response this summer, or should we rest peacefully at night knowing that Israel did what had to be done to guarantee her security - a guarantee that I know you and I and so many others here affirm and uphold...
More to the point: did you see anything in your trip that would lead you to raise such difficult questions?
[Cantor Becker]: Every day during this crisis those questions came up. Certainly, as you pointed out, the vast majority of Israelis were in favor of Operation Protective Edge. I too wholeheartedly support Israel's right to defend herself. Yet there were times that I was called upon to balance my gut reaction--“Make it stop! Use as much force as you need to end this so I do not need to go to sleep each night aware of how many seconds it would take me to reach my children if I need to get them out of here...” —to balance that raw emotion with the thoughtful, measured response I more often advocate that takes seriously our Tradition’s imperative to "seek peace and pursue it."
While in Israel, the position I heard so many maintain was that--unlike Hamas who intentionally put civilians in the line of fire-- Israeli leaders cherished the value of human life for all. As evidence, the Iron Dome minimized the loss of Israeli lives and the news reported that in Gaza, Palestinians were repeatedly warned to evacuate areas Israel was going to attack as it targeted rocket launchers or terror tunnels—not civilians.
Nonetheless, if we Jews are serious about this value, how can we not scrutinize every action we take when it creates a potential for the loss of human life? Rabbi Rachel Sabath beit-Halachmi compares our contemporary struggle with the biblical struggle between Jacob and Esau. She writes, "While preparing for the possibility of war with his estranged brother, Esau, the biblical Jacob is terrified. In a midrashic interpretation of the encounter between the brothers, the sages ask about an apparent repetition of words in the text. [Where Gen. 32:7 reads:] “‘Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.’ [The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 76:2) expounds:] R. Judah ben Ilai asks: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that [Jacob] was afraid lest he should be slain, and was distressed lest he should slay." He was appropriately afraid to be killed, but knew that killing another, even in self-defense, was also terrifying and not without its lasting impact."
In order to be a people who affirms the sanctity of all human life, a people who insists that every human being is created in God's image, must we not face these two fears with equal trepidation? Must we not be equally afraid to slay or to be slain? And how will we deal with the consequences? There is no question that there will be - as Rabbi beit Halachmi points out - a lasting impact.
The writer, Daniel Gordis, speaks of young, twenty-something Israelis and their feelings about the conflict: He refers to them as a “shocked generation” who are asking poignant questions like: ‘If my kids are going to have to live this way, is it fair to raise them here?’” And on the other side, I wonder: Who will teach the Palestinians of Gaza, the ones who were forced to run from hiding place to hiding place, who lost their homes and their loved ones, who will teach them that Israel is not a nation to hate and Jews are not to be feared? Who will prove to them that although we vigorously protect our own lives, we care about their human dignity and we are equally distressed "lest we slay?" Who will let them know we teach our children that even when escaping from slavery, our Israelite ancestors were instructed not to cheer while Pharaoh's armies were drowning?
[Rabbi Brown]: These are such important questions. Perhaps some, or even many, of those gathered here today would prefer us to not ask those questions. Nonetheless, we raise these thoughts respectfully, because we cannot imagine remaining silent.
That being said, there are no easy answers. I don’t believe that Israel’s security needs preclude us from confronting the moral questions of war. And I don’t believe that the moral questions of war preclude us from confronting Israel’s security needs. Gam v’gam – both have to be considered in this larger conversation.
David Harris, the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, tells the following story:
Sherlock Holmes, joined by his trusty aide Watson, left London by horse-drawn carriage to investigate a case in the north. Darkness arrived, so they pitched a tent along the way. In the middle of the night, Holmes woke up, looked around, and elbowed Watson.
"Watson, my dear chap, what do you see?"
Watson rubbed his eyes before saying: "Why Holmes, I see the beauty of the stars, the transcendence of the universe, and the majesty of eternity."
To which Holmes replied: "Watson, you fool, someone has stolen our tent!"
The voices of Holmes and Watson deserve to be heard. We must never lose sight of the beauty of the natural world, and the innate value of every human being that lives in it.
But we must also never forget that someone is trying to steal our tent.”
To all of you, I would say: in what ways do you resonate with Holmes and in what ways do you resonate with Watson? Cantor Becker and I are anxious to hear your thoughts, and hope you’ll reach out in the coming days and weeks – to us, and to each other – to join this dialogue about the land that is so very precious to us.
[Cantor Becker]: As we engage in this dialogue and even attempt to respond to our own Israel challenges from almost 6000 miles away, may we be inspired to combat despair over this decades–long conflict with action to help Israel flourish. In truth, Israel is the only nation in the world that strives to be governed by Jewish principles, and, as Mordecai Kaplan pointed out over 60 years ago, the future of Judaism will be linked to the fate of Israel. And so we pray that we might have the strength to stand up for Israel when she needs us, we pray that we might find the patience to listen closely to one another so that we develop the creativity to bring about lasting solutions. And most of all -- because this summer has taught us we must never take it for granted--we continue to pray for peace.
Shanah Tovah v’Shanat Shalom.
[^2]: Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew (1948), excerpt re-printed in The Zionist Idea , ed. Arthur