The following sermon was given by Rabbi Steven I. Rein on Rosh Hashanah 5778 - Day One.
You can email Rabbi Rein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ki Mi-tzion Teitzei Torah
Let a New Torah go forth from Zion
It was 2:00 a.m. on June 6, 1967, day two of the Six Day War, Avraham’s battalion crossed no man’s land and charged the fortified Jordanian position known as Ammunition Hill. As he approached the hill, he was hit by machine gun fire and evacuated in serious condition. He heard about the liberation of the Wall from his hospital room, with a mixture of elation and depression. The moment he had longed for had finally come; yet he hadn’t been privileged to be among the liberators. Born in Iraq, Avraham came to Israel as a young boy with his family. Growing up, he longed to see the Western Wall. It was one of the dreams of his life.
After several months in the hospital, Avraham was moved to an IDF rehabilitation center. “Can we stop at the Wall?” he asked the driver. Bent in agony, Avraham approached the Wall. He was so overcome with emotion that the Wall itself seemed a blur. Though each step was painful, he shuffled forward. And then, just as he was about to touch the stones, he heard a voice. “Bachur!” Young man! “Put on a kippah!” Avraham froze. In his excitement to reach the Wall he’d forgotten to cover his head. The abrupt tone of religious authority stunned him. Profoundly offended him. He who had so anticipated this moment, who had been ready to give his life for Jerusalem, to be treated with such contempt – he turned his back to the Wall and never returned.
A few months ago I shared a story by a dear colleague of mine at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. He was in Israel with the 8th grade class staying at a kibbutz in the Galilee. Although it was Rosh Hodesh, they were told that they could not use the Sefer Torah at the kibbutz. The mashgiach, who certifies the kashrut of the kibbutz’s kitchens on behalf of the state rabbinate, had informed the kibbutz leadership that if they were to allow the kibbutz synagogue or Sifrei Torah to be used by any non-Orthodox group, especially egalitarian groups, their guest house would risk losing the kashrut certification that allows them to bring in guests. On that very same morning of Rosh Hodesh Iyyar, a group organized by a yeshiva in Jerusalem took over the Western Wall’s Ezrat Yisrael, the makeshift platform designated for men and women to be able to pray together, and set up a large barrier to separate men from women. Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as Israel’s growing egalitarian communities, received a loud message. The rabbinic establishment in Israel doesn’t just disagree with us — it thinks we have no place in the Jewish State.
Avraham’s story is profoundly disturbing on two levels. The first of course is how the religious establishment took control over the wall and alienated large numbers of secular Israelis, many of whom no longer go to, or care about, the wall at all. The second, no less disturbing part of the story is how so many Israelis allowed the wall to be taken from them by simply withdrawing. Meanwhile, the story of the Schechter students speaks to an important question many American Jews are asking: does Israel love us as much as we love Israel? While Rabbis and Jewish educators continue to teach that Israel is an extension of our Jewish identity, what many Jews hear from Israel’s own religious representatives is the exact opposite: your Jewish identity is not legitimate here. Can we expect this next generation of American Jews to feel connected to a country and culture that rejects them? Will they love the Jewish State that doesn’t love their Judaism?
I share these stories not only because they offer a sobering critique of Israeli society; I share them because each and every one of us is part of this on-going story. This story took root one hundred years ago and has shaped who we are today. It is a story that has redefined what it means to be a Jew, and it is a story that has shaped Jewish identity both here and in Israel. In order to understand this story – its challenges and opportunities – we must go on a journey – a journey into the depths of the Jewish narrative as defined by twentieth century engagement with the State of Israel.
This Rosh Hashanah it is not just the birthday of the world, it is one hundred years later, the centennial of a remarkable statement. The statement came in the form of a letter written to Lord Walter Rothschild by the Foreign Secretary of Britain, Arthur James Balfour. Precisely one hundred years ago, Balfour declared: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” (Balfour Declaration). Two thousand years of yearning to come home, two thousand years of chanting “Next year in Jerusalem,” and all of the sudden the most powerful empire on the planet redefined our Jewish identity. While this past century bears one of the most – if not the most – painful scars of our history, we are, without a question, living in an era of unprecedented blessing. The playing field is very different than it was one hundred years ago and yet this national home has created for the Jewish people a new set of challenges. So as we gather for our annual check-in, as we come together on Rosh Hashanah, on this, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, let’s ask the questions of the hour. Where are we? How did we get here? And most importantly: where shall we go from here?
