To Be A Jew | Kol Nidre Sermon 5777
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
On Facebook over the last few months I’ve been seeing many pictures of teenagers going off to college. Photos of them sitting on their beds in their dorm rooms, with an arm around a roommate, standing at a landmark on campus. New beginnings, new friendships, new challenges. The ability to define and redefine oneself. Who am I? Who am I going to be?
I remember a few things about my first days at college. One of the memories that stands out is when another first year student asked me if I was Jewish. When I said yes, he said, entirely without guile or malice, “Oh good, I’ve never met a Jewish person before. Can I feel your horns?” And then, just a few days later, another student, when learning that I was Jewish said, “I guess the Jews are OK. They keep the Arabs in line.” This was at Yale.
I was surprised by how little some people knew about Jews, and I was surprised that I was suddenly a representative of the Jewish people. Today, Jewish college students are in that position more than ever, particularly in relation to Israel and Palestine. They are under pressure to choose a side, to pick a camp. To stand with Israel, right or wrong, or to reject Israel as a Jewish state. Many feel they have to choose between the Jewish values we’ve taught them and their sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
When I meet with b’nei mitzvah families here at CBE I ask parents: “Why is it important to you that your child become bar or bat mitzvah?” Always the answer has to do with peoplehood: “I want my children to know that we are Jews, to know what that means: we are part of the people Israel, with a history and a future.”
For almost 2,000 years we were a people without a home, without self-determination or sovereignty. For almost 2,000 years we said “Next Year in Jerusalem,” because Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish people’s longing. We longed for the opportunity to bring the beauty and ethics of our tradition to life in a society governed by Jews for Jews.
And now we have that. Why doesn’t it feel like we’ve arrived? And why don’t more of us care?
We have an idea in Judaism of yerushalayim shel ma’alah and yerushalayim shel mata. Yerushalayim shel ma’alah is Jerusalem above – representing the Jewish dream of peace and justice for all. Yerushalayim shel mata is real-world Jerusalem, so far from that vision. How do we relate to yerushalayim shel mata without giving up on yerushalayim shel ma’alah?
We just read in Torah of our people’s ancient healing ritual of Yom Kippur. First, the priest would confess to God on behalf of the whole people Israel. Then, the priest would place the community’s sins on the head of a goat and banish it. Finally, the priest would offer a sacrifice, a gift on behalf of the people. Confession, Banishment, Sacrifice: I’d like to suggest that these three steps would be useful as we consider our relationship to Israel.
Let’s start with confession.
Confession: We are destroying each other over Israel. Many Jews have been attacked, vilified, shunned over their views on Israel. Many young Jews feel that they cannot step into a synagogue because they won’t meet the Israel litmus test. Yehuda Kurtzer recently wrote an article in the Times of Israel entitled, “Why the Witch Hunts?” “Our community is ailing,” Kurtzer said, “and its primary symptom is the toxic shock resulting from … accusations of insufficient loyalty to the Jewish people, based on crude interpretations of … politics.”
As your rabbi, I admit I’m a little bit afraid to give this sermon today. No matter what I say, my words are likely to provoke strong emotion. I do not want to offend you. I want to say in advance that I am sorry if I anger you, and I hope that you will tell me and we can stay in this conversation together.
Confession: Many Jews cannot tolerate criticism of Israel. For these Jews, criticism of Israel feels like an attack. Not a policy critique of a nation-state, but a personal attack on our right to exist as a people. Criticism of Israel feels disproportionate, unfair, biased, it feels like we’re being held to a higher and double standard. It feels like any criticism of Israel is the anti-Semitism we’ve known so well for generations, just another way of saying that Jews are evil, not deserving of full personhood or equal status among nations, deserving instead annihilation. Because there are very real enemies who do seek our annihilation, when Jews add our voices, even with the most measured critique, it can feel disloyal, like a betrayal.
