Safe harbor

Response to ‘Rabbinical and Cantorial Students Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community’ from an elder colleague

I cannot not love Israel even as I struggle on behalf of a better Israel.

For well over a month now, I have not been able to get the open letter, “Rabbinical and Cantorial Students Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community,” out of my mind. My face fell when I first read it and now wish to engage with my future colleagues by sharing a few thoughts. 

I share in the anguish these signatories feel over the direction that Israel has taken in recent years. I use my pulpit regularly to harshly criticize Israel. The settlement project on the West Bank has created a moral and humanitarian disaster. The delusional “Greater Israel” biblical ideology of the nationalist religious camp makes a travesty of the compassionate ethical underpinnings of Jewish justice. However, as a rabbi who has served in a congregation for many years, allow me to note that being a rabbi requires a full confrontation with the Jewish saga. The Jewish experience in history informs our theology.  The State of Israel represents not only a safe harbor from the deadly danger that exile created but also a return home. “Home” for us is of deep theological significance. Home is the Garden of Genesis. Home vs Exile is the center of the Jewish story. Our role is to insure that our return home is built on a moral foundation. 

Being a rabbi means embracing and seeking to interpret the full complexity of the human experience. Ahavat Yisraeil is by no means easy. If the Jewish People is family, how does one critique its State from a loving embrace? That is a real question.

The ethical passion demonstrated in the letter beautifully reflects the students’ abiding dedication and commitment to justice. There is nothing more Jewish. Furthermore, I believe that the letter rightly sees the demand for justice for any marginalized group as a claim on Jewish conscience. Our inheritance is the command to love and embrace the otherwise overlooked and neglected as codified in Torah’s requirement of one law for citizen and stranger alike. This leaves the students properly aghast at the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I get all of that.  I really do. I have a drawer full of sermons decrying the situation on the West Bank and Gaza. Members of my own congregation regularly hear my unvarnished condemnations from the bimah. On the other hand, I sense that the new Jewish left views those of us who call ourselves liberal Zionists in the same way that they view those who advocate a Greater Israel ideology.  

Are these young rabbis tired of the Zionist project? I sense a problem here. I want the energy and passion of the next generation of rabbis and cantors to embrace Israel to help make a better Israel. I fear they want no such partnership. What do they want?  

Perhaps my generation has not always been helpful to these students and their generation in finding their way in this complicated journey we call Zionism. I am nearing the end of my active rabbinic career and I wonder often what my grandchildren’s grandchildren will inherit as a Jewish life. We are, after all, a chain of tradition. Some generations experience wrenching change while others seem to seamlessly pass on what they have inherited. What is the Jewish vision and narrative of the next generation of rabbis?

What do they believe about Jewish peoplehood, Jewish civilization and the place of “home” in Jewish theology? How does the centrality of the Land of Israel in the entire Jewish experience inform their thinking? How do they understand everything from a Mizrach on the wall to the letters on a Dreidel as expressions of our people’s longing for Zion? How do these young students understand the significance that “Eretz Yisraeil” holds in the Jewish heart? What about Abraham, the figure that the rabbis deliberately portrayed as a bold iconoclast, an independent thinker in the extreme? His journey, the dawn of the Jewish saga, began with going to the Land. Does their personal Judaism encompass the sense of place that is central to our theology from the very beginning?

Judaism happens in relation to real places. The Shabbat table, the kitchen, the home, the bimah, the school, the camp, the succah. This “placeness” of Judaism began in a specific place that we can point to on a map. We call it Abraham’s initial journey. Leave all thoughts of nationalism and politics and power aside, how does a Jew relate to that place? Do these students suggest we should not relate to it at all?

Because how would that even be possible?

The entire framework for Jewish spirituality is a cycle: home, exile, return. This is rooted in the tanakh and in our oldest history. It is a powerful metaphor for what it means to live as a person in the world. It is the part of Judaism that lives in our gut. It informs the ethical mandate that motivates our pursuit of justice. 

So what is the vision? We know what they want to tear down. What do they want to build?

God commands us to love God. I am never sure how well that really works. In our human realm, love does not come on command. What emotion, after all, is more confusing?  What passion can cause more angst?  We can love that which pains us the most. That is the mystery of love. Is the need to speak out on Israel rooted in love and attachment? Or is it not—is this rejection a wholesale rejection in spirit, heart and mind of the Zionist project? This is crucial for me because I don’t know how to be in dialogue with the students without understanding their answer to that question. 

I would therefore ask the students to open the door to the musings of such stalwarts of the Israel left as the late Amos Oz who understood that for Jews to resort to forging a nation state was a matter of sheer survival. Consider Oz:

“I think that the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument…. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations…all cross pollinating one another, without anyone merging as a nation-state…No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

But the Jewish people has already staged a long-running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the ‘tools of statehood.’ For me the drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jew by Hitler.”

