Derekh Eretz - Two Homes…One People
Sermon by Rabbi Steven I. Rein at Agudas Achim Congregation on Rosh Hashanah 5779 Day 2, September 11, 2018
For many Israelis, Jews and supporters of Israel, the last year has been a challenging one. You just heard from Miri her story of being in Israel this summer, her reactions to the nation state law, and her response to my colleague who was detained for performing a non-Orthodox wedding. I want to thank Miri again for sharing her reflections and I know there will be many opportunities in the year ahead to dive deeper into each one.
Yesterday I spoke extensively about derekh eretz – how we interact with one another and our collective responsibility to raise the level of decency within our interpersonal relationships. Today I also want to speak about derekh eretz, but in a different context. I want to speak about us [motion to kahal] and the bigger us – the Jewish people – in particular the relationship of Israel towards American Jewry and American Jewry towards Israel. The influential cosmetics heir and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder recently referred to our moment as the “summer of disharmony.” Lauder took to the op-ed pages to articulate his concern that Israel is turning its back “on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirt,” and asserted that Israel is weakening its shared future with world Jewry. “This is not who we are,” Lauder wrote, “and this is not who we wish to be” (NYT, 14Aug18). Whether you agree with Lauder or not – it’s clear that we are witnessing the world’s two largest Jewish communities acting for reasons that might make perfect sense to themselves, but not to their increasingly distant cousins. Sometimes I feel that we are not only two ships sailing in opposite directions, but we are in different oceans altogether.
One of my deepest commitments as a rabbi, and one of the reasons I worked so hard to bring Miri and the shilichut program to Agudas, is that on my watch the Jewish people will not walk away from each other. The Jewish community here will not turn its back on Israel nor can we allow Israel to turn its back on world Jewry. For me it is simply inconceivable that we can only be united when people threaten our existence. It cannot be that we, who are more blessed than any Jewish community in our history, can't seem to marshal our resources to find a way to actually want to be with each other. Do we really need some enemy on the outside to coerce us to have a relationship? There is something diseased about this. We are a people who could do almost anything; there is no shortage of resources, there is only a shortage of vision. So what is the vision that we need to put on the table? What are the problems we face? Once again we gather for our annual check-in, we come together for Rosh Hashanah, and we ask the questions of the hour: What are some of the ways we can begin to rethink this notion of Jewish peoplehood? How is it sustained? How do we understand each other and how do we build a relationship with each other?
I want to think about these questions not from our perspective but from the perspective of our brothers and sisters across the ocean. What do Israelis think? How do Israelis make sense of the American Jewish community? What is it that they do not understand about us? After an increased sense of separation and a lack of ability to speak about contentious issues, there is a growing feeling among American Jews that Israel fundamentally doesn’t care about us. They want our support, our money, and for us to basically shut up. Now that is not the foundation of a healthy relationship.
Support for these claims would be the fact that there is no word for Jewish peoplehood in Hebrew. Technically there is a word…but nobody knows it. It’s a word which about 46 people in Israel actually know – if Miri’s still here it will go up to 47. The technical term is amiyut. You’ll never hear it. Is that because Israel doesn’t care about Jewish peoplehood? I would like to argue that that is a fundamental misunderstanding of Israeli society. Israeli society, in fact the entire Zionist enterprise, is built on the idea of Jewish peoplehood. Zionism is the Jewish peoplehood project. The Declaration of Independence begins with “the Land of Israel [is] the birthplace of the Jewish people.” Over and over again the term “Jewish people” is repeated throughout. In its most famous clause, ten words speak about the “inalienable right of the Jewish people to sovereignty.” It doesn’t say Israel has the right to be free. It says the Jewish people have the right to be free. It is by virtue of the Jewish people’s right that Israel came into existence. Without the connection between the Jewish people and the homeland of the Jewish people there is no Zionism and there is no State of Israel.
To understand how this is expressed in Israel today you have to understand that Israelis have a very deep connection and responsibility to Jews around the world. This responsibility is represented by two core principles. The first, which shouldn’t be belittled, is that every Israeli believes that Israel belongs to us…if we choose to move there. That’s no small thing. Israelis say: “I’m here, I will fight for this country, I will die for this country, I will send my children to fight and die for this country, and whenever you want, at any time and under any condition, if you so desire, you have a right to come here. I will keep if for you. I will watch it for you. I will come at a time when there are no phones, when there is no food, when our army isn’t powerful, when the economy stinks and there are no jobs. It doesn’t matter. I am here holding something that belongs to you.” When David Ben-Gurion defended the Law of Return he stood up in front of the K’nesset and said “all those who claim that this law discriminates between Jews and non-Jews…you don’t understand…I am not allowing Jews to come here, this country belongs to them. I am merely distributing to them a citizenship to which they already have a right.”
