A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver a lecture over at Common Ground in Deerfield. It’s an interfaith learning center founded in the early 1970s. Some of it earliest supporters were members of our congregation. We set the date for the lecture. But as we approached, we did not have a title or a topic.
The director, Jim Kenney, needed to get an email and poster created to advertise the talk. He asked me what I was prepared to talk about. I didn’t know—hadn’t really thought about it. But he needed a title right that minute. I said, no problem. I’ve got a title that always works: “Judaism: At the Crossroads.”
Three years ago it was the Women of the Wall and the horrific violence shown to them by the Ultra-Orthodox. A year ago it was the War in Gaza. A few years before that, it was the Arab spring and accompanying convulsions in the Middle East. Sometimes I think a quip attributed to Milton Himmelfarb is extraordinarily true—“The entire population of the world’s Jews would be considered a small error in the Chinese census. Yet, great things constantly happen around us.”
At the Crossroads
This year, once again, we are at a crossroads. Early this summer President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry concluded a deal with other major powers and Iran. The deal intends to prevent Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon. Many Israelis and Americans vociferously oppose it. They believe it will not prevent Iran from constructing a weapon, and the sanctions relief granted to Iran will fund more terrorism within Israel and on her borders.
Supporters argue the deal benefits Israel and America by stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and setting inspections and safeguards that do not yet exist.The political debate seems to have concluded, at least in the short-term, and the deal will be implemented. What now?
Now is the time to come together. The debate has been intense, and frequently mean-spirited. As we begin the year, we need to remind ourselves that we are one people.
This is not to say we should not have strong convictions. We are a people who argue. We are a people who disagree. But our challenge now is not to let these disagreements tear us apart. They have done too many times in history. Indeed, some of our worst wounds have been self-inflicted.
Our Self-Inflicted Wounds
The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., for example, not because the Romans destroyed all their subjugated people’s temples. In general the Romans didn’t mind other religious groups so long as they paid their taxes. Rather, it was destroyed because Jews were fighting amongst one another and one group allied with the Romans against the other.
The Talmud records that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, amongst the Jewish people. We were exiled from the land and did not return until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Even Israel underwent internal self-inflicted wounds—like the sinking of Altelana, a ship with weapons for and members of right-wing Irgun members by David Ben Gurion and the Labor party—that almost tore the emerging country apart.
The debate in our community today resembles the conflict that have torn us apart too many times. I fear we are losing perspective. We are questioning people’s loyalty and love of Israel if they do not agree with us. During the debate over the Iran deal, some families decided to forbid speaking about it. People on the same board avoided sitting next to one another. This antagonism cannot continue. Regardless of where we stand, we need to look closely at ourselves. And we need to resolve to argue in the highest spirit of our tradition. What does that mean?
First, we should not impugn one another’s motive. We should not say “he simply doesn’t care about Israel” or even worse she’s a self-hating Jew, if someone takes a different position. We can, as Rabbi David Wolpe put it, speak passionately without speaking insultingly. We can have a deeply held opinion without believing that those who oppose us must be idiots.”
Firm Convictions, Wide Embrace
In other words, we can be firm in our conviction, yet wide in our embrace. Passionate in our pleas, yet respectful in our words. We need to remember the point is not to win. That was the point when I was in high school policy debate. We countered and sought to destroy the other side’s arguments whether we thought they were true or not. But in the real world, the point is not to win. It is to come up with the best solution. Disagreement serves that purpose.
The great twentieth century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, embodied this truth. He was Orthodox, yet he worked closely with secular Zionists. Other Orthodox thought him a traitor. The secular Zionists questioned whether he really accepted them. He was universally criticized. But he wrote in his journals, “it is precisely the multiplicity of opinions that derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends that appeared in conflict.”
Like Rav Kook and the secular Zionists, we have to keep talking. Talking keeps us together even when we disagree. Apathy and detachment are far worse. Few stories captured this truth more sharply than Cain and Abel. If we look carefully at the text we notice something strange. The text reads “Cain said to his brother Abel… “ Then it stops. The next words in the text are “They happened to be in the field, Cain rose up agains this brother Abel and killed him.”
Notice what is missing: the text never reveals what Cain said to Abel. It’s as if the text reads Cain said to Abel … an ellipse…and then Cain rose up and killed Abel. The ellipse symbolizes an end to conversation. They stopped speaking. And when that happens, Cain kills Abel. The end of conversation was a prelude to violence. We cannot stop speaking to one another for when we do, we handicap our ability to come together in the future.