In summarizing, Oz quotes George Steiner, for Jews to form a nation state was like “being an old man in a kindergarten.” We knew better but we had no choice.

I understand that we live in an era where Nationalism is in disrepute–and rightly so when one considers the ultra-nationalists who reduce particularism to ugly tribalism. I would ask my future colleagues to think more broadly. 

The creation of Israel was a matter of our survival as a people. I want the authors of this letter to sit with this and then consider the language of the Left. Post Zionism? Recovering Zionist? Please remember how the pre-Zionist era ended. Ethnic Cleansing? Our people knew Ethnic Cleansing. A dear friend of mine, a Zionist son of Shoah survivors has written about ethnic cleansing, “Our people took (and barely survived) the advanced course.”  

I sense that there are those among the signers who reject the idea of Israel as the lifeboat that world Jewry needs.  But when we say “Never Forget!” the Zionist in me continues, “…the pogroms that rippled across Eastern and Central Europe after the Holocaust.” That’s right, after. I therefore take it as axiomatic that without Israel, there would be Jews living still in refugee camps. “Kol Yisraeil arevim zeh ba zeh,” (All Israel is responsible for one another), our ancient rabbis taught.  

Emanuel Levinas, a holocaust survivor, interpreted that statement as only a starting point. To be human, Levinas taught, is to be infinitely obligated to be fully present morally for each and every “other.” Perhaps these students can see Levinas as a challenge for their expansion of the Zionist project. Imagine a Zionism that encompasses Levinas. Let the next generation’s contribution to Judaism be the creation of a new language that advances the vision of an ethical, forward looking, confident Zionism. 

This is the urgent project for our time. We are burdened with a kind of nightmare. When we came home, because there was nowhere else to go, we came to a homeland where the occupants were not eager to share. We are one home with two indigenous peoples. As Abba Eban once said so aptly, “Partition is stamped on Israel’s birth certificate.” This land must be shared. There is no other way.

Yes, the forging of a state created 700,000 Palestinian refugees. There is no denying that reality–it is time for brutal honesty. The decision to have a country is brutal and dirty. What country is born without pain, bloodshed, and displacement? Certainly not America. Read any history of Israel. Try starting with Anita Shapira’s masterful Israel: A History where she writes regarding the 1948 war:  

“The war’s biggest losers were the Palestinians…about 700,000 … had been exiled from their homeland…In the context of the time, Israeli policy on the refugee issue was not considered out of the ordinary…”

Shapira then cites the displacement and refugee statistics that World War II created in Europe where after the war millions were forcibly moved from their homes as borders were redrawn. Shapira concludes, “Of all the refugees created in the second half of the 1940s, the Palestinians were the only ones not absorbed by the countries where they lived. Thus they became a permanent problem in the Middle East.”  

The full understanding of this problem requires intensive engagement with both history as well as conflicting narratives and ideologies. No one can be allowed easy answers.

In other words, rabbis are challenged to teach the complexity that is the human experience. This is, perhaps, the very heart of the issue. Tony Bayfield, in his masterful recent book, Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues, describes Judaism as a paradox. Judaism defies simple explanations of anything.  “All is foreseen, yet human beings have free will.” Try explaining that one in twenty-five words or less. To skip past the complexity is to ignore the rabbinic calling. Being human is overwhelming because of the complexity of the world. This is the great joy, privilege, and responsibility of being a rabbi–to embrace complexity…. “These words and those words are the words of the living God”—even when “these and those” words are saying the opposite.  

Our monumental task is to be a voice for an ethical Zionism. Bayfield again on Jewish paradox: “We insist on the importance of our particularity but argue it’s only through the particular that the universal can be realized.” This is the rabbinic challenge of my era. Rabbis have to be the loving, urgent voice prodding Israel from afar that Zionism is not an end unto itself.  Jewish sovereignty gives us responsibility to care for ourselves and a greater responsibility to show that we take our own Bible seriously, “one law for citizen and stranger alike.” Zionism offers us the opportunity to model justice on the world stage. 

If this is not the rabbinic challenge that the framers of this letter want to engage with, then what is theirs? What is their rabbinic challenge as conceptualized in distinctly Jewish terms?

I cannot not love America even as I struggle on behalf of a better America. I cannot not love Israel even as I struggle on behalf of a better Israel.  

Dear students, please join that struggle from a place of love. We need you. We need your strong, young passionate rabbinic voices to stand on what I call the liberal Zionist bridge. Without your strength, passion and love, our unashamed, proud, liberal Zionism is weaker. The Jewish people and Jewish history deserve our best shot. Don’t abandon the effort. Join the struggle to change the direction.

Daniel G. Zemel is the senior rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, DC. He also serves on the T’ruah Board and the International Council of the New Israel Fund.