How is this possible? How?
This might very well be a bracha levatalah (a prayer in vain), but I offer it with a whole soul, willfully ignoring our well-recognized political reality in favor of the dream of what might be – what should be – our shared reality. I write with intentional naivete, as a child of Jerusalem currently spending time walking her streets and studying in her Houses of Study. I also write on the first day of the three-week period of mourning for Jerusalem, a day symbolized by a political wound understood by tradition to have been caused by inner Jewish hatred.
To put it as painfully and as simply as is possible: I’m too busy protecting Israel from delegitimization to protect myself, as a Conservative rabbi, from Israel’s delegitimization. On this day, the 17th of Tammuz, over 2,000 years ago, the walls of Jerusalem were breached. On this day, the 17th of Tammuz of this year, again a great harm has been done to the People Israel. But, as opposed to the mythic re-understanding of the Romans destruction of Jerusalem, this time it’s painfully clear: we’re destroying ourselves from the inside out. It is as if we’ve lost ourselves worrying about Iran to such an extent that we can spare no extra emotional energy to solve our innermost family’s chronic disease.
To whom should we address our pain? Should it be President Rivlin, who excluded Conservative/Masorti rabbis from a special needs Bat Mitzvah they themselves nurtured into being? Should it be Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose cabinet just voted to hand control of rabbinical courts to Shas, cementing significant gains for ultra-Orthodox parties, and undoing signature Jewish Pluralism legislation enacted by the previous government?
Ironically, I, a progressive American Rabbi, am left feeling grateful to only two ministers of The Jewish Home, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who were the lone voices of dissent from this week’s devastating vote ceding exclusive authority to rabbinical courts to issue marriage and divorce certificates to Jews, a policy which not only alienates most of Diaspora Jewry but also alienates many secular Jews from their own Jewish heritage. Bennett’s and Shaked’s politics, in general, couldn’t be further from my own, but their consistency in opposing Jewish religious extremism stands alone amidst the jungle of political opportunism that besets our home.
In Berkeley, California, where I serve as a rabbi, and across the United States, where my fellow rabbis of varying streams join me in mobilizing against the enemies of Israel on campus, in City Halls, and in the court of public opinion, we have just been too busy to stop and scream across the ocean to our sisters an brothers: “What About Us?!”
That is changing.
On a domestic political level, American Democrats are less wed to Israel as an ally with shared values, and on a Jewish level, the trends are even more alarming, with younger Jews’ affinity for the State of Israel demonstrably weakening.
The greatest tragedy is that those on the front lines of defending Israel on the grassroots level, on the Jewish institutional landscape, in the halls of Congress, on social media and conventional news outlets, are the very Jewish leaders marginalized by the Ultra-Orthodox parties now embedded in the Netanyahu government. And for this horrific decision to have been made on a day of national Jewish mourning is a modern poetic manifestation of the horrors of this part of the Jewish calendar.
The three weeks that begin today culminate on the 9th of Av, on which we recite from the Book of Lamentations, upon which imaginative and mournful layers of commentary have been written in every generation. Perhaps fitting our current moment is the following early rabbinic midrash:
When the Shechinah (God’s Presence) left the Jerusalem Temple, She turned and embraced and kissed its walls and pillars, wept, and said, ‘O the peace of the Temple! O the peace of My palace! O the peace of My beloved home! O peace, from now onward let there be peace! (Midrash Lamentations Rabbah, prologue 24,25)
So today, as our traditional mourning begins, perhaps we must address ourselves to our home in such a way that befits this scaffolding Jewish moment, building on each painful level we’ve accumulated, as a People, through the years.
Perhaps we have reached a point where our pain has become urgent enough that, in order to hold onto our family’s hope in the face of institutionalized inner-hatred and religious extremism, in order to invite the Shechinah back into Her precious home, in order to retain our very sense of belonging in our Home, we must, with less reserve, cry out as a People, to the government of the State of Israel in our pain, no less vigorously than we do in her defense: Peace, from now onward let there be peace!