Many of my rabbinic colleagues give a sermon about Israel over the course of the High Holidays. I have generally not done so for two reasons: (א) because I give sermons about Israel from time to time throughout the year, and (ב) because the High Holidays seem like the best time to talk about the ways in which Jewish living can enrich your life and our world. So many of us make it to Jewish adulthood without deriving meaning from our customs and rituals, and since most of us are paying attention on the High Holidays, this is the time when I feel I must teach about the essential value and meaning of our tradition.
However, I noticed an opening this year that needs to be addressed. (Or, “needs addressed,” in local parlance.) Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” and Israel is very, very meaningful to me as a part of what it means to be Jewish today, and I know that Israel is meaningful to many of you as well. But I am, I must confess, a little concerned that it may not be meaningful enough for some of us. I am concerned that American Jews are drifting away from Israel.
And all the more so for me personally right now, since my oldest son, Oryah, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the artillery brigade. So I have, you might say, quite a bit of skin in the game at this particular moment. It’s worth noting that, come November, we will have two more young members of our congregation serving in the IDF: Naomi Kitchen and Ari Gilboa. That is actually a fairly significant group of ḥayyalim, Israeli soldiers directly connected to Congregation Beth Shalom.
Not only am I the father of an Israeli soldier, I am also a proud Zionist. I fell in love with the State of Israel – the people, the land, the culture, the optimistic idea of a modern Jewish state in the historical land of the Jewish people, built on the yearnings and hope of 2,000 years – I fell in love upon touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for my first visit there in the summer of 1987 when I was a participant in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. And that love only deepened when I returned there as an adult to live and study there in 1999.
Not only am I a proud Zionist, but I am also concerned for the welfare of ALL all the people on that tiny strip of land. I have spent time working as an idealistic volunteer on kibbutz, and climbed Masada multiple times and studied every aspect and angle of the contemporary Israeli story and hiked from the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I have also visited Israeli Arab and Druze villages, engaged with light political chatter with Palestinian citizens, been in a forum with Palestinian Authority politicians, been to West Bank locales such as Ḥevron and Mt. Gerizim and Jewish settlements and was once even turned back by Palestinian police at the crossing point while trying to visit Shechem, also known as Nablus. I have been and have experienced, in the words of the Israeli author Amos Oz, פה ושם בארץ ישראל, here and there in the land of Israel.
Not only am I concerned for all the people who live there, but I am also concerned that, according to the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews, our engagement with Israel is waning.
- 52% of American Jews over 50 consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” to being Jewish, while only 35% of those under 30 do.
- For the over-50 crowd, only 10% say Israel is not important to their Jewish identity, while for those under 30, that figure is 27%, nearly three times as much.
The handful of us in the American Jewish community who remember the 1940s know that we helped make the State of Israel a reality. There were the American fighter pilots who volunteered to serve. The Americans who donated to help build the new state. The Pittsburghers, who, as described in our member Dr. Barbara Burstin’s books on the history of our community, created a major hub of Zionist activity all the way back to the 1890s. Dr. Burstin assures me that Pittsburgh was second only to New York in terms of Zionist fervor and support, with a range of organizations and activities.
That is our legacy here.
But for many American Jews today, Israel is far away and not so consequential; for some Israel is no longer a source of pride. And that is what I find truly disheartening.
And one more brief “not only”: Not only am I concerned that disengagement of the American Jewish community is a threat to the future of Israel, I am also concerned that whatever I say about Israel, I am going to disappoint a whole bunch of people, and perhaps anger a few as well. While once upon a time, an Israel-based sermon was an easy slam dunk, today many rabbis actually shy away from talking about Israel from the pulpit for that reason.
