I had intended to use this cartoon to illustrate an article about the Tel Aviv tent protest. But if all politics are local, that goes for Jewish politics too. What’s true for Moty and Udi’s generation is also true for American Jews. So I am going to write about local, and American, Jewish politics.
On Thursday, Israel suffered a painful shock when terrorists murdered 8 Israelis, including a pair of kindergarten teachers on vacation with their husbands and Pascal Avrahami, a 49-year old father of three sons who was a member of the police counterterrorism unit (yamam) that was primarily responsible for stopping the attack, keeping a small disaster from becoming a large catastrophe. My own son, who served with him, went to Avrahami’s funeral on Friday.
Since then, over a hundred rockets have fallen in Israel, killing one or two (reports are unclear) and injuring dozens, including small children (see The Muqata for a minute by minute account of events). There is a possibility of serious escalation.
So — to get local — I was upset, although not surprised, when I went to a Friday night service at our Reform temple and these events were not mentioned. The service was, as always, very upbeat and musical. Prayers were said for local people that were ill, and yahrzeits and recent deaths were commemorated, again as always. But not a word about what was happening in the Jewish state.
Let me say as strongly as possible that I am not criticizing the rabbi of the congregation. I’m convinced that he is personally pro-Israel. He is brand new in Fresno and is just getting to know the members and their politics. He has heard that they are quite contentious — probably he has heard somewhat exaggerated stories about their differences — and he has said that his job is to bring people together, not to push them apart.
Discussion of Israel has become taboo in many Jewish circles, like politics and religion at the boarding house dinner table. Danny Gordis recently wrote that at one rabbinical seminary, a “campus dean actually instructed students to cease all e-mail discussion of Israel, while every other political topic remained fair game.” A rabbinical seminary!
So one can’t blame the rabbi for not wanting to touch an issue that might fracture his congregation.
And yet, this is a Jewish congregation and Israel is the state of the Jewish People. Yes, some members have relatives in Israel that they are worried about, but this is emphatically not about that. It is about whether there is a special connection between our Jewish congregation and the Jewish state. Dozens of innocent people were also killed this week by terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, Nigeria and Algeria, but isn’t Israel special to us? Or is it ‘just another country‘?
The Torah is central to all forms of Judaism. It’s a lot of things — a moral and legal code, a history book, a theological tract — but more than anything else, it’s a book about a relationship. And this relationship has three poles: God, the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel. What about the last two?
Danny Gordis argues that liberal Judaism has lost its way, rejecting “the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people.” This, combined with some pernicious post-modernist reasoning, has brought us to the absurd situation in which the leaders of the anti-Zionist movement in the West are mostly Jews!
And it has brought the Reform movement in the US (URJ) to the point that it would choose J Street and New Israel Fund activist Rabbi Richard Jacobs as its president. Most tellingly, URJ leaders were shocked at the controversy their decision gave rise to. A rabbi close to the process told me that they were blindsided by the political criticism. In effect, they said “we need this guy’s organizational skills and he’s not that far out politically — what’s their problem?”
Jewish groups in the US are often distinguished by the degree to which they follow the commandments: how they observe Shabbat, kashrut, how they dress, etc. But in my opinion these differences are unimportant compared to the wide gulf that separates those congregations that identify primarily as part of the Jewish people from those that see themselves as human beings who are secondarily of the Jewish persuasion.
I don’t think, incidentally, that all Reform congregations must fall on the universalist side of that divide, despite the URJ’s Rabbi Jacobs. But I do think that every congregation, including the one I belong to, needs to ask itself how important the Jewish People and the Land of Israel are to them.