Now you tell me what other country would do that? As Americans, if you leave this country, after one generation your grandchildren no longer get automatic citizenship. Israel says no matter how long, no matter if you were never here. Israel doesn’t care how old you are, what denomination you are, or who converted you. Israel’s Law of Return has the most expansive definition of Jewishness of any Jewish community in Jewish history. That's not an opinion, that's a fact. (What to do about the rabbanut – Israel’s rabbinate is a discussion for another day.) Israel’s message is pretty simple. Come. If you have one Jewish grandparent…come. If a million of you have to come, two million, three million…come. Come home, it’s yours. If that is not an act of love and commitment to Jewish peoplehood, then I don’t know what is. The land belongs to all Jews, that is the first core expression of Jewish peoplehood in Israel.
The second core principle is the belief that the dividends of Jewish power does not belong to Israel alone. Every year the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army gives a speech in Auschwitz during the “March of the Living” and essentially says “we do not have an IDF in Israel – we do not have an Israeli Defense Force – we have a Jewish People's Defense Force.” When the Chief of Staff declares “never again” he is saying that if a Jew is in danger anywhere in the world I, the State of Israel, Israel's army, whatever resources we have are at your disposal…by definition. If you are attacked for being a Jew, no rabbi is going to get up and say “one second, where was their conversion? Was this a Reform shul in Houston? Were these Reform Jews in Charlottesville?” No one asks those questions. If you're attacked for being a Jew, Israel sees itself as responsible.
If this is so embedded in the Israeli consciousness, why does it seem like we are two ships passing in the night? Why is there such a feeling of callousness and a lack of respect? Herein lies the problem. Israel has a deep sense of commitment to Jews belonging in the land and protecting Jews around the world, but they have no real category for Jews who don't want to make Aliyah and who don't need access to their protection. Fundamentally, in the Zionist narrative we were never supposed to be. In the Zionist narrative, history was divided into two: destruction and rebirth. The State of Israel is formed under the belief that Jewish life outside of Israel is incoherent, it represents destruction. It cannot be perpetuated. It’s not viable. Jews will never be safe in Christian Europe. If Jews are going to live, they will only live in their own sovereign country – rebirth in the Land of Israel.
Now what happens when there is a Jewish community who, just like the Zionists, also believe that there is no future for Jewish life in Christian Europe, but who define rebirth not by moving to Israel but by moving to the United States. Within the American Jewish consciousness there is an almost “anti-Zionist” narrative. Not a narrative which doesn't want to have a relationship with Israel, or a narrative that doesn't care about Israel. It is a narrative that does not accept our existence outside of Israel as fundamentally incoherent or leading to another Holocaust. Contrast this with the Zionist principle of shlilat ha’golah – denying the value of diasporic life. This is not denying the notion of Jewish peoplehood. This is the belief that only in Israel will we be safe and flourish – physically, emotionally, and religiously. What was the Zionist response to Charlottesville? Come to Israel. You thought you were different than France? You’re not different than France. Even in a perverse way there are some who enjoy Charlottesville because everybody loves the opportunity to say “I told you so.” If there wasn’t an ocean between us, this would be enough to fill one. How can we begin to look at each other and build a bridge across the sea?
A first step, in no small part, is the shilichut program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Like shlichim across the country they are not only teaching, engaging, and deepening our relationship with Israel, they are developing an understanding of the American Jewish community, an understanding that they will bring back with them to Israel. In fact, part of the Federation’s funding goes toward seminars and professional development so that our shlichim can become change makers on behalf of the Jewish people when they return. Together with the Jewish Agency in Israel they are creating a fellowship program so that returning shlichim can truly be advocates and make a difference. In many ways, this is a positive and necessary first step.
Today, I want to put a new idea on the table – a new way to think about and understand our relationship with Israel. Israel is indeed the homeland of the Jewish people. As a family, where do we belong? At home! If you think about it, there is a fundamental flaw and mistake with this answer. Most families don’t have a home. Families only have a home when the children are small. When the children get older and move out of the house they have multiple homes. My parents have three homes – one in New Jersey, one in Baltimore, and one in Alexandria. Jodi’s parents have four homes – one here, one in Reston, one in San Diego…and a room in DC. But within their tribe’s little real estate empire there exists a complex relationship with each other’s homes.
There is a derekh eretz – to use our theme – a way in which we treat each other, a way in which we learn to live with each other and share our respective homes. For example, our parents have a key to our home and we have a key to their home. But these keys are very different. The keys our parents have are not keys to use…most of the time. Those keys are for the key drawer. What is the job of a key drawer? It’s to hold the keys for when your children call up and say – “mom, dad, he/she took the key, I don’t know, do you have our key?” You see, parents can go to their children’s home from time to time uninvited…but not often. If you go often, they’ll change the key. And they’ll find that their neighbor can also have a drawer for their keys. But…you have a key.
When our parents come to our home – by the way, most of the time it is invited – when they sit in our living room, they are at home. Not as much a home as their home, but it is part of their home. They can put their feet up on the couch; they can get something to drink without asking permission; they can go into the refrigerator. Although with the refrigerator it’s interesting. They can go into the refrigerator but that have to know what day of the week it is. If it’s Thursday night before Shabbos, and food is prepared and cooked, they can have a piece of fruit. Also whenever they eat they wash the dishes. But at the end of the day, they are able to relax. They feel very much at home.
