The Only Secure Route to Truth
YOM KIPPUR 5775
Forty one years ago today, I watched my rabbi walk off the bimah, in the middle of morning services, and return a few moments later to announce to the congregation that Israel had been attacked. I was 19 years old and had just returned from Israel. All my Israeli friends were on active duty. That is why, each Yom Kippur morning, I speak about Israel.
The threat of the Islamic State movement has now pushed news about Israel far under the radar for most Americans. A few beheadings were enough to make people forget about Gaza. No one knows how the current crises in the Middle East will be resolved or how long it will take. None of the possible developments looks very appealing especially when military experts mention Vietnam. (Did they forget how that one turned out?) The one little tidbit of positive news is that Israel was able to shoot down a Syrian fighter plane that wandered into Israeli airspace with apparently no negative reaction whatsoever.
For us, though, Israel must not fall beneath the radar no matter what else is going on in the world.
The hostilities between Hamas and Israel during the summer had a profound affect on even my own very liberal, left-leaning offspring. They recognized, somewhat painfully, how hypocritical — no — let’s call it what it was, anti-semitic much of the commentary about Israel was. How many Americans do you hear complaining about civilian casualties in the bombing of Islamic State targets these days? How many Americans are bemoaning the enormous loss of innocent life that we, ultimately, caused by going to war in Iraq in the first place? Why is it only Jews who must be reprimanded when they unintentionally kill civilians? It is awful, terrible, unacceptable when anyone kills innocent people — anywhere, anytime. But what are the alternatives?
I had this sickening sense of deja vu when I learned what former president Jimmy Carter had to say about Hamas this summer. Clearly he hasn’t changed in the seven years since he wrote his anti-Semitic tract “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Carter’s particular brand of anti-Semitism is a result of his particular brand of Christian faith, (and I truly believe it is only a tiny segment of Christians who suffer from it) but unfortunately it’s a disease that is easily spread even among those who come into only casual contact with it.
Some of us, I hope, gained a deeper perspective about early Christian attitudes toward Jews by reading the gospels at our “Lunch and Learn” sessions last year. In the Gospels, Jesus took the place of Israel as God’s most beloved, chosen one. That included all the suffering that goes along with being God’s chosen one — the yisurin shel ahava as the rabbis called it — the afflictions of love.
At the Passover Seder each year we eat the horseradish, and the matzah, and the salt water to help us experience the bitterness of slavery, the poverty, the tears as if we ourselves had been slaves in Egypt.
Christianity uses the same approach with the suffering of Jesus. It is supposed to inspire Christians to care for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden; to feel compassion for those less fortunate. No one would argue with those as religious goals. The problem is that for some Christians, the Jews are disqualified from receiving that compassion because we remain Jews, and because we persist in history. We lost God’s love, but not the afflictions that come with it.
So, some Christians still believe that Jews should be suffering. When we are not sufficiently victims, when we have too much power, too much money, do not seem to be in imminent danger, we are not fulfilling our role in history.When we use the power, money, influence, good fortune we have the same way any non-Jew would, we are betraying their faith.
I do not believe that the majority of Christians feel this way, but as I said, it’s a highly contagious disease — and there are many other sources of contagion. But this particular brand of anti-Semitism is, truly, a plague. I will never forget the interfaith panel in which I took part where a protestant minister actually said these words: “I have to work very hard every day at not being an anti-Semite.”
Interestingly, in some ways, the Muslim attitude toward the Jews is less offensive. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we discussed the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being banished to the wilderness. Someone asked how the Koran treated the story. I didn’t know the answer then, but I have since learned that the Koran begins with the same story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent out into the wilderness, but then continues with Abraham — Ibrahim’s terrible test. In the Koran’s version, though, it is Ishmael whom God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice. Today is Eid al Adha in the Muslim calendar — the feast of the sacrifice — the sacrifice of Ishmael. While we are gathered in somber reflection and repentance, Muslims are celebrating the feast commemorating Ishmael’s survival. The story is the same — except for one major difference. In the Koran, Ibrahim explicitly tells Ishmael what he’s about to do. “My son, I have had a vision that I am to offer you as a sacrifice. What is your view? He said, Father, do as you are commanded: you will find me, if Allah wills it, one of the steadfast. As soon as both Ishmael and Abraham agree to do the horrible deed, Ishmael is saved, and an animal substituted. The Muslim feast taking place today commemorates that substitution. It’s an interesting commentary on our version of the story. Ishmael submits knowingly to the will of Allah. While some midrash claims that Isaac understood what was going on, the Torah’s text certainly doesn’t make it explicit. I find it fascinating that the Quran clearly makes Ishmael a knowing participant in the terrifying deed.
