How many emails have you gotten recently urging you to “take action” to get new, tougher sanctions imposed on Iran? They sound pretty convincing, right? “Keep the pressure on Iran,” as one email I received urges, resonates with our understanding that Iran, like much of the Middle East, only responds positively to pressure and cannot otherwise be trusted. We in the Jewish community see Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb as the most likely—and therefore most exigent—trigger of this threat. So getting “tougher” on Iran seems like a no-brainer. In fact, several national Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have come out in support of a recently proposed Senate Iran sanctions bill called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881).
But I am writing this blog today to argue why, from a Jewish perspective, I think this approach is wrong. I want to begin by saying that I care deeply about Israel’s security. I also blame Iran for playing a highly destabilizing role in Middle Eastern geo-politics through its direct (Republican Guard) and indirect (Hezbollah) support for violent pro-Shiite regimes. Nevertheless, I think the current effort to impose new sanctions on Iran is not only strategically flawed but, more importantly, incompatible with a traditional Jewish understanding of war and peace.
First, the strategic case (I’ll keep this brief since it gets technical very quickly; for a far more comprehensive analysis, click here):
Fact 1: the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany), which began to be implemented on January 12, 2014, is the first positive negotiated agreement with Iran since the Iranian Revolution took place.
Fact 2: the interim agreement explicitly states that the US “will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
Fact 3: the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881) effectively calls for increased sanctions against Iran. Though technically the sanctions called for are conditional, the conditions are both vague enough and broad enough that it is virtually certain they will be triggered.
Fact 4: Iran has made clear that any additional sanctions imposed during the period of the interim agreement will terminate the agreement.
As a result, most analysts see the Senate bill as tantamount to torpedoing a nuclear deal with Iran and setting the groundwork for what will be an ugly, devastating war. In fact, the bill itself explicitly provides that the US will support Israel diplomatically, militarily, and economically, if Israel goes to war against Iran.
As Jon Stewart, my favorite foreign policy expert, points out in this clip, if the purpose of imposing sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table in order to avoid armed conflict, and if Iran has now come to the table and agreed to take some positive steps towards curtailing its nuclear program, why on earth would we think the response should be more sanctions? Even self-proclaimed “Iran hawks” are opposed to the new bill.
Thus, the current Senate bill, from a strategic standpoint, is anathema to the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb without having to resort to war.
But there is a religious undercurrent to this analysis that I have found lacking in Jewish communal discussions about Iran. Judaism is not a religion that propounds warfare. Rabbinic Judaism, in particular, “sought to limit the validity and practicality of violent conflict.” Our daily prayers are filled with messages about seeking peace. Perhaps even more telling,when faced with a conflict between truth and peace, the Talmud routinely opts for peace (such as Ketubot 17a or Yevamot 65b). Why, then, are Jewish organizations and political commentators so eager to embrace a path to war? I can understand AIPAC’s perspective on this issue, since it represents Israel’s view, but why are so many other “centrist” organizations pushing the sanctions bill as well? Why are J-Street and Americans For Peace Now the only national Jewish organizations opposing additional sanctions? Why are we allowing ourselves to be led by the same Jewish neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer who agitated for our involvement in the disastrous Iraq War?
As a rabbi, I firmly believe that the public policy positions we advocate must be grounded in Jewish values. Advocating affirmative steps towards a preemptive war with Iran, when other options remain on the table, is inconsistent with these Jewish values. In the words of Deuteronomy 20:10, “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, first proclaim peace unto it.” We have drawn near to Iran; it is my hope and prayer that we will have the moral courage and clarity to proclaim peace before rushing off to war.
If Israel boycotted the Winter Olympic in Sochi, Russia next month would anyone really care? The games would go on without us. In fact, Israel’s Olympic Committee is sending three figure skaters, one speed skater, and one skier to the 2014 Winter Games. None of these athletes are expected to finish in the top ten. The spirit of the games is non-political and should stay that way, and so it should be in the academic world.
“Insignificant.” That was the reaction some had to the academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association last month. The boycott bars collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with the Israeli scholars. No American University has has signed on to the boycott, and at only 5000 members, the groups is tiny, especially compared to the American Association of University Professors at 48,000 strong. This last group states that “academic boycotts stifle academic freedom and are likely to hurt people who are not the intended targets.” Even the Palestinian Authority is officially against the boycott, “We are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognize Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel,” Majdi Khaldi, an adviser to Mr. Abbas, said in a New York Times interview on Monday. “The problem is two things: occupation, and the government of Israel continuing settlement activities.”
