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A Rabbi Goes To Church: What Christians Should Know about Israel at this Moment

Remarks to Margate Community Church, Margate, New Jersey
June 9, 2024

Friends, I want to express my deep gratitude to you, and to your wonderful pastor, for the invitation to be with you this morning.  Reverend Ney is certainly familiar with, and a friend of the Jewish community in this area, having davened out of a different siddur – I mean prayed out of a different prayerbook – over years of service as the accompanist at both my congregation, Beth Israel, in its original Atlantic City location and, later, at Emet Shalom, now part of Shirat Hayam synagogue in Ventnor.  And then, of course, she also taught at the Hebrew Academy.

This is my second time in this special place.  The first was last November, for the area interfaith Thanksgiving service.  I used that occasion to thank Reverend Ney for her powerful words of support for the Jewish community at a  service of solidarity held a few weeks prior, a gathering meant to bring comfort following the events of early October.  What she said then was, and remains, deeply meaningful to me, and to many others.

A rabbi, at church.  You know, we have made more progress in Jewish-Christian relations in the past 60 years than in the 2000 years before that.  After the Catholic church’s statement Nostra Aetate in the early 1960’s, declaring that the church believes it did not supplant, but rather supplemented God’s relationship with the Jewish people, scores of mainstream Protestant denominations followed suit.  Supercessionism, replacement theory and triumphalism were set aside in all but evangelical and fundamentalist denominations, in favor of a doctrine of multiple covenants, and a God apparently now capable of actually working with more than one group, and more than one faith, at a time.  And, although I am going to speak about different matters along the way, I will actually return towards this vision of finding common ground in the midst of diversity towards the end of my remarks this morning.

So we entered a new era of interreligious dialogue.  It was a wonderful feeling of collaboration and exploration, sharing issues close to our hearts and even learning more about our own traditions as we saw its reflection, or came to understand the reason for divergence, in faiths adjacent to rather than identical to our own.

It is true, however, that, at least at first, our agendas might have been a bit different from one another.   With good intentions, we began as ships which almost passed each other in the night.  Sincere Christians entering dialogue with Jews wanted to know how we viewed God, how we experienced our faith, what we thought about the meaning and purpose of life.  And Jews, in meeting with Christians, wanted… to not be killed.   Or beat up.  Or even just shunned.  The one agenda was spiritual.  The other was, let us say, social.  Or, more starkly, it was about survival.

I thought, I hoped, I prayed, I believed… that we were well past the days of such divergent motives in coming together.    This is my first real chance to meet and speak with you; depending on how badly I do, I hope it is not my last!  But I truly wanted… I hoped… to share thoughts on a liberal theology, how to take Scripture seriously but not literally, what it means to be a person of faith who is not a fundamentalist.  Indeed, that has been my introductory topic the last three or four times I have delivered a sermon in a church.

But then came October 7.  And all that has followed.  And I am broken, and the world hurts again, and your Jewish neighbors are still not okay.

Now, not everyone follows headlines obsessively.  Many, indeed, try to preserve sanity and a sense of well-being by not following the news much at all anymore.  Just three days ago I overheard someone in a restaurant ask the waitress, of all things, where Gaza was.  The initial answer was so inaccurate that I felt “called” to intervene.

But I will tell you that some – many – of your Jewish friends and neighbors are truly in a state of crisis now.

