Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Uneaten TV Dinner

In the last few days there has been quite a kerfuffle in the Jewish press and blogs about United Synagogue Youth's International Convention deciding to amend its policy which forbade USY board members from any relationship "which could be construed as interdating." Instead of a blanket prohibition, the new language encourages USY leaders to serve as positive examples of proper Jewish dating behavior, including the importance of dating other Jews but also dealing with how we treat those with whom we are in a relationship. Sadly, this has been portrayed as USY "abandoning its standards." But why is Conservative Judaism so fixated on rules and standards?


The author Zev Chafets served as director of the Israel government press office under the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He accompanied the first delegation of Israeli journalists to visit Egypt, shortly after President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977.


The delegation was travelling under the auspices of the Israeli government, and all Israeli government delegations are required to eat kosher food. So at the request of the Israeli government, the Egyptians provided kosher frozen meals in the hotel where the delegates were staying. (You can imagine that in 1977 this was not an easy thing for them to do.) But the Israeli journalists were all non-observant and preferred to enjoy the hummus, tahina and kebobs from the hotel’s regular buffet, so the pile of TV dinners sat untouched. Finally one of the Egyptian officials said to Chafets that he was starting to understand Judaism. Apparently, he said, Jewish law requires that the kosher food be present but no one actually needs to eat it.


There are times when I think that the Egyptian official was onto something. Certainly he can be forgiven for his assumptions.  Conservative Judaism in particular seems at times to be primarily about enforcing policies that no one really wants to follow. Congregations will be torn apart due to arguments over including or excluding certain prayers, yet how many of the people participating in these arguments pray on a regular basis?


When I lived in Baltimore I sometimes attended an Orthodox synagogue not far from our apartment. This synagogue always had “seu’dah sh’lishit,” the so-called “third meal” between afternoon and evening services on Saturday. But one year on the Shabbat before Passover, the synagogue kitchen had already been cleaned for Passover and thus the synagogue could not provide this required meal. Congregants were instructed simply to bring their own food for “seu’dah sh’lishit.” I was astonished. Every Conservative synagogue with which I am familiar has an elaborate kashrut policy. Some do not allow any outside food at all unless it is prepared under rabbinic supervision and comes into the synagogue sealed. Others allow congregants to prepare food at home but only if they follow certain policies and procedures and if the rabbi has approved their kitchen as sufficiently kosher. No Conservative synagogue would simply tell all of its members to bring their own food to a meal, certainly not to one actually held right there in the shul.


How is it that this Orthodox synagogue could allow something that no Conservative synagogue would consider? Actually, it’s quite simple. The shul in question is not the type of Orthodox synagogue where almost everyone drives to shul on Shabbat but parks a block away. Everyone in that synagogue actually lives an Orthodox lifestyle and therefore the synagogue is able to assume that all its members keep kosher. There is no need for an elaborate policy designed to make sure that the members don’t bring non-kosher food to the synagogue. No one would dream of doing so.


Many of our rules and policies come into place precisely because of the conflict between what the Conservative Movement and its individual bodies stand for institutionally and the lifestyle that its members actually practice individually. At times the Conservative movement has dealt with this dissonance head-on and legitimized in theory what everyone was already doing in practice anyway. The classic example is the Rabbinical Assembly’s 1950 responsum which permitted driving to and from the synagogue on Shabbat. This was clearly a case of yielding to necessity. The post-World War II exodus to the suburbs meant that fewer and fewer congregants lived within walking distance of their synagogues. The synagogues often followed their members out to the suburbs (as for example B’nai Israel which was once in the District but now is in Rockville) but this of course often left a cadre of members who still lived near the old location. In addition, suburbs are often spread out and lack sidewalks, so that almost everyone came to believe that walking to synagogue was not really an option. The 1950 responsum took this reality into account, but specified that it was permissible only to drive to synagogue and back home -- not anywhere else. In 1950, there may well have been Conservative Jews who followed that limitation. Many Conservative rabbis and cantors -- including me -- still do, but I wonder how many Conservative lay people actually do so.


But wasn’t Orthodox Judaism impacted by the rise of suburbia too? To some extent, yes -- and thus the phenomenon I described above of driving to shul and parking a block away. Some Orthodox synagogues with large numbers of non-observant members chain their parking lots shut on Shabbat so their members don’t park there on Shabbat and make it seem as if the synagogue is condoning Shabbat desecration. One Baltimore Orthodox synagogue (not the one I described above!) actually sells its parking lot to a non-Jew every Friday afternoon and buys it back every Saturday night (I swear I am not making this up.) But the kind of Orthodox synagogue I am describing, with few members who actually live an Orthodox lifestyle, is rapidly disappearing. More and more, Orthodox synagogues consist mostly of practicing Orthodox Jews.


Such a person does not buy a house only to then discover that the synagogue is too far to walk. He or she finds out where the synagogue is located and then looks to find a house within walking distance. Houses within walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue sell for more than similar houses that are not within walking distance, because Orthodox families are willing to pay more for them.


