What Should Rabbis Say About Israel?

As I was sitting down to write sermons for Rosh Hashanah last week, my newsfeed lit up with posts and articles about what if anything we Rabbis should say about Israel and the events of this past summer. Neither of the two sermons I gave were about Israel although one of them did make mention of it.  This was not a calculated decision, I simply had other topics I felt important to share with my congregants. However, in reading the articles and posts last week, I feel there was a side to the question that had not been mentioned. What should Rabbis say about Israel?

Before answering the question, I will briefly address some of the key points raised in the various articles and posts. The debate began with a piece in HaAretz by Peter Beinart urging Rabbis not to speak about Israel.  Beinart’s key argument is that not being very good pundits, Rabbis won’t add more to the conversation than what congregants could read on these pages or from other experts online.  He argues that Rabbis should focus on Jewish texts addressing the much more serious threat to American Jewry – Jewish illiteracy.  While I might argue about the relative skill of some Rabbis at punditry, Beinart is fundamentally right that the role of the Rabbi is not that of political commentator.  However, that does not mean that Rabbis have nothing to add to the conversation about Israel that cannot otherwise be attained elsewhere.  The very Jewish texts that Beinart wants us to focus on clearly have a lot to say about the Land of Israel and the haftara that we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah speaks extensively of the Divine Promise to return to our borders in the Land of Israel – a 2,500 year old prophecy that we have been privileged to witness being fulfilled in our lifetimes.

In response to Beinart’s piece, Rabbi Jill Jacobs also wrote in Haaretz speaking about the need for Rabbis to be the voice of moral conscience.  In the conversation about Israel, Rabbis have something to add and that is we bring a moral message.  Rabbi Jacobs is certainly correct that Judaism is concerned with spreading a moral message and that one of a Rabbi’s key role is to speak about the moral implications of current events.  However, while that might be a key role, that role is not constructive in the current state of the conversation.  Conversations about Israel, like too many other political discussions today, are too heavily framed in moral terms.  I do not mean to say that there are not clear moral implications to the debate, but when issues are framed morally, then we tend to see the other side of the debate as immoral.  This makes conversation not only difficult but near impossible.  I can speak with someone who has different strategic ideas about Israel should do to defend herself and pursue peace.  I can speak with people who I think are totally misguided and seek to educate them.  But, what productive conversation can I have with someone I think is taking an immoral position?  I can only hope to show them the evil of their position and we rarely see that happening.

So what then should Rabbis say about Israel?  The Land of Israel plays a clear part in the Biblical narrative.  Israel as a Land seems essential to fulfilling the Biblical mission for our people.  Those of us who identify as Religious Zionists also see the establishment of the modern State of Israel as being of religious significance.  Rabbis should thus speak about the ways in which Israel can enrich the religious lives of our congregants and contribute to our spiritual growth.

In reading the various posts last week, I most related to a Facebook post by a Rabbinic colleague saying that those posting are not familiar with our individual congregations and we Rabbis should be trusted to know what is best to say to the worshippers in our pews.  Each of us likely relates to Israel in different ways.  I, therefore, do not share the following thoughts as any directive as to what Rabbis should or should not say, but am offering examples of what might be said as to how Israel can contribute to our religious lives and spiritual growth.

The suggestions I offer draw from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik titled Kol Dodi Dofek published in 1956.  Rabbi Soloveichik drawing on the verse from Song Of Songs that the voice of my Beloved is knocking identifies six knocks that convinced him that God was knocking and showing God’s role in establishment of the State of the Israel.  I will adapt these six, and then add a few of my own.

First, Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies the political situation.  The establishment of Israel united both East and West as it was supported by both the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies and the United States and the Western Powers.  Few things in the world could united East and West at that point of the Cold War and as such Rabbi Soloveitchik sees the hand of God bringing them together.  Israel does not seem to be a bridge issue today in the arena of international politics.  But despite hyper-partisanship in the United States, Israel still enjoys bipartisanship.  While this undoubtedly due to the hard work of pro-Israel activists, from a spiritual perspective there is still something about Israel that transcends politics.  God’s hand is still bringing opposing sides together in defense of Zion.

Second, the miracle of military victory.  Rabbi Soloveitchik was writing in 1956 and only really reflecting on the seemingly miraculous victory of a small army over the larger armies of five enemy nations.  We, of course, have witnessed additional military miracles in 1967 and 1973.  In the most recent conflicts, we have witnessed a military miracle of a different sort.  Israel’s Iron Dome system has provided protection against incoming rockets and saved the lives of countless numbers of people.  Military historians offer theories as to how the IDF managed to achieve each of its victories.  Yet, as religious Zionists, we see more than just military strategy but the invisible hand of God guiding events.  We celebrate these victories on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim.  Likewise, engineers could explain Iron Dome technology.  But as religious people we should see a God that allowed humans to discover and learn from the world of Creation and invent.  We continue to see God’s hand in defending Israel through Iron Dome and through the continued actions of the soldiers of the IDF.  Kol Dodi Dofek.