Hamas knows very well that Israel doesn’t want to kill innocent civilians. They actually understand that Jews — even Israeli Jews — are ordinary people. They just believe that their ultimate goals justify the means, the sacrifice of their own innocent children. There is a religious precedent. I’m sure that Hamas mourns the loss of their loved ones as much as any other human being — Ibrahim was just as disturbed about the prospect of sacrificing his son as Abraham was. But there may be some comfort in believing that those loved ones knowingly submit themselves as sacrifices. If that is a religious theme that guides their military practices, then Hamas understands that Israel doesn’t intentionally target civilians. Hamas understands how to manipulate public sentiment. It is the people who believe that Israel intentionally targets civilians who are the anti-Semites.
The Yom Kippur war was the worst fighting Israel had experienced since 1948. The estimates are somewhere between 2500-2800 Israeli military deaths. Combined Egyptian and Syrian deaths numbered somewhere between 8000-18000. An accurate estimate is difficult to find, but look at those numbers. We’re talking about a country with a population at the time of somewhere between 3 and 4 million people compared to enemy countries of over 40 million people. If it were purely a matter of numbers, Israel would never have existed in the first place, let alone survived three major wars in 25 years. And Israelis feel every one of those losses personally. Israel cannot afford “cannon fodder.” But Israel also assumes that every Arab fighting Israel feels the pain of every loss just as personally. No matter how much evidence to the contrary, Israel will, and must believe that every Arab death is mourned as intensely by loved ones as every Israeli death. The minute Israel considers any human life less valuable than another, Israel will have lost her essential identity. We, as American Jews, have to remain vigilant as well. No matter how many innocent individuals Muslim radicals turn into martyrs, we have to regard each and every life as equally sacred.
The rise in power of the Islamic State is, in too many ways, reminiscent of the Crusades. Remember that the Jews were the collateral damage in those battles between Christian and Muslim. Most of our martyrdom literature comes from that brutal period in our history. The practice we continue to this day, of publishing a memorial book on Yom Kippur, goes back to the days when communities compiled books of those who were martyred in the Crusades.
Today, the existence of a State of Israel, a recognized, modern, successful, and yes — noisily democratic — state means that Jews are not powerless. We are recognized as a nation in the world of national politics. But is that enough to keep Jews safe?
Israel is torn, internally, by its own religious and political turmoil. It is exactly the same battle that Muslims are now facing. One faction believes in modernity, equality, dignity of the individual. The other faction believes in Divine Law – as interpreted by its fanatical leaders.
And so, we have a double-edged dilemma. We support the right — the need — of Israel to exist and defend its security. But more and more of those who live in the land of Israel — especially that land conquered in 1967 — do not believe in modernity, equality, and the dignity of the individual. They would have women sit at the back of buses and never sing in public. They would deny a Jewish identity to half of the members of our own congregation.
How then do we, as American reform Jews, support the country that we love, and at the same time help it remain a country that is able to love us back?
We just read the passage from the Torah — Nitzavim — that describes everyone gathered together to accept the covenant with God — even those who were not there were included. And then there is that line that always haunts me:
“Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God to go and worship the gods of those nations — perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart” — to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.”
“Such a one” may think he or she is safe — until they meet their first anti-Semite. There is no way to wipe out anti-Semitism in the world. There is only one way to deal with it. To remember that we are one — no matter how much we may disagree with each other. The rabbis taught: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh. All Israel is responsible one for the other. We cannot turn our backs on each other. We are obligated to work for what is right or else we are responsible for what goes wrong.
I have always been very cautious about voicing criticism of Israel publicly, not because I’m afraid of the wrath of ardent Zionists in our congregation who might seek my metaphorical beheading in response. Frankly, I wish we had more ardent Zionists. I hesitate because it’s not my children who will be called to the front lines when Israel needs defending. If I’m not “putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak, then I tend to keep my mouth shut, at least publicly. But we all need to put a little more skin in the game, as they say — especially as Reform Jews whose primary commitment should be to the equality and dignity of every human being. We need to travel to Israel regularly, send our children, support the multitude of Israeli organizations that stand for our values and further our causes in Israel. We cannot afford to think that we will be safe, though we follow our own willful hearts, living in comfort and security thousands of miles away from the battlefront — that will lead to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.
It’s time for us to make a little more noise about what we believe lest the fanatics of the world wipe out all that we cherish. We have the obligation to go about leading Jewish lives that are proudly and publicly true to our ideals – ideals of human reason as the only secure route to truth, universal ethics as the standard of treatment for all humanity, and an absolute commitment to security, justice and peace – for all nations and all people. May we be granted the strength in this New Year to proclaim our values loudly and clearly, for our people’s sake, and for the sake of all humanity.