Yitro 2019

What do we take as a given in Judaism?

There is one God

The the Torah is the story of our people

That the land and state of Israel had been in our thoughts and prayers for millenia and now that it is a state, zionism is a piece of who we are.

All of these things are true and yet with each of them, there are a range of opinions as to what they mean and how we access the ideas.

For example:

Belief in God is part of being Jewish though how people believe in God, if at all, might be different.

Another example, takes place in this week’s torah portion, yitro where the moment of revelation occurs. We tell the story as if we know, but if and when we look at text closely, it isn’t clear that the Israelites knew exactly what was going on. There was thunder and lightening. Shofars blasting. Moses going up and down the Mountain. God speaking. And from there, the exact question of what occurred, ends. Yes, we have the 10 commandments but how they were actually transmitted and accepted by the israelites has been left for historians, theologians, scholars, and individuals to decide.

In fact, there are 2 midrashim, rabbinic texts, that come to explain the thought process of the israelites at this moment.

One says that God held the mountain over the Israelites, an an inverted way, and said “accept these words, or this will be your burial spot.” On the other hand, there is a rabbinic midrash that imagines that before choosing Israel God actually offered his Torah to all the nations of the Earth. But one by one they rejected it, finding its laws and prohibitions too burdensome; only the Israelites agreed to take it on themselves. This midrash puts the Jews themselves in a very flattering light: Only this people was pious and disciplined enough to accept the hard job of living by God’s law.”

We don’t know what happened but in either case, what ensued, was a covenantal relationship. A belief and a commitment that there would be things that God would uphold and that we as a Jewish community would uphold. Certainly, over the course of human history we can look to many a moment and suggest that maybe one side didn’t fully fulfill their promise.

But what i find fascinating about these two midrashim as well, is that it is as if you have two cameras taking pictures of a similar scene, but having a very different focus.

In our world today, it is common, that we think we know what happened, but we don’t have a full grasp on a situation, especially if we look at it only through one lense. There are multiple examples that i can give but I would like to focus on something that I hope feels close to hope-and that is our relationship with Israel, the Jewish state. As you heard from Sam, his family, and many from this congregation, were there in December. Taking the time to celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel is a wonderful think to do because it engages all of our hearts, minds, and souls. But when we think about Israel we need to understand what it means to us and how Israel is often seen.

Unfortunately, there are many different lenses through which people view Israel.

On one hand, there was an fascinating piece in last week’s NY Times Op Ed page by Matti Friedman which gives those of us who are zionists a reason to applaud.

He wrote

“If you are reading this, you’ve most likely seen much about “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in the pages of this newspaper and of every other important newspaper in the West. That phrase contains a few important assumptions. That the conflict is between two actors, Israelis and Palestinians. That it could be resolved by those two actors, and particularly by the stronger side, Israel. That it’s taking place in the corner of the Middle East under Israeli rule….In the Israeli view, no peacemaker can bring the two sides together because there aren’t just two sides. There are many, many sides.

Most of Israel’s wars haven’t been fought against Palestinians. Since the invasion of five Arab armies at the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Palestinians have made up a small number of the combatants facing the country. To someone here, zooming in to frame our problem as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes as much sense as describing the “America-Italy conflict” of 1944. American G.I.s were indeed dying in Italy that year, but an American instinctively knows that this can be understood only by seeing it as one small part of World War II.

Today Israel’s most potent enemy is the Shiite theocracy in Iran, which is more than 1,000 miles away and isn’t Palestinian (or Arab). The gravest threat to Israel at close range is Hezbollah on our northern border, an army of Lebanese Shiites founded and funded by the Iranians. The antiaircraft batteries of the Russians, Iran’s patrons, already cover much of our airspace from their new Syrian positions.

Matti is asking us, and the world, to to realize, that you can’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without looking at it as a larger regional issue. Without, in his words, “zooming out.”

But sometimes, people zoom out so much that they miss the nuance.

Just days after Friedman’s OpEd, there was another OpEd written in the Times that made many of us uncomfortable. In Michelle Alexander’s piece on the MLK and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, she presents quite a one-sided piece about the issue. She questions where MLK would stand today, if he were still alive.

There have been many meaningful responses, but I would like to share the following, written by a Reform rabbi, the past president of the CCAR.

Charles A. Kroloff

Westfield, N.J.

The writer is past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

To the Editor:

I agree with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, whom Michelle Alexander quotes, that “the Palestinian child is as precious as the Jewish child.”

I agree with Ms. Alexander that some of the current Israeli government’s policies toward its Arab population deserve sharp criticism.

