Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Our Own Story -- Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

There is an old joke about David Ben Gurion debating with some of his inner circle whether or not to declare the statehood of Israel upon the British pullout in 1948. If the state were declared, five Arab states would immediately attack the nascent Jewish commonwealth, not to mention the Palestinian Arabs who were already fighting against the Jews. How could Israel possibly prevail in such a situation?

Ben Gurion is reported to have said: “either the usual thing will happen, or else a miracle will happen, but either way we shall win.”

He was asked to clarify what he meant, and he is supposed to have said: “either the usual thing will happen, and God will save us; or a real miracle will happen, and our soldiers will win the war on their own.”

I’ve heard this joke a number of times and even used it on occasion, but it occurs to me that there is no way that Ben Gurion could have said what was attributed to him. First of all, Ben Gurion was at best an agnostic if not an atheist; more significantly, the whole point of Zionism was to no longer wait for God to deliver His people but rather for us to take matters into our own hands. Ben Gurion had every confidence that his troops were well-positioned to beat the Arab armies, no matter what others might think. He would not have relied on a God he didn’t believe in to rescue the newly-created Israel Defense Forces.

I suspect rather that this joke was born in the Diaspora, because it reflects a certain mentality of the Jew-as-nebbish, the Jew who can’t fight his own battles, the Jew as Woody Allen or Richard Lewis, that is widespread among many Diaspora Jews.

The semi-official motto of Conservative Judaism is “Tradition and Change,” which like most mottos is a gross oversimplification. And anyway, aren’t “tradition” and “change” opposites? If we uphold tradition we are resistant to change; and every change is a move away from tradition.

But as Conservative Jews, we understand that Judaism has a history, that it did not one day fall intact from the sky but rather was developed over centuries by our ancestors. We see that the tradition itself often contains more than one explanation for the meaning of a certain practice. The Sukkah is said to stand for both the booths in which our ancestors dwelt during their sojourn in the desert, and the ananei kavod, the Clouds of Glory, which accompanied them on that journey. Shabbat is a reminder both of the Exodus and of Creation; Shavuot symbolizes both the beginning of the harvest and the giving of the Torah, Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. The practices tend to remain constant but the meanings attributed to the practices change over time.

Prof. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about this in his seminal work "Rethinking Modern Judaism." Professor Eisen described certain of our religious observances as "regular performances which lend performers the conviction that they are carrying on the essence of their ancestor's faith and practice even while they alter both belief and observance to suit their new circumstances." Or in less academic prose, we convince ourselves that we are doing precisely what previous generations of Jews did, even while we modify both the practice and the significance we ascribe to it. That is why for Israeli Jews, Chanukah is about the Maccabees and their restoration of Jewish national independence, while for American Jews, Chanukah is about freedom of religion.

A classic example can be found in the Chanukah song which in Hebrew is called "Mi Yimallel". The first verse is "mi yimallel g'vurot yisrael, otan mi yimneh?" which means "who can recount the heroic acts of Israel, who can count them?" The verse is based on a Psalm verse which might be familiar to you as it is part of Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals; Ps. 106:2 -- "mi yimallel g'vurot adonai?" "who can recount the heroic acts of God?"

Do you see what has happened here? A verse from Psalms which talks about God's saving power has been transformed into a secular Zionist paean to Jewish heroism. This is perfectly in keeping with the Zionist ethos which emphasizes, not reliance on God but rather reliance on our own actions.

So the psalm verse has been transformed once by its emended inclusion in a secular Zionist Chanukah song. But coming to America it has been transformed again because in English the song begins "Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" The emphasis is not on the heroic acts of God nor those of Israel, but rather on "the things that befell us." This is in accordance with what the great historian Salo Baron called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history" which sees Judaism primarily as a series of tragedies and oppressions perpetrated against the Jews by others.

Adherents of Baron’s “lachrymose conception” -- which he simply described but did not himself adhere to -- posit that Jewish history is primarily about what others have done to Jews. This is precisely why for many years the study of history in mainstream Israeli schools essentially skipped everything from the end of the Second Temple period through the rise of Zionism in the late 1800s.  Jewish history for Ben Gurion and the other early Zionist pioneers was most emphatically not supposed to be about what others had done to Jews. It was about what Jews themselves had done, and thus there was basically nothing in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple that was worth studying.

