It would be easy to look around our world, with imminent threats to democracy, to the survival of our planet, to the security of our freedoms, and paint a dark picture of the future. The pandemic has unleashed many other viruses: polarizing political and religious ideologies strain the moral center; disagreement leads to demonization; ideologies confound ideas. Many issue dire warnings coupling global fears with alarm for the Jewish people: a rise in antisemitism, scapegoating of Israel, declining synagogue membership.
Decades ago the great American scholar, Simon Rawidowicz, wrote “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” an essay about how we Jews tend to think of ourselves as “being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be….” He noted that there is “hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain.” Rawidowicz decried this tearful approach and encouraged us to assume responsibility for ensuring the future, as generations before us, often in more dire conditions, had done.
Yet, there are concerns we need to address. The pandemic has impacted on our sense of community. Despite the popularity of Livestream and Zoom, apathy, lack of connection, vicarious Jewish living, are present threats. A la carte, privatized, boutique spirituality, mail order rabbis, feel-good mitzvah point religion will not sustain us. The synagogue and the organized Jewish community need to cooperate and invest treasure, time, and talent in creating meaningful experiences of welcoming, hospitality, and engagement, or we will weaken the fabric of Jewish belonging.
But there is more to Judaism than “Belonging.” Unless we cultivate and teach a faith that is intellectually credible and spiritually uplifting, we will lose Jews who decide that all religion, is infantile, a numbing analgesic or perilous anesthetic. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, warned that “an intelligent and instructed laity is as indispensable for the teaching of sound religion as for the practice of sound medicine. For lack of such laity, various kinds of religious quackery are peddled around and bought up at bargain prices.”
Towards the end of his journey, Moses counsels the Israelites that the teaching he has imparted “…is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heavens and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14). Torah is not a supernatural mandate God reveals to Israel, but the wisdom and ways of life that Israel, in our quest for God, discover and create. Torah is not the last word, but the first word of our ongoing conversation.
“Belief” and “Belonging” need to be ensured by “Behaviors.” Tradition is not only something we receive, but something we create, and transmit. The Torah is not something we merely inherit (yerusha), but something we claim, own, enhance, and transmit. Religion is more than nostalgia and sentimentality. The synagogue is not a museum of obsolete practices or a mausoleum of outdated beliefs, but a laboratory of the Jewish experience, a sanctuary of renewal, a workshop of innovation and hope.
Rudyard Kipling quipped: “What do they know of England who only know England?” Judaism is not only what we do as Jews or with Jews. Being Jewish is the way we engage our total humanity and our common humanity, how we grow as human beings and with human beings.
Attentive as we must be to the needs of Jewish community, we must attend to the fraying texture of American democracy. The foundations of the Enlightenment upon which this nation was built are being questioned. Science is under attack. Reason is suspect. Truth is denied. Ideologies of right and left are eroding our sense of citizenship and of shared purposes. The preservation of our constitutional democracy is essential to American and to Jewish survival and vitality. Whenever autocracy has reigned, Jews have suffered. Whenever chauvinism has triumphed, Jews have become scapegoats.
As Jews, we have a common obligation to a human agenda: environmental challenges, gun violence, economic disparities, racial and social inequality, restrictions on reproductive rights and healthcare clamor for our attention. This is not a time for timidity and pessimism, neutrality or discouragement. Being “Israel” has always meant to wrestle, to transform life’s challenges and opportunities into blessings.
Beyond our nation’s borders, we affirm our solidarity with Israel. Like all countries, Israel is not perfect. Israel is an independent, self-critical democratic nation in a region that is still a sea-bed of autocracy and terrorism. Israel is both a refuge and a dream; a complex and challenging political reality. While her sovereignty and security are non-negotiable, Israel serves herself best by continuing to normalize coexistence with its Arab citizens, its Palestinian neighbors, and the region, as it has begun to do through the Abrahamic Accords.
Israel needs also to normalize its relationship with world Jewry. The stranglehold of ultra-orthodoxy and of right-wing religious nationalism chokes Israeli citizens and erodes its relationship with diaspora Jewry. Zionism is reciprocal. It is our care and support for Israel, but also Israel’s care and respect for the Jews and Jewish life in the diaspora.
In his address before the United Nations (Sept. 22, 2022), Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, outlined a vision of an Israel that is “proud and prosperous,” a nation that chooses not to be a “victim,” to dwell not “…on the pain of the past” “but… on the hope of the future.” He spoke of Israel as a “vibrant democracy…in which Jews, Muslims and Christians live … with full civic equality,” where the government coalition includes an Arab Party. Israel has Arab Ministers, diplomats, judges, doctors, authors, beauty queens, and pop singers.
Yet, the Prime Minister acknowledged that there is work to be completed, and committed his nation to undertake it: “an agreement with the Palestinians based on two states for two peoples.” Lapid prophetically observed that “Peace is not a compromise. …Peace is not weakness. …Peace is the victory of all that is good.” He reminded his neighbors and a world yet filled with anti-Zionist rhetoric and antisemitic hate: “We are not going anywhere. The Middle East is our home. Our hand is outstretched for peace.”
As American Jews, we partner with Israel and will oppose those who seek to weaken or destroy her from within or from without, from the right or from the left. We have an obligation to teach our children who were born after the exhilarating experience of 1948, the meaning of Israel to the Jewish people. Recently, a college town congregation decided to take the word “Israel” out of its liturgy, so that they no longer recite – Shema Israel, “Hear O Israel,” but Shema Ami, “Hear my people.” Israel has become, for some, an offensive term of opprobrium. Many Jewish college students hesitate to speak of their support of Israel for fear of academic or social repercussions. We must recognize the challenge we face and respond by cultivating an identity that does not deny our particular experience in order to uphold universal values. We need not renounce who we are in order for others to affirm who they are. That is a bad recipe for interpersonal as well as for inter-group relations.
Antisemitism is on the rise. Aside from Iran’s existential threats, far right politicians spout lethal hatred of Jews; on the far left, toxic anti-Zionist rhetoric is redolent with antisemitic sentiment. Some who proclaim themselves advocates of social justice believe that being inclusive and diverse does not preclude being exclusive of Jews and friends of Israel.
Elie Wiesel tells of the rabbi who, in the face of dire opposition and despair, persisted in proclaiming his message of defiance and hope. When asked why he continued to cry out knowing that no one listened, he responded, “I may not be able to change others, but I will not allow others to change me.” Antisemitism will not deter us, nor anti-Zionism silence us. Neither prejudice nor hatred will define our condition or shape our agenda. We respond to antisemitism, the chronic disease of others, from the health and strength of who we are: not the “ever-dying people,” but Am Olam, the “ever-living people.”
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (a colleague with whom I am well acquainted), reminds us, “All of us are necessary, yet none of us is sufficient.” At the start of this New Year, let us not to be afraid of work that cannot be completed; let us plant trees whose fruit we will not eat, but will be harvested by those who come after us, even as we have reaped the blessings of those who came before us.
(Excerpted from my Yom Kippur sermon (V’zot Hab’rakha – This is My Blessing) Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana, 5783/2022)