A Dose of Nuance: How to speak about Israel during these High Holy Days

First of all, here’s what not to talk about. Don’t speak about peace. There’s hardly a Jew alive who hasn’t heard the litany of biblical and rabbinic sources on peace trotted out time and again.

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Everywhere we turn, we’re reading that Israel has become a topic of conversation too toxic and too controversial for many American congregational rabbis to raise from the pulpit. And on the High Holy Days, it is now being said, matters are even worse.
On the one hand, congregants expect to hear something about the Jewish state at the start of the Jewish New Year, and many rabbis similarly feel that not to mention Israel would somehow be wrong. Yet toxicity and controversy are the last thing anyone wants to inject into Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.
So many rabbis are (to borrow a High Holy Day theme) damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
What’s a rabbi to do? While admitting that I have the luxury of having no responsibilities during these High Holy Days except to show up to shul (and later in the day, wash a lot of dishes), here are a few ideas I thought to share with my friends and colleagues, as well as with those who will be listening to them.
First of all, here’s what not to talk about. Don’t speak about peace. There’s hardly a Jew alive who hasn’t heard the litany of biblical and rabbinic sources on peace trotted out time and again.
Everyone with a brain knows that Judaism treasures peace. But people who can read also know that peace is not going to happen any time soon. With Islamic State creeping closer, with Iran firing up the Syrian border and with the US about to give Iran a tacit green light to develop a nuclear weapon, there is no cause in the Middle East that matters less than the Palestinians.
They know it, too. Did you hear that Hamas and Israel are now negotiating a long-term cease-fire, according to some reports? Why is that? Did Khaled Mashaal just finish reading Herzl’s The Jewish State? Did his wife just become a member of Hadassah? Or has he figured out that his cause – at least for the time being – is yesterday’s news? He gets it, and so should we. It doesn’t make the Palestinian cause more or less just than it was before, it just means that it’s nowhere near any front burner. So let’s talk about things that truly matter – now.
And unless you’re in one of those very few districts that is home to one of the key senators or congressmen on the Iran bill, skip that, too. Those people in the pew? They can read. They’ve read everything all the rabbis have read, and sometimes more.
And they can think, too. And they’re probably not terribly open to changing their position – in one direction or the other – at this point. So what’s the point? Iran is a critical issue. But it is probably not a High Holy Day sermon issue, at least for many communities.
So what might rabbis actually speak about if they want to speak about Israel? If it were me, I’d use those three critical days to get them to think about things that they don’t already think about very much, and where the rabbi might well have a relative advantage.
For example: Books they should read about Israel. I was recently at a modern Orthodox synagogue on the East Coast, the kind where almost all the kids attend Orthodox high schools and where many of them then go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. On Shabbat afternoon, I was asked to speak to them about something Israel-related.
When about 40 of them gathered for a schmooze in the late afternoon, I mentioned something that seemed to me a well-known bit of history. But they stared at me as if I were speaking Swahili. So I asked this group, composed of several dozen high school juniors and seniors, how many of them had ever read an entire book, cover to cover, about Israel.
How many raised their hands? None.
Nada. Not a single one.
I’ll bet that the situation among most congregants is not that different. So how about getting them to have a reading list – history, literature, comedy, poetry, and political thought – that will give them a window into the soul of Israel and Israelis? Not the politics that they can read about on the front page of The New York Times, but the soul of Israel, in which the American press generally has no interest.
(I have a list of 30 critical books to read about Israel. I’ll post it on my website before this column comes out, and you can download it from there.) Why does Israel even matter? We know the cost is high. It’s high in blood, sweat, tears, stress and money, and that cost is only going to climb. So why does Israel really matter? What’s the point of a Jewish state? In the early 1950s, Jacob Blaustein, then the head of the American Jewish Committee, said in a major address that the State of Israel wasn’t a great idea, but there was no other solution for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons throughout Europe. Israel was a problematic solution to an even greater problem.
Is that still the way that we think about Israel? Is it a solution to a problem? If so, to what problem is it a solution? And if it’s not that, what is it? That’s worth thinking about, and I’ll bet that it’s a question that has crossed the minds of very few congregants lately. (That list of books I mentioned above includes some that address this question.) What would a world without Israel look like? For reasons I’ll outline in a different column, this is not nearly as outlandish a notion as it might sound. But let’s not focus on how that might happen, but try to imagine, instead, what the Jewish world would look like if it did. What would be the impact on American Judaism? on Hebrew language? on Jewish literature and culture? on the sense of pride that so pervades American Jews that they can scarcely imagine a world in which they didn’t feel it.
The subject isn’t Chicken Little’s “the sky is falling,” but gratitude. How does that tiny, highly imperfect, always embattled country across the ocean affect our lives, wherever we may live outside Israel? That, too, I’ll bet, is not something most congregants have thought about very much.
It is both possible and desirable, I think, to speak about Israel during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And it can be done without mentioning war, Palestinians, Iran, or that most toxic place of all, the American college campus. There are actually much bigger questions out there, questions we hardly ever discuss.
Perhaps this is the moment for the men and women on the pulpit to seize the day and to change the discourse? That, more than anything else, I think, might actually symbolize a new beginning.
■ The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.