Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5784: Sparking our Flames

 A version of this sermon was delivered on Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5784 at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY.

            Many, if not most of you, may by now know that I spent a large part of my sabbatical time this past summer in the Pacific Northwest, traveling around, learning, seeing beautiful things, and then attending Glass Blowing School for 12 days at the renowned Pilchuk Glass School.  Over these next weeks, and probably longer, I’ll be excited to share about my experiences there and while traveling around that part of the world.  The experience was and continues to be inspiring for me.  I’m grateful to this community and Cantor Timman for affording me the time to be away.

            The Pilchuck Glass School was started in the 1970s by Dale Chihuly and his friends, setting up their temporary shop in the middle of a tree farm about 90 minutes north of Seattle.  This photo, taken by a classmate, Alyssa Miller, shows the sunsetting over the hotshop, whose furnaces never extinguish.  Each year over the summer, the school hosts a series of sessions with various classes offered in different glass disciplines. Here’s my class.  That’s me in the back.  There was glass casting, stained glass, and I was placed in a flameworking class, which is not the large-scale furnaces in a hot shop you may be familiar with.  Of course, they had quite the hot shop as well.  Flamework involves an individual flame in front of you which you use to melt, shape, and blow glass.  Here’s a photo of me at work at the flame, wearing special glasses to protect my eyes from its brightness. 

In order to flamework glass, you need two things…glass and a flame.  You light the flame, you introduce the glass, you keep it moving, and you melt, shape, form, combine, and stretch the glass.  Now this is not just any old flame in front of you.  For the glass that we are using, which is borosilicate or true PYREX glass, you need a lot of heat to get it to melt.  To get a flame that hot, you mix propane and oxygen. 

Now these torches we were using had inputs for both gases, and two knobs for each one, so that you could adjust the flame as needed to create differing flames of differing strengths to accomplish different tasks.  If, for example, you’re working on a small detail, you want a small, pointed flame.  If you need to melt a large gather of glass to molten, you need a dense, wide flame.  It’s a constant adjustment of flame size and composition.

In addition to the gas, of course, you need something to spark the flame.  You can use either a sparker that you squeeze, like you may recall from high school science and your Bunsen burner, or you can use a lighter.  Either way, there’s a correct order to lighting the gases and a real finesse to getting the mixture right.

But the sparks from the lighters were not the only sparks that were impactful to me.  There were other sparks, equally important for the many artists who spend their summer at Pilchuck.  Each night, the entire session gathered together for dinner.  Dinner was followed by slides and presentations by the visiting artists, teachers, and TAs, showing off their work and explaining their inspiration.  Almost without fail, each presentation included a description of the moment that the artist first saw glass art or a demonstration that sparked their passion for glass.  In order to devote your life to this art, which is expensive, time consuming, fickle, and dangerous, you have to have the passion for it, and that passion requires that spark.  As in glass, as in life.

Being surrounded by folks with such a passion for their art was inspiring in itself.  For some of these artists, both aspiring and established, everything, every aspect of their being has to go into the art: their hearts, their souls, and their might.  They are always thinking about it, feeling it deep within themselves.  They are guided by their desire to make this art because ever since that spark, they haven’t been able to put out the internal flame.  Even when their lives are hard and unpredictable, they choose not to leave it behind because they love it so deeply.

What is passion if not a deep love for something?  A love that encompasses all we are and all our decisions.  Passion means to love something entirely, with heart, soul, and might.  And as Jews we are commanded to be passionate.  We are commanded to summon our hearts, souls, and strength—our passion—to love God.  V’ahavta et Adonai eloheicha,[1] we chanted together a little while ago.  You shall love Adonai your God bechol levavcha, uv’chol nafshecha, uv’chol me’odecha.  We are supposed to be passionate about loving God.  It may sound redundant, that we’re supposed to love loving God.  Isn’t loving God enough?  Our tradition would seem to say no.  You might think v’ahavta et Adonai eloheicha would be enough.  The Torah comes to tell us that there’s more to it.

            What does our tradition understand this command to mean?  What does it mean to love God as a Jew, and what does it mean to do so with all our heart, soul, and might?  With the entirety of ourselves?

            “But wait, Rabbi, I’m not sure I even believe in God.  Have you looked at the world lately?”  That’s ok.  Because no matter how elusive God may be, love is less so for us.  So, if we’re having a problem with God, let’s start with love: v’ahavta.  It’s a seemingly simple command, yet can we command the love of another?  Isn’t love supposed to grow organically?  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that many other nations in the ancient world had systems of justice like the Israelites, but it is the Torah which originates the idea of love as a moral imperative.  We are commanded to love our neighbors and to love the stranger at the same time as we are commanded to love God.  Perhaps the focus here is indeed not on God, or the stranger, or the neighbor, but on the action, on the love. 

