Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A dialogue with Christians about Israel

In 2005 I was invited to give the Hal Lustig Memorial Lecture at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. That year, the lecture was actually a dialogue between a Presbyterian minister and me in the wake of some controversial resolutions passed by the Presbyterian Church, USA. This is what I said that evening:

Presented at the Center for Christian-Jewish Under-standing of Sacred Heart University (www.ccju.org), Fairfield, CT, May 3, 2005.
My task today is to try and explain to you, from my perspective as a rabbi, how I view the Land and State of Israel through the lens of my religious life and convictions. I want to begin with a disclaimer or perhaps
a warning. I spend quite a bit of my life presenting a Jewish perspective to non-Jewish and mixed groups,
and I always tell them one thing. If a speaker begins
a sentence with "the Jewish perspective on X issue is"
the rest of the statement is a lie. There is no one Jewish position on anything, as anyone who knows any actual Jews can tell you, including on the consistency of matzoh balls, which I like quite dense but my wife thinks should be as fluffy as possible. And yet, we get along.

And so please understand that I do not represent "the Jewish point of view" tonight. I represent only myself, a Conservative rabbi who has spent the last four years at a center very much similar to the CCJU, but soon to move to this very state to become once again the rabbi of a synagogue. So my perspective will be my own, but
I will try and represent the broad spectrum of thought within the larger Jewish community.

The first thing one needs to realize in discussing these questions is that both Israel and the American Jewish communities are incredibly diverse. Israel is a democracy and there is a wide spectrum of opinions on most of the crucial issues of war and peace. All of these various positions will find their supporters within the American Jewish community. What unites most everyone, though, is a vigorous commitment to the security and well-being of the State of Israel. Jews who are not so committed are marginal within the community and have virtually no constituency or credibility.
For rabbis, Jewish educators and other Jewish leaders, you should understand that Israel is a living reality for most of us. While only about one in five American Jews has ever visited Israel, the percentage is virtually one hundred percent for rabbis and other Jewish professionals. Most of us have studied for at least one year in Israel and all of the rabbinical seminaries and most Jewish education and communal service graduate programs now require their students to spend a year or more there. I myself spent both an undergraduate and
a rabbinical school year there, and lived there for two more years immediately following ordination. Most of
us have friends in Israel and visit quite frequently, so there is an existential connection to Israel. It's not just another "issue" we read about in the newspapers. There is tremendous "cross-fertilization" between Israel and the American Jewish communities. American Jews, especially the communal leaders, read Israeli books and periodicals, watch Israeli movies and listen to Israeli music. We eat Israeli food and bring Israelis over to serve as teachers and camp counselors. We also send our youngsters to experience Israel; the post high school "year in Israel" is a rite of passage in the Orthodox community and many non-Orthodox teens spend an Israel year as well. Israel is also seen, rightly or wrongly, as the "magic potion" for enhancing Jewish identity, and programs like "birthright israel" will provide a free ten-day trip to Israel for any Jewish college student who has not already been there.

So at least for the most Jewishly-involved among us, Israel is a very real part of our lives. But our commitment to Israel is not just sociological, it is theological. Throughout the ages, Jews have turned in prayer towards Zion. The Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service which is repeated thrice-daily, says "may our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy." Both the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur service, perhaps the two most widely-attended Jewish rituals, end with a climactic "next year in Jerusalem." According to the Talmud, Ketubot 110b, a husband can force his wife to go live in the Land of Israel, or vice-versa, and if the spouse refuses, she can be divorced against her will and suffer a financial penalty. The passage continues: "One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a village where mostly Gentiles live. No one should live outside the land, even in a city where mostly Jews live. For anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is like a person who has a God and anyone who lives outside the Land is like a person who does not have a God, as it is written, 'to give you the Land of Canaan so that I can be your God' (Lev. 25:37)." While these statements may certainly be understood as hyperbole, they do indicate the tremendous theological importance which Judaism has always placed on the unique sanctity of the Land of Israel.
Judaism is a religion of covenant and an important part of that covenant is the promise of the Land. The cycle of the Jewish year is based on the growing season in
the Land of Israel, and as someone who did a seminary internship in the Southern Hemisphere, there is a real cognitive dissonance celebrating
Sukkot (a fall harvest festival) in Australia where it is spring. There are three pillars of the Jewish covenant: the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel. You cannot pull one of these pillars out without collapsing the whole structure. Early Reform Judaism attempted to do just that and relatively quickly reversed course; today's Reform Judaism is as deeply committed to the cause of Zion as the rest of the Jewish community.
This connection to a specific piece of land is the Jewish "scandal of particularity" and Christians often find it unintelligible, bizarre or even bordering on idolatrous. And perhaps from a Christian perspective it is bizarre; if God is everywhere, how can Jews claim that God is somehow more present in this specific piece of territory? But Christians make a similarly scandalous and bizarre claim. If God is in every person, how can Christians claim that God is somehow more present in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps this is an area where each community ought to suspend its judgments of the other community’s core beliefs.
I have spoken so far of the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel but what of the State of Israel? Here I think that there is more theological diversity and it is
a complicated subject. I want to take seriously the warnings of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and writer Amos Oz about the danger of identifying
any political state with the will of God. At the same time, I think it is appropriate for those of us who believe that God works in history and through history to express
our belief that the return of Jews to our land, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, has theological significance. Yet we have to also remember that the Bible warns us that our sovereignty has to be consistent with God's demands for justice. Serious Jews know this, and we spend more time agonizing over it than you might think.

