A long married couple once drove down a country road for miles, simmering in silence. An earlier discussion had led to an argument and neither wanted to concede. As they passed a barnyard full of mules, the husband tauntingly asked: "Relatives of yours?" "Yeah," the wife replied, "my in-laws.”
On this morning, we shall consider the joys….or should I say challenges…of what it means to be part of a family.
I speak on this day not of nuclear families, nor extended ones. Not the family of our Westchester neighbors, nor our ties with our fellow Americans. Instead, we give thought to the family ties that brings us together during these High Holy Days, our shared sense of connection to Am Yisrael – the People of Israel.
We laughingly throw about the expression “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” and we shrug our shoulders, without ever acknowledging the real challenge of creating community in a space where we passionately and at times stubbornly disagree.
This issue is best personified by the vigorous intra-family debate in Israel over the last year. At a moment when Iran is still seeking nuclear weapons, when Egypt is literally falling apart, to Israel’s southwest…and when Bashar al-Assad is gassing his own citizens less than 100 kilometers from the Israeli border…With all of this playing out, we Jews – in classic fashion – are really focused instead on “arguing” amongst ourselves. Like the long-married couple, we still cannot figure out how to talk to one another.
Last night, we began a conversation about pluralism in our national political life, and in our interpersonal relationships. This morning, our conversation about pluralism turns to Israel.
We read in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud: Rabbi Meir used to say: in three ways are people different: in voice, appearance, and opinions.
We are different from one another…when it comes to Jewish life in Israel…the question is: what do we do with those differences? Should the leaders of Israel’s Orthodox establishment and of Progressive Judaism become so frustrated with those differences that we never speak about them at all?
Rabbi David Hartman, may peace be upon him, was a tireless advocate for Jewish pluralism in general, and to pluralistic Jewish life in Israel in particular. His central teaching on the issue began with a text featuring the rabbis of the Talmudic era focusing on the phrase from Exodus introducing the 10 Commandments: God spoke all of these words. The rabbis are particularly interested in this phrase: “all of these words.”
The rabbis offer up the novel reading that all of these words refers to the Talmudic debates that went on for generations between the followers of Hillel and his arch-rival Shammai.
Later in the text, the rabbis ask: why bother studying Torah when we Jews can never agree on its proper interpretation? The rabbis’ response is direct: God spoke all of these words. Which is to say: there is something holy and legitimate about each person’s perspective because everyone has a bit of God in them. Each of us was created in the Divine Image.
Therefore, the text goes on: “Make your heart into a many-chambered room, and bring into it both the words of Shammai and the words of Hillel…”
Consider, now, Rabbi Hartman’s commentary on these words, offered up in his 2001 book A Heart of Many Rooms: “Become a person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul. […] In this type of interpretive tradition, awareness of the validity of contrary positions enhances, rather than diminishes, the vitality and enthusiasm of religious commitment.”
What would that look like if we applied that teaching to the way that Jewish life in Israel is considered? More specifically, we’ll give thought to that question in the context of gender, and also military service issues in Israel this morning.
For some time now, the issue of gender has been bubbling underneath the surface of Israeli society. In the past, we saw it illustrated in the ultra-Orthodox’s attempt to compel the government to impose separate seating by gender on certain public bus routes, believing it was a violation of modesty for men and women to sit together. I am proud to say that the Israel Religious Action Center, affiliated with Reform Judaism in Israel, has led the battle in the court system on this.
More recently, attention has focused on whether women have the right to pray out loud together at the Western Wall. This battle began 25 years ago with an extraordinary organization called Women of the Wall. But it has grown into something larger: a conflict which is really about whether a more inclusive and pluralistic Judaism is possible in Israel.
Natan Sharansky, Chief Executive of the Jewish Agency, recently initiated discussions that were to lead to a mutually-agreeable compromise to Women of the Wall’s plight. Just in the last few days, the government has issued a short-term transitional approach to the question, leaving us with the optimistic hope that sooner rather than later, the government will implement the larger and permanent compromise which will take our own liberal Jewish practices and beliefs into account. We hope and pray that this is a compromise which will permanently protect a woman’s right to pray as she sees fit at Judaism’s holiest site.
In the meantime: one thing that we can do to promote a more pluralistic approach to these questions is to make a small financial donation to ARZA, our movement’s arm to support Progressive Jewish life in Israel. Please watch for a note in the next Shalom on how to participate if you are interested.
Beyond gender, Israel is also wrestling with the question of universal military conscription. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox have enjoyed a waiver from the draft, so long as they are studying in yeshiva, while so many other brave Israelis serve in active duty, reserve duty, and national service.
A new member of the Knesset this year, Dr. Ruth Calderon – addressed this issue pluralistically in her inaugural parliamentary speech. She gave voice to the reality that those in uniform resent the ultra-Orthodox who don’t serve. From the soldiers’ standpoint, the army protects all of Israel’s citizens. As a result, shouldn’t all Israelis have to serve in some capacity?
Calderon also gave voice to the resentment that the ultra-Orthodox feel, believing that they themselves are the only ones carrying on the legacy of Torah for future generations of Jews.
