The D’var Torah by Rabbi Peter Knobel
delivered on Yom Kippur 2011
A little boy asked his teacher for help putting on his boots. She could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, the boots didn’t want to go on. When the second boot was on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost whimpered when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked and sure enough, they were.
It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet. Then he announced, “They aren’t my boots.”
She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” which she would have liked to.
Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off. He then said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My Mom made me wear them.”
She didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace and the courage she had left to wrestle the boots onto his feet again. And now she said, “Where are your mittens?”
He said, “I stuffed them into the toes of my boots.”
This story reminds me both of the frustrations to settle the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the difficulty in having civil conversations about Israel in the Jewish community.
My first trip to Israel was in 1960. I participated in what was called the NFTY Bible Tour. It was sponsored by the Reform movement’s youth department. My grandmother of blessed memory paid for the trip. I went as a non-Zionist. I grew up in a classical Reform congregation where the previous rabbi was a member of the virulent anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. My new rabbi was a Zionist but he had to tread carefully as he established himself in the very large and powerful community. We travelled for eight weeks with Tanakh in hand.
It was a wondrous experience. The Tanakh came to life. It was the time when Israel used the Tanakh to legitimise its claim to the land of Israel. Archaeology and the promises made by God in the Tanakh played a huge role both in Israel and the Diaspora and in the Diaspora specially with the Christian world. I remember sitting and reading the story of David and Goliath overlooking the valley where it supposedly took place. With one’s eyes closed one could see the gargantuan struggle and miraculous victory of shepherd boy David with a slingshot slaying the giant Goliath.
In our mind and the mind of much of the world, Israel’s victory in the War of Independence was a replay of that battle. It was a time when the Fedayeen were constantly coming across the border and attacking the kibbutzim. We saw the desert blooming and observed the wondrous agricultural miracle and experienced the beginnings of the modern state as it absorbed the survivors of the Shoah and the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries. I fell in love at that moment. In my view the Israelis were the good guys and the Arabs were the bad guy. The French were our allies and the American State Department was filled with pro-Arab and anti-Israel bureaucrats and diplomats. Israel could do no wrong.
As I look back, it was a naïve and unsophisticated view of a complex reality. But, then as now, I was convinced that the re-establishment of the State of Israel is a great miracle. It was the re-emergence of the Jewish people into history.
My second trip came in 1967. Elaine and I were living in Cincinnati. I was a rabbinic student. In June of 1967 there were the obvious political questions surrounding Nasser’s threats to throw us into the sea, the closing of Straits of Tiran – Israel’s economic lifeline – and the failure of the United States and others to live up to their treaty commitments. But in addition there was a theological question, Would God permit a second Holocaust in our lifetime? The miraculous Israeli victory in six days which was pregnant with theological possibilities (In six days God created the world and on the seventh day God rested) literally changed the landscape of the State of Israel and figuratively of the Jewish people around the world.
Elaine and I had the privilege of leading a tour of Israel for teenagers from all over the United States sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. It was called Kvutzat Bar Mitzvah. When these young people became Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the monetary gifts they received were put away so that at 16 they could go on a trip to Israel. While I would love to tell you about some adventures we had and some of the more interesting experiences we had travelling with these teenagers, it will take us far afield. Speak to my wife, Elaine and she can regale you with some of the funnier incidents. The only thing I will say is thank God Elaine was the only one who came back pregnant.
It was an exciting time to be in Israel. There was a state of euphoria in Israel and the Diaspora. David had once again defeated Goliath. Many of the tours had been cancelled. Our group was the first tour bus allowed on the West Bank and I still have the permit issued by an Israeli general. One of things we found in a refugee camp was a child’s notebook with anti-Israel math problems. At the same time war Israel was already improving the infrastructure bringing water and electricity to refugee camps.
The most important moment for me occurred at the Western Wall on the Tisha B’Av. (It was well before the Wall became an Orthodox synagogue.) It was the first time in almost 2000 years that the Wall was under Jewish sovereignty. Tisha B’Av is a fast day, the only one which like Yom Kippur lasts 27 hours. But this year it was a grand celebration. Hundreds of thousand people gathered there that night. I remember a little old lady who with her cane came passed, doing at least 100 km/hr. At the Wall, I had a strange experience. In my head I could now longer hear the mournful dirges of Lamentations but I experienced the words of the prophet Isaiah from the Haftarah following Shabb at Nachamu Nachamu ami : Comfort ye, Comfort Ye my people. Jewish history was turned on its head. Tragedy had become joy, mourning celebration. The Six Day War, as Eugene Borowitz so aptly put it, was the restoration of the Exodus motif in Jewish history. A new era in Jewish life emerged.