To do this, we have to go back a little more than a hundred years, actually three thousand years, to the moment God says to Abraham, “lekh lekha – go forth from your native land…to the land that I will show you (Gen 12:1). From that moment, Judaism became a balancing act between two core ideas that shape Jewish identity. The first is that Judaism is just who you are. Following Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, a challenging test from God which we will read tomorrow, an angel of God calls out from heaven and says: “Because you have…not
withheld your son…I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars” (Gen 22:16-17). From Abraham God creates a people. And the only thing that people has to do is be born. That’s it. The test is over. We are part of the chosen people by virtue of the fact that Abraham listened to God. Different from other religions, there is a sense of identity that has nothing to do with doing Jewish. To be a Jew is to simply be a part of a people.
But there is another side to the scale – a side insistent that being Jewish is also a commitment to do something. In the introduction to the Ten Commandments, God says, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). To be Jewish is not only who you are but the active responsibility to become something great, something worthy, something unique and exemplary. From the very beginning, Judaism has always been a synthesis of the two. You simply are Jewish and to be Jewish is to feel commanded to become something more.
We now come to the 19th century. In the 19th century, Jews begin an experiment which in many ways was unprecedented in the first 3000 years of Jewish identity. Born out of emancipation and enlightenment, Jews try to give up the notion of belonging to a people. We want to explore whether Judaism could be like Christianity, a religion without a defined national identity. Why? For the first time in our history, we were welcomed. In France, Napoleon turns to the Jews and says “Come! Be a Frenchman. Your national identity doesn’t have to be Jewish...it can be French.” Alternatively, it can be German, Hungarian, Russian, English. And Jews said, “OK, maybe we’ll try that…” Maybe Judaism doesn’t need a national identity. Maybe Judaism is just a system of commandments, values, and virtues that a person should commit to while having a different collective identity. As the spirit of enlightenment descends upon the world, universal truths create the notion of a universal community of human kind. Finally, Jews are accepted. Welcome to our new story!
This new story, powered by enlightenment and emancipation, challenged us very deeply. A new debate emerged in the Jewish community. Do we respond to the enlightenment by changing Judaism or do we respond by rejecting enlightenment. Does Torah have to adapt to the changes of reality or does reality have to adapt to our commitment to Torah? Suddenly two new denominations are born: Reform and Orthodox (with Conservative Judaism beginning shortly thereafter). Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known as the Hatam Sofer and leader of Orthodoxy, responds: “If [Reform Jews’] fate were in our hands, I would be of the opinion to separate them from our midst, to desist from giving our daughters to their sons and their sons to our daughters…” When, in the midst of the Jewish people, there is a “they” and an “ours,” we are no longer an “us.” When they should go their way and we have to protect ourselves from them, we are no longer a people. And so we exit the 19th century profoundly wounded.
And then, we had a gift – a gift that saved us from ourselves. A gift that, for most of Jewish history, is a gift that keeps on giving. And that is…anti-Semitism. You thought you were a Frenchman? You thought you were a person of the world? And they looked at us and said: “you’re just a Jew. No matter what you eat, how you dress, or how you talk, you are not one of us.” Even though it has profound religious foundations, ultimately, anti-Semitism attacks Jews for our identity as a people. While Jews were celebrating new possibilities, we got slapped in the face with a harsh dose of reality: Jews would never be equal citizens in Europe. This is what in essence gives birth to the Zionist movement. Zionism, even though it had multiple dimensions, becomes successful because the fantasy of giving up our national identity was shattered. The only solution for the Jewish problem, as Herzl put it, is to leave Europe and create a state of our own, a state where Jews could be safe.
The Zionist movement, whether it wanted to or was forced to, renews the Jewish conversation on peoplehood – an idea that was on the verge of extinction. Zionism saves us from assimilation. Not an assimilation in which we reject Torah, an assimilation in which we reject being part of a people. Zionism ushers in the 20th century – the century of peoplehood and everyone in this room is a part of that story. Who can forget the events of thirty years ago when a quarter of a million Americans, mostly Jews, gathered on the National Mall, shouting “Let My People Go,” demanding unrestricted emigration rights for Soviet Jews. The defining feature of who we are today is being part of the Jewish people. Notwithstanding all of our challenges, American Jews overwhelmingly (94%) say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. That is the gift of Zionism. Zionism saved Judaism from becoming a Protestant religion and reminds us that we are, as Martin Buber once said, “both a nation and a religious community.”