Some consider the ASA’s boycott as misguided leftist politics of people who don’t understand the real situation in Israel. Others bemoan a resurgence in anti-Semitic activity. It seems that the majority opinion of Israel’s supporters is the boycott is ultimately not that significant – yet.
Anti-Israeli politics and the American academic world has been in the news on yet another front. Hillel International, the national organization of Jewish students on college campuses, has barred its chapters from bringing in speakers who take a pro-Palestinian view.
In a manifesto, the Swarthmore Hillel chapter has proclaimed: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” But the president and chief executive of Hillel, Eric D. Fingerhut, responded to them in a letter saying that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
The Talmud relates a relevant tale: Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher. On the eve of Yom Kippur Rav said, “I will go to him to make peace.” The butcher, it seems, had wronged Rav in some way and Rav was giving the man an opportunity to reconcile prior to Yom Kippur. When Rav’s friend Rav Huna understood where Rav was going (and just how obstinate the butcher would be) he said, “Rav is about to cause (the butcher’s death).” Indeed, when Rav went and stood before the butcher, the latter was chopping away at the head of an animal. The butcher said, “You are Rav, go away. I will have nothing to do with you.” And, with the butcher’s next chop, a bone flew off, and struck the butcher in the throat, and killed him (Yoma 87a).
“Go Away. I will have nothing to do with you.”
There is a common theme between the ASA’s position and Hillel’s: Non-participation, exclusion, a failure to listen to opposing positions. This is ultimately dangerous – especially on a college campus. There is no requirement to take the other person’s position, but disinterest in even listening to the a differing opinion, even one diametrically opposite one’s owe, can be disastrous.
As an educator, I commend the Jewish kids at Swarthmore for being smarter than the “adults” in charge. Boycotting exchanges of ideas in the college setting makes as much sense as Israel boycotting the Sochi Games just because they don’t expect to place in the top ten.
It’s Israel week on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. My colleagues Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin discussed debates among university Hillel organizations about inviting anti-Israel speakers. Just before that, our blog featured the words of a young Canadian in Israel re-thinking his own views.
Of course, we don’t have to be registered university students to explore multiple perspectives and begin a dialogue that leads to deep rethinking. We can begin with the simplest of tools, actually: a traditional Jewish text and a commitment to asking questions.
The Siddur includes many prayers that refer to the land of Israel; here I will highlight just one. This short paragraph is found, in slightly different forms, in the prayer books of every Jewish movement, towards the end of every Amidah prayer, whether weekday, Shabbat, or holiday. The theme of the paragraph, worshiping God who dwells in Zion, was set by the year 200 C.E.; the precise wording has changed along with Jewish circumstances and philosophies. Below are two different modern versions, in English translation.
Accept the prayer of Your people Israel as lovingly as it is offered. Restore worship to Your sanctuary. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable to You. May we witness Your merciful return to Zion. Praised are You, Lord who restores his Presence to Zion (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985, Conservative movement).
Take pleasure, GRACIOUS ONE, our God, in Israel your people; lovingly accept their fervent prayer. May Israel’s worship always be acceptable to you. And may our eyes behold your homecoming, with merciful intent, to Zion. Blessed are you, THE FAITHFUL ONE, who brings your presence home to Zion (Siddur Kol Haneshamah, 1999, Reconstructionist movement).
The Conservative wording asks that worship be restored to the Temple sanctuary; the Reconstructionist version asks that worship be acceptable wherever it is offered. Modern Judaism teaches that God is everywhere, and thus people can pray everywhere. So is there or is there not something special about worship in Jerusalem?
What is your experience? Have you been moved to pray in unique or passionate ways while visiting Israel? Does thinking about Israel intensify your prayers for peace and justice? Do you believe that putting a written prayer into the Kotel sends it straight to God? One of my relatives insists that the Kotel is an idol; how would you respond to him? Do you know where the Holy of Holies is said to have been? Do you agree with the recommendation of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to avoid the site? Do you know about recent Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount? If you were a responsible government official, how might you mediate?
The Conservative version hopes that we may “witness” God’s “merciful return” to Zion (a historic name for Jerusalem); the Reconstructionist one asks that “our eyes may behold” God’s “homecoming, with merciful intent.” Both “witness” and “behold” refer to the same Hebrew word, v’techezena. In Biblical Hebrew, its root chazon, typically refers to a prophetic vision. Does the prayer ask that we literally see the return, or that we gain a clear vision of what a compassionate return would look like?
