There is no way to sugarcoat it: this was an extremely long and brutal summer for the State of Israel. After three young Israeli boys were kidnapped by terrorists linked to Hamas and then murdered in cold blood, war erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Over 2,000 people were killed in the fighting.
Whenever Israel is under attack, especially if the timing of the hostilities dovetails with the High Holy Days, rabbis invariably attempt to share their insights about the most recent round of violence. If you randomly went to any American synagogue this holiday season, chances are, that’s what you’d hear, whether those thoughts were supportive or critical of Israel. But while I deeply, passionately, and resolutely love, care for, and support Israel, especially in times of crisis like these, I hesitate to join the chorus. I feel we rabbis can have a tendency to make bold claims about Israel while neglecting to mention the fact that most of us are not trained in foreign policy analysis, the art of diplomacy, or the strategies of war. I am qualified first and foremost as a teacher Torah, empowered only to offer the insights of our tradition and to seek out ways that those lessons might guide us today.
I have opinions – sometimes, very strong opinions – about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But those opinions are largely drawn from the same sources you read and watched over the summer, and that all of us who love and care about Israel continue to read and watch. Indeed, even though I happen to be the one on the bimah this morning, some of you in this room have much more knowledge and expertise about Israel than I do.
And that is precisely what I want to talk about. You see, my friends, many of us talk about Israel. Over the course of this summer many of us in the American Jewish Community talked about Israel a lot. But I have noticed that when many of us talk about Israel, we can tend to do so with a certain self-assuredness that our viewpoint is the only legitimate and correct one, despite the fact that very few of us are experts. Most of us have only spent time in Israel as tourists and, for the most part, we all get our information from organizations, news outlets, papers, books and blogs that, always, even the very best ones, are inherently imperfect.
And yet, when it comes to Israel, many of us become so convinced that we hold the authoritative view, that we refuse to see, understand, and learn from the perspective of others who might see and understand things differently. I have even noticed that, sometimes, our views about Israel – and about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically – can alienate other Jews from us, or, conversely, make us feel alienated from other Jews. Indeed, in many corners of the Jewish community, people report feeling bullied, marginalized, or even excommunicated based on their views about Israel.
Earlier this year, for example, Hillel International took a stand barring programs in which Israeli policies might be questioned, and banning affinity groups that openly criticize Israel. In May, J Street, an organization that represents thousands of American Jews who advocate a two-state solution, was denied membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Liberal Jewish groups often demonize conservatives and hawks as inhumane war-mongers. All the while, those on the left often fail to take seriously the right’s very real concerns about rocket fire, terrorism, and rising global anti-Semitism. The vilification and exclusion of one side or another takes place in our Federations, our JCC’s, our Hillels, and our synagogues; it plays out on the pages of our Jewish press and, perhaps most noticeably during this last flare-up of the conflict, on our social media feeds.
This summer, the war that erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza exposed anew the fault-lines and pressure points in the American Jewish community, launching wars of words and silence between conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves, younger Jews and older Jews.
But this High Holy Day season of renewal and transformation reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can forge a new way forward. Our sacred tradition guides us in addressing this serious contemporary challenge. From the perspective of Torah, this reality calls for our immediate concern and attention on both practical and moral grounds.
Our tradition teaches that Jewish division, and in particular, the failure to include all Jews within the fold of our community, is a greater threat to Jewish survival than external enemies. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, retells the story of Amalek – who would become a perpetual historic enemy of the Jewish people – and their vicious surprise attack against the Children of Israel, just after they had fled from Egyptian slavery. The Torah teaches:
יז זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: יח אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים:
17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.
The great hasidic master Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Peshischa notes that this passage curiously uses the singular to talk about the plural. The Hebrew says “you” when it should say “you all” or, as we say here, “y’all.” He explains that, through the use of the singular, the Torah, which says nothing by accident, is trying to point out that, “Amalek was only able to prevail over someone who was out on his own, excluded from the community. For one could only fall into Amalek’s hands when he was outside the Clouds of Glory. But the Cloud protected those who were together, connected to the Jewish community, so they could not fall into Amalek’s hands. This is a sign for all generations: Whenever the Jewish people are united, Amalek cannot overpower them.”
This teaching offers profound wisdom for our time. Similar to the Amalek’s we have faced in our past, the Jewish people today has, God help us, many enemies: Hamas, European anti-Semites, ISIS. Here in America, we may be, if certain demographic studies are to be believed, a shrinking community, with a rising disaffiliation rate, particularly among the young, who have themselves a range of views about Israel and, as a result, often feel unwelcome in many Jewish settings. As a community, we are at war against many threats. So our tradition comes to remind us that we are at our most vulnerable when we cannot live in harmony with each other.
