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Kol Nidre: September 18, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

As we begin our observance of Yom Kippur, I wish everyone a Tzom Kal, an easy fast for the next 26 hours.

“Do you love me?” We know that quote. From the play, “Fiddler on the Roof”. “Do I WHAT?” “Do you love me?” “Do I love him?” “Well?” Sung by Tevye and his wife Goldie, they discuss how much the world has changed in the 25 years since their arranged marriage. They have discovered that their new world is about “love” and in the marriage arrangements 25 years ago, their parents promised that they would learn to love each other, so now, after 25 years, not that they need to know, but it would be nice to know how it all has worked out.

Those of us who have been married more than 25 years understand that love changes over time. I tell couples getting married that, although they think that their wedding day is the happiest day of their life they are only planting a garden and over the years, the garden will grow ever more beautiful than they could imagine. Young love is amazing but mature love can bring a happiness that is hard to conceive.

Not that love is always joy and ecstasy. We who have been married over 25 years also know how messy love can be. Planting a garden means walking in a lot of mud. There are plenty of weeds that need to be pulled. There is a story of a man who looked out at a backyard garden and commented “How beautiful are God’s creations.” The garden’s owner noted, “Actually it took a lot of hard work; you should have seen what it looked like when God was taking care of it!”

Love is like a garden. And we have different loves for different gardens. The love we have for a spouse is quite different from the love we have for our children. The love we have for our parents is quite different from the love we have for both our children and our spouse. On top of that we are commanded by our Torah to love our people, “Ahavat Yisrael” which may be the most difficult love of them all. After all, remember the joke about the man, stranded for years on a deserted island who builds two synagogues, one for prayer and the other is “the synagogue he would never set foot in”.

Ahavat Yisrael is all about love of our people and now, in our time, our country. Israel. Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, and Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. Perhaps here is the most complicated love we can imagine. I have struggled for years to speak about my messy relationship with Israel. I often feel like Tevye, in Fiddler on the roof: “You’re right… and You’re right…” “How can they both be right?” “And you’re right too!” Everyone thinks that “our side is always right” which, of course, is a classic description of “nobody’s right”!

Lately, I find that I am not alone in my messy relationship with Israel. I read, last summer, in Sh’ma Now magazine an article by Adam Weisberg, an educator and Agency director in California. He writes about the new Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman who once called members of the pro-Israel/pro-peace J-Street “Worse than Kapos.” Says Weisberg, “in Friedman’s camp, Jews who criticize Israel publicly or try to influence Israeli politics toward the center or left are an existential threat to Israel and, by extension, to the Jewish People. … In the other camp, Jews who see Israel’s right-of- center political leadership hurtling the country toward a seemingly inevitable demise as a democratic Jewish state. … we are living through a period of intense communal acrimony, one that gives license to forgetting that the Torah pronounces all human beings as having been created b’tzelem Elohim, In God’s image. … All of this lead to the question: How do I hate your ideas or actions without growing to hate you – perhaps even while continuing to love you?”

With all the negativity that we have built around Israel, it seems that all we can do is argue. Everyone has an idea of what will make Israel better, but it always seems to be at the expense of someone or something else. Andre`s Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, recently wrote: “We aim to stop antisemitism, and to stop the disengagement of our youth from Israel. In Israel too, the political discourse seems negative in essence. The government policy is formed around protecting security, prevention of BDS, forestalling Iran’s designs. In the opposition, the discourse focuses on preserving Israel’s democracy, saving the two-state solution, and so forth. Haredim want to maintain their draft exemption and the Rabbinate’s monopoly on family status issues. Israelis of many ideologies want to safeguard the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount.  These goals are indeed important and even vital, but we are a far cry from those 19th century Zionists thinkers who envisioned a ‘New Society’… a New Jew and a Jewish state that is a moral and scientific ‘light unto the nations’. …As a Jewish world and a general society, we tend too much towards the path of least creativity, which is to say, the path of most resistance; the negative ideologies of stopping and preserving, instead of the harder, but much more rewarding way of crafting positive views of the future. To be fair, some partial visions do exist. But they are, well, partial. WE do for example strive to make Israel a technological beacon for the world. But why? Those partial visions are not part of a comprehensive view of what kind of country and society we want. It’s fine to say that high-tech is the new Zionism but that confuses a tool with a goal. The same problem applies in Jewish communities of the Diaspora; we want to stop assimilation but why? Just to merely continue? As Leonard Fine said many times, do we want our rallying cry to be ‘Come survive with us’?”