Confession: Many Jews have turned away from Israel in shame, in ambivalence, in alienation. For these Jews, the sight of a Jewish nation wielding military power to take lives, to cause bodily harm, to limit movement, this is unconscionable. For these Jews, support of the state of Israel in its occupation of the Palestinians feels equally like a betrayal, a betrayal of Torah, of Jewish values, of the principle that Jews do not oppress the stranger.
The 2013 Pew study showed that 40 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 feel no attachment to Israel, and 75 percent of Millennials feel that Israel is not making a sincere effort at peace. We find Jews engaged in BDS, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, which they feel is an expression of their Jewish identity, an attempt, in their eyes, to redeem the Jewish name. Some Jewish supporters of BDS do not know that they are participating in a movement with a declared goal of eliminating the State of Israel. Many do know, and they’ve come to believe that a Jewish state should not exist.
Confession: Many Jews have avoided talking about Israel for fear of what we’ll do to each other, for fear of the emotions it will raise, for fear of being shouted at. Most American Jews find ourselves somewhere along the spectrum, some uncertain, some uninformed, some confused, some detached, some wary of the emotional pitch of the conversation, fewer and fewer who can remember the Six Day War in 1967, who can remember that feeling of total unity in response to a real existential crisis, total unity in support of Israel.
Many feel disappointed in Israel. Many are in pain about Israel. And many have a deep love, feel attachment in our bones. We feel that Israelis are our cousins, (for many of us they literally are) our sisters and brothers, our aunts and uncles, Israel is our home.
According to the 2013 Pew study, 70 percent of American Jews say that we are emotionally attached to Israel and 87 percent say that Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to us personally. Most of us believe that a two-state solution is still possible, but only 38 percent of us think that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to find peace with the Palestinians.
To be fair, Palestinian governments have been corrupt, have rejected efforts at peace, and are under tremendous pressure not to “normalize” Israel with a peace agreement.
Confession: Many Jews believe that what is happening in the West Bank is wrong but they don’t know how to stop it. And so they do nothing. They are silent. As the occupation enters its 50th year, the Israeli government continues to build settlements that increasingly make the two state solution appear unachievable.
Palestinians live under military rule, many cut off from their fields and workplaces by the separation barrier, by Israeli roads, and by checkpoints. Settlers live a privileged and subsidized lifestyle at the expense of Palestinian villagers—and also at the expense of Israelis who live inside of the Green Line, the internationally-recognized 1949 Armistice Line.
In a section of Hebron where I was this year, Palestinian homes are literally barred in, Palestinian families are not allowed to leave their front doors because they live on a street that has been “cleansed,” meaning that no Palestinian can walk on those streets. Thousands of empty shops stand where people used to buy and sell goods. 800 Israeli settlers are defended by 500 Israeli soldiers in the midst of 200,000 Palestinians. Most of the West Bank is not like Hebron, but Hebron is real.
I met a soldier who’d been stationed in Hebron. He said that young Israeli soldiers are put in an impossible position, having to control a huge hostile population. He said, “Our role as soldiers was to make sure that the Palestinians were always aware of our presence. That meant searching homes randomly at 2 a.m., breaking down the door if the family didn’t answer, taking all of the belongings out of the drawers, interviewing the family members, taking pictures, sometimes conducting a mock arrest of the father, even when we knew he had done nothing wrong.”
In September, 470 Israeli intellectuals, including high ranking IDF officers, former Israeli ambassadors, ministers, senior government officials and members of the Knesset, and 160 professors in Israeli universities, released a statement that said: “We call on Jews around the world to join with Israeli partners for coordinated action to end the occupation and build a new future, for the sake of the State of Israel and the generations to come.”
We have not known how to deal with the diversity of opinion among us, so we haven’t. We’ve avoided the subject. We’ve silenced critics. We’ve shouted each other down. We have failed to take responsibility together for our Jewish state.
Through all of these failures, we have left this problem to our children. College students have become the Jewish people’s identified patient. In family systems theory, when a family has a dysfunction that no one will name or take responsibility for, and then one member of the family gets sick or acts out in ways that express the family dysfunction, that’s called an identified patient.