The reason for this is really quite simple. Orthodox Jews actually believe that God wants them to walk to shul on Shabbat. They don’t believe that God said it’s “a nice idea” to do so. They don’t believe that it just makes for a nicer, more cohesive community if everyone lives near the shul and walks. They believe that driving to shul is a direct violation of an explicit divine command.


And we don’t. I have spoken and written before about our insistence on translating the word “mitzvah” as “good deed” when in fact it means “commandment.” But to believe in a “commandment” requires us to believe in a God who gives commands and means them to be obeyed.


The reasons why most Jews no longer believe in that type of God are complicated and varied. Some Jews feel that the Holocaust means God no longer has a right to demand anything from the Jewish people. Some people feel that discoveries in the fields of history and archeology debunk the traditional understanding of divine revelation. Some, perhaps many, Jews, don’t really think about their beliefs much at all. They do what feels comfortable because it furthers a way of life they find meaningful.


But “because God said so” doesn’t carry much weight with the overwhelming majority of Jews, because while they may believe in God they don’t really believe that “He said so.” And so, we fall back on rules and policies which we attempt to enforce, even though nobody but perhaps the rabbi and/or cantor actually observes them. There has got to be a better way. We need a theology that makes sense to modern Jews and instills in us a sense of obligation that does not fall back on invocation of an authority no one really accepts. If not, our Judaism may well end up like that pile of uneaten kosher TV dinners in the hotel room in Cairo.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Warning: This Sermon Contains Math -- Yom Kippur Evening 5775

Yom Kippur  Evening Sermon
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Warning: this sermon contains math. I have always believed that there are three types of people in the world, those who are good at math and those who are not good at math, so I cannot promise that the math will be correct.

Imagine two cities which are thirty miles apart and are connected by two roads. One is a limited-access highway with no traffic lights. The second is a surface road;  that is to say, a normal road  with traffic lights, turn lanes, businesses along it and so on. In good  traffic conditions, the trip between the two cities on the highway should take 30 minutes. But often there is a lot of traffic on the highway, and the trip under those circumstances could take an hour or so. The surface road rarely has a lot of traffic, but of course it has a lower speed limit and stop lights, so the trip between the two cities on the surface road pretty much always takes an hour.

It only takes a few vehicles more than the highway’s design capacity to cause a huge traffic jam. To make the math easier, let’s assume that 10,000 cars a day travel from City A to City B every morning. If all 10,000 take the highway, traffic is backed up and the trip takes an hour -- 10,000 total drive hours are spent on the morning commute. If twenty percent of the daily commuters take the surface road instead, traffic flows smoothly and the other 80 per cent get a 30 minute commute instead of an hour-long one. The twenty percent who take the surface road, of course, get an hour-long commute. Six thousand total person-hours are spent on the morning commute instead of 10,000. Less time wasted, less gas wasted, less frustration. Society as a whole is clearly better off.

The problem is, there is no particular motivation for any individual driver to be part of the 20% who take the surface road. If I take the highway I might get an hour-long trip, but if I’m fortunate and enough other people have decided to take the surface road, I get a half-hour trip. There is no rational reason for me to take the surface road, because if  I take the surface road, I know I’m going to have an hour-long trip. I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by choosing the highway. So unless I am either a tzaddik or a masochist, I have no motivation to take the surface road. Society may be better off if I do so, but I personally am likely to be worse off. This is a case where my own self-interest clashes with the good of society as a whole. And the same is true of every single individual in the commuter pool.

Truth be told, there are times when a speedy trip is not the most important thing. There are times when I might take a country road rather than a highway because it’s more interesting, or it’s fall and I want to see the foliage, or there is a store along the route which I want to visit. But in the scenario I’ve described, I would absolutely not be willing to have an hour commute every day just so that most other people could have a half-hour one.  I would be willing to do it once a week if everyone else took their turn also.

It would benefit everyone if the commuters voluntarily agreed that each person would take the surface road one day a week and the highway the other four. But a plan like that would only be effective if the right number of people took the surface road each particular day and if no one cheated. If people start cheating, or if too many people choose the surface road on Mondays and not enough on Wednesdays, the system breaks down and we are back where we started.

In the end, the only system that is likely to work would be government-devised and enforced. Each driver would have to be assigned one day a week on which he or she would not be allowed to take the highway, and fined enough so that it would not be worth your while to cheat.

A couple of years ago, a youngish Protestant minister named Lillian Daniel wrote a “Daily Devotional” for an internet e-mail list that went viral and eventually prompted her to write a whole book based on it. I shared it with the congregation where I was then the rabbi, because I thought it spoke to American Jews as well, since we are at least as American as we are Jewish and we are not exempt from general societal trends.

Here is what she wrote:

“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.


Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. “

When I was in rabbinical school in Cincinnati there was a philosophy professor named Alvin Reines who had founded his own denomination of Judaism called “Polydoxy.” The word “orthodoxy” literally means “correct doctrine,” and thus “polydoxy” means “many doctrines.” Since there is no way to prove which doctrine or teaching is the “correct” one, polydoxy “affirms the right of the individual to religious self-authority or autonomy.” Professor Reines defined Shabbat not as a period of time but rather as “a psychic state of being in which the person achieves a sense of profoundly meaningful existence.” I don’t know if it is true or not, but it was rumored that Prof. Reines observed Shabbat on Wednesday because it was more convenient for him.