What is our vision of the future of Israel? What has bothered me over the past years, is that the State of Israel, rather than unifying the Jewish people, has instead become the source of more division. After 2000 years of dispersion, we finally have a central place to call home and we are already fighting over it like we fight over everything else. Will Israel herself become the place where Jews refuse to set foot in? Already there are young people who have little interest in Israel until they get a chance at a free Birthright trip. Where will this fight for the soul of Israel take us?

Rabbi Sharon Ainsfeld, the dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, tells her story of her immersion into Israel’s political mess. She writes, “Recently I traveled with a group of Jewish leaders … to spend four days meeting with the Palestinians in the West Bank. Much of what we witnessed was ugly and painful: the entrenchment of occupation after almost 50 years, the daily indignities, the elusiveness of any solution in sight. I was afraid that the experience might shake my sense of Ahavat Yisrael; it didn’t. I felt that the people I was with – both Jews and Palestinians – understood what it means to love and to long for a place, what it means to feel that one’s personal story is bound up with the story of one’s people. While the stories we heard were difficult and sometimes heartbreaking, I did not feel that they were intended to erase my own story. Ahavat Yisrael is not about a loyalty oath to the State of Israel. History has taught us the danger of such oaths. Our love cannot be built on a brittle ideological branch that will break the minute it encounters the reality of a complex country that is both beautiful and burdened by trauma and pain. Our relationships must be more supple and subtle than that.”

We can’t wish away the problems of our homeland. We can’t drown them out by shouting, “hurray for our side”. If we are to build a state we can all be proud of, we will need to face the dirty laundry and get to work scrubbing it. Hiding our dirty laundry will not advance anything in Israel. Just like any other country, being a political entity means that Israel is also open to all the messiness politics can bring. It is a mess that must be addressed and not just swept under the rug.

The Torah, in Leviticus, in the chapter just beyond the ones we will read tomorrow, commands us to “Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself ….” Thus, we are instructed that it is OK to disagree with other Jews. We can have different opinions and are told that we can argue them out with other Jews. You can do it, but you can’t do it in a way that makes you just as obnoxious as the Jews you are reproving. We always must love our fellow human beings.

It should not surprise you to learn that the Sages list all kinds of limitations on how we should reprove each other. The path of rebuke is filled with all kinds of problems, with people who don’t want to hear what you have to say, people who will troll you online, seek to destroy your reputation, make you look like an idiot. But we need to articulate our criticism anyway, despite the messiness. It is natural to want to fight this kind of fire with fire, to respond to an attack with a counter attack. We need to pause and remember, that revenge will never solve the problems we face.

Adam Weisberg sums it up like this: “Thus we transcend a false dichotomy. Holding two truths together. I can find it loathsome that (Ambassador) Friedman could refer to liberal Jews as ‘far worse than kapos’ without needing to find him loathsome. I can condemn (Ambassador) Friedman’s language and attitude while still acknowledging that he is created B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image).”

Moving from J-street to AIPAC, I recently attended the AIPAC Rabbinic symposium in Washington DC. One of the speakers was Sarah Tuttle Singer, an American who has made Aliya who is an author and columnist for The Times of Israel. She notes that young Americans do not have friends who are young Israelis. We don’t have the social connections to Israel to help us connect with the government of Israel. She called to all Jews to seek out different voices in Israel to share their point of view. Ms. Tuttle Singer goes on to say that she supports Israel as a Jewish and as a Democratic state. This means that all of us need to say what needs to be said about the kind of state that we want Israel to be. We should call out what we don’t like about Israel. We only need to remember, she says, that while the land is holy, I think people are more holy.

Why should we love Israel? Because love of Israel, she says, in in our DNA. It is our roots and it is our only refuge. Nobody else will take in Jews who are in trouble. There are certainly issues, Tuttle Singer says, but we must keep in mind that Israelis all seem to suffer from a PTSD that makes them afraid and the government continues to feed that fear. And yet, she notes that we must not forget that Israel is the strongest power in the Middle East and Israel does not need to really be afraid of anyone.

David Horowitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, noted to the Rabbis that Israel is not Disneyland. People do want to kill us, and we need to fight to survive. Since there is no army that can defeat us, the problem is our war is now being decided by how many people die in each skirmish and this is just unfair. We must care about Israel warts and all and still love our Jewish State. Maybe we don’t get to make security decisions about Israel, but we do get to weigh in on issues. We must not, says Horowitz, allow Israel to be denigrated by not facing up to what Israel is all about.

International political and strategic consultant, Dalia Scheindlin was also at the AIPAC symposium and she listed some of the things we need to address. There is both a partisan split on Israel and a generational split. Israel must understand that the occupation and conflict are not good for Israel’s democracy. The Nation/State law is only the latest round of the entire annexation issue that will cause Israel to lose its Jewish edge. Israel does need pluralism in religion as the issue of religious coercion is also a threat to Israel’s democracy. The AIPAC speakers implored us not to be afraid to address these issues. They told us that alarms are ringing, and Israel needs us to take notice.

If this kind of talk makes any of us angry, we need to remember that both sides want the same thing, a strong Israel. We only disagree about how we will get there.  Adam Weisberg reminds us: “The fact that individual Jews can be remarkably irritating (or downright evil) does not detract from the beauty of Judaism, of Jewishness. The idea of a Jewish people remains essential; it serves our need to be a part of and to serve a collective. This seems particularly essential in today’s anonymizing, globalized world. And that impels us toward the idea of Ahavat Ha’am (the love of people). If we work hard enough to love the idea of the Jewish people, we may just end up loving a few more actual people than we otherwise would have.”

Andre’s Spokoiny notes that: “the paucity of positive ideas, or compelling vision of the future seriously affects the quality of Jewish life and our capacity to attract and engage new generations of Jews. … To compound this problem, the structures that could be vehicles for collective projects are weakened. It’s hard for Jews to tackle this problem … but tackle it we must if we want Judaism to continue to be a source of meaning and belonging. And because it’s a global problem, there are no simple recipes to apply. I think, however, that we can and must gradually change the conversation and the general tone of the debate.”

Mr. Spokoiny is correct. We need to stop being against each other and begin to describe what a unified approach to Israel should look like. We need to foster more understanding between the people who live in Israel and those of us who have made our lives here. We need to stop yelling at each other because we disagree and begin to forge between us what a path forward for Israel might look like. The path forward is a political decision and will need to be discussed in political forums. The need to create these forums is a religious matter. Ahavat Yisrael depends on it.

To be a Conservative Jew does not mean we have to live on the political right. It means that to conserve Judaism, we need to find a middle ground for both the right and the left to find a home. In these partisan times, nobody likes those of us who span the middle ground. When the discussion comes to Israel, the partisans on the right and on the left tell us we must make a choice; to love her or hate her. And yet as Sarah Tuttle Singer reminded us - Love of Israel is in our DNA. There is no other choice for Jews. How can a Rabbi love Israel and not speak out? How can I stay silent when the government of Israel does things that threaten to uproot Israel’s society, create a rift between Israel and the diaspora and possibly create a rift between Israel and the American people?

As anyone who has been married 25 years or more knows, we love our spouse not because we have disagreements, but despite where we disagree, we must never forget that we still have many places where we share our love. Our love for Israel is changing. The Holocaust created a unifying message to a world horrified by the evil perpetuated on the Jewish People. Today people are more worried about themselves and about how they can personally be successful. No one is concerned about world peace and unity. We have come to treat each other with anger and nasty words because we want to be heard in the perpetual chatter on social media. What the world really needs is more spirituality, more universalism, more Ahavat Yisrael and more Ahavat HaAm. We need to love our fellow Jews and human beings enough to hear their words and then find a path forward together.

Do you love me? Israel asks. Do I love her? Well!!  For 70 years we lived with her, fought with her, starved with her, for 70 years we shared our bed, if that’s not love --- what is? Then you love Israel? I suppose I do. And I suppose she loves me too. It doesn’t change a thing, but even so. After 70 years, it’s nice to know.

(Gemar Tov)



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on September 18, 2018

Sun, June 16 2019 13 Sivan 5779