Once again, the scouts of Sh’lakh-L’kha are left holding the bag.
Every year around this time we Jews who engage in weekly Torah study again reach the Book of Numbers. In my congregation it was only last week that we once again reviewed the story of the Israelites’ first glimpse of their Promised Land, through the eyes of twelve scouts sent ahead to reconnoitre. Every year I settle in for a difficult morning with myself when reading this text with my people; but it was not until this year that I realized why.
The scouts come back from their mission and report in. Ten of them say this: the land does indeed flow with milk and honey. But there are people living there. The other two scouts discount the report; in their opinion everything will be fine, if the people will only trust in G*d.
Jewish tradition blames the ten scouts for calumniating the Land, and for causing the people of Israel to doubt, and then to rebel against, the leadership that had brought them to this point. Two thousand years of commentary has piled it on: they brought bias into what should have been a neutral report. They were guilty of cowardice. They aided and abetted idolatry! In short, their honest voices are covered in loud, angry blame.
We rabbis who have come to oppose the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line might sometimes feel like those ten scouts. Yes, we carry a difficult message, and we do get blamed, sometimes loudly, as a result. Jewish anxiety over Israel is profoundly deep, and some of us have good reason to fear an onslaught of anger that is out of proportion, and hurtful. Rabbis have lost jobs and suffered other kinds of difficulty for speaking the message of the scouts aloud: there are people living there.
But we rabbis are ordained “rabbi in Israel”; of what purpose is our work if we do not honor the primary relationship we share with all the history, the people, and the land of Israel by acting with all the integrity of which we are capable? As Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of Musar, said (pardon the gendered language), “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man.”
I believe it to be an essential part of my rabbinic duty to respectfully and clearly share my views on Israel, in ways that teach Torah, with my congregation. I’ve encountered rabbis who share my views but are hesitant to speak out about them to their constituencies, worried about offending anyone or failing to maintain impartiality. Yes, there will be strong and negative feelings from some, but others welcome the chance to air more than one honest rabbinic opinion about the best way forward for our beloved Israel.
Rabbis with right-wing views rarely hesitate to speak out about their own opinions and ideologies. They also sometimes encounter negative reactions, although it is more likely that those who disagree with them will silently fume, rather than scream.
Jews with right-wing views feel a responsibility to speak out for the sake of Zion. Jews with more moderate views feel that responsibility just as keenly, do we not? Further, as a citizen of the United States, I know that healthy discourse requires more than one thoughtful, caring perspective. We do our people a disservice when we allow one viewpoint a monopoly on public opinion, or let our silence lead our people to believe that their only options are to be hawkish or stay silent.
We are rabbis, and rabbis must teach Jews Torah. We are not required to be political experts, but we should be sharing every ethical Jewish text we can find about Israel, from Jeremiah to Kamtza and bar Kamtza to the simple Torah text that commands us to help our enemy raise the mule that has fallen under its load.
The most sensitive issues are where our teaching is most needed. An end to the occupation and a peaceful resolution to the conflict are vital to safeguarding Israel’s future. We dare not allow our congregants to turn away from our people’s homeland, and so we need to re-learn, and insist upon, makhloket l’shem shamayim, the art of talking honestly, openly and respectfully about the challenges Israel faces. We can’t let raised voices deter us from our duty to guide our people in the moments when they most need our support.
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent. – Isaiah 62.1
Rabbi Ariel Stone is spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland, Oregon, as well as the current President of the Oregon Board of Rabbis and chair of the Portland Community Mikveh. She also serves as adjunct faculty with the Judaic Studies department at Portland State University.