The most important idea of polydoxy was that one should not impose their own religious beliefs or practices on other people. The joke was that a Polydox congregation actually existed somewhere but it never actually held services, because to decide on a particular time for services would impinge on the autonomy of the people who preferred a different time.

But even this quirky group committed to radical autonomy and individuality nevertheless bands together into organized congregations and does, in fact, have services at specific times. From the Polydox Institute’s Frequently Asked Questions: “In an organized community the resources of individuals can be pooled for the common benefit. Through combined resources, teachers and other specialists can be engaged to staff a religious school or conduct adult study groups where the knowledge of alternatives necessary for free choice can be imparted. Organized communities possess a number of other values for Polydox religionists. Two that bear noting are these. Celebrations of life-history ceremonies and observances of holidays are enhanced when experienced in common. And the mere fact of being united in community with others who share one's fundamental religious principles brings a sense of fullness and release from isolation.”

As radical as Polydoxy is, it seems to recognize that the need for community is basic to Judaism. If you look at the liturgy of the High Holidays, almost all of it is written in the plural. We refer to God on the High Holidays as “Avinu Malkenu” -- our Father, our King -- in the plural. We ask God for forgiveness “al chet shechatanu lifanecha” -- for the sin which we have sinned against You. We say “ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu”  “we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed.” We, we, we; us, us, us.

How do we understand the fact that our liturgy is in the plural? Why am I expected to confess to a whole series of sins which I have not personally committed? As our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us: “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

This sense of mutual responsibility is expressed, I think, in the requirement of a minyan for certain prayers. I am often asked where this requirement comes from and why it has to be ten.

Oddly enough, the biblical text on which this requirement hangs is the story of the Twelve Spies. In the Book of Numbers, chapters 13 and 14, Moses sent twelve spies to explore the Promised Land. They came back saying that while the land was a very good land indeed, its people were strong and its cities well-fortified, and therefore there was no way that the Israelites would be able to conquer it. Well, that is what most of them said. Caleb and Joshua issued a dissenting report, saying that they were sure the Israelites could conquer the Land because that is what God had promised.

As a result of this incident, God decreed that our ancestors would spend 40 years in the desert. He rhetorically asked Moses, “how long must I put up with this edah ra’ah, this evil congregation?” And this is the smallest grouping in the Torah to which the term edah, congregation is applied -- you may be more familiar with the word edah in its construct form of Adath or Adas, as in Congregation Adas Israel or Adath Jeshurun. But of course two of the 12 spies were not evil at all, so the “evil congregation” consists of the ten bad spies. So we know, therefore, that the smallest possible size of a “congregation,” according to the Torah, is ten.

There is an old Yiddish saying that nine rabbis don’t make a minyan but ten horse thieves do. Perhaps that saying is rooted in the fact that the biblical support for a minyan being ten rests not in a congregation of saints but a congregation of sinners. It is an important lesson: in order to “count” in Judaism you do not have to be a rabbi or a saint. You just have to show up.

You have to show up because we need you and because you need us -- we need each other. We need each other because together we can do what is impossible for each of us as an individual. Unlike highways, synagogues are funded and run and maintained voluntarily by people who choose to do so.

The increasingly individualistic nature of American religion and Judaism’s emphasis on community come into tension particularly around the requirement of a minyan to say Mourner’s Kaddish. This tension was highlighted some years ago in an episode of the TV series “Northern Exposure” where the inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska, went to great lengths but were ultimately unsuccessful in putting together a minyan of ten Jews so that the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleishman, could say Kaddish for an uncle who had died. Here in Upper Montgomery County  it is generally not difficult to arrange for a minyan when one is needed but it can take a little pre-planning and maybe a few phone calls to friends and neighbors.

Some will choose to say Kaddish even without a minyan and while I do not endorse such a practice I would never attempt to prevent anyone from doing so. But I think the practice of saying Kaddish with a minyan is important and is worth some inconvenience to maintain.

The requirement for a minyan also serves, I think, to force the mourner out of his or her isolation. It requires the mourner to be in contact with other people and requires the community to assist the mourner as well. Relaxing the requirement of a minyan, encouraging people to simply say Kaddish at home or wherever they are, may seem compassionate, but it undermines a core pillar of Jewish life and accelerates the disintegration of our sense of community, our sense that we are responsible to one another.

This sense of mutual responsibility is increasingly hard to find in American life, whether we are talking about religion or any other aspect of public life, including driving. Throughout the country, seats on local government commissions and boards regularly go unfilled because there are no volunteers willing to serve. The difficulties that our synagogue faces in ensuring a minyan for services, finding volunteers and running programs are not unique to us. Indeed, they are not unique to synagogues -- many churches have similar difficulties. As Rabbi Eliahu Stern, an Orthodox rabbi and Ph.D. who teaches religious studies at Yale puts it: “I do not mean that most Jews don’t feel any responsibility for the upkeep of Judaism, but rather that most human beings don’t feel any responsibility for anything. “Whatever” has replaced “I care” in our social vocabulary.”

In the year 200 0Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, who is both a Mayflower descendant and an involved Jew,  published his now-classic work Bowling Alone, which discusses the decline of “social capital” in Western society -- the ties that bind us one to another and make our community a better place. To a large extent, many of the economic dislocations Western countries face are caused or exacerbated by the loss of social capital. Businesses feel less and less responsible to their employees, and vice-versa. People patronize the big box retailer rather than the local store owned by their neighbor, to save a few dollars -- with the result that downtowns become ghost towns and local businesses that have been around for decades are driven into bankruptcy.

The impact of the loss of feeling of communal responsibility has also, in my opinion, been one of the main drivers of the challenges most American synagogues today face.  The fact that the majority of American Jews are not synagogue members is not new; for many families, including the one in which I grew up, the typical pattern was to join a synagogue when the oldest child was in elementary school and quit right after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of the youngest child. And thus it is that while at any particular time less than 50% of American Jews are synagogue members, 80% of American Jews have historically been synagogue members at some point in their lives.

While Bar or Bat Mitzvah was the “hook” which drove membership numbers, today, even that is gone. Families increasingly never affiliate; they hire a tutor and a rent-a-rabbi (who may or may not have authentic ordination), rent a meeting room in a hotel, and voila, instant life cycle event. It’s no longer a case of dropping synagogue membership after the last Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Jews increasingly never affiliate at all. I am sure that there are times when families find these events meaningful, but a private life-cycle event cannot provide the sense of community that a brick-and-mortar synagogue can.

Some of you here today are former members of Kehilat Shalom; others have never been members but have given annually in order to attend High Holiday services. With respect and affection, I want to tell you that we need and want you to become members of our congregation. Your participation matters to us; you matter to us. Synagogue membership is not a “fee for service” proposition where you are purchasing certain services from the congregation. It is a brit kodesh, a holy covenant. It is a two-way commitment and a two-way responsibility.
The Days of Awe are all about teshuvah, which while we translate it as “repentance” is really closer to “return.” There are certain values which we know we ought to live by. We know that we need community, that we need each other. We know that our society can be better, that taking care of our neighbor is more important than saving a couple of bucks, that caring about others and being cared about are basic human needs. Yom Kippur comes to remind us, to call us back to a better way of life. May we have the courage to live our lives in community and with concern for each other.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Current Thoughts on Israel

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
RH 5775
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

This morning we read in the Torah of God’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham and Sarah through the birth of Isaac. Abraham of course already has a son through Hagar, Ishmael, but Sarah demands that Abraham banish him. Abraham doesn’t want to do this, as he loves both his sons, but God tells him to accede to Sarah’s wish and promises that Ishmael, too, will enjoy God’s protection and become a great nation.

3500 years later it remains to be seen whether Isaac and Ishmael can live together in peace. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas was the latest but almost certainly not the last installment of a conflict that, at least mythically, traces back to biblical times.

And yet in some ways this summer’s war was unique. In 1982, when the First Lebanon War started, I was in Israel on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country. Many Israelis felt that the Lebanon War was Israel’s first “milchemet breira,” war of choice, violating the unwritten consensus that Israel goes to war only when there are no other alternatives. Shortly after the war broke out, a rally of over 100,000 people against the war took place in Tel Aviv. Such a protest, while the troops were still fighting, was unprecedented. But ever since 1982, whenever there has been a war or major military operation, a significant proportion of the Israeli Jewish public has opposed it.

Until this summer. Polls indicate that 95% of the Israeli Jewish public supported this summer’s war against Hamas.

As you know, I spent several days in Israel this summer as part of a Solidarity Mission of Conservative rabbis and lay leaders. When we arrived in Israel, a cease fire had been in effect for several days. Our first visit was to an Iron Dome battery near Ashdod and our second visit was to a Conservative synagogue in Ashkelon. Ashkelon is quite near Gaza and the people with whom we met told us what life had been like during the active fighting. Always having to be within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter and planning out your route to work or the grocery store accordingly. How all summer camps and any gatherings of over 50 people had to be cancelled; how the city had taken over a reinforced parking garage to use as a playground so kids could still ride bicycles or kick a soccer ball around. But at the same time, they were describing all of this in the past tense and looking forward to life getting back to normal.

But as our group was in Beersheva three Hamas rockets from Gaza landed harmlessly in a field outside the city.  We did not hear the rockets but a few minutes later we heard and saw as Israeli jets streaked overhead towards Gaza. The fighting was back on, worse than ever, and I was awakened that night in our Jerusalem hotel by an alarm and an announcement to get to the bomb shelter.

Fortunately I was never really in any danger. The Hamas rocket fired towards Jerusalem was taken out by the Iron Dome missile and though a bit of rocket debris did fall in Jerusalem, it wasn’t in the neighborhood where we were staying. But having experienced a rocket alarm firsthand helped me to understand a little more what life was like this summer for residents of southern Israel. When the alarm went off, I was in bed and had 90 seconds to get to the shelter -- whereas in Ashkelon or Sderot, it was 15 seconds. Should I get dressed or head to the shelter in my underwear, since I hadn’t packed a bathrobe?  Should I stop to take my cell phone, or would that delay me unreasonably? What if, fearing insomnia due to the change in time zones, I had taken a sleeping pill?