At the same time Zionism also created a new imbalance. An imbalance that we are suffering from, and being challenged by, to this very day, both in Israel and outside of Israel. Perhaps in this new homeland we can create a place where Jews are so normal that we don’t need Torah, we don’t need that ancient story. If the enlightenment says: “be a human being outside and a Jew in your home,” Zionism posits the possibility that you don’t even need to be a Jew in your home. With a public space and private space that is all yours you can have a sense of Jewish identity that doesn’t need Torah, that doesn’t need ritual, that doesn’t need to engage itself with a three thousand year old tradition. We’re just a nation like all other nations. And now, as the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am once said, “we have a big problem…[for] it is possible that in the end, the Jewish State will be a State of Germans or Frenchmen of the Jewish race” (The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem). In this new Israel, it is perfectly coherent for am yisrael chai to replace shema yisrael as the defining creed of the Jewish people. It is both coherent and embedded in the early Zionist story. The subsequent dangers that we faced, ultimately in the Holocaust itself, created a moment in history where we couldn’t worry about Judaism. Today we need to focus on surviving; tomorrow we’ll worry about everything else.
The problem is, that “today” has lasted for decades. Zionism never created a national Torah within this homeland of the Jewish people. If all we think about is the Judaism of being and we neglect to create a Torah for who we ought to be, we create a vacuum. And, like all vacuums, they never stay empty. Someone else with a Torah steps in. It was very natural for Zionist leaders to say, ok, you have a Torah, take it. Frankly, I don't care. You care about Shabbos and busses, ga zinta haight. You care about who signs a ketubah? Knock yourself out. This vacuum, created by Zionism, is then filled by the Torah of ultra-Orthodoxy. There was no coercion, we gave it to them. "You be the official Jews of the country." You take care of religion and we've got peoplehood. That's a perfect compromise. But the individuals who became responsible for issues of state and religion not only filled a vacuum, they filled it with their own tribal, sectarian, denominational understanding. The void was filled, but it was filled with something that undermines the very idea of a homeland for the Jewish people. And to this day we don't have a national Torah of what it means to be Jews in our own homeland. How do we do Jewish in this homeland? What does Jewish look like in the public sphere? How do we live with Jews who disagree with us? How do we share a public space together? We took the millet system from the Turks and mythic status quos, put them together and created something incoherent; something to be left for a future day when we would have the luxury to deal with these issues. Now, in 2017, not only do we have the luxury, we have an existential need.
To be a homeland for the Jewish people is to be a place that accepts all Jews – not just at Ben Gurion Airport but also at the kotel. To be a homeland for the Jewish people means that all Jews, with their rabbis, can marry the way they want to marry, convert the way they want to convert, define kashrut the way they want to define kashrut. The homeland of the Jewish people must be a place for all Jewish expressions to thrive and be at home. If we cannot create a space for all Jews, it is not just Judaism that is threatened, it's our being – being in relationship with each other – that will erode before our very eyes.
But, I believe, there is hope. Twenty years ago, North American Jews dominated non-orthodox Judaism in Israel. Today, Masorti – Israel’s Conservative Movement – is a thoroughly indigenous expression of Israeli life with roughly eighty congregations, growing youth groups and thriving summer camps. Members of Masorti communities can be found in positions of leadership and responsibility throughout Israel. There is a notion that Israelis are either dati – religious – or secular. The reality is they increasingly want a traditional approach to Jewish life that is both egalitarian and non-judgmental. Just spend a few minutes talking to our shlicha Miri and you will learn about this new Torah of Israel. You will learn how a secular Israeli from Russia yearns to fill a void not with someone else’s Torah but with her own. You will learn about a journey that includes teaching new converts in the IDF about Judaism and Israeli culture, studying Talmud at a secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, and enjoying Shabbat dinners on a kibbutz next to Gaza. You will learn how Miri and her husband Amir, just one year ago, created a wedding ceremony with a Reform rabbi that was as much Jewish as it was Israeli. And you will learn how after completing her Masters in Social Work from Tel Aviv University this summer, Miri decided to spend her next two years working at our synagogue. Miri is here to be a living connection for our synagogue community to the land, people, and culture of the State of Israel. She is also here to learn from us. To learn our Torah, our story, and to share that Torah when she returns. That responsibility, to help create a shared narrative is not only upon Miri’s shoulders, it rests with each and every one of us as well.
