How shall we sing the L-rd’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy!
During Kiddush on a Shabbat shortly after the November 2016 election, I commented to a friend, with a bit of a smirk, that now that Trump had won the election, finally the American embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Overhearing my statement, the rabbi of our Modern Orthodox congregation asked if I’d like to bet on it. I said sure and we shook hands in front of a number of congregants.
Trump had repeatedly stated that if elected president he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, which seemed a longshot at the time. Like I said, I also didn’t believe he had a chance of winning, and my vote in Illinois was not going to make much of a difference.
President Clinton had promised to move the embassy, and didn’t. For some strange reason, since Jews weren’t going to vote for him anyway, President Bush had promised to move it, and didn’t. And President Obama had promised to move it, seemingly to get into Jewish checkbooks; but after the election amnesia set in… Kinda like “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.” But he did succeed in getting into Jewish checkbooks.
After the election, I would remind the rabbi of our bet and he would acknowledge it with a big smile, whispering, “He’s not going to do it.” The rabbi is a nice person, but he’s a liberal so we just don’t agree when it comes to American politics and other issues regarding Israel. But the right to hold different opinions is one that liberal Jews are supposed to espouse. After the president’s signing of the first waiver, the rabbi’s smile broadened. “He’s not going to do it.” But not long after, when President Trump announced that the embassy would be moved on May 14, 2018 in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of the State, the rabbi’s smile vanished and he was noticeably silent on the subject, except to dismiss the move as “much ado about nothing.” Rather than confront him publicly, I chose to email him and ask him why the attitude. It would seem natural that anyone who was supposedly pro-Israel and pro-Jerusalem would be happy, putting politics aside. I was wrong.
In his reply, he acknowledged he had lost our bet and had a number of points to make on the subject. Judging from his response, he had obviously given the subject serious thought. Before writing this piece, I asked his permission to quote from his email since a number of congregants had asked if I knew what was going on, and his response was, “You can share this with anyone who asks.” His obvious silence from the pulpit was discomforting to a number of congregants who seemed confused but weren’t comfortable confronting the rabbi directly. I didn’t entertain that discomfort.
I thought back on the words of two Reform rabbis from California who gave a talk at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem one summer on two uncomfortable topics they avoided when speaking from the pulpit: G-d and Israel. Too controversial! But that was in a Reform congregation. Our synagogue claims to be “Modern Orthodox.” In fairness, I did suspect that Trump would not have been the rabbi’s choice for president but this after all was about our Jewish people’s eternal capital, Jerusalem. This was L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim! — Next year in Jerusalem — words we say at the end of each seder — words we say on Yom Kippur as the gates are closing.
In his response, the rabbi wrote, “The president’s declaration is controversial. [?] Some welcomed it and some did not. I am not afraid of speaking about controversial topics or saying things that will upset a portion of our congregation, but wish to do so judiciously and infrequently, and in pursuit of a goal more important than reading out an op-ed. The future of Jerusalem will be determined in Jerusalem and not in Washington and certainly not in Lakeview.” (December 26, 2017)
It certainly looked to me like the rabbi’s liberal political proclivities “trumped” Jerusalem. Moving the embassy, controversial? Had Bill Clinton or Barack Obama moved the embassy, I have no doubt the rabbi would have waxed poetic on the importance of the move. But what makes his silence on the subject so egregious is that here was an opportunity to bridge the growing divide between Americanized Jewry and the feelings of the Jews in Israel. In Israel, the reaction to the embassy move was euphoric. In fact, as you drive toward the embassy in Jerusalem, the main street is lined with American flags!
In the words of noted columnist Naomi Ragen, “For Israelis, the embassy’s relocation was not simply logistical. It was a full-throated rejection of a decades-long Arab campaign of vicious historical revisionism, which seeks to promote the absurd and obscene claim that the Jewish people never had any connection to Jerusalem. Just recently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s senior advisor Mahmoud al-Habbash was quoted in the Algemeiner calling any Jewish connection to the holy city ‘an imperialist myth that exploited and distorted history and the holy sites in order to advance and justify imperialist projects.’ Many American Jews automatically sided with our enemies, mostly out of their blind hatred of Donald Trump. … Perhaps a divide is inevitable. But can we not at least bond over the joy of having Jerusalem recognized and celebrated as our eternal capital? As our soldiers sang when they reached the Kotel in June 1967: ‘This is the day the L-rd has wrought. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ ”(Moment, 07/16/18)
Additionally, the rabbi questioned the “value-added” of what his contribution would mean if he were to speak about “something that everyone sitting in shul can research [?] and form an opinion on, at least as good as [his] without any assistance from [him].” But he is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. And in that light, the same could be said of almost anything he had to say from the pulpit. Jews doing research on a topic – What alternate universe is he talking about? Most in the congregation couldn’t tell you what his sermons were about thirty minutes later at Kiddush. However, it does cast doubt on his insistence that he’s not afraid of upsetting a segment of our congregation. But who in a Modern Orthodox setting would object to recognizing America moving its embassy to Jerusalem? Does that mean that liberal Jews, which I would guess to be the majority in our congregation, have only a political inclination when it comes to the decisions our government makes with regard to Israel? After all, the U.S. Congress did overwhelmingly pass the law in 1995, under a Democrat president.
“Jerusalem has always been the most delicate issue in every discussion about peace,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “So we’re very concerned that the announcement will either delay or undermine the very, very important resuming of a serious peace process”— a “serious peace process” that started 25 years ago on the White House lawn which was an outright fraud from the first handshake, and led to over 1400 dead Jews. Great peace process. So our Orthodox rabbi has seemingly taken the same position as that of the Reform Movement. I thought the Modern Orthodox were supposed to be pro-Israel and pro-Jerusalem.
While liberal Jews who voted in zombie-like lockstep for Clinton were not exactly jumping for joy over the embassy move, it seems that critics of the move have tried to denigrate the issue by stating that the Evangelical Christians of America were downright ecstatic. Is that bad? And the New York Times, ever the critic of Israel and Trump, using the most convoluted thinking imaginable, accused the president of using the embassy move as a “political wedge issue.” Congress overwhelmingly voted for the move. Between whom? Jews?
Avoiding the subject of the American embassy move to Jerusalem says a lot in itself. Can a Jew be pro-Israel and not see the move as validation that the greatest superpower in the world today is acknowledging unambiguously that Jerusalem is the 3,000-year-old capital of the Jewish nation- state? I’m sure the anti-Semites at the State Department knew there would be unhappiness in Europe and in 57 Muslim-majority countries, so is the rabbi comfortable taking the same position as Israel’s usual detractors? What about our people’s sacred attachment to our Jewish history, fearful of being too pro- Jerusalem? What about good old Psalm 137 and my right hand forgetting its skill and my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy… and political persuasion?
Sadly, by the rabbi’s own admission, he writes that the best he could have come up with regarding Jerusalem would be “a sermon that could have been published as an op-ed in The Jewish Week…” The rabbi seems to question his own sermonic ability to express his personal feelings on the centrality of Jerusalem, when equating it with an op-ed in the Jewish Week. Liberal Jews too often have a short attention span. While they claim to be pro-Israel, the Chicago Cubs are, after all, in a heated pennant race, and we are in Lakeview, Chicago.
President Trump’s moving of the American embassy on May 14, 2018 – the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel – should have been a topic for historical reflection, but the rabbi did make time to deride the idea of whether the move was worth a Shehechiyanu.
To provide context, in one of his sermons at about the same time, the rabbi told a story of a “religious Jew” who, on May 14, 1948, did in fact recite the Shehechiyanu. A second “religious Jew” questioned him as to why he recited the blessing, and the first Jew said it was “because he was wearing a new tie.” (??) In the rabbi’s smile, I was confused by the parallelism. Was the declaration of the State on May 14, 1948 – after 2,000 years of painful exile and an impending war that was about to take 6,000 Jewish lives – somehow equal to a man wearing a new tie? I guess I missed the point. I would have thought declaring the State or moving the embassy would easily qualify as a “shehechiyanu moment.” But then again, I’ve always been a softie when it comes to Israel. Abraham never worried about a green line!
In the words of J Street’s Ben-Ami, “The opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem should be a moment of celebration.” So far so good. Unfortunately, he went on to say that he and his friends cannot celebrate because of the “manner and timing”( 23 years late)of the event, which he sees as “designed to advance the agenda of [the] right wing.” You gotta read that one again!
There are difficult issues confronting Diaspora Jewry today, but I never would have imagined that the subject of Jerusalem would sink so low for liberal Jews as to be considered too divisive and controversial for political reasons. With so much history that binds our people to Jerusalem; and to have shared that history, even if it meant repeating some well-known facts, could have gone well beyond an “op-ed in a newspaper.” The failure to share with congregants his own personal feelings about Jerusalem represents a pitifully missed opportunity. Sadly, The New York Times was right for once. Shamefully, Jerusalem and Israel itself may very well have become “wedge issues.” And for Jewish liberals, the Democratic Party is foremost in their priorities.
The moving of the United States Embassy should have been a time for all Jews to put their political views aside and celebrate a mazel tov together with our Israeli brothers and sisters. Embarrassingly, it became a time that starkly showed the division in our peoplehood forgetting to elevate our joy and love for our eternal capital Jerusalem. But I’m looking forward to that big, juicy steak in Talpiot at Papagaio in Jerusalem, paid for by the rabbi. Medium-well, please.
Shabbat Shalom, 09/21/18 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *
* Back issues archived at Times of Israel.com