Sermon for August 26, 2017
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is replete with instructions for magistrates and officials. It contains the oft quoted verse “Tsedek, tsedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” in addition to other memorable quotations. There is one verse, from Deuteronomy 17:14, which captures my interest this morning. It says, “If, after you have entered the land that Adonai your God has assigned to you and taken possession of it and settled in it you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the other nations around me, you shall be free to set a king over yourselves, one chosen by God.” For several centuries after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, we did not have a king. We were ruled by tribal chieftains, called Judges in the Bible, strong men and women respected for their military prowess and wisdom. Under pressure from the Philistines, the people urged the prophet Samuel to give them a king, quoting Deuteronomy when they implored, “so that we might be like the rest of the nations.”
In the 19th century, when the ghetto walls fell down around us, many of us said “We want to be like the rest of the nations.” We will never know how many thousands took that reasoning to the extreme by converting to Christianity. Many others who remained Jewish looked for an expression of Judaism that would allow us to remain Jews, but not be too different from those around us. Hence, Reform Judaism was born. In addition, “To what degree do we want to be like the nations of the world and to what degree do we want to be different was at the heart of the argument among the founding generation of Zionists.”[i]
While Jews have always lived in Israel and have always yearned to return to Israel, modern political Zionism was created by Theodore Herzl who, after reporting on the Dreyfus trial in Paris in 1894, realized that anti-Semitism was so endemic even in France, the most enlightened of European countries, that Jews would never be accepted as equal citizens and must have a country of our own. He believed that “in order for Jews to survive in the modern world, they would have to become like the other nations- but they would divorce themselves from them and live apart in a land of their own.”[ii] Herzl created the mechanisms through which the State of Israel was founded, such as the World Zionist Congress and the Jewish National Fund before he died at the tender age of 44, exhausted because of his work on behalf of the Jewish people.
His most severe critic was Ahad Ha’am, a Jew of Odessa who founded what came to be known as “cultural Zionism.” He did not want Israel to be another Switzerland or Poland. He wanted to see a flowering of Jewish life and culture. He thought that “the Jewish people had a unique spiritual mission.” He wrote “A political ideal which is not grounded in our national culture is apt to seduce us from loyalty to our own inner spirit and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political domination.” For Ahad Ha’am, it was not enough for a Jewish state to exist- we needed to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ an advocate for justice, equality, human rights and peace.”[iii]
This debate, whether Israel should be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state, still rages today. Should Israel be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state? If it is a Jewish state, whose version of Judaism is definitive? I, and millions of other Liberal Jews, strongly believe that the bonds between religion and state should be untangled, that religious observance should be voluntary and not compulsory. We advocate for a separation between religion and state. We also believe that Progressive Judaism can help the Jewish state be both a normal country as well as Jewish country. In this way, Judaism will flourish in the land of our ancestors and we can become, as Ahad Ha’am hoped, a ‘light unto the nations.’
This past Wednesday, the rabbinical students of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul with the Women of the Wall, who mark the beginning of each month by blowing the shofar and reading Torah. There were over two hundred others present, Progressive Jews who simply wanted to pray together. I read from the President of the Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken’s, letter to us:
When entering into the Kotel plaza security area, our students wore kippot and brought tallitot as proud Reform Jews. This prompted Kotel security guards to search two of our female students in an inappropriate manner, ostensibly “looking for Torah scrolls” and “other ritual objects” which have been restricted from the women’s section of the Kotel by order of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox authority in control of the Kotel by order of the state-sponsored chief rabbinate. Because they were identified as Reform Jews, they were taken aside and asked to lift their skirts and shirts in front of the guards before they could enter the Kotel plaza. A third student was only spared this embarrassment due to the immediate intervention of two of our alumni, Rabbis Noa Sattath and Gilad Kariv, on legal grounds.
This search was a dramatic and disgraceful new tactic in the effort to demean Reform and Conservative Jews, limit the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, and intimidate those who stand for religious pluralism. To subject committed women studying to be Jewish leaders–lovers of Israel and supporters of Jewish life—to an illegal and inappropriate search is deeply disturbing and divides us as a people. Throughout this encounter, our students honored all of us by their composure. They tell us that they emerged from this experience more energized than ever to fulfill their sacred mission as future leaders of the Reform Movement and the Jewish People. We count on them to build a vibrant Jewish future in Israel, North America, and around the globe with respect and understanding for a broad variety of approaches to Judaism. Our students will continue to lead and join in the fight for religious pluralism in Jerusalem and the State of Israel, and we will always support them in all they do.
No Jew should ever prevent others from exercising their rights to pray peacefully in the manner they choose.
Will Israel become a “light unto the nations” of will it be a theocracy controlled by the rigid Orthodox establishment? This is a question that will be answered in the voting booth as Israeli citizens vote for a government that does not cower in the face of Orthodox demands. What can we do? The answer is perplexing. We should not, I strongly believe, stop giving to the Associated nor should we stop buying Israel Bonds. Our love for the State of Israel out weights our displeasure with the government. We can, though, support the organizations in Israel that work for a pluralistic and egalitarian country, such as the Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC is our champion that legally challenges the infringements of religious and human rights. I give to IRAC every year. I hope, as you consider the recipients of your tzedakah, that you will give to IRAC this year and in the foreseeable future. Until Israel becomes a true “light unto the nations” we must keep the lights from going out.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
[i] Rabbi Neal Gold, ARZA commentary, September 10, 2016.