Although relatively few civilians were killed or injured, it was this kind of disruption of daily life that led to such broad support for the war effort. Anyone in southern Israel with young children, anyone elderly or disabled, had to either leave the area or live in a shelter. I thought of my own family -- with Keleigh disabled and using a walker, there is no way we would have been able to guarantee that she could get to the shelter in time, and we, too, would have had to leave our home.

While it was the rockets that led to the war, it was the tunnels which solidified the Israeli public’s support. Some Palestinians and their supporters have explained the tunnels as a necessary response to the closure of Gaza’s borders by both Israel and Egypt; and indeed there were many tunnels from Gaza into the Egyptian Sinai which were used to smuggle everyday goods. But the tunnels into Israel were not intended for consumer goods. They were meant to enable terrorists to enter kibbutzim and towns and murder or kidnap their inhabitants, possibly in a coordinated attack. I’ve seen reports that Israeli intelligence discovered that the attack was planned for this very day, Rosh Hashanah.

If this summer’s war served to unify the Jewish citizens of Israel, to some extent it had the opposite effect in the Diaspora.  Jonathan Chait, a New York Magazine columnist, former editor of The New Republic and generally a reliably pro-Israel voice, penned a column with the headline “Israel Is Making It Hard to be Pro-Israel.”  A media analyst  wrote “if Israel is beginning to lose people like Jonathan Chait, then it’s support in the U.S. is showing real signs of eroding.”

Antony Lerman, a British and Israeli citizen and former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, went further, publishing an Op-Ed in the New York Times proclaiming that it was no longer possible to be a liberal Zionist. Lerman wrote that anti-democratic forces are setting the agenda in Israel, that the two-state solution was dead, and that liberal Zionists were merely providing cover for the “supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today,” that they are “an obstacle to the emergence of a Diaspora Jewish movement that could actually be an agent of change.”

Lerman says that those who claim to be liberal Zionists ought to recognize that, in point of fact, one can be a liberal or a Zionist, but not both. He calls on liberal Zionists to “acknowledge the demise of their brand” and become part of the movement for a unitary democratic state, neither Jewish nor Arab, in what is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Rabbi David Hartman used to tell a story about a group of Jewish intellectuals in Czarist Russia who would sit around and discuss moving to the Land of Israel, but the  leader of the group would always tell them that it’s not time yet. One day as they were in a tavern, they were approached by a non-Jewish intellectual, a friend of theirs, who had had a few drinks. He said to them: “you know what we Gentiles dislike about you Jews? You think you’re more moral than we are, and we don’t like that.”

The group leader said to him: “but we are more moral than you are. We don’t hunt.” The Russian responded: “of course you don’t hunt. We don’t allow you to own guns.”

The leader turned to his fellows: “Now. Now is the time for us to move to the Land of Israel.” “Why now?” “We will prove that it is possible to own guns and yet not to hunt.”

I suspect that in point of fact very few Israelis hunt, because Israel is pretty densely-populated, much of the land where it would be safe to discharge weapons is already in use by the Army for training, and animals killed by a gunshot aren’t kosher.
But as with most stories Rabbi Hartman used to tell, there is a larger point. It is relatively easy to live by Jewish values, to be morally pure and unsullied, when you don’t have responsibility for the wellbeing of an entire society -- when the Gentiles don’t let you own guns. Is it possible to create a society that lives by Jewish values when you actually have power, when the problems of everyday life are not just talked about in the taverns and coffeehouses but in the Knesset and the Defense Ministry?

ITheodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, or A.D. Gordon and the founders of the kibbutz movement, had no interest in bringing the pathologies and injustices of Europe to the Middle East. They hoped to create an exemplary state, one based on utopian ideals of justice, equality and peace.

On the other hand,  the poet  Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that the Zionist dream will be realized when a Jewish policeman arrests a Jewish prostitute who will be sent to jail by a Jewish judge.

There has been a lot of criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war this past summer. It is incontrovertible that many civilians, including hundreds of children, were killed by Israeli air strikes and artillery. When we were in Israel our group did not shy away from these issues. We discussed how the Air Force chooses targets with a reserve general who was one of the pilots who destroyed the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and artillery targeting with the commander of an artillery battalion in the field just outside of Gaza. The commander is probably the only colonel in the IDF whose mother is a Conservative rabbi. He told us that he personally approves every target and has eliminated potential targets when the risk of killing innocent civilians was too great.

We also met with Prof. Asa Kasher, a philosopher specializing in ethics and the author of the IDF code of ethics. One of the points he addressed was that of “proportionality”; given that Palestinian deaths exceeded Israeli ones by a ratio of at least 50 to 1, there has been a lot of criticism of Israel’s allegedly disproportionate response.