However, if someone were to drop in from Mars and read Ms. Alexander’s essay, he might easily conclude that this is a clear-cut case of Palestinian good guys vs. Israeli bad guys. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ms. Alexander conveniently omits a single reference to decades of Palestinian terrorism, the murder of countless Jewish children, some while sleeping in their beds, the bombing of restaurants and attacks on aircraft. Nor does she mention Palestinian glorification of suicide bombers by naming streets for them and lifetime “thank you” payments to their families.

And while she criticizes Israel’s refusal to consider large-scale repatriation of Arabs to Israel, she conveniently ignores the reality that such resettlement would overwhelm the Jewish population and threaten the very existence of the State of Israel. Is this really the stuff that Martin Luther King would have celebrated?

So how do we look at these complex issues? Here is my thought…when it comes to zionism and our connection to israel, a fundamental Jewish value, we need to be passionate critics from a place of deep commitment.

And that means, there are going to be times when we zoom in on moments that give us pause, where we question the message of a frame….

This week, there was a campaign video released for a Likud MK in anticipation of the upcoming elections. Yaron Mazuz is seen making a video with Elor Azaria. As Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer poignantly writes, “The astonishing campaign video for Likud deputy minister and Member of Knesset Yaron Mazuz – which enlists Elor Azaria, whose only qualification as a public figure is his conviction on the charge of manslaughter for shooting a disarmed and wounded Palestinian man lying on the ground in Hebron – represents a new low in the competitive field of Israeli hyper-nationalistic politics.”

“It is critical that supporters of Israel grapple with the ramifications of this campaign for the story that we tell about Israel…. I believe it is important that we raise our voices publicly in protest against this cynical political stunt, because those who are trying to speak in our name are actually our formal representatives. We are forced to ask: What happens to the integrity of our deepest political commitments when the most public ambassadors of Zionism – even if self-appointed – are dangerous moral failures?

Two of the State of Israel’s most common advocacy talking points are about the superior moral quality of its army, and about how Palestinians sanction and celebrate violence. These are aspirational stories that the society seeks to tell about itself, that are then reinforced by anecdotes of images of self and other that further entrench them as normative beliefs. And indeed, the very prosecution of Azaria helped corroborate these advocacy myths, as did the condemnations of Azaria that came from certain sectors of the defense and military establishment, and especially in President Rivlin’s refusal to grant a pardon. When Israel adheres to its own code of ethics, and when reasonable majorities condemn its violators, then the shocking exceptions can help prove the rule.

The idea that Azaria now is seen as a useful political totem – an icon handpicked by a politician – undercuts the story Israel wants to tell about itself in the world, transforms the narrative with which the IDF seeks to represent itself, and devastates the efforts to combat Israel’s growing moral delegitimization.

Here is the thing-when looking at any issue, we must examine different angles. We must see who is in the frame and who isn’t. We must understand the stories being told. We can come to conclusions but only if we have a good understanding of what is going on.

Our challenge, in today’s world of curated social media, on demand tv and news, echo chamber dialogue, is to find a way to go outside of our normal channels and tune our antennae to hear that which we aren’t used to. We may not like it. We may find it repugnant. But if we don’t understand it we are doing ourselves and everyone else a disservice.

When the Torah was given, one of the 10 commandments was “thou shalt not bear false witness.” I do not believe that everything is up for debate. I believe that there are facts and there are opinions and those two things are not one in the same. But we can’t give our opinion without hearing the facts.

Matti FRIEDMAN wrote: “When I look at the West Bank as an Israeli, I see 2.5 million Palestinian civilians living under military rule, with all the misery that entails. I’m seeing the many grave errors our governments have made in handling the territory and its residents, the construction of civilian settlements chief among them.

But because I’m zoomed out, I’m also seeing Hezbollah (not Palestinian), and the Russians and Iranians (not Palestinian), and the Islamic State-affiliated insurgents (not Palestinian) on our border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. I’m considering the disastrous result of the power vacuum in Syria, which is a 90-minute drive from the West Bank.”

The moment of sinai is about being a witness to a miraculous moment. The state of Israel, still only 70 years young, is a miracle. But like revelation and the unrolling of Torah was a work that needed to be perfected, so too, howe see Israel, how Israel sees itself, how the world sees Israel, is something that needs to be worked on. Let us commit to learning, reading, celebrating, and taking seriously what it means to be zionists who care, who strive, and who understand that, like the moment of revelation of Torah at Sinai, the state of Israel and its conflicts create complexities in this moment, and a sense of the miraculousness of its existence.

Shabbat shalom