Israel Sermon? What Israel Sermon?

I’m speaking about Israel on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, but I am not giving “an Israel sermon.” How does THAT happen? The answer is “mindfully.” It seems that the issue of Israel sermons is on a lot of minds these days. In just the past 48 hours I’ve read a series of interesting pieces about the role of “the Israel sermon” for the High Holy Days.

First was Peter Bienart’s piece in Haaretz, urging US rabbis not to preach about Israel this High Holy Days. Then there was Sarah Posner’s piece in Religion Dispatches, “Too Hot For Shul: Rabbis Seek Healthy Israel Dialogue After Gaza.” Posner does a nice job noting the polarization of American Jews—and rabbis—in the wake of Protective Edge. Finally, there was The New York Times piece via, “Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage” by Laurie Goodstein. Much of the article speaks to the reluctance of many rabbis to engage congregants in Israel sermons, essentially noting it is a “no-win” situation for the rabbis.

All three of these pieces were thoughtful, intelligently written, and contained compelling points.

Beinart is 100% on the mark when he suggests the existential concern defining American Jewish life is Jewish literacy. Little in a 15 or 20 minute (or heaven help us, even longer for some!) sermon is going to change hearts and minds when it comes to Israel.

Posner is absolutely correct when she discusses that “few rabbis believe they are able to create a space where conversations can take place without participants’ fear of recrimination.” One thoughtful colleague I have known and respected for years recently announced he was resigning from the rabbinic board of a particular organization in order to not be seen as controversial in the community beyond his own congregation.

Goodstein is totally accurate with her depiction of the concerns of colleagues who suggest that “Israel is too hot to touch and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days.”

I have deep sympathy for colleagues who feel the expectation to give a meaningful sermon about Israel, especially in the face of their own uncertainties. The task is beyond daunting, for all the reasons in these articles and more. After all, how many rabbis are really qualified experts in foreign affairs? How many American rabbis have had meaningful, insider access to the inner policy conversations of the Israeli government and its leadership? Certainly, the briefs and sound bites offered by politicians during solidarity missions this summer must have felt special to the US Jews and their rabbis hearing them. At the same time, does anyone honestly think they really represented the nuanced inner thoughts and conversations of the elected government, much less the more sensitive workings and positions within diplomatic corps or the security forces and intelligence agencies? I am willing to go on a limb and suggest the most connected rabbinical leaders of US Jewry had not a clue that PM Netanyahu secretly met with President Abbas until they saw fact in the news.

My colleague David-Seth Kirshner urges rabbis to not wimp out on Israel. He reminds rabbis to embrace the moral courage to speak out, noting that congregants are seeking that courage. I agree with him; congregants in the pews want to have that courage modeled for them in order to emulate it. David has unabashedly been on the front lines of hasbarah, his congregants know this and appreciate it. Yet not every colleague is in the type of community that welcomes and fosters such open conversation around Israel.

I agree with David; we need to address Israel. I feel Beinart is wrong; rabbis need to help Jews in the pews in their own struggles with Israel, and rabbis need to help Jews in the pews with the language they are seeking as they discuss Israel in their social orbits, often with people not predisposed to love Israel. Israel’s advocates and supporters know that these conversations are framed by the newscasts and social media feeds that dominate the “info-structure” of the digital age. Rabbis need to model how that conversation can be reframed. That’s why I am not giving “the Israel sermon” that many of my colleagues find necessary.

Instead, I’m working the theme of Israel into my sermons that are based on the larger messages of the season. My remarks on the first day of Rosh Hashanah focus on the Jewish value of preserving human dignity, kavod habriyot. It urges us to extend ourselves to protect human dignity of, and maintain empathy for, “the other”—as manifested by Rachel Fraenkel’s remarks in the wake of Mohammed abu Khdeir’s murder. My remarks on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are inspired by God’s words to Abraham in Gen. 21:12, “don’t send out your hand against the boy.” It focuses on rejecting religiously-inspired violence and protecting the lives of innocents at risk. In turn, the values of Israeli society and the IDF are contrasted with those of Hamas. I’ve written elsewhere on TOI how I will bring Israel connectedness to the consciousness of worshippers on Yom Kippur.

My overall message is not one of international relations and world politics for the politicians who live in that rarified atmosphere: it is one of essential Jewish values that speak to the hearts of the Jews in the pews. It is a message that reframes the Israel conversation around inspiring Jewish values that also resonate with non-Jewish Americans. It is a message delivered in a way that can be heard. It is my prayer that it is a message that will make a difference for those who hear and embrace it.

May we be blessed with a New Year marked with goodness, with sweetness, and with peace.