Our failure as an American Jewish family to speak to each other about Israel in civil ways has dumped these problems on our children. And then we wring our hands about the nastiness on college campuses, when they’re operating in a leadership vacuum left by our generation. Our college students are caught in ugly battles about whether Israel is an apartheid state, whether Zionism equals racism, and whether Israel should exist at all.
After confessing, the High Priest placed the wrongs of the people on the head of the goat and banished it.
So what is it we must banish? I’d suggest that it’s our learned responses to trauma. Someone tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. Many others participated, and for a long time the world watched. That’s no small injury. That is not easy to heal. Seventy years is nothing compared to the time it will take for us to recover. We should not be surprised that we have collective trauma, measurable and beyond measure. We already had trauma for generations before the Holocaust. We learned coping mechanisms that served us then but don’t necessarily serve us now. I’d like us to consider that some of these coping mechanisms, some of these learned responses to trauma, should be banished, and what I mean by that is gently set down and left behind:
1) Clinging to crisis, holding on to a victim identity even when we’re strong.
2) Wanting to be blameless, and therefore powerless.
3) Trying to blend in, remaining silent when we should speak.
Clinging to Crisis and Victim Identity
Tal Becker, a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says “Obsession with crisis is itself a crisis….The idea that we need a crisis to stay together is in the end making us not stay together. It’s fragmenting us.” When he was here in Brooklyn this year, Becker spoke about a man he met in Florida who said, “Our survival is at stake, we can’t afford to be moral.” Becker responded, “Our survival is at stake, we can’t afford not to be moral.” “What kind of survival are we talking about?,” he continued. “We’re so preoccupied with survival of our physical selves we’re neglecting our souls. We need to be reminded of our souls, of our values, of who we wish to be.”
Knesset Member Merav Michaeli, speaking at CBE two weeks ago, said, “I sit on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. I can tell you that Israel is not a victim. Israel is strong. Israel is stronger than it has ever been. We must stop seeing ourselves as victims.”
Wanting to be Blameless
For 2,000 years we did not have our own army, we did not make our own laws, we did not control land. And we built our identity around powerlessness. It’s so much cleaner not to be in charge. Nothing’s your fault. You can be blameless, pure. You can imagine what you would do if you were in charge, you can commit yourself fully to justice, peace, and human dignity. You can write aspirational laws, as our people did, laws that shine with morality.
But powerlessness is not moral.1 Victimhood is not moral. When one has the ability not to be a victim, victimhood is actually immoral. We are obligated to defend and preserve life, including our own, starting with our own.2 Choosing powerlessness, when given the option of holding power, is a relinquishment of responsibility—responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others. To hold power we have to give up the illusion that being blameless by being powerless will keep us safe. It never has.
Trying to Blend In
When Israel is challenged—for its policies, its behavior, or its very legitimacy – our learned responses to trauma kick in. Fight, flight, or freeze – shout back, fight in full crisis mode, run away from blame – disassociate from Israel and Jewish power of any kind – or try to blend in by not making waves or a fuss, not speaking up when Israel is characterized unfairly. These are natural responses, but they’re not what we need right now. We need to nurture our ability – and teach our children how – to stay in the conversation without panicking, to consider and feel and engage and listen, to calmly counter inaccuracies and to speak up when anti-Semitism is present, to name it.
If you’re a college student or a high school student heading off to college soon, or if you’re an adult who feels challenged by some of the arguments about whether Israel is a legitimate country, I want to give you my thoughts on three of the main arguments.
The first is that Israel is a colonialist state and therefore shouldn’t exist. It is true that the vast majority of Jews made aliyah to Israel in the last 130 years and that Palestinians were living there when Jews arrived. But there are fundamental differences between Israel and colonialist states. Colonists have a home country other than the place they’re colonizing – some place they can return to. And colonists have no history in the land they’re colonizing. Most Israeli Jews have no home country other than Israel. They came to Israel because they had no place to be free of persecution, or because they were survivors or refugees, or because borders were closed to them, or because they were expelled. To call Israeli Jews within the Green Line colonists erases the Jewish people’s story, and our very pressing need for a place to be safe and in charge of our destiny.
