Rosh Hashanah 5779 Day 2 Sermon

Shannah Tovah!

A scorpion and a camel wanted to cross the Red Sea.  Neither could get across alone.  The camel could swim, but could not see where he was going.   The scorpion could see, but could not swim.  The scorpion suggested that he sit on the camel’s hump and direct the camel as he swam.  Together, the scorpion pointed out, they could make the crossing.

The camel was doubtful.  “What if you sting me?” he asked.

The scorpion gave a sensible reply: “Don’t be silly.  If I do that, then we will both drown!”

The camel saw the logic in the scorpion’s proposal and agreed.  They started across the Red Sea, the camel swimming, the scorpion serving as a lookout, providing directions.  When they were about halfway across, the scorpion stung the camel.  (Three Times Chai, Laney Katz-Becker)

This morning I want to talk about Israel.  I want to talk about recent news from Israel that unfolded this summer.  More than that, I want to talk about our relationship with Israel –both the broader ours –the American –Israel relationship and the more personal relationship—yours and mine.

In many ways, Israel and the United States or more particularly American Jewry, are like the scorpion and the camel.  There is a symbiotic relationship that exists and we each rely on the other for our survival.  Israel greatly benefits from the United States, especially in terms of the economic and arms support that the US provides for Israel.  American Jewry continues to need Israel for her survival.  And over the course of history, each party has assumed the role of the scorpion and the camel in each other’s eyes. . . at times it feels as though Israel stings American Jewry; and other times, it feels as though American Jewry is the one doing the stinging.  Yet, the truth is, both know if they actually sting the other they will both drown.

This past summer, in some ways, it felt as though Israel was the scorpion.  During the third week of July two important pieces of news came out of Israel.

The first is a piece of legislation known as the Nation State Bill, passed in the early hours of July 19th.

The bill declared the land of Israel is to be the historical and national homeland of the Jewish people in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.  The name of the state is Israel, the flag is white with two blue stripes near the edge and a blue Star of David in the center.  The national anthem is the Hatikvah.  Jerusalem is the capital.  The state’s language is Hebrew and Arabic has a special status.  The state will be open for Jewish immigration and ingathering of exiles.  The state will continue to act with the Diaspora in a way to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.  The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.  The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar –Shabbat and festivals of Israel are the official days of rest –and non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals.    (based on the text of the bill –from Times of Israel)

The second is an arrest that was made.

Very early on Thursday morning, July 19th, Rabbi Dubi Hayiun was arrested at his home.  Awoken to banging on his door, on the day that Rabbi Hayiun was to teach at the President’s Residence in observance of the upcoming Tisha b’Av commemoration, the Rabbi was taken from his home.  The charge: performing illegal weddings or more particularly for performing weddings without the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate –more succinctly for being a Masorti –a Conservative, non-Orthodox rabbi and performing a wedding in Israel.

Already feeling alienated and pushed aside by Israel from last summer when the work regarding the Egalitarian Prayer Space at the Kotel was halted indefinitely, the two events of this summer continued the same narrative of Israel stinging American and more particularly non-Orthodox Jewry.

The passage of the nation state bill garnered the most attention and raised the fear that Israel is sliding towards the end of democracy.  According to the criticism, the bill fails to mention

equality and minority rights –both of which were integral parts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 –

Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressly states that Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex –it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.  (CNN article—Israel passes controversial nation state bill into law)

The absence of such values from this bill was called to attention.  As such, there was clear concern for the Arab minorities, especially the Druze community, which is known for their support of the state of Israel, most notably in their honorable service in the IDF.

And there was a loud cry from non-Orthodox Jews.  The question that was raised was if this was the final nail in the coffin regarding Israel’s relationship with non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry.

The writing was loud and clear how American Jewry felt about the developments of this summer.  Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote a stinging op-ed in the New York Times focusing on both the bill and the arrest of Rabbi Hayiun.  He wrote:

These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.  Israel is a miracle.  The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home.  However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.

Combined –the arrest of the non-Orthodox rabbi along with the passage of the national bill  –non-Orthodox Jews –we—felt betrayed and alienated from our beloved Israel.  This feeling was clear in the discourse during the last weeks of July.

In the same moment, Israel did not remain silent.  Naftali Bennet responded in the New York Times to Lauder’s claim.  Bennett is Israel’s minister of education, minister of diaspora affairs and the leader of the Jewish Home Party.  Bennet clearly affirmed the basis of the bill in affirming the centrality of Jewish identity and the self-identification of Israel as a Jewish homeland.  In this moment –Israel felt attacked by our response to the passage of the bill.  In a moment that Israel was looking for support –or even a Yasher Koach –job well done . . . Israel got the loud cries of outrage of its American brothers and sisters.

Such becomes the cycle of the debate between American Jews and Israel.

There is a story in the Talmud (Ta’ani 7a-b):

The emperor’s daughter said to Rabbi Joshua son of Hanania: O’ glorious Wisdom in an ugly vessel.

{In this moment –the emperor’s daughter is commenting on the fact that Rabbi Joshua is brilliant and yet he is completely unattractive—so very ugly.}

He replied: Does not your father keep wine in an earthenware vessel?

{Aren’t your father’s precious wines kept in simple vessels?}

She asked: Where else shall he keep it?

He said to her: You who are nobles should keep it in vessels of gold and silver. . .

{If wisdom only belongs to beautiful people then fine wine belongs in extravagant material .. . Yet you and I both know what happens to wine in gold and silver.}

Thereupon, she went and told this to her father, and he had the wine put into vessels of gold and silver, and it became sour.  When he was informed of this, he asked his daughter: Who gave you this advice?  She replied: Rabbi Joshua son of Hanania.  Thereupon the Emperor had him summoned before him and asked him: Why did you give her such advice?  He replied:  I answered her according to the way that she spoke to me.