  • October 7 was the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
  • This attack had nothing to do with Israel’s policies; it was entirely aimed at Israel’s very existence. These were not West Bank settlers who – this more complicated than this, and I don’t fully agree with this assessment, but some might say they stole Palestinian land.  No, in many cases those brutalized, assaulted, captured or slaughtered were young concert goers at a festival promoting peace, or leftist activists who believed in reconciliation.  Some of the victims had spent decades helping Gazans enter Israel for medical care or other needs.
  • I think many of my non-Jewish neighbors have no idea how deeply connected many American Jews feel to Israel and Israelis – nor the degree to which many of us feel directly attacked… on October 7, by the Iranian missile attack a month or so ago, by what is going on in this country. This was not Star Wars, long ago and far away.  It is against us.  It is here.  It is now.  And just yesterday, in a droplet of hope in a sea of sadness, when four hostages were rescued by the IDF, it felt to me almost… as if four of my own children were coming home.
  • Many Jews around the world are now looking at their non-Jewish neighbors and asking a question they never thought they would ever have to ask again: “if it came to it, if the need arose, if the darkness really returned… would you shield me, would you protect me, would you hide me, would you take my family into your home, your basement, your attic?  Can I trust you?  Can we really count on you??”
  • The very places we saw a seat of enlightenment, arbiter of merit and engine of advancement – our colleges and universities – have turned against us. This has gone way beyond “cease fire now” or “stop all killing” or even, even “Free Gaza” – chants with which I actually have a modicum of sympathy.  No, instead: posters calling to bring home the hostages are ripped apart and torn down in every venue in which they are put up. Probably not every social justice warrior holding up a sign saying “From the River to the Sea” even knows what river and what sea.  But let’s be clear: the slogan is an explicit call for the elimination of a country and the extermination of its current inhabitants.  The original version says “from river to sea, Palestine shall be Arab.”  Someone shouting at Jews in America to “go back to Poland” or physically blocking their way to class or professors announcing that Zionists deserve to die or instructors offering classes in the encampments or chants saying that there will be a thousand more October 7s until liberation, or Jews literally having to hide or feeling afraid to set foot on campus… this is not First Amendment free speech protected by US law.  This is intimidation and harassment.  When I see these signs and hear these words it is with a real sense of imminent and direct threat of violence against me, my family, and those I care about.  It may be true that real education should entail some discomfort.  This…is not that.  This is way, way over the line.
  • The betrayal we feel from those who are our allies on so many civic issues in this country goes beyond the arena of actual attacks; it is sickening – it is literally nauseating – to see the degree of cancel culture and boycotts, the shunning of artists, the shouting at concerts, the refusal to play Israeli teams, the severing of ties with Israeli academics – many of whom are more liberal on issues than those who are so quick to cut ties with them.  And by the way, under 50% of Israelis can be considered “white” by almost any definition.
  • And then there is this. For those of us who do have qualms and questions about Israel’s particular policies, where do we go?  How do we find our voice?  Yes, a just war must still be fought by just means, and often it seems, at least from afar, that Israel’s response does not always live up to that.  And yes, we have some tears left for the innocent harmed in any conflict… too many, far too many.   But to even raise this question lends aid and support to those who are so quick to call what Israel is doing “genocide.”  And friends, that is… obscene.  There is only one group in this conflict who states clearly in what they want to do in the world that they are in favor of genocide, and who demonstrates they are serious about it the moment they had a chance to do so. And that party in the conflict… is not Israel.  So how can we even raise questions about tactics which might cross into the realm of the immoral… in the face of a strategic goal which centers on our own annihilation?
  • It is certainly true that not all criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic. Indeed, both before and after October 7 hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been engaged in vigorous protest against their own government. (Hundreds of thousands.  If that had been this country, the equivalent percentage of the population is in the tens of millions!)  And: some young Jews, motivated by the universal values and ethics we have tried to teach, have taken up the banner of justice for others even at the expense of the need and pain of their own people.
  • But: much of what we hear about Israel today… frankly it is clearly anti-Jewish. The ADL offers a test with three D’s.  You have crossed the line into antisemitism when you engage in delegitimization, demonization or a double standard.  And here, the double standard to which Israel is held simply reeks.  Whatever Israel may have done wrong, actions of governments and militias in – to name but a few places — Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, Russia and certainly China are far worse.  Look, that’s not company I want to keep.  But the point here is: no one – no one – marches on streets or shuts down campuses or takes over buildings shouting that “China has no right to exist.”  And, in fact, I think the behavior of our own military in its recent active combat zones… is likely not significantly better than what is going on in Gaza.  We never saw full reports on the numbers of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; from what little I have heard, it should shock us all still.

All of which leads us, and leaves… where?  This crisis will pass at some point, but not either as easily or quickly as we would wish.  This is a truly trying time.

In my tradition, a sermon is supposed to close with some sort of nechemta, a sense of comfort, or a vision of hope.  At the moment I feel a bit like a new presidential widow after an eternally famous performance.  “Well, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?”

So I turn, for hope, to text, and tradition, and, then, ultimately, to the good people who are around me.  It doesn’t solve our problems.  But it points to a path, and it gives us hope.

We read, this morning, words from the foundational story of Jewish peoplehood.  In Genesis 12 we are told:

וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

Those who bless you I will bless,
and those who curse you will be cursed…
and through you shall be blessed
all the families of the earth.

What I hear in these words is a premise and a promise, for my people and all peoples – that a society is judged, a community’s fate is connected… to how it treats those it considers different.  That the fate of the “other” at our hands is the best mirror reflecting the truest face of our own.  The universal is achieved… through the particular, not by ignoring and erasing it!

And, indeed, in returning to the topic of Christians and Jews… and Muslims and Hindus and Bahai and others coming together… indeed… it is in how we handle difference… that our basic humanity is revealed.  It is in finding goodness and blessing and beauty and dignity in diversity… that another verse from Genesis will be fulfilled:

אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃  וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים

And God created human beings in the Divine image,
in the image of the Divine God created them,
male and female, old and young, rich and poor, tall and short,
thin and… less thin, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight,
white and black and yellow and brown…
in the image of the most high is fashioned… every human being.

Friends, in the midst of challenge and change, at a time of crisis and pain, this is a lesson, indeed, this is a vision which can still give hope.  That in openness and acceptance, in the celebration of difference rather than its suppression, somehow, the path will lead us… towards a deeper commanality, a core humanity, and a God in whose dignity and glory we may all shine.

With blessings, and with gratitude to you for having me here, may that day come soon.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, in Northfield, NJ. He came to New Jersey in 2022, after five years as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously he had been Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had also served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They have three grown children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.