A century has now passed since 1917. A national home for the Jewish people has, indeed, been established in the Land of Israel. Now is the time to look at the gift of 1917 and say: "how do we complete this story; how do we create a homeland for the Jewish people where all Jews see their Torah as safe and their Judaism as respected? Can our support for Israel – whether left or right, young or old, AIPAC or JStreet – also include the demand that Israel embrace all the Judaisms of the Jewish people? Can we demand that Israel be not only a light unto the nations but a light unto the Jews? Today, on this Rosh Hashanah, I want to challenge you. We came to synagogue not to hear how the world is, but how it ought to be. Israel belongs to all Jews, and especially on issues of Judaism, the diaspora is entitled to more than just dialogue – we have a voice. We can all contribute to the global Jewish conversation. In fact, it is our duty and our obligation. Today, on this Rosh Hashanah, let’s commit to fulfilling this responsibility – creating a shared Torah for the Jewish people. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our brothers and sisters living in Israel.
First and foremost, to create a shared Torah we need to understand and foster a love for Israel and the Jewish people. There are a many ways to begin. You can join Miri and me this fall as we explore Israel’s Milestones and Meanings. This innovative new course will look at the pivotal events of 1947 and 1967 – following the 1917 Balfour Declaration – as key moments when Zionism unleashed new thinking about the meaning of Jewish identity for generations to come. You can also take any number of classes that Miri will be leading throughout the year – from Israeli film and literature to Hebrew language, from Zionist History to contemporary challenges. If you have a teenager, or you know someone who does, we want to send them to Israel. This past year, the generosity of our Men’s Club helped send six teens to Israel – each returning with a deeper love of and appreciation for our Jewish home. Let’s make it ten this year! Finally, I am thrilled to announce that our synagogue will be traveling to Israel next December – celebrating Hannukah in the land of miracles, 70 years after its most modern miracle.
Next, to create a shared Torah we must share our story. The average Israeli knows very little if anything about the American Jewish community. From kindergarten through 12th grade, the only Diaspora Israelis learn about is the Diaspora that is now dead. We need our story – the story of a thriving, diverse, and multifaceted Jewish community – to be a part of Israeli education. Rather than complain about a lack of respect we must explain why we are so passionate about our expression of Judaism. We have a rich vocabulary that can, and should, shape Israeli discourse. To be sure, advocating for the kotel and conversion is important, but it cannot just be about legislative battles. We have to work with our partners in Israel to build the Judaism we want to see. We have to make a convincing case to Israelis about what rabbis, synagogues, and Judaism should and could be. This is a Torah we must write together.
Fortunately, we are not alone. In addition to Masorti, there are a growing number of bicontinental organizations committed to creating this shared Torah. “Bicontinentality” envisions structural reorganization in Jewish institutional life with ramifications for seeing the Israeli and American Jewish projects as operating with a shared core. We need increased philanthropic investments into such projects, and into the sustainability of models that reflect an orientation toward a new reality of what these two communities bring to the table. Support Israel today – doing so in ways that enhances religious pluralism, makes use of the other’s strengths, and builds new strategies toward shared relationships.
Finally, in order to create a shared Torah we need to invest in ourselves. If we want Israel to take American Jewry seriously, we need to take American Jewry seriously. Our synagogues must continue to create compelling spiritual homes, our religious schools and day schools must achieve excellence, our social services must provide outstanding care, the list goes on. We must all commit to living passion filled Jewish lives – joining the global Jewish conversation. Israel is the embodiment of this rich conversation still unfolding, of a grand idea that has become a reality. What is at stake is much more than the virtually miraculous country that has been created and cultivated. What is truly at stake is the very future of the people that the Jewish state was created to save.
One month after Balfour’s famous declaration was made, another statement was issued. This statement didn’t cause seismic shifts but I would contend it was equally if not just as important. The Zionist Manifesto, penned by leaders of the World Zionist Organization, recognized this important milestone on the road to our national future as well as the immense stakes at play. “This Declaration,” it says, “puts in the hands of the Jewish people the key to a new freedom and happiness. All [of it now] depends on you, the Jewish people, and on you [alone]. The Declaration is the threshold, from which you can place your foot upon holy ground…The whole Jewish people must now unite.” Let us fulfill the Zionist dream – solidifying ourselves as one people – a people united with each other, walking through history not just in the past, but through a yet untold future. When we do that, then, and only then, will the celebration of 1917 be complete. Ki mi-tzion teitzei torah – let a new Torah go forth from Zion – a Torah for us, for Israel, and the shared bond between us.