The High Holy Day sermon I did not give

I disagree with many of my colleagues who have been critical of Israel on a number of political subjects, but I have known very few who do not truly love the land and its people.

American synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)
American synagogue
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of my greatest moments as a rabbi came after I had been in my pulpit a few years and had just delivered yet another High Holy Day sermon on Israel. I was approached by a young hard-working mother whom I know to be thoughtful and reflective. She asked me, “Rabbi, I know you care very deeply about Israel, but I don’t know why I should. Could you maybe teach a class and explain it to me?”
A few weeks later, I taught a six-session class in which I tried to answer her very question. It was the best attended adult education class I have ever given, with 20 or so folks showing up each week – an excellent turnout for a congregation of about 50 families. I hope those who attended took something from the class, but I know what I took from it: the knowledge that one cannot assume that someone living on the periphery of American Jewish life knows or even cares about a small country nearly 10,000 kilometers away.
That knowledge has changed my rabbinate. I don’t talk about Israel every year on the High Holy Days, but I do talk about it most years – every time I feel I can say something new that will impress upon my listeners why they should care. And Israel is a frequent topic of Friday night sermons, Saturday morning Torah discussions and both child and adult educational programming. One much-discussed topic in our shul is our relationship to Israel here in the Diaspora and even whether we belong here any more. These are always serious, even difficult conversations.
Because I am committed to helping my congregants care about Israel, I could not talk about it this year on the High Holy Days. I could not speak about Israel honestly without discussing the government’s decision to renege on its promise to build a mixed-gender plaza at the Kotel, and I could not discuss that decision without possibly undermining all my previous teachings.
I must say at the outset that for me, the Kotel is more about history and the yearnings of our people than a place to be near to God. When I stand before it, my most powerful association is not to the Temple or the priesthood, but Motta Gur’s proclamation, “Har Ha-Bayit b’yadeinu” and all that must have meant to those who heard it. While I disagree with them, I am somewhat sympathetic to those who see the effort to include a mixed-gender plaza as more politically than religiously motivated.
But none of that matters. What matters is that for the majority of American Jews, the idea that Israel would recognize the Judaism they know and cling to as a genuine part of our collective history is crucial to their connection to that state. Sometimes you have to do things for no other reason than their being important to a loved one. Israel had to do this and it failed. This is a failure of Prime Minister Netanyahu in his promise to be the leader of the Jewish world, and it is a failure of the Israeli people to hold him and his government accountable for this promise.
In the weeks since the government’s decision, I have read a number of Israeli commentators who have suggested that this crisis is largely manufactured by American rabbis as a way of coping with a demographic catastrophe that is facing American liberal Judaism. There are elements of truth in this argument, but it is short-sighted and terribly unfair.
It is short-sighted because it ignores the miracle that is American Judaism. Whatever the demographic crisis it may face today, American Judaism has done something that Israeli Judaism has never had to do – keep our faith alive in an overwhelmingly Christian nation and in an atmosphere of total religious freedom. In so doing, it has championed the notion that Diaspora Judaism can be a light to the nations. And if we have achieved nothing else, we have succeeded in making the world’s most powerful nation Israel’s most powerful ally.
It is terribly unfair in that it imputes a base motive to a group of Jewish leaders who, on the whole, are lovers of Israel. I disagree with many of my colleagues who have been critical of Israel on a number of political subjects, but I have known very few who do not truly love the land and its people. If we have reacted vehemently to this broken promise, it is because we know hard it is to make our congregants understand Israel’s importance to all of us.
I plan on visiting Israel in December. While there, I will preach to anyone who will listen the same message I preach to my own congregants, that regardless of how foreign or distant we may seem to one another, we are brothers and sisters. And sometimes – especially when a relationship is distant or strained – you have to give them what they need for no other reason than that you love them.
God forgive me for not being able to preach that message in my congregation this year. With His help, I will do so next year.
The author is the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical seminary in Yonkers, NY.