Third, the realm of theological recognition.  Rabbi Soloveitchik points to the fact that the establishment of the State of Israel forced Christian theologians to confront a theological position thousands of years old and central to Christian theology, that God had left the Jewish people in favor of a new chosen nation.  Churches have now been forced to even use the terms “Israel” and “Zion” every time they speak of the Jewish State.  In our religious lives today, the State of Israel should remind us that we are still part of a covenant with God.  God has not abandoned us.  This covenant also puts demands on us and what we should be doing.  These demands inform the debate about what actions Israel should take in how it defends herself, how it pursues peace, and how it relates to the Palestinians.  We will debate these policies along the lines of our Torah’s values, but we should hopefully all recognize that this debate is stemming from a covenant and a relationship that is not dead, but one that is renewed every day.

Fourth, Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies the awakening of pride among disaffected and assimilated Jewish youth.  As assimilation continues in the current generation and more Jews are choosing to not identify as Jewish, we can look with awe at how Israel can still inspire Jewish pride more than almost anything else.  We see this in the success of the Birthright program.  While its critics might argue about one-sidedness of the program, it cannot be denied that there is still something powerful about the land that arouses connection.  We might begin to ask what connections Israel raises for us.  Why does it make us feel more connected perhaps more than other aspects of Jewish life?

Fifth, for the first time in over two thousand years, Jewish blood is not free for the taken.  It is not hefker.  The events of this summer began with the cold-blooded kidnapping and murder of three innocent teenagers.  By summer’s end, justice was brought to the murderers.  While it is clear that we will debate the rightness of Israel’s response, we continue to send the message that was clear to Rabbi Solveitchik only a decade after the Holocaust, killing Jews is not an act that goes unanswered.

Sixth, the gates of Israel have been opened to Jews all over the world.  Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in 1956 about the existence of Israel as a safe haven for Jews fleeing dangerous spots around the world.  This is still true as anti-Semitism is now on the rise.  But, Jews are also moving to Israel to live out more Jewish lives.  For millennia, many Jews dreamed of going to Israel.  It is now a plane ride and we are nearing a time when more than half the Jews in the world will live in Israel.

To these six “knocks” showing God’s role and how Israel enhances our Jewish lives, I would add fourth other aspects of how Israel contributes to our spiritual growth even in the Diaspora.

First, the establishment of Israel has brought with it the founding of more institutions of Torah and Jewish learning than at any time in Jewish history.  With that has also come the largest number of Jewish publications than any place in the world.  As diverse Israelis learn and discover what it is to live a Judaism without the burden of living in a non-Jewish society.  We have the opportunity to learn from Israelis, to read their books, articles, blog posts, etc.  — all of which we hope can enhance our own understand of Torah and Jewish tradition.

Second, Israel marks the place where Jewish civilization has reached its full flowering.  It is the place where Jewish literature, music, art thrives.  While we succeed around the world in these areas as well as science, engineering and technology, it is in Israel that we as a people have made the most contributions to the world.  From a spiritual perspective, we Rabbis can say that individuals thrive when they are part of a thriving culture.  Israel allows Jewish culture to thrive, and thus allows Jews to become the best versions of ourselves.  I don’t need to recap all the successes and accomplishments, but as long as there is a Jewish state, Jews around the world will be giving to the world.

Third, Israel demonstrates for us the Jewish value of exporting works of chesed, acts of kindness around the world.  Israel shows us how Jews can and do lead in responding to disasters around the world.  From the earthquake in Haiti, to Hurricane Sandy, to treating Syrian refugees, it is through Israel that Jews lead the way and are the first to respond.  This is yet another way how we live out our Jewish values through the Jewish State.

Finally, Israel safeguards our history.  The Jewish people was not born in a vacuum.  It came about in a specific place.  Understanding our history is important for understanding where we as a people came from and thus ultimately where we are headed.  The existence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel brings these places to life.  They are not abstract places in the pages of a book – they are a part of our history that can be visited and treasured.  There is a custom before Rosh Hashanah to visit the graves of one’s ancestors.  Doing so gives us a sense of where we came from as individuals.  It gives us a certain self-understanding as we approach the Day of Judgment.  From a national perspective, what better way to get this understanding than a visit to the place where it all began for our people?

Should Rabbis speak about Israel?  Do we have something to add to the conversation?  I’d say yes.  We can speak about how Israel testifies to our continued covenant relationship with God.  We can speak about how Israel helps us be the best Jews we can be.  We can speak about how our relationship with Israel can help make us better Jews and better people.  It will be different for all of us, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Herman serves as the Mara D’Atra, spiritual leader, of Congregation Beth Israel - West Side Jewish Center and as the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
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