September 26, 2023
Am Yisrael Chai (Erev Rosh HaShanah 5784)
Am Yisrael Chai
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5784
Thirty years ago this week
Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin
and PLO President Yassir Arafat signed the Oslo Accords.
I watched sworn enemies shake hands on the White House lawn –
and I was sure that peace was just around the corner.
Back then, it was a lot simpler for a young American Jew
to call herself a Zionist.
Back then, it felt like Jews everywhere agreed
that a two-state solution was viable.
But by the time I arrived in Israel for rabbinical school, just 20 months later,
that optimism was already unraveling.
I will never forget the November night
when I heard that Rabin had been assassinated –
at a peace rally!
Adding to the shock – his murderer was a fellow Israeli!
A religious zealot some called a hero.
We poured onto the streets of Jerusalem, joining dazed and distraught Israelis
who held signs that read Boosha! SHAME!
For the first time, I understood that one of the greatest threats
to Israel’s survival was the extremism within our own people.
Over the next 30 years, Oslo died,
Israel’s left-wing parties disintegrated,
peace with Palestinians fell off the agenda,
the stain of Occupation continues into its sixth decade.
And this year, Israel elected the most right-wing,
ultra-religious government in its history,
which quickly moved to weaken the independence of the judiciary,
steamroll the rights of minorities, and mobilize a private militia.
In a matter of months, this new government has taken actions
that threaten to turn Israel into an authoritarian, theocratic state
that very few American Jews will be able to support.
What a distance we have traveled in so little time.
Of the 8 billion people in the world,
Jews make up only 2/10’s of a percent –
Just 15 million souls.
Approximately 7 million of us live in Israel.
Another 7 million live here in America.
And there are only a million Jews everywhere else in the world.
As in the time of the second Temple period,
which had two major Jewish centers – Israel and Babylon –
the Jewish landscape of today has two thriving centers in Israel and America.
But increasingly, these two Jewish communities
do not understand each other.
Most American Jews see our Judaism as inextricably linked
with our ethical values – of democracy, egalitarianism, pluralism.
American Jews know discrimination and bigotry –
and as little more than 2% of America’s population –
we’re particularly sensitive to minority rights.
When we hear Israel’s government write off Reform Jews as inauthentic,
when ministers declare that a Palestinian village deserves to be wiped out,
or proudly affirm their homophobia in the name of Judaism,
we recall the core charge we were raised with at our seder tables –
to be attuned to the outsider because we are that outsider.
For most secular Israelis, however, their Judaism is their nationalism –
It’s inextricable from the very land they live on, serve, and protect.
When attempts to implement Oslo led to Arab violence and the Second Intifada –
Israelis paid the price, with their lives.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 –
instead of calm, there was Hamas rule and rocket fire.
Israelis couldn’t comprehend how American Jews
kept insisting on more withdrawal from territories as a pathway to peace.
They saw us as naive, or, even worse,
unconcerned for their security and safety.
Our two biggest Jewish communities literally speak different languages.
We practice a different Judaism.
And the current moment is testing us like never before.
The distance between us feels so great
we no longer remember what connects us.
Does anything still bind Am Yisrael as ONE?
This question might best be answered by a story from the Talmud:
A rabbi was walking down the street and noticed a man
with two heads and one body–what we now call conjoined twins. i
Upon seeing this incredible sight, the rabbi wonders:
“Does this man have to wrap two tefillin boxes, or is one sufficient?”
Because…well, that’s the kind of thing rabbis wonder about!
The answer to his question comes from a midrash of King Solomon,
who also encounters conjoined twins
when they come to argue for a double portion of inheritance.
Solomon has to decide if they are ONE person,
with two heads?
Or TWO people, with one body?
King Solomon devises a test:
Pour hot water on one of the heads...and if the other head also screams,
then you know that they are indeed, ONE soul.
Yes. You’re right. This is a cruel test.
Remember – this is the same King Solomon who suggested
cutting a baby in half to ascertain its true mother!
But there is something quite profound in this teaching:
If we want to test whether or not the Jewish people are still ONE body –
we must see how one head responds to the suffering of the other.
