(If you’re looking for Part One, you’ll find it here.)
The good news about going to Israel, which you all know I do regularly, is that it is always exciting, always a special treat, always an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Jewish in a world with a majority-Jewish state.
The challenge of speaking about Israel, and particularly anything to do with Israeli politics from the pulpit is that no matter what I say, I’m going to upset somebody. There are those among us for whom any criticism of Israel’s government is forbidden, and there are those for whom any mention of Israel without simultaneously mentioning the Palestinian population living in the territories is an egregious, inhuman oversight.
The way I have always approached Israel is to consider the people who live there: their lives, their desires, their fears, their hopes. I have always sought to remind American Jews of the fact that Israeli life is not necessarily about Israeli politics, or the peace process, or the location of the future Palestinian state, and so forth. It is about going to school, making a living, being able to afford your apartment as cost-of-living increases, and so forth. It’s about completing the bagrut, the series of high-school matriculation exams, before going off to the army. It’s about finding your way through the regular chaos of life, knowing all the while that there are people who live very close by who want to kill you, and yet managing to eke out a living, raise a family, and every now and then go to the beach, or maybe get a vacation to Europe or the US or India.
My first trip was 30.5 years ago, for an 8-week academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. (It’s an excellent program, and there are scholarships for interested high-school students from Pittsburgh, by the way.)
I lived in Israel for about 15 months in 1999-2000, and I have flown round-trip to Israel in excess of 30 times. I have been to most of the popular tourist sites over and over, and I have also been to many places where tourists rarely go. I hiked from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean over four days; I have climbed many mountains in Israel, from the northernmost to the southernmost; I have been to most of the beaches and soaked myself in virtually every body of water that exists; I was even once turned away by Palestinian police while trying to enter Shechem (which the Palestinians call Nablus, an Arabicization of the Latin “Neapolis,” meaning “new city”), because they insisted on seeing my Israeli ID card, and wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t Israeli and didn’t have one. I had my wallet stolen in Israel twice; I’ve overpaid handsomely in various markets; I’ve had the opportunity to interact with bureaucrats in government offices, auto mechanics, artists, beggars, politicians, kibbutzniks, sushi chefs, police officers, bank tellers, etc., etc.
What draws me back to Israel is as much the seductive theory of the fulfillment of the visions of both Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, as I discussed two weeks ago, as the vibrant reality on the ground – the day-to-day struggle that is normal and familiar to every human being, the palette of human existence. And this reality is the result of the human movement known as Zionism, the collective effort to forge a sovereign, contemporary nation for the Jews. I am still proud to call myself a Zionist, committed to that ongoing dream.
The Talmud speaks of two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, and Yerushalayin shel matah – the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one (Babylonian Talmud, Massekhet Ta’anit 5a; translation from Sefaria):
וא”ל רב נחמן לר’ יצחק מאי דכתיב (הושע יא, ט) בקרבך קדוש ולא אבוא בעיר משום דבקרבך קדוש לא אבוא בעיר א”ל הכי א”ר יוחנן אמר הקב”ה לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה. ומי איכא ירושלים למעלה אין דכתיב (תהלים קכב, ג) ירושלם הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו
And Rav Naḥman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is sacred in your midst, and I will not enter the city” (Hosea 11:9)? This verse is puzzling: Because it is sacred in your midst, will God not enter the city? Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said the verse should be understood as follows: The Holy One, Blessed be God, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst. The Gemara asks: And is there such a place as Jerusalem above? The Gemara answers: Yes, as it is written: “Jerusalem built up, a city unified together”(Psalms 122:3). The term unified indicates that there are two cities of Jerusalem, a heavenly one and an earthly one, which are bound together.
The same is true of the State of Israel as a whole. When one visits as a tourist, particularly for the first time, I think you are most likely to fall in love with the heavenly Israel, Yisra’el shel ma’alah. When one lives there for an extended period of time, you are likely to run up against Yisra’el shel matah, the very real, very human, very earthly State of Israel. Except for people it is the opposite: we enter the earthly Israel via the heavenly Israel; Rabbi Yohanan’s position is that God will only arrive at the heavenly Jerusalem through the earthly Jerusalem. We might read from this our obligation to build properly Yisrael shel matah in order to reach its heavenly counterpart.
Shel matah is where the cost of living rivals the most expensive nations in the world, where terrified soldiers are called on to make life-or-death decisions on a daily basis, where some men prevent women from singing out loud, where the use of a sefer Torah in public is a political statement.
You might have thought that, since I arrived in Israel just after the American President acknowledged Jerusalem as its capital, that this particular news item would have dominated headlines. But actually, what made a bigger splash when I was there was the swirling allegations and fallout from government corruption.
These corruption cases threaten to topple the Netanyahu government as Bibi himself and one of his key aides, former majority whip David Bitan, face a range of charges. Every Saturday night, anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv draw tens of thousands of participants.
Israeli police are planning to recommend that the prime minister be indicted in two corruption cases – one about gifts of cigars and champagne from billionaire supporters, and the other a deal to get favorable coverage from the venerable daily Yediot Acharonot newspaper in exchange for inhibiting the free upstart Yisrael Hayom, owned by my namesake (and possible cousin) Sheldon Adelson.
Meanwhile, Bitan’s replacement, David Amsalem, is known for stating his desire that egalitarian services be banned at the Kotel, and insulting the non-Orthodox Jews (like us) who support them.
I had an opportunity, one of the days that my son was in school and I was footloose and fancy-free, to go visit Rabbi Amy Levin at Kibbutz Hannaton, where she has lived for the last two years. In addition to meeting her grandson Bar, who at 1.5 is absolutely adorable, we discussed the situation on the ground in Israel in light of recent events. Her sense of the Israeli reaction to the United States’ statement about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, like mine, was, “OK, so what? We already knew that.” The decision changes neither facts on the ground or the status of the peace process.
For the most part, Israelis are unmoved by the statement about Jerusalem as the capital, and skeptical that the embassy will actually move. But that’s because they are hardened by years of struggle. OK, they think, let the Palestinians riot. Let the Arab world seethe in anger. That’s their leaders’ problem, not ours. If they want a state, they are ultimately going to have to stop aiming rockets at our civilian population, and come to the negotiating table, not that we’re holding our breath.
Yes, that may seem insensitive to some. But Israelis have to protect themselves and their nation. And while I personally feel that the official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital might mean the loss of a potential bargaining chip for final-status negotiations, there is also the potential here for re-igniting those negotiations. As any family therapist will tell you (and we all know that the Middle East is one humongous, dysfunctional family), sometimes making a significant change in the family system’s stasis might cause changes elsewhere in the system that will help resolve the problem.
So meanwhile, the shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, remains unchanged. What remains for us is the future of the shel matah, the reality on the ground. Let’s keep our fingers tied up in the shape of a magen David (the six-pointed Jewish star) and hope for the best:
- Hope that a sustainable solution for all the populations in that small strip of land will be reached;
- Hope that corruption in Israel will be sidelined and that her democracy remains strong;
- Hope that the Kinneret and the Dead Sea will still be there for our grandchildren to enjoy;
- Hope that the increasingly right-wing Orthodox hegemony over religious issues will be broken;
- Hope that Israel will continue to face all these challenges with grace, so that she will continue to inspire and lead Diaspora Jewry; and
- Hope that we can build that Yisra’el shel matah that the people living there, and all of us around the world, truly need.
We are currently working on a Beth Shalom trip to Israel, primarily for empty-nesters, next November. Please let me know if you are interested.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/13/2018.)