A second argument that Jewish college students face is that Zionism equals racism. This slogan has effectively delegitimized the word Zionism for many. But Zionism is the Jewish people’s national liberation movement, as valid and necessary as any other minority people’s liberation movement. There is a lot of racism in Israel, just like there’s a lot of racism here. But to equate Zionism with racism is to make invisible our people, the very real conditions that have led us to need a national liberation movement. The conflation of Zionism and racism often accompanies the Holocaust inversion, by which Israelis are portrayed as Nazis. The removal of Palestinians from their homes was wrong and the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza strip are wrong, but they’re not genocide. And to suggest that they are brings up horrific reminders of a time when Jews were subjected to genocide by the Nazis.
Finally, there’s the argument that it is unethical to establish a state that privileges one ethno-cultural group over others. As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel will always, even in its ideal, privilege Jews over other people in limited and circumscribed ways. As someone who believes very much in equality, this troubled me. But then I realized that every country in the world privileges one group over others. Every country has a dominant language which it privileges, even if there are others that are given official status (as is done in Israel). Every country has cultural and religious practices that are dominant. The United States, which stands out from much of the world in its separation of church and state, has Christmas as a federal holiday. European countries, Latin American countries, African countries, Asian countries, and certainly every other Middle Eastern country privilege the traditions, cultures and religious practices of one group over others. If we think this is wrong, then it should delegitimize every country on earth, not just Israel.
The biggest problem with these arguments is that they are ahistorical. They are removed from the actual circumstances in which Israel came to be a Jewish country. They don’t acknowledge the history of persecution in Europe that led to the formation of Zionism and the first aliyot. They don’t acknowledge the Holocaust, the statelessness of world Jewry, the closed borders, the need for our own home. They don’t acknowledge the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands when Israel was founded.
Just as we must open our hearts deeply to the Palestinian story, to look with open eyes at the suffering, the humiliation, the human rights abuses, and our own complicity in them, so too must we affirm the
Jewish story, which is just as real.
Israel is an actual country, not an idea one can refute.3 When we are highly critical of the United States, as I was on Rosh Hashanah, no one says that the United States should not exist. As noted essayist Ellen Willis, zichrona livracha, wrote, “the logic of anti-Zionism… entails an unprecedented demand for an existing state—not simply to change its policies but to disappear.”
And this is where we need to acknowledge anti-Semitism, when Israel is singled out as uniquely evil and illegitimate. As Alan Johnson wrote, “Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricky, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.” Not all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, but there is an unnerving overlap.
It is our learned responses to trauma, and perhaps our internalization of anti-Semitism, that prevents us from seeing this clearly. That make us feel illegitimate as holders of power. That make us over-reactive to any critique and under-reactive to demonization. We must not use the charge of anti-Semitism as a weapon against one another, but in the spirit of Yom Kippur, we must humbly look inside of ourselves and ask why we have been so slow, so resistant to see the anti-Semitism on the Left. I am saying that there is something going on here that we’re not good at seeing and naming, perhaps because it’s in us too.
So yes, we must banish, and heal, our learned responses to trauma.
Once we take off the table the question of whether there should be a Jewish state, once we decide that it’s legitimate for the Jewish people, like any other people, to hold state power, including having an army, borders, a police force, a government, laws, and civil society, then we can ask how ought we use that power.
And then we can, we must, criticize that state just as passionately and vociferously as we would any state we’re identified with that abuses or misuses its power.
Israel exists. It’s not a hypothetical construct. Let’s get on with making Israel reflect the Jewish values of human dignity, equality, and democracy inscribed in its Declaration of Independence.
Having confessed, having banished, we must sacrifice, we must give.
