An American Jew, Israel, and the Jewish People: What’s My Story?

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An American Jew, Israel, and the Jewish People: What’s My Story?

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon 5775


Rabbi Ari Sunshine

B’nai Shalom of Olney, MD

I heard a great joke this summer, about a man who was walking down Sderot Rothschild, one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, when all of a sudden he had a heart attack and immediately lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he looked around and found himself standing at the entrance to a hotel with impeccably groomed lawns, a magnificent pool with a lazy river, a lobby generously decorated with beautiful white marble, and a restaurant with a mouth-watering buffet clearly visible from the lobby. The man was at once excited to see all of these sights, and also puzzled as to where he was. So he went up to the reception desk and inquired, “where am I?”, to which the manager on duty replied, “you’re in heaven.” The man was still processing this amazing response when suddenly he was jarred awake by the current coming from defibrillator paddles on his chest. He was relieved to gradually discern that he had been revived and was very much still alive, but in the back of his mind he still recalled this incredible vision of what lay in store for him in heaven when his time ultimately came.

Several months later, the man was once again walking down Sderot Rothschild, when, sadly, he once again suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately, this time the paramedics were unable to revive him and he died. When he awoke and once again started to become aware of his surroundings, he realized he was at the entrance to a hotel, but it wasn’t anything like the one he had seen when he almost died months before. The lawns were unkempt, the pool was small and in need of cleaning, the lobby desperately needed renovations, and there was no sumptuous buffet to be seen. Surprised, he approached the manager at the front desk, who he recognized from the last encounter, and said—“excuse me, but aren’t I in heaven?” The manager replied, “yes you are”. The man said—“but wait a minute—what happened to the lawns, the pool, the lobby, and the buffet I saw the last time I was here?” To which the manager replied, “Ah, I’m sorry sir, you misunderstood. Last time you came, you were a tourist. Now, you live here.” 

This joke felt particularly appropriate when I heard it over the summer while I was in Israel for four and a half weeks during Israel’s war with Hamas. It’s one thing to catch a brief glimpse of an interesting and even tantalizing place, or see that place with rose-colored glasses from a great distance. It’s quite another thing to be immersed completely in a country and its experiences to the point that you feel like you are no longer just a tourist, but actually someone who is living there. It doesn’t take long to realize that life in Israel—and Israeli society itself--is a lot more complicated and nuanced than you might have otherwise expected. Now, to be fair, my “living” in Israel was for a finite month-long period of time, until I eventually came home on my twice rescheduled Air Canada flight through an overnight stay in Italy, connection in Toronto, and final leg to DC four days later than originally planned. But even though my time in Israel had a—roughly—pre-determined end date, I did unquestionably feel “settled” there and subject to the full ebbs and flows of the daily mood of the country, with all its grittiness and heaviness during a tense and uncertain time. The intensity of the experience was increased by virtue of the fact that our topic of study for the month-long seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a topic that had been determined many months before—was “War and Peace”. So from daily text study to small group processing sessions to coffee at Caffit or burgers at Burgers Bar, our days and nights were filled to overflowing with deep and seemingly never-ending conversations about the challenges of war, the values of peace, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

I felt safe in my orbit in Western Jerusalem, but troubled by a number of developments I reflected on from that perch, including:

--a relatively close-up view of a conflict that many like to call “intractable”

--the rise in anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment in America, in Europe, and around the world, and the equally disturbing blurring of the lines between the two to the point where there often is no difference between them, not that either is good

--more bigoted rabble-rousing from the completely misguided and counterproductive BDS movement

--and the angst of American Jews, increasingly fractured in their outlook towards the State of Israel and Jewish peoplehood even during Israel’s time of crisis.

All of these developments are noteworthy, without a doubt, and we could spend hours talking about each one—(which we won’t, at least not now!) . But for today, what I would like to explore with you in more depth for a few minutes is this last development, because it is an issue that I suspect many of us in this room grappled with during this summer’s war, whether that wrestling and reflecting took place in Israel, or here in the U.S.. And it is also an issue that each of us can personally continue to wrestle with even in the relative calm aftermath of the conflict, because it ought not only be something we think about while Israel is in crisis. Here’s the question at the core of the issue: as an American Jew, how do I broadly see myself in relation to Israel and the Jewish people? What’s my “story”, the narrative that describes that relationship? In one of the most thought-provoking sessions I experienced at the Hartman Institute this summer, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the President of Shalom Hartman Institute-North America, proposed 5 different narratives of that relationship for my classmates and me to consider. The five narratives are:

1) A family needs space to thrive, but we’re still family

2) Israel and the United States are two reinforcing centers of Jewish life

3) Israel is at the center of Jewish life worldwide: or, “Ki Mitzion Tetze Torah

4) Jewish peoplehood means sharing pain

5) We must earn the right to live outside Israel

Let’s take a brief look at each of these models.