I have been to Israel many more times since but these two trips made me into a firmly committed religious Zionist.
My Zionism is part and parcel of my identity as Reform Jew. I am religious Zionist because I believe that Israel is our grand opportunity to transform everything we learned in 2000 years of being in the Diaspora into the creation of a model nation. I know the naiveté of such a statement but I have no less of a goal for the United States. As Jews this must always be our goal for Medinat Yisrael as well as the countries in which we reside. I want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state.
My deep commitment to tikkun olam has always placement me on the political left—I identify with Labour Zionism, the Cultural Zionism of Achad Ha Am, Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, Women of the Wall, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Pro-Israel Pro-Peace Lobby JStreet. I am an officer in our Zionist organization ARZA and the head of its think tank and I am a member of Vaad HaPoel (the Zionist General Council), the governing body of World Zionist Organisation between Congresses. I am firmly committed to a two state solution on pragmatic and moral grounds.
My Zionism and my Reform Judaism are both rooted in texts: The crucial ones are:
- God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female, God created them.(Gen. 1:27)
- You shall be holy for I the Eternal your God am holy.(Leviticus 19:2)
- You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God – your tribal heads, your elders and officials, all the men of Israel, the women, your children, even the stranger within in your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer – to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
- Rabbi Shimon been Gamiliel said: The world stands on three things – on Justice, on truth and on peace.
רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם:
- שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
Shimon the Righteous said: The world stands on three things – on Torah, Worship and Deeds of loving kindness
I also believe that the Torah teaches us: (1) the possession of the land is conditional and depends upon Israel’s behaviour [with all of the theological pitfalls of the position]; (2) holiness requires both divine and human action. There must be a mutuality of sanctification; divine action alone is insufficient for complete sanctity. God does not sanctify that which we have not made holy by our ethical actions.
Now I want to unpack some of these texts: Our goal is the creation of an ideal society, one governed by Judaic principles. Shalom -“peace”. It is the ethical condition of a society which makes provision for the sheleimu – “wholeness” of all its citizens. Din -“justice” insures equal protection under the law, with no distinctions by class, creed, or peoplehood. Emet -“truth” is the quest for the knowledge which makes shalom and din possible. Inherent in our view of an ideal society are both the prophetic critique of the exploitation of the weakest members of society represented by the orphan widow and stranger and the poignant refrain attached to humanitarian legislation in the Torah such you shall not oppress the stranger, reminding us that we “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our ethics begin with the universalistic notion of the creation of a single human being who shares the essential preciousness of participating in the divine likeness. For us kedushah – “holiness” constitutes Imitatio Dei – “doing what God would do, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick etc. Am yisrael – the “people Israel”-and eretz yisrael – ” the land of Israel, are central to who we are . The land’s centrality derives not only from the historic connection to the origin of Judaism, but to the profounder dimension – that sovereignty offers a unique opportunity and responsibility to carry out the divine mandate to be a goy kadosh – a “holy nation,” mamlekhet kohanim – a “kingdom of priests” – and or la-goyim – a “light to the nations.”
The intersection of power and morality is the crucible in which a Jewish future will be forged. In the real world of statehood and power politics, we will test the strength of our ideals and examine the limits of compromise imposed by realpolitik.
Democratic ideals are part of our Jewish religious perspective. Our method is one of persuasion and not coercion. Tolerance, respect for difference and genuine pluralism, is the hallmark of our ideology. Our concept of revelation requires a respectful humbleness which reminds us that we are not the sole possessor of truth nor are God’s love and revelation exclusive. Our relationship to God is unique. Its master metaphor is covenant. To live in relationship to the divine means to live in relationship to other human beings. Holiness is an affirmation of human uniqueness. It is through the holy that we can experience the divine. Our Zionism is a partnership among the whole of the Jewish people.
Therefore I believe:
- Judaism is a covenanted civilisation which affirms the centrality of God, Torah and Israel and views the flourishing of Jewish life as both personal and communal obligations. While Israel is the sacred centre, Jews where ever they live have the obligation to live lives infused with the message of the Torah and the prophets and perform the mitzvoth which perpetuate our people and move the world toward redemption. Reform Zionism as a religious movement is committed to presenting an alternative to Orthodoxy, Secularism and Settler Zionism
- Israel (people and land) is sanctified through mitzvoth which strive for tikkun hanefesh (repair of the soul), tikkun haam (repair of the people) and tikkun olam (repair of the world).