Our children are depending on us, American Jews, to step up on Israel, to have the courage to speak to one another, to listen to one another. To ask out loud the questions that sit in our hearts. What are we afraid of? What are we confused about? What are our dearest hopes? What are we proud of? What are we ashamed of? What are we avoiding? What do we feel that we can’t explain to people who haven’t been there, who haven’t lived there? How do we feel Israel is misunderstood? How do we feel personally misunderstood when it comes to Israel?
Study and Dialogue
Can you imagine being able to tell these truths in your synagogue and know that you were being heard? Can you imagine being listened to about Israel without judgment?
Ruth Calderon, an Israeli Talmud scholar who came to CBE this year, tells the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, two great rabbis who were chevruta, study partners. The Talmud says that when Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was plunged into deep grief. To comfort him, the Rabbis sent him a new chevruta who, in gentleness, agreed with everything Yochanan said. But this only made matters worse. Rabbi Yochanan objected: “When I stated a law Resh Lakish would raise 24 objections, to which I gave 24 answers, and you simply agree with me? Where are you Resh Lakish? Where are you, Resh Lakish?” And he was inconsolable. This story comes to show, Calderon teaches, that true love requires open and honest disagreement, requires us to challenge each other. Calderon says that this should be the model for American Jews and Israel.4
We must create a forum here at CBE where we can have that kind of sensitive, thoughtful, complex, caring, humble, challenging, honest, real conversation about Israel. There is no litmus test at CBE on whether you believe in God or whether you keep mitzvot – no one is checking whether you keep kosher, no one is judging whether you keep Shabbat. Why would we have a litmus test on Israel?5
Instead, let’s be a place where we actively grow our ability to listen to each other, to be uncomfortable, to take in views different from our own. Where we’re not in debates trying to defeat the other, but in dialogues trying understand the other. Where we learn about Israel in ever-greater levels of complexity. This Spring at CBE, we are launching an Israel Study and Dialogue Series to do just that.
In order to do that well, we should know Israel as it really is on the ground. We should go there, sit with Israelis and Palestinians, get to know real people who are working every day to make Israel and Palestine what they must become. Otherwise we’re here 5,600 miles away projecting, detached from the people who are doing the work.
I find that if I go too long without direct contact with Israel, I begin to feel hopeless. I begin to doubt that there is a future. But as soon as I go there and meet with real people, I am filled with hope. I am inspired that there are so many Israelis and Palestinians who are dedicating their lives for an Israel that represents the ethics of our tradition and our people, and a Palestine that can live alongside Israel in peace.
I was in Israel twice this year. Let me give you some examples of the people I met. I met Khader Abu Seif, a gay Palestinian Israeli living in Tel Aviv, making films about reconciliation. I met Racheli Ibenboim who describes herself as a Haredi/ultra-Orthodox feminist. I met Eilon Schwartz who is working to build inter-group understanding through Shaharit, an NGO dedicated to developing leaders from every sector– Haredi, Mizrachi, Russian, Arab, Ethiopian, National Religious – who are turning to the “other” to listen and understand. I visited the Yad b’Yad school, where Jewish and Arab children learn together every day while their families develop deep friendships.
I met Israelis facilitating relationships between Bedouin and Kibbutz children at the border of the Gaza Strip, a mayor of a town in the Negev winning big victories for affordable housing, young people working for civil marriage and religious pluralism. I ended my second trip with Seeds of Peace Director and CBE member Leslie Lewin, who introduced me to the incredible Israeli and Palestinian leaders who have come of age through that groundbreaking camp. The oldest among them are now in their mid-30s, and they are stepping into roles of power and influence within both Israeli and Palestinian society. In addition to meeting with Israelis in Tel Aviv, we traveled to Jericho together to meet with Palestinian educators training to heal hatred and teach the inner work of peacebuilding.
We must go to Israel together regularly as a CBE community. I am leading an Israel trip for adults next July. A trip focused on complexity, and on meeting the real people who are working every day to make Israel reflect the values of pluralism, equality, and human dignity we hold dear.
