From Diatribe to Dialogue
Yom Kippur Morning – 5776
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
As many of you know, this past summer I travelled to Israel with a small group of Reform and Conservative Rabbis on mission sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, the educational arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). While we were in Israel, we encountered multiple aspects of Israeli society. We visited the Knesset and met with a broad cross-section of political leaders: from Shalom Achshav (peace now) to the head of the settlers’ council. We visited the Palestinian city of Ramallah and sat with Saeb Erekat – the lead negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. We met with LGBT activists and leaders of the Ethiopian and Israeli Arab communities. We saw checkpoints and border crossings. We stood on the borders of Lebanon and Syria and literally saw the conflicts in both of these war-torn countries play out in front of us. In addition to meeting with ethnic and political leaders, we also studied with some amazing teachers. This was not a “pleasure trip.” We were going non-stop at least 16 hours a day – and sometimes even longer. Many of you followed my blog posts over the summer – and I encourage those of you who have not read them to go to the Temple Emanuel website and find them.
One morning, a few of my colleagues and I decided to wake up early and deviate from our scheduled itinerary. The day was Rosh Chodesh – the New Moon and the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. We were in Jerusalem, and Nashot Hakotel – the Women of the Wall - were assembling to pray. For those of you who were fortunate enough to meet Anat Hoffman – our scholar in Residence two years ago – you will know that Nashot Hakotel is a group of women who come to the Western Wall on the first day of every month in order to worship together and welcome the new moon. They are not anti-religious – far from it. They come from observant Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds. Their goal is not to tear down the Mechitza – the barrier that separates men and women in traditional prayer, rather, they come to pray together as women and read from a Torah scroll at Judaism’s holiest site. There is nothing Halachically wrong with this – most scholars agree that women are not prohibited from reading the torah in the presence of other women, but the Rabbinic authorities at the Wall see this as a rebellious and sacrilegious act and have placed multiple obstacles – legal and physical – in their path.
The women rabbis in our group joined Anat Hoffman and several dozen other worshippers in the women’s section (including our own Temple Emanuel member, Judy Altenberg, who was in Israel in her role as chair of the International Lion of Judah conference at the same time). The men stood behind the women in the courtyard in a show of support. The sound of women’s voices joined in prayer and song rose to the heavens in the women’s section, and those of us standing behind them began our prayers as well. Suddenly, from all sides, a sea of black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounded us and began to shout and scream obscenities. The police quickly formed a barrier between the supporters and the protesters. I took out my phone and started recording what was happening. Those of you who have seen the video posted on my Blog know that these so-called “pious” scholars tried to attack us. They cursed us. I tried to engage one of the leaders of the group in conversation. He spat at me and called me a Nazi. “Go back to Germany!” he screamed. “May your name be blotted out!”
(Here is a link to the Video: http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/2015/07/two-videos-of-israeli-religious-life.html)
(Here is a link to the Video: http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/2015/07/two-videos-of-israeli-religious-life.html)
There was a tremendous and horrible irony in the fact that we were at the Kotel on the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. You see, it was on Tisha B’Av - the 9th day of Av that both the first and second Temple were destroyed. Our tradition teaches that the destruction of the Temple occurred because of divisions in our community. In the period before the destruction of the second Temple, under Roman rule, the city of Jerusalem was divided into three different factions. The Pharisees – who eventually became the Rabbis – advocated for a new interpretation of Torah that allowed for adaptation to the modern world. The Sadducees had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – they were linked to the Priestly class and had the most to lose if the temple were to be destroyed. The Zealots advocated for war. They were revolutionaries and, history teaches, were the main instigators of the uprising against Rome. Among the Zealots were a small, but deadly group called the Siccari – or dagger-carriers – from the Latin sicarius. These radical extremists carried out attacks against Roman soldiers and were so committed to their vision of a pure holy city that they would not hesitate to murder other Jews who did not share their ideology.
These warring factions were constantly at odds with one another. We know how the story ends: On the 9th day of Av in the year 70 C.E. the Temple was destroyed by the Romans after the Zealots provoked a war. We lost. The Jews were exiled from the land of Israel. We would not be able to return in large numbers for almost 2,000 years.
The Talmud teaches that the reason the Temple was destroyed was not because of Roman aggression – it was our own Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – that did us in.
It was hard NOT to think of the tragic history of Jewish conflict on that morning of Rosh Chodesh Av this past summer. The hatred and vitriol that we experienced has a long and violent history in that neighborhood. Whether violence between Jews and Palestinians or, more frequently, Jew against Jew, too much blood and too many angry words have been spoken on that sacred ground.
Unfortunately, our experience at the Kotel was a foreshadowing of what was to be a much more deadly series of events. Just a few days after we returned from Israel, on July 30th, two horrific attacks occurred – one in Jerusalem and the other in the Palestinian village of Duma. In the first attack, a deranged ultra-orthodox Jew who, just a few weeks earlier had been released from prison for a similar crime, ran into the middle of the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade with a dagger and stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki and five others. Shira died a few days after she was attacked. Concurrently, in a separate attack, an eighteen month old Palestinian baby named Ali Dawabshe was burned to death in his home. In the weeks that followed, his parents Sa’ad and Reham also died – leaving behind their five year old son, Ahmed who is now an orphan. This unspeakable attack, by all accounts, was carried out by radical Jewish settlers. These so-called “price tag” incidents have been growing in both frequency and severity. Jewish terror is very real.