Consider the pop singer Billie Eilish, who, in promoting her new album last month, created a series of brief videos on TikTok aimed at her fans in different countries. In the one addressed to her fans in the Israeli market, where there are apparently plenty of Billie Eilish fans, she said, ““Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish, and I’m so excited that my new album, Happier Than Ever, is out now.” In doing so, a Twitter-storm erupted of people calling her out, for saying nothing more than, “Hi, Israel.” How dare she even attempt to sell albums to Israelis?
Of course, Billie Eilish is not a rabbi, and the membership of Beth Shalom is hardly akin to a Twitter mob. As one who has had a life-long love affair with Israel, with all its attendant complexity and angst, and as a cheerleader for Jewish tradition, my task is to tell you not only why Israel is so meaningful to me, but why it should be for you as well.
We are going to consider the meaning in our relationship with Israel from three different perspectives: Jewish tradition, Jewish power, and Jewish culture.
At the simplest level, we cannot separate our connection to the land of Israel from our Jewishness. Certainly the arc of the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanakh / Hebrew bible, revolves around getting to or returning to Eretz Yisrael. And from the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, and hastened the Jewish dispersion all over the world, much of Jewish creativity – the Talmud, midrash, commentaries, liturgy, music and art – has been focused on the yearning for return and rebuilding our land.
On virtually every page of every siddur / prayerbook, including the maḥzor many of you hold in your hand right now, this yearning is evident. Consider what you just recited a few moments ago in the Amidah, words which we recite in every Amidah, at least three times on every day of the year:
וְתֶחֱזֶֽינָה עֵינֵֽינוּ בְּשׁוּבְ֒ךָ לְצִיּוֹן בְּרַחֲמִים
Veteḥezena eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon beraḥamim.
And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion.
The addressee here is, of course, God; but the implication is that if God returns to Israel, so might we as well. (By the way, I’ll never forget seeing those words inscribed on the wall in the secret synagogue found at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague.)
Or, right before the Shema, as we say every morning (we’ll say this tomorrow at about 9:20 AM.:
וַהֲבִיאֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָֽרֶץ וְתוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ קוֹמְ֒מִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵֽנוּ
Vahavienu leshalom me-arba kanfot ha-aretz, vetolikheinu qomemiyyut le-artzeinu.
Bring upon us in peace from the four corners of the Earth, and speedily lead us upright to our land.
And, when we chant the berakhot after the haftarah tomorrow morning:
רַחֵם עַל צִיּון כִּי הִיא בֵּית חַיֵּינוּ. וְלַעֲלוּבַת נֶפֶשׁ תּושִׁיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ
Raḥem al Tziyyon ki hi beit ḥayyeinu. Vela’aluvat nefesh toshia bimheira veyameinu.
Have mercy upon Zion, for it is the source of our life; and for the downtrodden of spirit bring salvation speedily in our days.
Zion is not merely some fantastical poetic reference. It is the land of our ancestors. It is the very real place that hosted the establishment of the Jewish people. It was our homeland for a thousand years, thereafter occupied by one empire after another for nearly 2,000 more, with continuous Jewish settlement (at times minimal) throughout that period.
In exile, this yearning for the land of Israel has been our inspiration and salvation and essential Earthly link to our tradition and to God as long as Jews have existed. Our connection to the land is not only inseparable from our tradition, but it has soaked every siddur / prayerbook with tears for two thousand years.
And, with the modern Zionist movement, which began a century and a half ago in Eastern Europe, the establishment of a Jewish State in that land has become a central plank in what it means to be a contemporary Jew.
Of course, the establishment of this state has come with its share of challenges, some of which the early Zionists anticipated, and some they did not, pre-eminent among them the challenge of creating a respectful living situation for the Arabs who live alongside our people in that land.
For virtually all of the last two millennia, our people were powerless exiles, and in some cases even refugees. We were subjects of empires, kings and queens, and feudal lords, and lived at their mercy. We survived, but we managed to do so with our wits, while clinging steadfastly to our tradition and to each other.