As important as the theological attachment to the State of Israel is for Jewishly-sophisticated Jews, the existential attachment is stronger and more widespread. As I said earlier, there is tremendous disagreement within Israel and within world Jewry about the various policy issues facing the State of Israel. As Amos Oz notes, "Zionism" is a surname and there are many first names: Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so on. What unites them all is a commitment that after two thousand years of powerlessness, we're not running anymore. There has to be a piece of territory on this earth which is under Jewish control. In an unredeemed world, powerlessness is a sin.
Having said that, I want to acknowledge that the moral use of power is the preeminent ethical question facing Jews today. This is not a simple task, trying to balance Israel's legitimate need for security with the Palestinians’ legitimate need for a homeland. But I want to humbly suggest that most Israelis and most American Jews are more attuned to the complexity of these issues than the PCUSA wants to give us credit for. There is certainly room for critique of Israel's use of power. Being critical of specific Israeli policies does not make one an anti-Semite, or many rabbis and other Jewish leaders would have to be considered as such. But the criticisms need to be balanced and aimed at curtailing abuses, not undermining the very existence and security of the State of Israel. Talk of divestment raises the specter of apartheid South Africa, and the South Africa divestment movement, in which I participated, was not about curtailing abuses. It was about dismantling a fundamentally evil system.
What concerns most of us about these resolutions is that they are one-sided. Only companies operating in Israel are mentioned as possible candidates for divestment. One of the resolutions refers to the "cycle of escalating violence -- carried out by both Palestinians and Israelis -- which is rooted in Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories." There is no acknowledgment that Israel offered to return 95% or more of the territories in 2000. While that offer may have been inadequate in Palestinian eyes, there was no counter-offer put on the table. The Palestinian response was terrorism and suicide bombings, not diplomacy. The resolutions condemn violence on both sides in a pro forma way, but they in essence blame Israel for the "cycle of violence" and call for punitive measures against Israel only.
It strikes me upon reading and re-reading these resolutions that there is a combination of both arrogance and naiveté coming out of the PCUSA bureaucracy in Louisville. The PCUSA's opposition to Israel's security barrier is a case in point. Now, I think that there are very valid concerns over the route of this barrier -- concerns shared by many Israelis and no less than the Israeli Supreme Court, which has ordered the barrier re-routed in places to lessen its negative impact on Palestinian civilians. But the PCUSA overture does not call for re-routing the barrier; it calls for its construction to be halted. The General Assembly Council says the need is to "build bridges of peace, not walls of separation." And the PCUSA staffer responsible for implementing these overtures wrote in the Christian Century this past February, in response to a critique from another Presbyterian leader, that "The solution is not about everyone being 'a little disappointed.' It is about choosing life over death for all parties involved. That does not come with giving 'a little bit here and a little bit there.' It comes, in Christian parlance, with both parties taking up their 'cross' and offering themselves to their 'enemies' in the 'restraint, humility and respect' for which Barbara Wheeler so aptly appeals." With all due respect, this kind of language may make Presbyterians feel virtuous that they have spoken out for peace and justice, but it is not likely to motivate Jews to take
their concerns seriously. I think that in fact we need both bridges and walls. In the long term, Jews and
Arabs will of course have to figure out how they can live together. In the short term, it would be enough if they stopped killing each other; and if the separation barrier can help achieve that goal -- which it has -- I am all for it.

I want to close by sharing a story I heard some months ago from Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Danny grew up in Baltimore, where I heard him speak back in October, and we actually worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Danny and his family now live in Israel.
There is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, or spouse go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay
in the synagogue during
Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.
A couple of years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then all the wars came, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."
My friends, that is a theological statement. For us, the State of Israel is a miracle. You do not have to agree with that assessment, but unless you understand it and take it seriously, Jews are going to react with anger and defensiveness and it is going to be very hard for us to have any kind of a civil dialogue. Hopefully we can move past this period of anger and rancor and talk and work together as the friends we usually are.

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