We Can’t Ignore Iran, Or How We Talk About It, During The Holidays

Psychiatrists and therapists are known to commonly vacation in August, making it a notoriously bad time to have an emotional crisis. Most rabbis vacation in July, because once August comes, the gravitational pull of the High Holidays begins to assert itself, and virtually the entire synagogue world goes into pre-crisis mode. It seems to many of my colleagues to be “too close” to the holidays to leave town, even though there are at least four weeks before Rosh Hashanah.

I have always been something of a contrarian in this regard, preferring to vacation in August. When everyone else starts getting anxious about the High Holidays, that’s my cue … time to get out of Dodge, and clear my head before the intensity of September sets in.

This year, although I did, once again, vacation in August, there was no avoiding the pervasive anxiety in the Jewish community, synagogue and otherwise, mostly because of Iran. Unless I had made a resolution to read no newspapers or e-mail throughout my vacation, which I didn’t regard as realistic, wise, or even professionally possible, the Iran controversy was front and center, 24/7. It was wonderfully refreshing to be removed from my usual intense daily preoccupation with all that for a while, even though I did make my way to a valuable rabbinic seminar sponsored by AIPAC in Washington in late August.

But if someone had tried to script the end game of this whole business, it would have been hard to do it better than the way coincidence has it playing out. Congress will be considering the agreement almost simultaneously with the High Holidays, when Jews around the world will be gathered together in synagogue to stand in judgment before God.

As I write, the news media are reporting that enough Democratic Senators have declared their intention to vote in favor of the agreement to make it numerically impossible for Congress to override a certain Presidential veto of whatever measure it might pass. For all intents and purposes, the fight qua the fight is over; there is no defeating this agreement, only the chance to express disapproval of it.

From the distance of vacation, I watched the members of my own synagogue community go back and forth on the Iran issue and at each other, with some passionately against it, others in favor, often with reservations, and still others who basically just wanted everyone to be quiet and stop taking about it. (That’s actually a slightly more gentle version of what some of them said). For the record, I was and still am strongly against the deal, which I see as bad for America and the West, and potentially far worse for Israel.

I have rabbi friends who have dreaded the arrival of the Holidays, not knowing what to do. Do you speak about Iran? If so, how partisan would you be? Do you take a side? How do you avoid alienating those who differ with you? One rabbi mentioned to me that he had had members who had made it their business to personally urge him not to talk about it, and threatened to leave the room if he did.

Well, from where I sit: The proposed agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations, as well as the questions it has raised, are the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the Jewish communal living room. To ignore it on the High Holidays would be disingenuous in the extreme.

The fact, apparently, that there is no longer suspense about whether or not the agreement will be approved will not, in and of itself, bring us all any greater insight into what we have learned about ourselves, the American Jewish community, and Israel in the painful months leading up to this moment. Both sides and all participants, on both sides of the ocean, contributed to the unprecedented rancor and vitriol that we were witness to and part of. There are lessons to be learned here, particularly about how to disagree. There were good reasons– crucially important reasons– to either support or opposed the agreement. But the collateral damage was enormous. How does one ignore that on the High Holidays, when we are all being judged by a Power far greater than any politician or newspaper?

As for what it is that I intend to say: I’m still working on it. Come to shul! You’re cordially invited. All that I’m sure of as of this moment is that my vacation is definitely over!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.