I remember back in 1975 when the UN General Assembly passed its infamous -- and subsequently repealed -- resolution declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. And how in response we all began wearing buttons declaring that we were Zionists. A few years after that I became a board member of one of the constituent organizations of the American Zionist Federation and I’ve served as a delegate to two American Zionist Conventions and one World Zionist Youth Congress (when I was still young enough to qualify!) I was an unsuccessful candidate for the World Zionist Congress ten or fifteen years ago, on a slate headed by the late great Theodor Bikel, and some of you may recall that in one of my Friday morning e-mails to the congregation a few months ago I urged you to vote in the elections for the upcoming Zionist Congress and included the link which would allow you to do that. And, of course, I lived on a border kibbutz for two years and slept most nights with an Uzi under my bed.

Most Jews over the age of 40 or so -- unless they are either Haredi or extreme leftists -- will proudly claim the mantle of Zionist. But what does it mean to be a Zionist? Most Israelis would say that we American Jews are not Zionists because a Zionist makes aliyah. The Likud says that the Israeli Labor Party is not really Zionist because a real Zionist supports Jewish settlement in the entire Land of Israel. The Labor Party says that the Likud is not really Zionist because its policies will lead to a bi-national state whereas Zionism is about creating and maintaining a Jewish state.

The best definition of Zionism I have seen lately comes from an unlikely source. Amna Farooqi is a senior at the University of Maryland and grew up not far from here in Potomac. She is a Muslim of Pakistani descent but had mostly Jewish friends growing up and gravitated to Hillel events from the start of her college career. Taking a course in Israel Studies, she said, she “fell in love with Zionism, because Zionism became about taking ownership over the story of one’s people. If Zionism is about owning your future, how can I not respect that?,” according to an interview published in the Times of Israel. Last year she spent a semester studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

This Muslim woman understands what Zionism is -- taking ownership of our people’s future. As I heard writer Leon Wieseltier say at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium late last month, “Zionism is a conclusion that we draw from Jewish history.” Because if we don’t write our own story, someone else will write it for us.

The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz has often said that Zionism is a surname, a last name. It can be preceded by many first names -- socialist, religious, revisionist, and so on. This has been the case ever since the Zionist movement was created and no group in Israel or the Diaspora owns a monopoly on the term Zionist. Throughout the history of Zionism there have been those who sought to create a socialist Utopia and those who wanted a nation of respectable intellectuals and shopkeepers; those who wanted a state governed in accordance with halacha and those who had no use for religion; those who wanted a Hebrew republic on both sides of the Jordan River and those who favored a bi-national confederation with the Arabs; those who saw Israel as the only place where Jews should live and those who saw Israel as a center of Hebrew thought and creativity enriching the lives of Jews wherever they lived.

What all of these conflicting visions had in common, however, was the idea that it was time for the Jews to take charge of their own destiny. From now on, Jewish history would no longer be a litany of what other people had done to the Jews; rather, it would be the tale of what the Jewish people, working together, had managed to accomplish.

Over the past two years, our congregation has teamed with our neighbors at Shaare Torah to participate in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s “iEngage Project.” Hartman is an Israeli educational center based in Jerusalem, and it created the iEngage Project to change the nature of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel from one based in a narrative of crisis to one based in shared Jewish values.

To quote at some length: “The Jewish community is largely unprepared for today’s uncertainties about the relationship between Israel and world Jewry. The core feature of the "traditional” Israel narrative was the precariousness of Jewish survival. In this narrative, Jewish existence, both in Israel and around the world, was viewed as threatened by inevitable and sometimes imminent danger. This inspired the creation of a Jewish identity in which the survival and perpetuation of the Jewish people and the defense of Jews in danger became central values. Political, economic, and cultural success among world Jewry, coupled with growth in Jewish vitality and creativity, have diminished the compelling nature of this narrative as has the success story that is Israel. Without denying the dangers that Israel still faces on a daily basis, its military power and prowess along with its economic vitality, render a narrative of crisis less meaningful.”