- Our commitment to the land and people is unconditional but the faith of Israel demands that we apply the highest principles of the covenant as expressed in the Torah and Prophets to contemporary life keeping ever in mind the warnings that land may be taken from us unless we deserve being there.
We can complain about the failures of the Israelis and we can complain about the failures of the Palestinians. We can argue about who has the right to do what and to whom, but realism demands that there are two people who claim the same land as their national home. There is no choice but a two-state solution. Only when both nations have a viable state and those states become real neighbours is there a possibility of peace. For Israel, to be both Jewish and democratic, Israel must eliminate the demographic time bomb of an expanding Arab population which, if Israel is to be democratic, will vote to terminate its Jewish character and if it is Jewish but not democratic it will have violated some our most precious principles. The real problems of statecraft demand complex solutions based both on realism and morality. It requires creative and dynamic and fearless leadership.
I love the two great narratives of the founding of the state of Israel: the story of brave pioneers who made the desert bloom and drained the malaria infested swamps, and the story of the death and resurrection. The dry bones of Auschwitz became the living flesh of our people living in Israel. These great tales have gradually faded into the background. What is the story which will energise the future of Israel and the Jewish people?
Our millennial hope to be a free people in our own land has been realised. Israel in many ways is an economic miracle as the startup nation with an economy growing more rapidly than the United States and an unemployment rate which is far lower. Yet real questions about Israel’s future and character remain. Have we, the Jews in the Diaspora, invested too much in the concept of an ideal Israel? Do we believe more in the Yerushalayim shel Maale , the Heavenly Jerusalem than the Yerushalayim shel mata , the Earthly Jerusalem? Have we doomed ourselves to perpetual disappointment because we fail to recognise the limitations of human beings creating something new out of whole cloth? The rebirth of our people as a sovereign nation is unprecedented. It was our hope and our vision and it is now a reality. Can we embrace it with a whole heart without it being perfect?
As Jews we must engage in thoughtful conversations about Israel. Our loyalty to her requires that we defend her when her enemies seek to destroy or harm her. Criticism of Israel is legitimate but it must be framed out of commitment to her continuing existence and her ability to thrive. DBS Divestment, Boycott and Sanctions cross the line. Within Israel there is a vigorous debate about how best to achieve peace or even whether there is a possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians. Can Israel make peace with Abbas and Fatah while Gaza remains in the hands of Hamas? Because Hamas are Islamists, does that mean they will not make peace? Does Israel have partner or not? How do we assess the Palestinian decision to take their request for Statehood to the UN? How do assess Abbas’s speech? How do assess Bibi Netanyahu’s UN Speech? Is Obama good for Israel?
While I vigorously have supported the efforts to prevent the Palestinian UN Resolution to unilaterally create a Palestinian state and I have worked hard to assure that the US will veto such a resolution, I understand the ongoing frustration of both Israelis and Palestinians to conclude a treaty which will create a viable Palestinian State next to a secure Israel. I am no fan of settler movement but I know that we must understand their deep commitment to the land as part of their Jewish philosophy and in talking about what will happen to the settlements we must understand that we are talking about the future of their homes.
Beyond questions about peace I am deeply concerned about the rights of the all the streams of Judaism. I want to eliminate the Chief Rabbinate. I want civil marriage. I want separation of Synagogue and State. I want Israel to have a real constitution. I am concerned about the situation of the Arabs inside the Green Line and I am empathetic with the protests in Israel over economic justice. I could go on and on and some of you probably think that I already have. Israel is important to me. Its existence and security are among my deepest commitments. Its rebirth is the greatest miracle in Jewish history since the gift of Torah at Sinai. Its potential, in partnership with the Diaspora to create a new Judaism for the 21st century and beyond, is I believe is unlimited.
Having said all this, I know that there are those here who will disagree with many things that I have said. I have strong views on every question that I posed and every subject I have mentioned. I am willing to discuss them and defend my positions. But I believe in civil conservations. I believe that where we may differ should be understood as a machlochet leshem Shamayim, a controversy for the sake of Heaven. We must assume the best about each other and not the worst. We must understand these and other controversies among us should be understood as we do the controversies between the house of Hillel and House of Shammai. Both the words of Hillel and the words of Shammai are the words of the living God, Elu ve Elu divarim elohim chayim.
I am pleased to be able to say Am Israel Chai – the people of Israel live – as am chofshi – as a free people in its own land. We are the first generation of Jews to be able to say this in 2000 years.
May it be so forever! Kein Yehi ratzon!