Our powerlessness enabled the Crusaders’ slaughter, the Expulsion from Spain, the medieval blood libels, and the pogroms. Our powerlessness permitted the Nazis to actually calculate the number of Deutschmarks required to kill each Jew; to realize that one bullet per dead Jew shot by the Einzatsgruppen was too expensive, and hence the use of Zyklon B poison gas and BMW engine exhaust in the death camps.
But, in the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, in which 6 million of our people were murdered due to their powerlessness, the desperation that our people felt aroused the sympathy of much of the world. Although the return to Zion had begun more than 80 years prior, it was to some extent this sympathy, which played out in the League of Nations partition plan vote on November 29, 1947, that allowed David Ben Gurion to establish the State five and a half months later.
And suddenly the Jews had sovereign state power. But power is complicated. Power requires making ethical choices, sometimes between two bad possible outcomes. The State of Israel is a democracy with a thriving set of checks on power – free elections, a free press, free academia, the rule of law, a court system. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, has a principle of “tohar haneshek,” the purity of arms, that is, the soldier’s obligation to maintain her/his humanity in combat. As a result, there is healthy internal evaluation and criticism of Israel’s military choices.
When I was living in Israel in the summer of 2000, the Camp David Summit broke down with no resolution. The Second Intifada began a few weeks later. In that context, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November, 2000, on “The Ethics of Jewish Power Today,” said the following:
Jewish power is never self-validating, so we have to sit in continual judgment upon ourselves… [And] given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible or least evil way of exercising power.
In an ideal world, all people would be treated absolutely equally. In the real world, you distribute your priorities and in fact it may be that some people will get a shorter stick than others. What makes this moral is you try to do the best you can.
Secondly, you have a continuous process of correction. In a democracy you have elections or you have a free press or other forms of correction, and therefore whatever flaws there are subject to further improvement and further correction. So you have to have both. And the criteria of the moral person is the one who consciously makes those kinds of choices…
So that means in the real world I may err trying to protect the security, overreact and even inflict pain or damage. The criteria of morality is I try to inflict as little as possible and I try to maximize the good. Keep in mind that’s the balance wheel to the other principle, which is that we are only human and we can’t be perfect, so we are going to make some mistakes, which we are then going to go on and try to correct or try to have some mechanism of correction.
No, Israel is not perfect. But yes, Israel’s democratic process is trying to do the right thing, balancing all the moral criteria with the fact that sometimes people make mistakes.
Remember the Nazi calculation of how much it cost to murder each Jew, that one bullet per Jew was too much? How much did the State of Israel pay to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel? By one calculation, $35 million was paid to the leader of Ethiopia in 1991 for 14,000 Jews. That was, to put it bluntly, a bribe, just to allow the Jews to leave, and did not account for the price of the airlift itself, or the resettlement in Israel, or all the other ancillary services required.
That is the meaning of Jewish power. So which would you rather have? A situation in which, at any moment, Jews may need to flee out of fear of persecution or expulsion, and have no place to go, as has happened so many times in our history? Or a reality in which there is a sanctuary, even an imperfect one, where the doors are always open? Medieval powerlessness, or the power to be responsible for our own destiny, for better or for worse?
Perhaps the greatest value of the State of Israel, and the easiest for Diaspora Jews to appreciate, is its thriving culture. I hope you are familiar with some of the pop-culture products that Israel has exported to the world, particularly the television series (some of which you can find on various streaming services) and films and music and dance.
When I lived in Israel as an adult, now more than 20 years ago, I discovered that Israel’s culture is not merely thriving, but vital; Hebrew rock blasts from outdoor cafes; the theater and dance scene is fresh and exciting; the contemporary architecture is unique and distinctly Israeli. No Jewish Diaspora subculture, even in the mighty United States, the second-largest Jewish population, has come even close to creating as vibrant and distinctive a culture as Israel has. Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, hatched by necessity from the hardscrabble existence which new olim / immigrants have always faced, is evident in all the ways that Israelis express their singularly Jewish, home-grown national culture.