The Siccari have risen again. Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – is on the rise.
Of course – while we were on our trip, the world did not stop. While we were inflight to Israel, the Iran Deal was signed and the controversy that has consumed so much of our psychic, political and spiritual energy over the past weeks and months was set in motion.
For those of you who are waiting to hear me condemn or support the Iran Deal from this pulpit, I’m sorry, but you will be disappointed. While I am very concerned about the prospect of a hostile and virulently anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-American Iranian regime receiving international legitimacy and anywhere from $50 to $150 Billion dollars in sanctions relief; and while I worry about the prospect of a nuclear Iran – I also believe that an Iran that is subject to scrutiny is better than an Iran that is free to do whatever it wants.
I am neither a politician, a nuclear scientist or a military expert. I am a proud Zionist – and I know that there are many ways to support Israel. There are also more than enough points of view already floating around – we all can read and research and most of us here this morning have already formulated - our own opinions - hopefully based on research and due diligence. And I also know that wise people – for whom I have a great deal of respect - on both sides of this issue - have deliberated and come to conclusions that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what my opinion is: The deal will go through. It is done.
As such, rather than focusing on the deal itself, I want to spend some time on this Yom Kippur morning talking about the aftermath of the deal – and why I am very concerned about how we, as an American and international Jewish community, have allowed our disagreements to unleash what I believe is a pattern of dangerous and destructive behavior that could, in the last analysis, cause great harm to come to the Jewish State and to the Jewish people as a whole.
I never dreamed that the anger and vitriol that my colleagues and I experienced at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Av would make its way over to the United States – but it did. In response to the Iran deal, passions have run hot and boiled over. I have read hate-letters and horrific posts online – invoking obscene imagery by calling those who support the deal “Kapos” and “Nazis” – and those who oppose it “War mongers” and “Self-hating Jews.” Lines have been drawn in the sand. Friendships have been lost. There have been death threats levelled against Senators on both sides of the aisle – even against Dan Shapiro – the United States Ambassador to Israel. I know Dan Shapiro. He’s a nice Jewish boy from Chicago who is fluent in Hebrew and a graduate of our Reform movement’s summer camps. He is not a threat to the Jewish community. He is a tremendous asset.
I recently attended a meeting called by Senator Michael Bennett with leaders of the Jewish community in which the Senator painstakingly explained the anguished process that he went through to come to his decision to support the deal. He shared with us the sleepless nights and countless hours he dedicated to consulting with the leaders of Israeli intelligence, nuclear physicists, military strategists, and many individual, concerned citizens. He told us of the hate mail that he has received – from all sides of the issue - and how concerned he was about the vitriol that has been invoked both in favor and in opposition. Whether or not you agree with Senator Bennet’s decision to support the deal – the abuse that he has received is abhorrent.
To those who would use the Iran deal as a crass political weapon to drive a wedge between members of the Jewish community I say, simply, remember the Siccari.
A few minutes ago, we heard the following words read from the torah:
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
“You stand this day – all of you, before Adonai your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone in Israel – men, women and children; from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”
All of us stood at Sinai – just as all of us are here today. We are a diverse and complex community. We do not now and never will agree on everything – and we shouldn’t. I have no doubts that there are many different opinions about Israel, the Iran deal and many other pressing issues that face the Jewish community here this morning. This is how it has always been. The pages of the Talmud are filled with arguments and disagreements. But the rabbis were very clear about one thing: any disagreement that is not “L’Shem Shamayim” – for the sake of heaven – cannot and will not be tolerated.
There is a poem I want to share with you this morning. I first heard it when Anat Hoffman was our Scholar in Residence two years ago. It is called “The Place Where We Are Right” by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
My friends, on this Yom Kippur, let us make room in ourselves and our souls for the ache of ambiguity. As Amichai teaches: “…doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow…” All breakthroughs in science, the arts, and even global politics begin with uncertainty and a willingness to address it. As Rabbi Immerman taught us so poignantly on Rosh Hashanah, it is only when we acknowledge the facts that none of us are whole and all of us are seeking a common path, that we can use our shared experience and expertise to work together to repair our all-too fragile world.
This does not mean that we must simply hold our collective breaths and wait to see what will happen in the aftermath of the deal. Now is the time for all lovers of Israel to come together and work to ensure that Israel’s safety, security, and moral compass are protected. We can do this by letting our elected officials know that we expect our government to try to heal the dangerous rifts between the United States and Israel that have emerged during the tumultuous months that have passed. We also can urge the government of Israel to change its tone and work towards finding paths of common purpose. Now is not the time for obstinacy and belligerence. We must move from diatribe to dialogue in order to address the serious challenges that lie ahead.
Get involved. Whether it be AIPAC or J-Street, Jewish Colorado, ADL, JNF or the myriad other organizations that work to build up the State of Israel, the more we allow our voices to be heard, the greater impact we can have.
And finally, it is vitally important that we travel to Israel ourselves. Whether for the 1st or the 31st time – it doesn’t matter. Israel needs us just as much as we need Israel. Sue and I will be leading an all-ages trip for both first-timers and returnees over Spring break – leaving March 27th and returning April 6th. I hope that you will consider joining us.
My friends, on this holiest day of the year, may we find the strength and the courage to see the good in everyone around us. May our differences make us stronger as we confront the very real challenges that lie ahead.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah