Why Israel Matters (to me, at least) – Va-Et’hanan 5775

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Today marks the second week of our sermon series about Israel. I wanted to spend some time together this month unpacking several takeaways from my recent trip to Israel and, in general, talking about our relationship to the Jewish State and the Zionist dream, hopefully rekindling the flames of our love for Israel and also raising some challenges that will help us develop a more adult connection.

Two of the most powerful experiences of my trip – and this was a trip filled with extraordinary experiences, so it’s hard to choose – were davvening on Friday night at two of Jerusalem’s hottest minyanim: Kehillat Tziyon and Kabbalat Shabbat ba-Tahanah ha-Rishonah.

Kehillat Tziyon is a congregation that was founded just a couple of years ago by one of our generation’s great rabbis, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum. Raba Tamar’s vision is to create a spiritual community that is uniquely, authentically, and intrinsically Israeli, as opposed to most congregations and minyanim in Israel that are, in one way or another, transplants from the Diaspora, even if they happen to be populated by born-and-bred Israelis. At the core of Tziyon is beautiful, musical, one-of-a-kind worship that fuses and synthesizes diverse Israeli voices, including ancient and contemporary Israeli, Palestinian, Ashkenazi, Sefaradi, and Mizrahi musical traditions and liturgy. And this eclectic service, conducted in an egalitarian context, led by a Conservative-trained rabbi fluent in both the classical Jewish tradition and also the language of post-modernity, continues to attract growing crowds of Israelis of all walks of life: Sabras and olim; Ashkenazim and Sefaradim; traditional and secular; Anglos, Middle-Easteners, and Ethiopians, all of whom join together, singing in their common, mutually-understood Hebrew tongue, the Hebrew words of their ancient ancestors and their Israeli contemporaries. As I sat at the heart of this crowded room, absorbed the mixed multitude with my eyes and ears, and let the majesty of this unique worship was over me, all while Lilah sat on my lap, for once in her short life quiet and enraptured by the powerful music, I burst into tears. This was a taste of redemption.

I had a similar experience at Kabbalat Shabbat ba-Tahanah ha-Rishonah. The Tahanah ha-Rishonah, or The First Train Station, is a nearly $10 million refurbishment of the old Jerusalem train station, which was closed in 1998. Today, it is a booming culture and entertainment venue, featuring shops, vendor carts, restaurants, and event space. Among the many cultural events that take place regularly at the Tahanah is a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is led on an outdoor stage by a rotating group of prayer leaders, most notably an ensemble known as Nava Tehila, “beautiful praise,” who were responsible for worship the week I attended. The standing room-only crowd, like at Kehillat Tziyon, was an incredible cross-section of Israeli society: young and old; tourist and native; secular and modern-Orthodox; white, brown, and black. I sang with the many, many Israelis around me who would normally consider themselves fiercely non-religious. I even spotted a few ultra-Orthodox Israelis who were checking out the egalitarian, musical, and uplifting service before their “real” Shabbat and their “Torah true” services began. It was public-space Judaism that was appealing and accessible, and welcoming and inspiring. An opportunity for spiritual uplift while sipping a delicious Israeli microbrew. It was authentically Israeli in its audience, in its venue, and in its cultural expression. Kabbalat Shabbat ba-Tahanah ha-Rishonah could only happen in Israel, the only place on earth where this heterogeneous throng, bound by a common cultural and literary heritage, united by a language that links contemporary life with ancestral prayer, could come together to sing and dance in a venue that itself reflects the prophecy of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, who said, “the old will become new, and the new will become holy.”

These experiences were spiritually moving in and of themselves. But to me, their real power was that they signified something more, something deeper, an indication that one of the core dreams of Zionism has come to beautiful fruition: the creation of a truly Jewish state, that is, a state with an intrinsically Jewish character at its core, in which the dominant cultural context is unmistakably Jewish, and in which Jewish cultural innovation can flourish.