The first model is based on Genesis chapter 13. Abraham and Lot and their herdsmen attempt to settle the land together but can’t make it work and quickly descend into quarreling over the land. Rather than continue to argue and risk a complete fracture in the family, Abraham says no to the strife and says, “hi-pared na me-alai”—let us separate. Abraham offers Lot the choice of where he wants to live with his entourage, and then offers to go in the opposite direction. Abraham prioritizes his relationship with his nephew EVEN over God’s promise to Abraham that the land will be his. The separating becomes an act of preserving family connection—figure out the best place for you to be, and the best place for me to be, and then we can create some healthy distance between us and support each other. A good modern day example of this relationship was in the 1950’s, when David Ben-Gurion was negotiating with Jacob Blaustein, a leader of the American Jewish community in that era. Ben-Gurion promised to tone down his rhetoric of Aliyah and the belittling of the Jews in the diaspora, and in return Blaustein said that American Jewry would support Israel, primarily through lobbying and philanthropy. Ben-Gurion and Blaustein agreed to disagree on the very meaning of Judaism and Zionism and also carved out their separate physical space across the ocean from each other—and yet they preserved the sense of familial connection, acceptance, and support for each other’s project. It was precisely this mutual recognition of the need for space between them that gave them the room to embrace each other as family.

The second model looks at Israel and the United States not as a problem of juggling dual loyalty, but as two reinforcing centers of Jewish life. Louis Brandeis was a fervent advocate of this school of thought. Back in 1915, before he became a Supreme Court justice, he wrote, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism…. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family, and to his profession or trade; for being loyal to his college or lodge…. Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so… Indeed, loyalty to America demands that each American Jew become a Zionist. For only through the ennobling effect of its strivings can we develop the best that is in us and give to this country the full benefit of our great inheritance”. This model reflects solidarity with, and loyalty to, two different entities: the U.S. and Israel. A good example of the effect of this model was the Six Day War in 1967—after the war, American Jews didn’t start making Aliyah en masse, but they did start wearing kippot in public more, as they felt a greater sense of Jewish peoplehood. They were proudly American, and proud to support Judaism and Israel at the same time.

Kurtzer’s third model puts Israel at the center of Jewish life for the whole world, what we’ll call the “Ki Mitzion Tetze Torah”-from Zion comes forth Torah—model. Derived from a selection of Talmudic texts, the basic idea is that if you live on the periphery—meaning, in Talmudic terms, in the Diaspora—you can’t claim authority over important, peoplehood-defining issues while you are there. The center of power for Jewish life and Jewish law stays in Jerusalem. Incidentally—in an ironic twist, these texts about the centrality of Israel are written by rabbis in exile in Babylonia. Go figure!  However, if the key instruction or law emanates from Jerusalem and Israel, Israel also has to factor into consideration whether those on the periphery can actually follow that law. In our times, then, according to this model, Israel would need to be the role model and provide structure, order, and norms for all issues of Jewish life worldwide in order to preserve Jewish peoplehood.

The fourth model, the shared pain of Jewish peoplehood, is based on a bizarre hypothetical case from the Talmud and finds its modern expression in the words of the late Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, a leading authority in Orthodoxy in the 20th century, who says, in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek” (“My Beloved’s Voice Calls to Me”), “If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris and London must scream. And by feeling the pain, he is loyal to the nation”. Soloveitchik thinks that loyalty to the Jewish people is demonstrated by your feeling pain when other Jews are suffering, whether you know them or don’t, even if they’re halfway around the world. Interestingly, this theory of peoplehood eliminates the centrality of Zionism and de-emphasizes a bilateral relationship between American Jews and Israel in favor of a multilateral relationship between Jews of different countries, wherever they may live. It argues that we shouldn’t care about where our brothers live, just that they are our brothers and therefore we should care about them, especially when they are struggling.