The vision of Israel as a cultural center, a merkaz ruḥani, did not belong to Theodor Herzl. Rather, it is the vision of one of Zionism’s earliest and greatest internal critics: the essayist and thinker Ahad Ha’am.
What is a nation without culture? Ahad Ha’am saw Herzl and some of the other leaders of political Zionism as focused on the wrong thing. In his essay from 1888 (!), Lo zu haderekh (“This is not the way”), he took them to task for focusing merely on bringing people to Israel, and not considering what they would do once they arrived. Rather, Ahad Ha’am was laser-focused on drawing on our history and literature to fashion a contemporary Hebrew culture, and the strength of this culture and its values would ultimately lead them to want to face the much greater challenge of building a Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael.
And, to some extent, when I look at Israeli culture today, when I listen to Israeli hip-hop or enjoy an Israeli wine, I think of Ahad Ha’am and his idea of the merkaz ruḥani. Israel is my spiritual and cultural center.
I could speak all night on Israel (and let’s face it: it’s Yom Kippur – what else are you doing tonight?). But I want to add one final note, from Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs from the Labor Party, Dr. Nachman Shai. In a recent blog post on the Times of Israel website, Dr. Shai suggested that rabbis share with their congregants over these High Holidays that Israel wants to make amends for ways in which it may have failed Diaspora Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews like us:
Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities. Tell them that we believe in you and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.
Most importantly, share with your communities that Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny.
I am grateful that Dr. Shai is beginning the process of reaching out to the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, to, I hope, repair the broken aspects of our relationship with the State of Israel. I am also hopeful that the new coalition (still holding together! And including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history) will be good for that relationship.
How do we make Israel meaningful? Through understanding the lenses of ancient Jewish yearning, the ethical pitfalls of Jewish power, and the joy of resonating with Jewish culture.
But most importantly, by going there. By experiencing Ahad Ha’am’s merkaz ruḥani personally.
Go there. See the land, the historical sites. But also, speak to the people. All the people – the Jews (so many varieties of Jews!), the Palestinians, the Druze, the Circassians, the Armenian Christians, the Filipino nurses, the Chinese and Romanian hired laborers, and on and on. Get to know them and understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. And you will soon see that beyond the spin, beyond the this-side-or-that-side-ism, beyond the seemingly insoluble political challenges, there are 13 million people on that small strip of land trying to make a living, trying to enjoy time with their families, trying to eke out some kind of respectful existence.
If we could only somehow convince all the extremists in our midst to consider the others around them, we would have a chance to make peace blossom and solve the deep, genuine challenges that the region faces. Alas.
We at Beth Shalom put together a congregational trip to Israel three years ago, and it was a fantastic success. We will have another such trip in the next couple of years, but meanwhile, you might also want to consider going on the Federation Mega Mission next June. (If you’re going on that trip, please let me know.)
In 1948, David Ben Gurion was faced with the decision of when to declare independence, knowing that in doing so the neighboring Arab armies would invade the new state. He asked his friend and adviser, Yitzḥak Tabenken, what he should do. Tabenken answered that he would respond in a few days, after he consulted a few other people. When he returned, he told Ben Gurion that it was imperative that Ben Gurion declare the new state right now.
Later, when Ben Gurion asked him whom he had consulted, Tabenken responded, “I spoke to my deceased grandparents, and my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, and asked them, ‘What do I owe you?’”
Seventy-three-and-a-half years later, we owe it to our people, to ourselves, to be in meaningful relationship with Israel. And how do we do that? By knowing and understanding the Jewish state. By engaging with her culture, her politics, her successes and challenges. By being intimately familiar with her people, her history, her complexity. Yes, by appreciating the value and responsibility of Jewish power. And by continuing to yearn through the words of prayer and tradition.
Make it meaningful!
Shanah tovah! May you be sealed for a 5782 that is full of meaning.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur / Kol Nidrei, 9/15/2021.)