Prof. Kasher explained that proportionality is not a matter of the ratio of deaths on both sides; rather, the harm caused to civilians must be proportionate to the military value of the target. When you have an enemy who chooses to base itself among a civilian population, that uses schools and mosques and hospitals to store weapons and launch rockets, that uses ambulances to transport weapons, the duty to avoid harm to civilians runs up against the duty a government has to protect its own citizens.If I know that the head of Hamas is going to be attending a wedding, can I drop bombs on the catering hall where the wedding is being held?  Is it ethical to kill 100 civilians in order to eliminate the head of Hamas? What about 5 citizens? It isn’t an easy calculation to make. Israel doesn’t always get it right, but the IDF recently launched criminal investigations into a number of incidents from this summer, including the shelling of a UN school and the deaths of four Palestinian boys playing on a beach near the Gaza port. If soldiers or their commanders acted improperly or negligently, they will pay the price.

Zionism and the State of Israel were meant, of course, to solve the Jewish problem, but what problem exactly is that? For some, it was the problem of the Jews -- to create a place of refuge, where Jews would be safe from persecution. For some, it was the problem of Judaism -- a place where the language of daily life would be Hebrew, where Jewish religious and cultural creativity would flourish, where Jews could figure out how to create not only a communal but a national life using the Bible and the Talmud for guidance while also being a part of the larger region and world.

Israel is now 66  years old and the dilemmas are very much with us. Our group last month also met with Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, an Israeli  Arab who is a professor of geography and demography at Sapir Academic College, a mostly-Jewish institution in Sederot, right on the Gaza border. Dr. Abu Ras discussed the dilemmas of Israeli Arabs, Arabs who live in Israel proper, not the West Bank or Gaza, hold Israeli citizenship, vote in Israeli elections, and for the most part speak fluent Hebrew. Yet, because Israel is understood as a Jewish state; because the symbols of Israel are the menorah and the Star of David; because the Israeli national anthem speaks of the "Jewish soul's yearning"; and because most Israeli Arabs have relatives on the other side of the Green Line --Dr. Abu Ras has family in Gaza -- they are not fully part of Israel. And yet, they identify as Israelis and have made quite clear their desire to remain Israeli citizens with their villages as part of Israel, even if a Palestinian state is eventually created on adjacent Palestinian land.

Shouldn't Israel be a state with whose symbols all its citizens can identify? Shouldn't it serve the needs of all its citizens? But wasn't Israel established precisely so that it could be a Jewish state? Shouldn't it promote the well-being of Jews and develop housing and infrastructure for Jews from throughout the world who come to live in Israel -- even if this might mean that economic development in the Arab sector gets the short end of the stick?

Israel’s internal policies and its conduct of military operations raise many dilemmas. It is tempting, as many younger Jews who are troubled by these dilemmas, and some who are not so young, to simply walk away from involvement with Israel altogether. Or conversely, as many Jews who are leaders of Jewish organizations, or those who look back on the 1940s and 1950s with a certain nostalgia do, to deny that these dilemmas exist, to ignore them, to attack those who raise questions, and to retreat to the image of Israel as a biblical theme park.

But I prefer to think of Israel as the place where an important conversation is going on about what it means to live as a Jew today. Both American Jewry and Israel are important conversions, but Israel is a conversation with an army and an air force and so the stakes are a little bit higher. As Rabbi David Hartman taught, for two thousand years we did not have to deal with questions of the moral use of power. Now we do. What is the proper way a Jew, a Jewish nation, uses a gun or a tank or an airplane?  How can Israel be simultaneously a Jewish state and a democratic state for all its citizens. This is perhaps the central Jewish conversation of our time.

But Israel is more than a state or a conversation, it is also a family. And so I want to leave you with another vignette, a story that happened to me in February 2001. I was traveling in Israel with about 20 other Conservative rabbis. Our trip was what is known in tourism industry jargon as a “Familiarization Trip,” organized by a travel agency which was trying to convince us to use their services for congregational trips to Israel, and so the hotels and everything else were really top notch. We were spending the night at a hotel by the Dead Sea when we saw posters announcing that Motorola was putting on a concert for its employees that night, and some of us wanted to go.

We asked our guide to make arrangements, and he tried, but it was impossible. The event was strictly for Motorola employees, admission was by invitation only and no tickets were being sold under any circumstances. We were disappointed, but our guide said that he wanted to see the concert too and that the best bet was for us to simply show up and see if we could talk our way in. So five of us plus our guide headed off to the massive tent where the concert was held, and went to the back entrance to see if we could talk our way in.

When we got there, the guard asked to see our invitations, which of course we did not have. But somehow, one of our party, Rabbi Neil Brief from Chicago, the only one in the group who was in his 60s -- the rest of us were in our late 30s or early 40s -- had been given an invitation by one of the Motorola employees who didn't plan to attend. So Rabbi Brief showed the guard his invitation and we started to walk in.

But the guard stopped us and said "zeh bishvilcha -- mah eetam?" This is for you -- what about them? And Rabbi Brief pointed to the invitation and said "katuv po, l'chol ha-mishpacha" -- it says here, this invitation is for you and your  whole family. The guard laughed, said "beseder, beseder" -- OK, OK, and waved us all in. And we enjoyed a wonderful concert, a buffet and an open bar, courtesy of Motorola Israel and the friendly guard.