How would a compassionate return look? Like the vision of Ezekiel, where no foreigners would enter, and only priests of one of Aaron’s many lineages could be certified to serve? Like the vision of Isaiah, where a new line of priests, representing multicultural Judaism, would be created? Or like the vision of Zechariah, where the renewed Temple would host annual interfaith Sukkot services?
Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist versions hope for the return of God’s shechinah, which they translate as “presence.” What sort of shechinah would you like to see return? Shechinah as understood in early rabbinic literature: the presence that originally accompanied the Israelite camp in their 40 years of wilderness wandering, a presence strengthened by correct ritual and ethical behavior, that also accompanied the Jews during exile to Babylonia? Would a return of this presence require that all Jews make aliyah and turn their backs on the creative diversity of the diaspora? Would its return depend on Israeli Jews practicing mitzvot, including compassion for the strangers among them? How would such compassion respond to Palestinian proposals for a right of return?
Or would you like to see the return of the Shechinah as described in the mystical work Zohar, one of ten cosmic energies that make up the Godhead; specifically, a feminine motherly energy who feeds all creatures, and without whose embrace God is unbalanced? Would the return of this Schechinah include widespread respect for the practice of gender-egalitarian Judaism, even at the Kotel plaza?
Is your head spinning yet, or is it just beginning to clear? Read the text, consider the questions, and click on the links. Recognize the political pointers in the Siddur. Use them to help you clarify your own commitments and actions. Remember that every prayer is also a prayer for understanding.
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An abridged version of this post appears on OnSophiaStreet.
In a recent post my fellow Rabbis Without Borders colleague, Alana Suskin, argues on behalf of those advocating an “Open Hillel” policy that would allow all speakers and events to be sponsored by Hillel, including anti-Israel and anti-Zionist perspectives. Alana’s central point can be summed up by the following quote from her article:
“Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good.”
The thesis she offers is that we should not be afraid to subject ourselves and our student communities to all sides of the discussion on Israel and to hear all the perspectives, even those we might vehemently disagree with. To do so opens us up to the nuance and complexity of the situation and makes us better informed and thus able to make better choices.
Her point is well taken and has a lot of truth to it. However, there is another dimension to this conversation that is worth mentioning.
First of all, as the former Orthodox rabbi at Harvard Hillel, the campus where the Open Hillel movement began, I want to acknowledge that this movement is not coming from a negative or bad place. The students who began it I had the privilege to know and share Shabbat meals with both in the Hillel dining hall and in our own home are tremendously bright, intelligent, sensitive and caring people. They are committed Jews and the broader Jewish community is fortunate to count them as part of the emerging leadership of our community.
Yet, the question about what sort of conversations should or should not be allowed at Hillel is not just about fostering multi-layered and complex dialogue. It is not just about reflecting the true range of discourse in the wider public square within the walls of Hillel. The policies an organization crafts should and must reflect the values it wishes to project. It is not about the intellectual richness and political diversity these open conversations bring because those same conversations could happen in any other space on any campus. It is about the values Hillel wishes to project both into the campus and within its own environment.
Hillel defines its relationship to Israel in the following way: “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work. Our goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis. Whether they want to engage in deep dialogue or are politically active in mobilizing others to support Israel, we enable students to share a rich connection to Israel and to each other as a people. Engaged and educated students can become committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.”
The mission of Hillel in regards to Israel is to cultivate future “committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.” The policies Hillel drafts after that ought to reflect that mission.
So the question is not: Does inviting anti-Israel speakers, advocates of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) or others similarly inclined enrich student’s intellectual journey but rather by inviting those speakers and events are we living up to the mission of the organization?
Hillel is about catalyzing a values-based community girded by its mission and vision. In order to do so sometimes you need to draw boundaries.
The objective of Open Hillel as stated on their website is to change the “standards for partnership” guidelines created by Hillel that excludes anti-Israel speakers. That is an attempt to change a policy but neglects the mission that drives that policy. Open Hillel rather needs to engage a conversation about whether Hillel’s mission in regards to Israel is reflective of the organization nowadays and then the policy conversation happens from there.
I, for one, believe strongly that Hillel’s policy is the right one and its commitment to creating “passionate supporters of Israel” within a context of “deep dialogue” among the wide and diverse tent that exists today of pro-Israel organizations is deeply needed and valuable. I welcome the community conversation spurred by Open Hillel but believe the current mission and policies that reflect that mission is the path Hillel ought to maintain as it continues to build a values-based community.
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In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)
A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”
I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.
The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.
In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.
But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.
Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.
I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.
Speakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.
The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.
To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other. But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.
But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.
As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.
Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)
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The confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah seems to have brought more than the usual rush of madness to Hanukkah, which has become a major holiday in the USA by virtue of its usual proximity to Christmas. Although most of the Thanksgivukkah posts have been at least a bit tongue-in-cheek (other than the ones with recipes, which all look either terrifyingly heavy, or not particularly appetizing), one article I saw recently castigated the Thanksgivukkah celebrants, pointing out that Thanksgiving was not, and is not, a celebration for Native Americans, who remember it a bit more as the beginning of the end of their cultures, a destruction of their peoples, and as the beginning of the theft of their land.
Dare I say it? It’s something for us to consider that people at the borders of cultures can see the very same thing quite differently—and here’s your dangerous aside: It’s legitimate for Native Americans to mourn this day, just as we celebrate it, and it is legitimate for Palestinians to observe their Nakba, or catastrophe, rather than Israeli independence—without it meaning unending hatred of either side for the other—only history that must be understood and moved forward from.
Native Americans and non-Native America have a quieter, but no less fraught relationship. Native Americans still suffer from poverty, and violence. They will never, though, have full sovereignty of their original lands, which makes sympathy easier—at least in part because we have no expectation that we will ever have to give up anything. But there was a time when Native Americans were portrayed as dangerous savages, people who would rape or steal your women, scalp you in your sleep, or any number of other stereotypes—and everyone knew these things as truths.
Today, there are still plenty of places where stereotypes of Native Americans continue—not the least of which is the noble tribal elder, or primitive wisdom hawker, no less than the shiftless alcoholic, and there are places and people who know these to be “truths,” as well.
In the Middle East, our “truths” are just as hard, our stereotypes just as firm, and we are just as distant from seeing one another as people. But we also should have hope. Perhaps someday, Thanksgiving will come to be a symbol of overcoming years of prejudice and wrongs. and perhaps someday, there will be a day that Palestinians and Israelis, too, can celebrate together, remembering a time when we were enemies, but were able to make peace, and eventually became neighbors, and who knows—maybe even allies.
We are in a moment now, when that could begin to happen—if. If we are willing to step out of the stories that we know to be true, and take a breath for a moment instead of repeating the histories that are our own perspective. Not because they are wrong, but because at this time, in this moment, they are not helpful. They will be, someday, something we can talk about together, but when we come together to discuss how to make peace, they turn into a whose-victimhood-is-more-important contest. If we stop insisting on the stories that we usually tell ourselves, and instead look toward the future we could build, then it could be no dream.
We can’t be Pollyannas about it—it does mean that we—both—will have to give things up. Not least of which is the idea that the Palestinians have given nothing up. Not least of which is the idea that all descendants of the Palestinians will be able to return. But it will be worth it, because the foundation of the world is built on peace, truth, and justice, as Pirke Avot reminds us, and it is in our hands to make those foundations firmer.
In the spring of 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook became the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in modern times. This was almost 30 years prior to the formation of the State of Israel. Rabbi Kook was a visionary and inspirational leader who understood like very few others in his generation the currents of his time. He understood the revolutionary period of Jewish life that he was a part of and courageously and boldly responded to it. Rabbi Kook envisioned a Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland that would be, like him, courageous and visionary in charting a course for the Jewish people in the brave new world of Jewish sovereignty and self-expression. He imagined that it would become an entity that would positively and profoundly impact the entire “national rebuilding process” of the Jewish homeland.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kook and for us this dream was not fulfilled. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has become an impediment to the re-invigoration of Jewish vibrancy. Instead of bravely charting a course for modern Jewish life, with its unprecedented entrance into national sovereignty and the restoration of Jewish political freedom, it has resisted that course and insisted on old paradigms from the period of Jewish exile and diaspora. There are exceptions, of course, like Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s work on behalf of the wives of missing Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War or his halakhic (Jewish legal) stance on the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, but they are few and far in between. Rather the organization of the Chief Rabbinate seeks to coerce through legal and political force the State of Israel to adopt its decidedly non-Zionist views of Jewish theology and practice.