We become weaker, not stronger, when we say that some opinions count in our communities and others’ don’t, that if you want to have a place in our tent, you have to agree to agree with us first. Our community is strongest when we create a space for all views – and all Jews – to be heard and honored. Indeed, Israel itself demonstrates this point: The vibrancy, vitality, and strength of the Jewish State stems in no small part from its capacity for pluralism, tolerance for many viewpoints, and healthy debate. Our Jewish community in America can similarly be strengthened by emulating our brothers and sisters in Israel.
The fact that Israel is a country where vigorous debate is invited and embraced is no accident. Its commitment to those democratic values is deeply rooted in some of the most cherished lessons of our tradition.
The Talmud teaches us that Hillel’s School and Shammai’s School used to engage each other in passionate and heated debates. Hillel’s School would say, “Our views are right!” And Shammai’s School would reply, “No, our views are right!” Finally, after three long years of discussion, a Voice boomed forth from the heavens: ‘These and these are the words of the living God, though the law is in agreement with Hillel’s School’. As Hillel’s School celebrated victory, Shammai’s School was incredulous. “Wait a minute,” one outspoken student exclaimed, “If both of our views are God’s words, then why does the law follow Hillel’s School? A reply came back from the Heavens, “Because they were kindly and modest, they study both their own rulings and yours, and are even so humble as to mention your opinions before theirs.”
This magnificent talmudic lesson captures the prevailing attitude of rabbinic Judaism: God’s will can only be known through human insight, but human insight is imperfect and dependent on the individual’s vantage point. That means there may be one ultimate truth, but each of us will inevitably see it and understand it differently. No individual has a monopoly on truth, and everyone’s partial truth is an expression of God’s will. That’s how two radically different positions – like those of Shammai’s School and Hillel’s School – can both be “the words of the Living God,” intimations of God’s will, and elements of a deeper, broader, ultimate truth.
This means that the only path to truth is for everyone to challenge the merits of his or her own assertions, to learn from others’ views, and to appreciate a diversity of perspectives. Only when we are able to listen with resilience and openness to each other – even to positions that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our assumptions, or that rattle our deeply-held beliefs – can we approximate true knowledge and wisdom. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, taught, “the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God…” (Orot Ha-Kodesh, Vol. 1, p. 330). There is much that conservative and liberal, hawkish and dovish, young and elderly, religious and secular Jews can learn from each other, and there is much that they can, through engagement, dialogue, and mutual respect, contribute to each others’ understandings and to the hopefully bright future of the State of Israel.
But more than simply making a claim about the nature of truth, this story also makes a point about values: We are called to sit down deliberately, respectfully, and persistently with those who hold opposing views. And being kind and respectful to those with whom we disagree is more important than being right. For three years the two schools argued. They never agreed with each other. But they sat together for three long years debating; refusing to get up from the table in frustration; rejecting the temptation to delegitimize, excommunicate, or coerce the other side. Indeed, one version of the story says that even when they disagreed about kashrut, they still ate in each other’s homes! Additionally, Hillel’s view gets accepted because they treated Shammai’s School with kindness, and because they were committed to respecting and learning from the views of Shammai’s School.
These two values – that we must persist in talking with ideological opponents, and that we ought to respect and learn from those with opposing viewpoints – are central to rabbinic Judaism. They form the core of who we’re supposed to be as a people. The entire Talmud is a catalogue of thousands upon thousands of precisely these kinds of interactions: persistent, respectful, and constructive debate with those who hold views diametrically opposed to our own. Our rabbis of blessed memory envisioned a Judaism and a Jewish community in which Jews of all perspectives could have a place in the tent, in which we would all respect and learn from opposing views, and in which we would refuse to get up from the table – or force others to leave the table – even when we heard a position that challenged us or made us uncomfortable.
We Jews are called to make space for many perspectives, constructive disagreement, and robust conversation. So let us, then, take hold of our legacy as the people of the Talmud. Let us rededicate ourselves to being the people of “these and these are the words of the Living God.”
In light of this, I would like to offer a challenge to our specific corner of the American Jewish community for the coming year: Let’s make Temple Beth-El a national model for an open, inclusive, respectful, and passionate conversation about Israel: Let us hold gatherings at the synagogue to honestly and without judgment talk about our personal relationships to Israel; to study our homeland’s history and present a variety of perspectives on its present; and to engage in communal learning about varying religious approaches to the idea and reality of Israel. Most importantly, I am putting out an open call for volunteers to join with me in planning a congregational mission to Israel for 2016, where we can dialogue about Israel while enjoying its extraordinary beauty and energy in person. Please be in touch with me in person or via email if you are interested in helping us plan such a trip.
In a New Year, we in the American Jewish community have a renewed opportunity to embrace understanding, honoring, and including opposing perspectives on Israel within our collective Jewish tent. We can direct some of our passion about, love for, and concern over Israel toward a refusal to stop talking to each other. Doing so will increase our respect for each other, strengthen our community, and, God-willing, contribute to a just and lasting peace in our homeland. Ken Yehi Ratzon. Shanah Tovah.