Finally, the fifth model, “we must earn the right to live outside Israel”, emerges from Numbers chapter 32, when the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe approach Moses and inform him they don’t want to settle in Canaan and will instead settle in Transjordan. Moses initially tries to pressure them to settle in Canaan, but the leaders of the two and a half tribes stick to their guns and refuse to capitulate to Moses. So Moses makes a deal with them: they can earn the right to live where they want, on the other side of the Jordan, only if they first fight on behalf of the rest of the Israelite tribes to conquer Canaan. Moreover, they have to fight in the front lines of the battle, serving as the shock troops for the campaign. Essentially, they have to pay heavily for their right to live outside of Israel. In the modern parallel, as Jews living in the Diaspora we would need to make significant sacrifices on behalf of the state of Israel in order to secure our right to live outside of Israel. Those sacrifices could be financial in nature, they could involve lobbying legislators for funding, they could involve volunteering in Israel, they could involve giving our children our blessing to make Aliyah and fight in the IDF, or other possibilities. But under this model we have a moral obligation as a part of the collective people of Israel to actively support Israel’s right to exist, and it is only by fulfilling that obligation can we secure permission to live outside of Israel.

So, now I ask you, “what’s your story?” Let’s see who’s been paying attention and let’s make sure we’re all awake . We’ll take a straw poll, just like we did in our classroom in Israel this summer. If you like the narrative of “a family needs space to thrive, but we’re still family!”, raise your hands now. (PAUSE)

If you like the narrative of Israel and the U.S. as two reinforcing centers of loyalty and Jewish life, raise your hand. (PAUSE—AND RAISE MY HAND!)

Now, if the narrative of Israel as the center of Jewish life worldwide speaks to you, raise your hand. (PAUSE)

If the narrative of Jewish peoplehood means sharing each other’s pain, raise your hand. (PAUSE)

If the narrative of earning the right to live outside of Israel resonates with you, please raise your hand. (PAUSE)

And finally, if more than one of these narratives speaks most profoundly to you, or if you have an entirely different narrative of your relationship with Israel and Jewish peoplehood, please raise your hand. (PAUSE)

Personally, I find that the narrative that speaks best to me is #2—the Brandeis model of shared reinforcing loyalties and centers of Jewish life. I have quite candidly never strongly considered Aliyah, but have visited Israel 14 times in my life so far and have spent more than two years of time there altogether, including a semester at Hebrew University in college and a year of study during rabbinical school. I think of myself as both a proud supporter of Israel and a proud American, and feel that both identities are absolutely integral to who I am as a person. However, I can also connect this to the 5th model, the one based on the idea that we have a moral obligation as a part of K’lal Yisrael, the collective people of Israel, to support the state of Israel, despite the fact, or quite possibly on account of it, that we have chosen to make our permanent home somewhere else. And for me, this is because Israel is a place to which we return, even if we’ve never been there before, like all of the 400,000 young adults who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel to reclaim their Jewish birthright. It is still the one place in the world where a Jew can unapologetically be a Jew, and it does feel like a second home to me.

This morning I could have focused on Israeli politics or this summer’s war. But I’m not interested in presenting myself as a political scientist with answers to complex and presently unanswerable questions. And during my summer messages to the congregation while I was in Israel I already related in detail how Israel united during this conflict and adopted hayalim bodedim, lone soldiers, as its country’s children, to the point that 20-30,000 Israelis attended the funerals and shivas of soldiers Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg. My friends, what I am interested in—and what I care deeply about—is encouraging each of you to consider, as I considered this summer, this core question that won’t go away as this summer’s conflict recedes into the background: “When it comes right down to it, as a Jew living in America, how do I relate to Israel and Jewish peoplehood?” Because this is a question each of us must answer for ourselves in order to provide a foundation to act with clear purpose and conviction in support of Israel. Is Israel my family, just living far away? Is Israel my second home? Is Israel the heart and soul of the Jewish people and Jewish life worldwide? Is Israel just one of many places in the world where we see our Jewish brothers and sisters suffer and then we feel that pain and react? Do we have a moral obligation to protect Israel because we are a part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and we live somewhere else other than at its center? Or do we connect with more than one of these narratives or with other narratives altogether? We have to be able to articulate what Israel means to us and WHY it matters to us in order to step up, or continue, our support—whether it be our financial support, our visits—come with us this July on our BSO trip, flyers are in the credenza outside!, political lobbying, defending Israel in the workplace and at school, buying Israel bonds, joining MERCAZ USA, or any other ways we demonstrate that we are with Israel. Israel may not always be the perfect, immaculate hotel the man in the joke first experienced, but I can assure you this: It is, and will always be, uniquely Israel, and uniquely ours. May this new year of 5775 usher in a year of peace for Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, and may we all be able to say, “L’Shana Ha-Ba’ah Bi-Yerushalayim”—next year in Jerusalem! Ken Yehi Ratzon, please God, may it indeed be so.

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