Once we know how to listen to each other, we must speak up. If we are Zionists, we must say that we are Zionists. If we believe that what is happening in the West Bank is wrong, we must say that. If we believe that Israel must create equality for liberal Jews, let’s be vocal. If we believe that Israel is not adequately reflecting Jewish values let’s protest. If we oppose BDS or anti-Zionism, let’s speak clearly about why. We can no longer feel that because we don’t live in Israel, we’re on the sidelines. We must have a say.
I am a Reform Zionist. I am dedicated to the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and to an Israel that reflects and enacts our values. I also believe that Palestinians have a right to self-determination. I believe that what is happening in the West Bank is wrong. I approach what I say and do with a measure of humility, because I am not in danger of being shot and killed, as Yosef Kirma and
Levana Malihi, z”l, just were in Jerusalem.
But it must not mean that I am silent. It must mean that I work directly with Israelis to make Israel true to its Declaration of Independence, which states: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
As Americans, we often feel that we have no place in building the Israel that ought to be. But Tal Becker says, “If we say that Israel is the home of the Jewish people, then we all need to act like that. We all need to act like it’s our home, like we have a stake in the decisions. We’re all writing the future of this country together. We may not all have the same weight in the decisions, but I don’t think as an Israeli you have the right to ignore the impact of Israel’s decisions on world Jewry and if you’re a Jew in the diaspora, you don’t have the right to just turn your back on what is the sovereign project of the Jewish people.”
There are Israelis at the grassroots ready and willing to partner with us. Rabbi Noa Sattath, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a champion for human rights, gender equality, and religious freedom in Israel, says this: “BDS is having no impact. Not only is it corrupt and deceptive, it is doing nothing to change the lives of Palestinians or Israelis. It is doing nothing to change Israeli policy. Why are you Americans wasting your time with BDS? Why not do something actually useful. Why not work with us to change Israel? Why not build a grassroots movement across the United States to partner with a grassroots movement in Israel for equality and human dignity for all people? To oppose all forms of racism in Israel. For two states for two peoples. Then we could work together to get something done.”
When our kids go to college, I hope that none of them will be asked to show their horns. But if they are progressive, if they care deeply about human rights, they might be asked to give up their allegiance to their people Israel.
If you don’t care about Israel, it’s time to care. Israel represents us. Our children are depending on us to care. As Shimon Peres z”l said, “Find a cause that’s larger than yourself and then give your life to it.”
Yom Kippur is a time of turning. It’s a time to turn our lives toward causes larger than ourselves. It’s a time to turn toward home. It’s time to face Jerusalem not only in our prayers but also in our action. Not only the Jerusalem above, but also the real Jerusalem, below.
Let’s show our children how to stand with our people Israel, by creating a future together that reflects the best of who we are.
Let’s tell them, let’s show them:
This is what it is to be a Jew.
Based in the idea that humans are created in the image of God, we have an obligation to exercise power with great care. Because not only others but also we are created in the image of God, we have an obligation to use the power we have to protect our own lives as well as the lives of others. – from Rabbi Donniel Hartman
1 This was taught to me by Rabbi David Ellenson in 2004.
2 Based in the idea that humans are created in the image of God, we have an obligation to exercise power with great care. Because not only others but also we are created in the image of God, we have an obligation to use the power we have to protect our own lives as well as the lives of others. – from Rabbi Donniel Hartman
3 Thanks to Rabbi Jill Jacobs for this point as well as the Ellen Willis and Alan Johnson texts, and for gathering a group of progressive Zionist rabbis to consider these questions together.
4 Thanks to Rabbi Josh Weinberg for this source.
5 Thanks to Rabbi Josh Weinberg for this idea. Tal Becker: “In Jewish tradition we have one pasuk but many interpretations of that pasuk. Shouldn’t this be our approach to Israel, in which we can have many narratives at once?”