This coercive influence has begun to extend across the Atlantic into the United States as well. Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate sought to impose its heavily bureaucratic and highly centralized system of conversion unto the North American Orthodox rabbinate. Many in the American Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced to the demand and created a strictly centralized system of conversion courts in major American cities and imposed uniform non-halakhic standards on all rabbis part of their system. For example, a couple living far away from the Jewish centers of the United States would find it very hard to convert themselves and their family because one of the requirements is enrollment in Orthodox Jewish day school for all the children, which is impossible for anyone living in a city that does not have an Orthodox Jewish day school. This newly created requirement for enrollment for all 12 years of schooling in an Orthodox Jewish day school as a prerequisite for conversion is not be to be found in any code of Jewish law simply because it was invented as part of this capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate.
Recently, the aggressive posture of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has taken another sharp step. One of the most common activities any rabbi does is to write letters for congregants attesting to their Jewishness for the purpose of making aliyah to Israel or getting married in Israel. This is highly common. The community rabbi knows the congregation better than anyone else and thus can write a simple letter stating that they know the people in question to be Jewish. This was never questioned until now. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a powerful essay at the Times of Israel describing the rejection of a letter he wrote for a couple. He is not alone. The continued move towards centralization of power and the imposition of an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic system has and will continue to lead to abuses of that power.
Two years ago while I was working as a campus rabbi at Harvard, I had the great privilege to welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was at the time the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to campus for a visit. He spoke on a panel with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman. On that panel, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the damage it has brought unto Israeli society. I will never forget his reply to that question. Rabbi Sacks argued that a Chief Rabbinate ought to forge its influence through persuasion and not through coercion. The Chief Rabbi must be able to articulate his vision and desires through the power of words not through the power of law. The Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom, and Rabbi Sacks in particular, is a prime example of that persuasive influence and the good it can bring. People may disagree with some of the approaches of the British Chief Rabbi and they are free to do so while the Chief Rabbi does not have the power of the state to impose his will on them, only the power of his words.
The time has come for those who care about the future of the Jewish people to stand up and be counted as those not willing to give in to the demands of a power hungry and corrupt Chief Rabbinate. I generally do not advocate for diaspora Jews to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the State of Israel but this is a powerful exception. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel impacts all of us and is continuing its attempt to further its reach into our communities. Ending the power of the Chief Rabbinate is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people worldwide and together we can make that happen.
When news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?
I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair. As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting. The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.
So it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year. We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.
It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo. It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.
Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.
There is a big election coming up on Wednesday, one many American Jews might not be aware of. In response to January’s parliamentary elections, Israel will elect new Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis. While the election for Sephardi Chief Rabbi has important implications for the future power of Rav Ovadya Yosef, the highly influential and controversial former Chief Rabbi who has several sons running for the position, I am far more interested in the outcome of the election for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: I find myself in the unusual position of hoping that the “liberal” candidate, Rabbi David Stav, loses to his more right-wing rivals. Rabbi Stav hails from the National-Religious movement and is therefore “Modern Orthodox” by Israeli standards (he does, after all, wear a knitted kippah). He has been denounced as “wicked” by the Sephardic religious party Shas for trying to help people establish their Jewish identity and therefore get married. And he promises “real revolution” if elected. All this should sound good to a liberal Jew like myself, right?
The problem with a Stav election, however, is that it likely will mean the continued vitality of the Chief Rabbinate (or Rabbanut in Hebrew). The Rabbanut itself is a $5.6 million institution, created by the British in 1921, that has become a calcified, corrupt, politicized, and reactionary body. It prevents women from getting divorces from abusive husbands, prevents consenting adults from getting married, and vehemently opposes Jewish pluralism within Israel. As this op-ed in the Jerusalem Post recently put it:
What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk, is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be organized in the State of Israel?
Nor is Rabbi Stav himself committed to radically reforming the Rabbanut from within. His “revolution” consists primarily of making the Chief Rabbinate a more user-friendly service organization. Were Stav to lose, however, many insiders feel that a real revolution would occur, with non-religious and National Religious alike coming up with alternate, “privatized” rabbinic and religious functions in areas ranging from conversion and marriage to kashrut certification. Such changes are already underway through efforts such as the Beit Hillel Movement, which includes both men and women in its rabbinic organization. As this article in Ha’aretz suggests, a Stav loss makes it likely that “such trends will intensify and accelerate – and a de facto alternative to the Chief Rabbinate will arise. Not only the nonreligious, but also the national religious will reach the conclusion they have no place within the Rabbinate.”
For secular Israelis, and for religious Israelis who support pluralism and a sense of klal Yisrael, this would be a wonderful turn of events.
Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing? This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning. Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?
In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.
So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?
I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.