Children, however, have a very different relationship with their parent’s home. We have a key, and it’s to be used at will. The definition of children maintaining their relationship with their parent’s home is to come uninvited. They go into the refrigerator and eat whatever they want whenever they want. Doesn’t matter. If you try to change the rules you are violating a core sense that this is also their home. Not only do we have a right to come whenever we want, truth be told, now that we have children, they want us to come uninvited. As distinct from your children’s home, children still have a notion in your house of their room. Do any of you remember the time you redecorated “their” room? The trauma! How dare you! Meanwhile, they’re not home. They come twice a year. They have their own place. No…they need a closet…a drawer…a shelf. They all have space. Why do they keep stuff in your house? It’s not because they need to keep stuff. They need a marking, a symbol. Just like when you go to their home and sit on the couch they want some symbolic reference to the fact that your house is still their home.
There are, however, some rules. Your children don’t pay the mortgage on your house. They don't move around the furniture; they don’t redesign the space. They also, and this is one of the rules of derekh eretz, they don’t go into your home and say “oh, it stinks in here.” You don’t dump on someone else. Children do a little bit more than parents. We say: mom, dad, what did you do, I hate the furniture. Our parents? Your house looks beautiful…it’s so clean…it’s wonderful…can I wash the dishes.
Why am I telling you this story? When the kids are little, life is great. As a parent, you actually think you’re king. You get to decide everything. They follow your rules. As children grow up, they leave your house. You want them to; it’s an inherent part of their personal growth. But there is still a family relationship. Not just a relationship to each other, but a relationship to each other’s space. You want to know that they still remember that you’re family, that they have a place here.
Part of the challenge in the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in America is this: can the same Israel who loves us and cares for us recognize that while Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people it is not the only homeland of the Jewish people. For years, Israel saw us as children. Can they also see us as adults? Maybe they will think that Israel is a better home than ours. Maybe that's inherent to Zionism, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Israel re-evaluates the relationship and responsibility it has with us so we feel comfortable and at home there. Israel must learn to recognize different religious expressions, denominations, and feelings. Israel must create a space where we can talk. Israel wants us to feel at home but there is an etiquette that we have to develop. It doesn’t serve us well to create a dichotomous language which exacerbates the problem. We have enough problems we don't have to make them worse. Can we, within the Zionist narrative, expand the parameters of what a homeland means? Not a homeland as one home in which all Jews should live, but one of several homes, maybe even the central home of the Jewish people. That claim, however, also has some rules for us as well. We don’t determine, for example, when Israel should go to war or what Israel’s borders ought to be. Just like your children don’t determine the construction projects in your house. The person who lives there gets to design the rooms. But we are not silent partners either.
In the past I have spoken about creating a new relationship with Israel. I think it is now equally important for Israel to create a new relationship with us. It’s true that Israel sees herself as the parent in this relationship. It’s also true that more and more American Jews feel that they are the parent. Isn’t this a great family…no one knows who’s who. Maybe we need to get rid of the parent-child model, but we don’t have to take the narrative too literally. We need to develop a new etiquette – a new derekh eretz – in which we all feel that we have a place where we are respected, loved, and cared for.
There is a story told about Sidney Morgenbesser – one of the great American philosophers of the 20th century. He was in Israel at a conference in the 1980s during the First Intifada. At one point during the conference he stood up and said, “I think Israel should get out of the West Bank.” At once all the Israelis jumped on him. You have to realize that this is pre-Oslo.
“How dare you,” they said. “How dare you tell us what to do when your life is not on the line?” And then, in his remarkable style, Sidney Morgenbesser said, “Excuse me. I apologize. I don’t think you heard what I said. I said, ‘I think you should leave the West Bank.’ I wasn’t telling you what to do, I was telling you what I think.”
Part of having a home in Israel, having a claim to the land, is to think – to have an opinion. Frankly, on certain issues that deal with religion I believe world Jewry has to do more than think, we have a direct stake. On other issues derekh eretz would require our recognizing the difference between sharing what we think and coercing Israel to do what we think. Being in relationship with our second home means understanding that there will be elements of that home that make us uncomfortable. And, most importantly, the things that bother us most will probably not be reconciled in ways that we would design. We have to understand that religious pluralism, democracy, and minority rights may get played out successfully in Israel but in ways that are unrecognizable and unfamiliar to us as American Jews.
There will be differences and disagreements, but that’s OK. Difference doesn’t undermine collective identity – it’s all about how we relate to these differences. Disagreement should not be the foundation of our walking away from each other, it should be an invitation to enter each other’s homes and do the hard work to ensure that we always feel welcome.
Jewish peoplehood is one of the greatest ideas of the Jewish people and of Judaism. Our challenge now is to give it new categories, new models, new expressions, a new derekh eretz, so that my declaration will be a reality, not a prayer: on our watch the Jewish people will never walk away from each other. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world – God’s building a home for us. Now it is our turn – as a people, both here and in Israel, to build a home for each other.