This is not a theoretical question right now.
The Jews of Israel are crying out in pain.
I saw this with my own eyes as I marched
with hundreds of thousands of protesters
in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, who have poured onto the streets
week after week, for over 8 months.
Who rally against this government while waving Israeli flags,
and singing Hatikva, because they protest
in the name of their patriotism and their Zionism.
I watched interviews with senior Israeli Air Force reservists
who warned of a grave threat to Israel’s security
as thousands of Air Force and Army reservists
refused to show up for duty as the first judicial reforms passed.
Central heard directly the anguished voice of Rom Ohayon,
the CEO of IGY, Israel’s largest LGBTQ Youth organization,
who shared that her community is losing hope for a future in Israel.
They’re not alone.
A recent Israeli poll reported that one in four Israelis
is considering leaving the country. ii
Even if an exodus of this scale is unlikely,
the numbers themselves are a cry for help.
Six months ago, Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis,
Israeli journalists who often interpret and defend
Israel’s actions for a mainstream Zionist audience,
wrote an unprecedented ‘Open Letter’ in the Times of Israel
pleading for American Jews to get involved before it’s too late, saying:
“The changes afoot will have dire consequences
for the solidarity of Israel’s society…
and it will do grave damage to our relations with you…
this is a moment for alarm.” iii
There is also real pain on the other side of these protests:
Mizrahi Jews who have been treated like second class citizens
ever since they arrived;
Younger voters who came of age in the shadow of the Second Intifada.
Uprooted settlers from Gaza who never saw the payoff
promised for leaving their homes.
Their pain showed up at the voting booth
and this government has mobilized a coalition of the aggrieved,
which threatens to tear Israeli society apart
with a force even the government cannot control.
The other half of the Jewish world is in some very hot water.
How will we respond to their call?
Micah Goodman, an Israeli public intellectual who spoke at Central last year,
put this current moment in historical perspective
when he related the Curse of the Eighth Decade. iv
Only two other times in Jewish history
did we Jews have sovereignty over ourselves:
the first Jewish state established by King David 3000 years ago,
and the Hasmonean dynasty of the Second Temple period.
In both instances, internal strife in the 8th decade – Jew against Jew –
precipitated our downfall and destruction.
We seized a third opportunity for self-determination
when the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
But do the math. We’re in the 8th decade.
You don’t have to be superstitious to believe
that the curse of the 8th decade could strike again.
And if Israel were no longer to exist – how would you feel?
I want you for a moment to imagine it:
a world without a Jewish homeland.
Really. See how that sits in your heart and soul.
It should feel unthinkable, and compel us to act.
But I know there are some of you, sadly, who don’t feel compelled.
To you, I urge:
If you care about democratic rights –
help preserve the only functional democracy in the Middle East.
If you care about the vulnerable –
safeguard the sole sanctuary for Jewish refugees in need.
If you value Jewish Peoplehood
hear the cries of the other half of our Jewish family
the destiny of Am Yisrael is bound, one to the other.
This young, messy, miraculous Jewish state
is the most important, sovereign democratic project
of the Jewish people of the last 2000 years.
We cannot walk away.
While the task can feel at times, overwhelming, exhausting –
Pirke Avot teaches –
it is not our duty to complete it, only not to abandon it. v
We stand on the eve of another new year – Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh means ‘head’ and Shana comes from the root – ‘to change.’
So this Rosh Hashanah, I ask this head – the American Jewish community
to be willing to change our approach to Israel in 3 ways.
The first is to really LISTEN to Israelis.
Don’t just get your news from The New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
Read Israeli journalists.
Put The Times of Israel daily podcast on your list.
Come hear the Israeli speakers we bring to Central.
And – I know this is hard – but try to listen in order to understand,
not to offer solutions.
Yes, this is exactly what I tell my husband when I talk to him.
Often empathy is what we need most.
As Matti Friedman recently said on the Identity/Crisis podcast:
“It sounds…sentimental that Israelis need to hear
that you’re with us…[but] things feel pretty lonely over here sometimes.” vi
This December, Central is bringing our first congregational trip to Israel
since the pandemic began.