But it is not only about Israel that Jewish leadership projects a narrative of crisis.  Some of you may know Robert Hyfler, who worked for our local Jewish Federation for many years before going on to work for the national umbrella organization of the federations. In a recent article, he wrote that many Jewish professionals project “a crisis of confidence . . . not in themselves, but in those they seek as clients and supporters. . . They are awash with questions as to our collective viability as a community, our demographic future and the set of historic values, both Jewish and American, that define us.”

I began my rabbinic career as a Hillel director, and I started working for Hillel at the same time that Richard Joel became its International Director. Richard revolutionized the way Hillel operates, and one of the things he did was to transform the way Hillel raised funds. He urged us not to raise money from fear, as many Jewish organizations do, but rather from hope. Tell potential donors about all the good things you already do, and then paint a picture of how much more you could do if you had better funding. No one, he would say, wants to give money to buy new deck chairs for the Titanic.

We worry about whether the Jewish community is engaging the next generation of Jews, but the narrative of crisis and decline is, as the Hartman Institute points out, a major barrier to that engagement. Because the idea that we are constantly under threat does not jive with the lived experience of the Jews we are trying to attract. They have grown up in a society where Jews are the most well-regarded ethnic and religious group in the country, where Jews though around 2% of the population are 10% of the membership of the Senate, where no profession is closed to them, where colleges compete for Jewish students by opening kosher dining halls. They have grown up in a world where Israel is ranked the 4th best place in the world to raise children, where Israel has the 11th strongest military in the world and the 24th highest per capita Gross Domestic Product.

My friend Rabbi Danny Gordis, with whom I once shared an office suite at the University of Judaism, wrote in the Jerusalem Post recently that rabbis should talk about Israel on the high holidays but not about the Iran deal or other political issues. Rather, he said, we should encourage our congregants to think about what Israel means to them and what our lives would be like if there were no Israel. “What would be the impact on American Judaism? on Hebrew language? on Jewish literature and culture? on the sense of pride that so pervades American Jews that they can scarcely imagine a world in which they didn't feel it.
The subject isn't Chicken Little's "the sky is falling," but gratitude. How does that tiny, highly imperfect, always embattled country across the ocean affect our lives, wherever we may live outside Israel?”
In a similar vein, Robert Hyfler urges us to abandon our despair: “despair at the normalcy in people’s lives, despair at the impact of many of their own successes and the future of the vital and still efficacious network of voluntary structures that in times of both crisis and quiet undergird day to day Jewish life.  . . despair at the naturally evolving nature of our relationship with Israel.”

Hyfler continues: “We should be concerned about this unraveling and consciously change the narrative to align our institutional thinking with how large numbers of American Jews live their lives and view their Jewishness within those lives. There is a need for a clear affirmation of an American Jewishness which celebrates our universalism, our Americanism along with our bedrock Jewish rootedness.
After 350 years in America it is time to unpack our bags. Doing so would proclaim that Jewish life in America is, and will continue to be, healthy, dynamic, autonomous, robust and evolving. We must rediscover and reinterpret the humanism that is the legacy of both the New World and important themes in classical Jewish religious practices and thought recurrent in the diversity of communities from whence we came.”
Every morning of the year the liturgy contains Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea which our ancestors sang after crossing through the Red Sea. When they got to the shores of the sea, the people turned against Moses. Moses assured them that God would deliver them, but when he then turned to God, God told Moses simply to tell the Israelites to go forward. It is only when they did so that God split the sea on their behalf. For millennia, we have been at our best when we combined our faith in God with a commitment to action. We cannot depend on God to do everything for us, but neither can we assume that our own resources alone are equal to the task.

At this time of year we conclude our services morning and evening with Psalm 27.  In it, David says “though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.” He concludes with a charge to all of us : “Hope in Adonai; be strong and let your heart take courage, and hope in Adonai.” While our generation faces challenges, they pale in comparison to the much graver challenges which our ancestors faced and over which they triumphed. Hope in Adonai; be strong and let our hearts take courage, and hope in Adonai.

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