All Jews are, indeed, family, and Israel is an important part of our family. Israel is not perfect, indeed, it is far from perfect. But our family members do not have to be perfect in order to receive our love and our support.  We must never stop working for the day when Isaac and Ishmael dwell together again as brothers. We must never stop doing what we can to help Israel become the “light unto the nations” and the “first flowering of redemption” that it was meant to  be. But it’s imperfections should never cause us to walk away from her. We do not abandon our family that easily.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Israel Trip, Day Three

Shalom from Jerusalem.

The day started on a bit of an odd note as we compared notes on the Red Alert earlier that morning. It might help to know that at least in our hotel, all of the stairwells are considered shelters so our group was not all together for the duration of the alert. My stairwell had a bunch of American kids visiting Israeli relatives, a Haredi physician from Lakewood, NJ, and Deb Finklestein, the executive director of Kol Shalom Congregation in Rockville.

I want to make clear that this note and the two from earlier this week are in no way meant to be a full report -- they are just quick highlights and impressions. It takes me a while to “process” things and if you want to know more details, come to shul this coming Shabbat.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer spoke to us over breakfast on the rise of antisemism in the world. Prof. Bauer is one of the world’s leading experts on the Shoah and antisemitism, a winner of the Israel Prize -- and 89 years old but as spry and lively as ever (I have met him a few times over the years.) His talk was sobering but also gave a note of perspective -- he said that antisemitism is not all of one piece and there is a big difference between Islamist antisemitism in Europe which is essentially anti-Western and liberal antisemitism or conversely, right-wing antisemitism. Indeed some neo-fascists in Europe are actually pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.

We went to the Supreme Court and met with Justice Hanan Meltzer -- we were supposed to meet Justice Elyakim Rubenstein but he had a family emergency and got Justice Meltzer to meet us instead. Justice Meltzer captivated us with his warmth and humor and his openness -- he shared his own feelings at the recent serious injury to his son while serving in Gaza with the IDF. He gave us a fascinating overview of the history and role of the Israeli Supreme Court and how it functions -- it’s quite different than the US Supreme Court with which we are familiar. There are fifteen justices and cases are heard by panels of anywhere from three to 11 depending on the importance of the case. Justice Meltzer is on a panel which is about to hear a case on the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. Because of this, he could not address the subject directly but did point out that as a lawyer in private practice, he himself had represented the Conservative and Reform movements in a similar case thirty years ago.

After this we travelled to the Conservative movement center on Agron St. to hear from Natan Sharansky and Asa Kasher. Sharansky is one of the great heroes of our time, As Anatoly Scharansky, he spent almost a decade in the Gulag as punishment for seeking to leave the USSR and move to Israel. He was released in 1989, the only political prisoner ever freed early by Gorbachev, and immediately immigrated to Israel. He has served as a Member of Knesset and Cabinet Minister and today is the head of the Jewish Agency. I had never met him before and I was really impressed by his warmth, his unassuming manner and his intellect. It was truly a feeling of being in the presence of greatness.

After Sharansky we heard from Prof. Asa Kasher, one of Israel’s leading ethicists and the author of the Israel Defense Forces Code of Ethics. He explained that the Code is guided by two principles, the right and duty of self-defense and the preservation of human dignity and human life. Unfortunately our group was running somewhat behind and Prof. Kasher never really got to explain, as he said he would, how this code is applied in the case of targeted killings (like yesterday’s attempt to kill Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, which killed his wife and toddler but may not have killed Deif himself.)

We then had lunch “on your own” on the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall which had less than half as many people as one would expect this time of year. I enjoyed the best shwarma since Pita Hut in Rockville closed and did a little souvenir shopping. Then back on the bus to travel to Kehilat Ya’ar Ramot in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

We were greeted by the members of the congregation who again greeted us with warmth, gratitude, and the typical Israeli spread of three times as much food and drink as the group could reasonably consume. We heard from Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, an Israeli Arab who is a professor at both Ben Gurion University in Beersheba and Sapir College which is right on the border of Gaza. He is a co-director of the Abraham Fund, an NGO founded by an American Conservative rabbi which works to enhance cooperation between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Dr. Abu Rass presented his vision of a State of Israel which is both Jewish and democratic, with equal rights and participation by it’s Arab citizens, living in peace with a Palestinian state that accepts the legitimacy and Jewish identity of Israel.

We then heard from the Leader of the Opposition, Yaacov Herzog, who is head of the Labor Party. MK Herzog spent some of his youth in New York when his father, the late Chaim Herzog (who later became President of Israel), was the Israeli ambassador to the UN. He’s very familiar and comfortable with Conservative Judaism and as Minister of Housing in Ehud Olmert’s government found money in his budget to construct two Conservative synagogues -- the only Cabinet Minister ever to have done so. Herzog was supportive of Israel’s necessity to defend itself against Hamas and its tunnels and rockets but very critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to do more to promote Abu Mazen as an alternative.