Calderon noted: “Both I and [the other side] feel solely responsible […for Israel and her future]. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.”
Calderon’s statement is remarkable. She opens her vision of the future by acknowledging the legitimacy of those she disagrees with. And she concludes by committing herself to relationships that are rooted in “mutual respect and understanding.”
I stand here with a presumption: that the vast majority of us in this room would agree that non-Orthodox Jews in Israel deserve a sense of equality, even though their values and practices at times differ from their Orthodox counterparts. And perhaps the language of Calderon, and her teacher Rabbi Hartman, resonate with us. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there can and should be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel…in the very same way that we celebrate Jewish pluralism here in America.
But now I must pose a more difficult question: are we able to hold within ourselves a “heart of many rooms”…the notion that there is more than one way to think and believe…about our own relationship with the State of Israel from here in New York?
Let’s begin by acknowledging…that this could be a hard issue for us to talk about. Some in the room take Israel very personally – and for good reason. Some of our most identity-shaping memories feature Israel. For some, those memories were formed at a time when Israel was under attack in 1967 or 1973. We stood up for her then, and so we stand for her now.
For others, Israel is deeply connected to their family’s experience during the Holocaust. Or our sense of philanthropy is deeply tied to who she is, and who we want her to be.
What we can all agree on is that Israel is not an emotionally neutral subject. Indeed, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of our Union for Reform Judaism, lamented to the Israeli press earlier this year that talking about Israel has become so emotionally charged for American Jews that many of us have avoided the conversation out of fear – afraid that we might be ostracized for situating ourselves too far to the left or right of whatever the mainstream position on Israel happens to be. 
This is true for everyone in our community, including rabbis. We saw this reflected in the public square last November. Rabbi Sharon Brous, a widely respected Conservative rabbi, emailed her congregation, in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. Brous criticized this despicable terrorism. And she sought to humanize the kinds of suffering that was being experienced by both Israelis and Palestinians. (From my blog, you can find links online to the entire written exchange that grew out of this.)
Rabbi Danny Gordis, the respected Conservative rabbi and influential columnist, publicly responded to Brous. He repeatedly complimented Rabbi Brous for her intelligence and leadership. But he also noted that he (as an Israeli) felt “abandoned” by her and other American Jews who express sympathy for Israelis and Palestinians.
Again, I would encourage you to read the entire dialogue for context. I’ll only quote for you, now, Rabbi David Wolpe, perhaps the leading American Conservative rabbi, whose coda on the episode was: “I have watched this debate with increasing dismay. […] But to all who do not know, or who doubt, I want to say this clearly: both of these Rabbis are important, learned and sincere teachers and preachers in Israel. Both love our people, our heritage—and our land. Those who disparage or diminish either should be ashamed of themselves and we should close our ears to the accusations, insinuations and feckless name calling.”
I certainly have my own opinion about the substance of their exchange. I have long situated myself in the so-called Brous camp. I believe that our Zionist values and Jewish ethics mandate that we have genuine concern for the plight of Israelis and Palestinians.
Nonetheless, it is not Rabbi Gordis’ actual position that I object to, but rather the claim that followers of his make that the members of the Brous camp have no place at the table when it comes to talking about Zionism and Israel.
But I digress…because…my own personal opinion on this matter is irrelevant. Not only is it my presumption that many or most of you disagree with me on this aspect of Israel. I would, indeed, welcome your disagreement!
My larger concern is: how come we’re not debating these questions here in our synagogue? Shouldn’t we care enough about Israel that it becomes a regular topic of conversation? Shouldn’t we be creating the space for our membership to come together to learn, debate, and become engaged?
To that end: please do save the date of Friday November 15. We are planning a special Shabbaton that evening, which will include a unique panel discussion with representatives from a diverse group of Israel organizations, who will each have the chance to describe a little about the vital work that they do.
We hope that the ensuing discussion will not only empower everyone to find new avenues toward their own Israel engagement, but will also engender interest in a renewed effort here to address Israel in our own programming.
(And of course, there’s no better way to connect with Israel than by travelling there. Please do be in touch with Cantor Becker if you are interested in joining her on a trip there this coming summer.)
We read in the Book of Isaiah: “And all of your banayich – your children - shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children.”
To expound on this verse’s meaning, the rabbis of the midrash interpretively alter the words of the verse. Do not read banayich…your children, they said…but rather bonayich, your builders.” And from there the midrash goes on: Y’hi shalom b’cheilech, shalvah b’armenotayich. Let there be peace in your Temple; tranquility in your palaces.”
Peace isn’t just something that we fervently wish, vis a vis Israel and her Arab neighbors. Peace is also something that we pray for for the entirety of the Jewish People, as we confront what it means to be Jewish in Israel today, as well as the equally pressing question of what it means for us, as Americans, to relate to Israel. May all who join these dual dialogues be in search of peace, that we might be good role models for the builders of tomorrow – our children – as we together learn the most respectful and just ways of speaking about Israel with one another.
Keyn Yhi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
 B. Sanhedrin 38a
 T. Sotah 7:12
 Exod. 20:1
 Isa. 54:13
 With thanks to Rabbi Steven Cohen at http://bit.ly/15a83JK for reminding me of the midrash.