The emperor’s daughter cannot understand how someone whom she deems as ugly can be such a font of knowledge.  She challenges who he is through her words –but his existence challenges her very beliefs.

Yet, the rabbi responds back to her and explains –what you see as my weakness –my physicality– I don’t actually see that as my weakness –I see it as my strength –because in truth the text ends with the statement:

But are there not good-looking people who are learned?  If these very people were ugly they would still be more learned.

{You think my image is a problem . . .it isn’t –in fact it is a benefit to me.}

Identity impacts how we argue; it impacts the arguments between American Jewry and Israel.  What we as American Jews see as Israel’s weakness—as their flaw –as their attempt to alienate the rest of the world . . . perhaps like Rabbi Joshua they do not perceive it as a flaw –and rather see it as their strength.

Emma Green, in the Atlantic (July 21  Israel’s New Law Inflames The Core Tension in its Identity), notes:

Diaspora Jews may be imagining Israel differently than Israelis imagine themselves.  “Israelis, specifically, see Israel as a political concept.  And diaspora Jewry see it more as a spiritual expression,” said Hirschorn—a lecturer on Israeli history at Oxford.   . . .Green explains –especially in America, where the establishment of a state religion would seem anathema to most citizens, the ethno-religious aspect of Israel can be jarring.

In fact, for Israel–as Netanahyu has expressed –the bill is intended to strengthen the core values that set the foundation for who Israel is and will always be.  Netanyahu noted:  We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence.  Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people that respects the individual rights of all its citizens.  This is our state, the Jewish state.  In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being.  Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, and flag.”

More to the point: what you think is weakening us and our stance in the world is really strengthening us.  How you see us, is not how we see ourselves.  And your assumptions do not necessarily align with our own reality.

And perhaps that is at the heart of the issue.  Seventy years ago when Israel was declared a state it was a miracle.  The very nature of its existence brought so much pride.  It was not a question.  Our loyalty and our support were with Israel.  This idea has been true for so many, for the generation that experienced the birth of the nation and witnessed the constant attempted destruction of Israel and for the generation after them.  For those generations the pride overtook any other emotion.

Yet, as Israel has evolved into a strong nation –both economically and militaristically – the connection that American Jews have to the land has evolved and perhaps even faded.  For the current generation the miracle of Israel is not at the core and there is a greater distance between the nations.  They did not experience the birth of Israel or the world that existed at that time.  The world –our place as Jews in the world—is so very different at this moment than it was seventy years ago.  .  And truth be told, so many are indifferent to Israel, perhaps because of a lack of educational connection to Israel.

The pride that was effusive of the past generation is now discomfort –discomfort with policies that are against the norms that they are used to in America.  It is this discomfort that fuels the debates such as this summer’s.

Where does this sense of discomfort come from?  It is the discomfort with the policies, both religious and political, that seem anathema to our values.  It is the inability for Americans to walk a mile in an Israelis’ shoes . . . to understand the world they live in and their fears and needs . . . and to understand that their world is not ours and ours is not theirs.  It is the lack of knowledge and connection of the land and its reality as the generations become further disconnected from Israel.

And while we are at it –let’s not blame Americans for all of this.  As Israel has become stronger and less reliant on the United States . . . so too Israelis have become disconnected from their brothers and sisters in America.  They have their own discomforts . . . what gives Americans the right to have a say in their policies –especially when we do not send our children to fight, as they do.  Religiously- liberal Judaism in America stands in contrast to their religious experiences and as such is a frustration to Israelis.  It is the inability of Israelis to walk a mile in American Jews shoes, in the cultural milieu we exist in.

Yet, here is the truth, we can’t cross the sea without one another.  As much as both Israel and American Jewry have evolved  . . . we still desperately need one another.  We cannot cross the sea alone and we will certainly drown if one of us is stung –especially by the other.

So what do we do?

We learn from and continue the current success and build on them. Birthright has sent over 600,000 Diaspora Jews to Israel and have connected them to the narrative of Israel and to Judaism.  Year after year thousands of people converge in DC for the AIPAC Policy Conference  –18,000 people, all for pro-Israel advocacy and in it they learn about Israel.

These successes are focused on education and connection and so to, we must be focused on that.  We must be focused on our own education and the next generation’s.  We must learn about the narrative of Israel from the beginning and truly understand and take to heart the miraculous nature of the state.  We must learn about the true geo-political nature of the land and appreciate the threats that our brothers and sisters in Israel face.  We must visit Israel.  I recently read that nearly 60% of American Jews have never visited Israel.  That is huge. We must be in the land and see and experience it.  Presence is powerful.

And so to Israelis must learn about American Judaism and liberal Judaism.  Israelis need to understand and appreciate the tremendous power of Jewish advocacy and the necessity of the results, because Israel’s survival continues to rely on it.

But we cannot just focus on education.  We must focus at the same time on our commitment to Judaism.  As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue rightly notes:  “Far too often, and for far too many American Jews, attachment to Israel serves as a compensatory act for a paper thin Jewish identity.   . . . Only an engaged Jewry will engage with the Jewish homeland.  Only an engaged American Jewry will be taken seriously by America, and for that matter Israel.”  We need to work on our own connection to Judaism and then to Israel.  This is an important part of the equation.  Our own connection to Judaism, is central to our connection to Israel and is of primal importance.

When we do all of this –certainly no small task –then we can engage in the arguments and conversations in meaningful and constructive way.  We can put aside our assumptions and our perceptions and allow the truth and knowledge to take center stage.  When we do that, we can swim together –supporting and guiding one another –rather than focusing on the potential to be stung.