We were supposed to meet this afternoon with Avichai Mandelblit, the Cabinet Secretary (roughly equivalent to White House Chief of Staff) but there was an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. Instead, briefings were quickly arranged for us at the Foreign Ministry. We were specifically requested not to write about these meeting and I am respecting that request but I may speak about them in general terms this coming Shabbat. I will see that I was impressed by the professionalism and skill of the high level diplomats we met as well as another generous spread of food and drink -- a rare incidence of Israeli government funding for Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow morning we will rise early to go to the Kotel Masorti, the newly-established area for egalitarian services at the Western Wall, where we will present a Torah scroll for the use of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and other services. Later we will travel to Tel Aviv for meetings and then to the airport and back to the States. We’ve become used to last-minute radical changes to our itinerary so I won’t even bother telling you what is supposed to happen tomorrow, since what we actually do will probably be different.

It should be noted that everything we did today took place while Hamas was shooting approximately 130 rockets into Israel -- mostly in the areas nearest Gaza, a few into the Tel Aviv area and none near Jerusalem where we are. Hamas has, however, warned foreign airlines not to fly into Ben Gurion Airport after 6 o’clock Thursday morning (11 pm. Wednesday east coast time) and my decision to fly El Al is looking more and more wise. I’m scheduled to leave Israel at 1:30 a.m. Israel time on Friday which is 6:30 pm Thursday on the East Coast, and land at Newark Airport at around 6:00 a.m. Friday morning. So this is my last missive from Jerusalem and I look forward to seeing you on Shabbat.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Israel Trip, Day Two

It’s a little after midnight Wednesday morning in Israel. About twenty five minutes ago I was awakened by a loud announcement over our hotel’s PA instructing everyone to go immediately to the shelter on your corridor and wait there until further notice. We stayed about ten or fifteen minutes and then were allowed back to our rooms. Meanwhile the app on my cell phone which goes off every time there is a missile warning has been going off pretty steadily.

When the day started it did not seem likely that it would end in this way. Israel and Hamas had agreed to extend their five day ceasefire for another 24 hours while negotiations continued and an agreement seemed in sight. We started the morning by traveling to Ashdod to see the Iron Dome battery there. We were met by General (Res.) Israel Shafir who explained to us how the Iron Dome works and how it fits in with Israel’s overall defense system. We learned, among other things, that the Iron Dome system allows rockets that it knows will land harmlessly in vacant areas to do so, since each missile the system shoots costs $50,000. Gen. Shafir, a former fighter pilot (he was one of the pilots who took place in Israel’s raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in the 1980s) also explained how a fighter pilot decides whether or not to take out a target. He told us that the IDF attacks military targets exclusively and will call off an attack if the likelihood of many civilian casualties is present. He impressed me with his statement that preservation of human life, Israeli or Palestinian, is a key Jewish value and that failure to attempt to do so undermines the basic reason for Israel to exist -- which is to preserve not only Jewish lives but Jewish culture and values.

From Ashdod we traveled to the field encampment of the 55th Artillery Brigade, where we met with it’s commander, Lt. Col Gadi Dror. Col, Dror is the son of Rabbi Gilah Dror, the first Israeli woman rabbi to head her own congregation. He walked us through how he determines whether or not to target a certain objective, and again how he tries very hard to minimize civilian losses and will call off an attack when necessary.

We traveled to Masorti (Conservative) congregations in Ashkelon, Beersheva and Omer and learned of how the war has affected them. We learned, for example, that 80 percent of the Masorti Movement’s activities consist in community service and not what we might consider specifically “religious” activities. All the summer camps and classes were cancelled because it is not permitted to hold any activity that will attract more people than can fit in the nearest shelter. I was impressed by the dignified way our hosts are attempting to live as normal a life as possible and how grateful they were that we were there. When we got to Omer, a suburb of Beersheva, we learned that while we were in the Beersheva Conservative synagogue three rockets had fallen nearby without hurting anyone. Shortly thereafter we heard the engines of the fighter jets headed towards Gaza.

We left the South and headed to Modiin, a new city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We went to the Masorti synagogue there to be addressed by Rachel Frankel, whose son Naftali was one of the three teens kidnapped and subsequently killed, which set in motion the series of actions which led to this war. Rabbanit Frankel is a leading Orthodox feminist and teaches advanced Talmud in Orthodox women’s yeshivot. She set an Israeli precedent when she rose with her husband and oldest son to say Kaddish at Naftali’s funeral.

I cannot begin to put into words how meaningful this meeting was. Mrs. Frankel, despite her suffering, is a person of joy and deep spirituality. She and her family reached out to the family of the Palestinian teenager who was tortured and murdered by Jews in a “revenge attack” after the bodies of the three boys were found. It was really an honor to meet with her.

Tomorrow -- or I guess actually later today -- we will meet some top Israeli political figures, conditions permitting. We’ll also hear from Prof. Asa Kasher who wrote the Israeli Defense Forces’ Code of Ethics.

If you are my Facebook friend, our bus is equipped with WiFi and I am posting pictures and brief updates throughout the day -- feel free to check it out.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!