The desire to stop talking is a symptom of short-term and apocalyptic thinking. We think, “This issue, this concern,” is the make or break one. Getting this decision wrong will doom future generations forever. Take recent blog and newspaper headlines. “American Jews will never recover from this split,” one headlines says. “Israel is all alone now,” other headlines proclaim.
This tendency to attach apocalyptic urgency to the present issue is not, by the way, limited to politics. It happens in marriages, in our jobs, in deciding where to go to college,We think “I lost this case—I didn’t get into this college—my life, my career is over.” Sometimes this intensity can be helpful. It can push us to do our best.
But it also has a dark underside. Rarely is this one issue, this one case, this one decision, the make or break of all others. When we think this way, we think anything goes. When we think this way, we call one another names and destroy friendships. We may violate ethical boundaries. And there is no study that proves the certainty of our convictions correlates with the accuracy of our convictions! Sometimes we can be totally certain of something and be wrong. Other times we can fell less certain and end up right. It’s easy to say and stick to what we believe. Much harder, however, is to make a strong thoughtful case for what we believe and leave the door open to those who disagree with us, and to the possibility we might be wrong.
A Heart of Many Rooms
The late Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman described Judaism as a heart with many rooms. I love this very mixed metaphor. It means we are different. We come from different backgrounds, points of view, life experiences. But it is our differences, our arguments that give us life. But when the rooms of the heart stop communicating with one another—when the neurons stop firing and the blood stops flowing—the heart diminishes, weakens, falls apart. The same is true with us. When we stop talking—when we cut ourselves off from one another, our collective heart stops beating. And when we need it next time—when we need to come together as a people to face another major challenge—our heart will not be strong enough to keep us together.
I’m not here to tell you what to think about the Iran deal. Many points of view dwell together in this sanctuary. I am here to plead that we make room in our hearts and heads for one another. It’s the only way our hearts will keep beating. It’s the only way we will stay alive as a people.
An Extraordinary Lesson in History
We saw this truth a little over 100 years. It was the 1903 World Zionist Congress, the last at which Theodor Herzl—the founder of modern Zionism—would preside.
At that time Great Britain controlled a good deal of the continent of Africa. They agreed to support the creation of a Jewish state on the land of what is modern-day Uganda. Herzl was ecstatic. No, it was not biblical land of Israel. And yes, it was hot and sticky. Yet, it would be a Jewish state, a homeland, a place where Jews could live freely. Herzl saw a Jewish state as the answer to antisemitism. For Herzl that could take place just as well in Uganda as it could in ancient Israel.
So Herzl brought the proposal up for a vote. He knew the religious Zionists would oppose him. They would settle only for the biblical homeland. But he thought he would have enough support to pass the proposal. Amongst those voting were the esteemed chemist and future President of Israel, Chaim Weitzman, and his father. In his journals Weizmann describes the moment. He went up to cast his vote. He voted no. He thought only a homeland in Israel would unite and sustain the Jewish people.
His father voted yes. He said Jews would always remain connected to Israel, but they needed a haven, a safe place, now. Their votes came in the wake of the worst pogrom in history, the kishinev pogrom in Tsarist Russia. Eye-witness accounts said blood flowed in the streets for three days.
The Highest Stakes
Like today, the stakes for that vote were high. Ultimately, it failed. The Zionist congress rejected the proposal. The hostility, the anger, amongst supporters that followed the vote was captured by Theodor Herzl in his journal: “These people have a rope around their necks yet still they refuse.” Similarly, Weizmann remembered this was the only prolonged period of coolness between him and his father.
And yet, And yet, the delegates who voted for Uganda came to the next Zionist congress. They worked, they raised money, they traveled to Israel. Had the Zionist movement fallen apart after that vote…had its leaders and members refused to talk to one another, there would be no Israel today.
What kept us together then is what must keep us together now—Ahavat Tzion, a love of Israel, and Kol Israel Aravim Zeh-L-Zeh, commitment to one another. For have no not doubt, we will face more challenges. We will have more battles. We will experience many more disagreements. That is certain. But what is less is certain is whether we will face them as one people. That’s up to each us. And if we succeed, which we must, we we will realize the dream we pray for at every worship service—Bayom HaYu, yehieh adonai ached or shemo echad, on that day, God shall be one and God’s name shall be one.
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