And in February, we are bringing our Board of Trustees.
Because it is critical that the leadership of one of the largest
American synagogues, be in relationship with the people of Israel.
Secondly, Reform Jews should GIVE – our money and support.
Because here’s the truth –
most American Jews have been undersupporting our values in Israel.
If you want to see change –
Fortify the protesters.
Support the Israeli Reform movement.
Fund the NGO’s and institutions that are building
a more just, democratic, egalitarian, pluralistic Israel.*
This is not about trying to re-make Israel in our American image.
This is about helping Israel live up to its own foundational aspiration
as stated in its Declaration of Independence.
As [quote] a “country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;
based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace
envisaged by the Hebrew Prophets.”
That is an Israel worth fighting for. And funding.
Finally – od lo avda tikvatienu.
We must not give up HOPE.
Giving in to despair. Remaining silent.
These are acts of complicity in a time of moral urgency.
And if you need a shot of optimism, look no further than these protests
which have stirred to action an estimated 7 million Israelis since January. vii
From Likud to the left.
From Kippahs to the non-Kosher.
Only 11% of Israelis voted for the ultranationalist and ultra-religious parties
that have hijacked this government.
The vast majority of Israelis want reforms,
but also refuse to be governed by extremists.
And they have not given up.
Once again, in the streets of Israel
the central chant of protest, echoing years past, calls: Boosha. “SHAME.”
Boosha. For undermining the checks and balances of democracy.
Boosha. For turning a blind eye to Jewish violence in Arab villages.
Boosha. For denying basic civil and human rights in the name of Judaism.
Right now–both the American Jewish and Israeli heads are crying out
And that’s good. Because shame is a sign of moral clarity.
We feel it when we recognize we are not living up to our ideals.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the President of Hebrew College
reminded me of the holiness
of the Hebrew language when she recently taught
that if you take the Hebrew root letters of Boosha: Bet-Vav-Shin,
and reverse them, they spell SHUV – ”RETURN.”
It might be that our shared shame in this moment
is exactly what enables us to RETURN –
to each other. And to our shared values.
SHUV. That is our call for this new year.
The last time Israel succumbed to the curse of the 8th decade,
we made our final stand atop the desert stronghold of Masada.
Those first-century Jews who took their own lives
thought this was the very end.
And for 2000 years, it was.
But recently, Israeli scientists took ancient date seeds
found in Masada’s storerooms
and miraculously germinated these fragments of the past
into blossoming date palm trees!
Long ago, the Psalmist had a vision: Tzadik katamar yifrach—
that in our Promised Land, “The Righteous would flourish like Date Palms.” viii
We have not realized that promise. Yet.
But I’ve met so many, who nevertheless persist.
As you leave services tonight – we are giving you a jar of date honey
made by Building Together –
an inspiring cooperative of Israeli and Palestinian farmers.
As we dip our apples into this honey for the new year,
may it connect us to the many Righteous
who are working for a more peaceful, democratic Israel, everyday.
May it remind us that even a 2000-year-old seed can bear new fruit.
May its sweetness call us to return.
Od lo avda tikvateinu – we have not given up hope –
That we are still one body,
one beating heart,
one Am Yisrael.
Organizations building a more just, democratic, egalitarian, pluralistic Israel:
Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)
The umbrella organization for the Reform Movement in Israel, supporting the Reform congregations and rabbis.
Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC)
The Israeli Reform Movement’s legal arm which brings dozens of cases before their Supreme Court in defense of freedom of religion, civil rights, racial equality and Israeli democracy.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel
An independent, non-partisan NGO government that has promoted values of democracy, transparency, and civic engagement for over 25 years.
As the largest civic, democratic, and liberal group in the country, it utilizes lawful means to safeguard Israel from any potential threats to its democratic principles and ensure its continued progress.
i Menachot 37a
v Pirke Avot 2
vi Zion's Roads are in Mourning (hartman.org.il)
viii Psalm 92