One need not attend Kehillat Tziyon or Kabbalat Shabbat at the First Train Station to relish this reality of modern Israel or to marvel at the miracle of its creation. You can see it on Israeli TV in the early fall, when businesses of all kinds advertise their New Year’s sales and wish viewers a “Shanah Tovah,” or in the summer, when Israelis of all walks of life compete on “Master Chef: Israel” by taking diverse Jewish culinary traditions and making them modern and gourmet. You can imbibe it in the wine, as a new generation of Israeli vintners, in the land where wine was practically invented, strive to build a modern world-class wine industry inspired by Jewish text, tradition, and law. You can taste it in the food, in a country where it is hard for a non-kosher restaurant to make it. You can feel it when the flow of the week follows the rhythms leading up to and away from Shabbat, and when the pattern of the calendar is punctuated by Jewish sacred observance. You can hear it and read it, when the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, with all of its complex intertexual meanings, is the language of the street, the market, the newspaper, the novel, the theater, and the music. And, I don’t care what anyone else says: Israeli chocolate simply tastes better.

This kind of Jewish cultural vibrancy is only possible through Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland, for such a project requires the deepest possible connection to our inherited texts and traditions, an ingathering of Jewish exiles and the diverse cultures and traditions that they bring with them from the corners of the earth, and a secure, open, and democratic environment that enables the synthesis of these disparate, but connected, parts. As Ahad ha-Am, the early Zionist leader known as the father of “Cultural Zionism” put it:

The spirit of our people desires further development…But the conditions of its life in exile are not suitable for such a task. In our time culture expresses itself everywhere through the form of the national spirit, and the stranger who would become part of culture must sink his individuality and become absorbed in the dominant environment. In exile, Judaism cannot, therefore, develop its individuality in its own way. When it leaves the ghetto walls, it is in danger of losing its essential being or – at the very least – its national unity; it is in danger of being split up into as many kinds of Judaism, each with a different character and life, as there are countries of the dispersion. Judaism is, therefore, in a quandary: It can no longer tolerate the Galut form which it had to take on, in obedience to its will-to-live, when it was exiled from its own country; but, without that form, its life is in danger. So it seeks to return to its historic center, where it will be able to live a life developing in a natural way, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to broaden and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as it has in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living by the light of its own spirit.

Only sovereignty can ensure Jews the right to return, and provide for their defense once they have done so. A cultural blending requires a stable and secure vessel, a melting pot, to contain it. And separation from our homeland disables a rootedness to our heritage that cultural revival requires. Only by becoming, as Israel’s national anthem puts it, “a free people in our land,” can this great, reborn, national culture take root and flourish.

The miraculous Jewish cultural renaissance that has taken root in Israel in our time benefits Diaspora Jews, too. One of the core motivations of the early Zionist movement was to resolve a widely-perceived “Jewish problem,” the denigrated and unequal status of Jews throughout the Diaspora. Early Zionists like Herzl and Nordau argued that only Jewish sovereignty could resolve this problem. For some Jews, the problem would be nullified by virtue of living in a Jewish State; sovereignty and political power would provide them an equalized status with all other nationals. At the very least, sovereignty would enable them to defend themselves against violent outbursts from those who despised Jews and saw them as inferior.

But the proposition would benefit even those Jews who remained in the Diaspora. They, of course, would have a refuge from anti-Semitism. But they would also be part of the sovereign nation even while not living there, no different than nationals of other countries who, for various reasons, live abroad. As Ahad ha-Am put it, “the very existence of the Jewish state will also raise the prestige of those who remain in exile, and their fellow citizens will no longer despise them and keep them at arm’s length, as though they were base slaves, dependent entirely on the hospitality of others.” Jewish sovereignty would elevate the status of Jews everywhere.

However, Ahad ha-Am, argued, Jewish sovereignty in and of itself could not rectify the “Jewish problem.” Only sovereignty paired with a Jewish cultural renaissance could accomplish that task. A lack of power and self-determination was not all that prevented Jews from claiming their rightful place among the family of nations. Rather, a lack of a vibrant, vital, indigenous, and shared national culture prevented the Jews from normalization. After all, the French aren’t normal solely because they have their own country. They are also normal because they have their own culture. And, perhaps more importantly, political power alone was insufficient to empower Jews. Only a Jewish cultural revival could provide the value proposition that would justify and sustain the project of statehood in the long-term.

That is one of the messages of our Torah portion this week, which teaches, “See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” Sovereignty is necessary as a precondition, but it is insufficient to secure the admiration of the other nations or the existence of the state. Only sovereignty exercised through the prism of Jewish culture and values would exalt and maintain us.

Indeed, the Zionist thinkers who argued that Jewish sovereignty alone would normalize relations between Jews and non-Jews everywhere were largely wrong. True, one can certainly make an argument that the existence of a Jewish State – particularly after the Six Day War, when Jewish power was decisively, if not miraculously, demonstrated – has emboldened and empowered American Jews and is at least partially responsible both for the growth of Orthodoxy and the erosion of bigotry here. But one can also see that, even today, the reality of the State of Israel, while arguably helping to elevate the status of Jews in some European countries, has not fully normalized Jews or eradicated anti-Semitism.

At the same time, Israel has been incredibly empowering for Jews worldwide from a cultural standpoint. Its output has strengthened Jews’ connections to the language of their people (a language that was all but extinct before the advent of Zionism) and the sacred texts of their tradition (which were not being widely published or studied outside of small enclaves of the most committed and insular). Its world-class Hebrew-language music, literature, theater, and cinema are sources of intense pride for Jews everywhere. Its religious innovations, like those exemplified by Tziyon and Kabbalat Shabbat ba-Tahanah ha-Rishonah, provide guidance and inspiration for congregations and individual practitioners everywhere. In ways that you may or may not fully recognize, and even if you’ve never set foot in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the State of Israel has enriched and elevated your Jewish life, as it has for countless Jews everywhere. To put it in the famous words of the prophet Isaiah, “ki mi-tziyon tetzei Torah, u-davar Adonai m’yerushalayim / For Torah comes forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” The Torah that emerges in Zion nourishes and fortifies all Jews, wherever they may be.

And, finally, the Jewish cultural revival in Israel, the sense that our state must be, at its core and in its deeds, Jewish in the fullest sense, has benefitted the world. True, Israel has a long way to go before it fully lives up to this promise, especially in its treatment of the Palestinians, which, from my perspective is often profoundly out of step with Jewish values, and in its ongoing failure to grant all Jewish denominations equality under the law. Israel’s failings in these and other areas undermine its character as a Jewish State.

Yet, at the same time, the centrality of Jewish culture and values to Israel’s sense of itself is what propels Israel and her citizens to consistently be among the first to aid countries and people in need around the world when disaster strikes. It is what inspires Israelis to found organizations like Tevel B’Tzedek, which works on the ground to promote sustainable development in countries like Haiti and Nepal, and does so with the deep conviction that they are called to this work as Jews and as Israelis. It is what propels doctors in Israeli hospitals, like those I met in Tzfat’s Ziv Medical Center, to treat victims of the Syrian civil war, despite Syria’s history of hostility toward Israel.

Though it is far from perfect, the Jewish character of the Jewish State is a powerful reason to both love and support Israel. It is not only exquisite for what it is and majestic to experience in person, but something that benefits us here, and Jews everywhere. That means attuning yourself to what’s happening culturally in Israel and actively supporting that culture. It also means working to ensure the strength and security of the Jewish State, so it can continue to be such a source of Jewish vibrancy. Visiting helps, too, and I hope you’ll join me on our congregational Israel trip next summer, where we’ll get to experience much of this beauty firsthand.

We are often reminded of how Israel needs us, which is true. But let us not forget that we – and our world – also need Israel. May she continue to lift us up. Shabbat Shalom.

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