            Maimonides[2] explains that to love means to be obsessed, lovesick, so that all the time, no matter what we’re doing, we’re thinking, acting, and living with our beloved on our minds.  When love refers to God, Maimonides means that every action of our day, from waking in the morning to lying down at night, ought to be done with God on our minds.  With a sense that what we are doing in each moment serves to spread light, peace, mercy, and justice.  If we strive in every moment to live a life dedicated to morality and Jewish values, we’re loving God every moment.  It means we’ve become passionate for God.

You’d probably be less than surprised to learn that there’s some disagreement on how to understand the second half of our verse, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. 

B’chol levavcha, with all your heart.  Rashi says that this means that you are to love God without division, such that what we do is not at odds with what God wants.  Ibn Ezra says that heart means knowledge.  Ramban says that hearts means the power of desire. So, while Rashi tells us it’s about listening to God, Ramban and Ibn Ezra disagree with each other on what the heart represents.[3]

            B’chol Nafshecha, with all your soul.  Here, Ramban and Ibn Ezra disagree again.  Now, Ibn Ezra says that this is the spirit within, your nefesh, your divinely given breath and soul.  Ramban says that this is the intellectual capacity.  But they do both agree that within these two commands is a combination of mind and spirit.  So, we are to love God with all aspects of ourselves, our mind and our spirit.

            And then we get to b’chol me’odecha, with all your might.  Here, we find some agreement.  First, Rashi says that we have to love God no matter whether God sends us the good or the bad.  And then Ibn Ezra and Ramban agree that with all your might actually just means very, very much.  They pick up on me’odecha and hear in it me’od, very, like tov me’od, very good, as God calls creation in Genesis.  They both explain that the love must be fervent.  It must be passionate.

            But there’s an additional wrinkle to this last one because earlier than all these commentators, the Mishnah[4] suggests that with all your might should actually be rendered as “with all your wealth; [explaining that we are to] put our resources toward good purposes and to serve the Most High with everything we possess.”  Nineteen hundred years later, Rav Kook goes on to explain that this doesn’t mean that we are supposed to reject material things and comfort.  Rather, we are supposed to use these things we have to live fully, to cherish the world and its treasures in order to achieve a full measure of love which will then allow your heart to expand, which will in turn make you more giving as a person.[5]

We have to love God with our bodies, our spirits, our minds, and with great passion.  We have to love God by loving the life that God gave us.  And, like the gas in the flameworking torch, we often have to adjust to achieve the right balance. Sometimes we may need more heart than mind, and sometimes we may need more passion than spirit.  Each moment of every day requires a different combination of loving God, and I promise you, if my experience with the flame can be your guide, sometimes the mixture will just be wrong.  And it will take practice to get it right more often than not.  And that’s ok, even helpful, because the effort of loving God, according to Rabbi Adin Stensaltz[6], will be enough to lead you to where you need to be.  Striving for love leads to love.  This is why it’s not enough to love God.  We have to love loving God.

But to light that flame, we also need that spark.  And so, as we embark on this new year, let us all ask ourselves, what will spark our passion in 5784?  Will it be prayer or meditation?  Do you need to turn up the knob on your spiritual self?  Will it be study?  Do you need to increase the amount of Torah in your life?  Will it be spreading tzedek, justice?  We could all turn up that knob more often.  No matter what it is, your temple is here to help.  Seek out your flame with us this year. 

Kindling a flame ushers in the holy days.  Kindling our personal flames ushers holiness into our lives.  As we add our hearts, our souls, and our mights, our flames of love grow stronger until we cannot help but fulfill those commandments.  May our flames burn strong this year.  May 5784 be a shanah tovah and a shanah shel ahavah.  A good year, and a year of love.

[1] Deut 6:5ff

[2] MT, Laws of Repentance 10:3

[3] Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban on Deut 6:5

[4] Berachot 9:5 referenced in Mishkan HaNefesh for YK p 31

[5] Referenced in MHN for YK p 31

[6] Pebbles of Wisdom

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Rosh HaShanah 5784: The Mountain is Out!

A version of this sermon was delivered on Rosh HaShanah Morning, 5784, at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY

The Mountain is Out!

            While I was in Seattle this summer, I had the joy of being taken around by my old friend Julie, whom I hadn’t seen since some time in the last century, when we taught together at a Hebrew School in the Chicago suburbs.  Julie took a friend and me around to parts of Seattle we couldn’t see without a car, and we spent a glorious day together with a local.  Here’s Julie and me at the locks.

            Two nights later, we happened to be having dinner at an adjacent restaurant to where Julie was eating, and when we ran into each other, Julie asked what we had done that day.  We told her about our wonderful trip to Bainbridge Island, how we took the ferry, and how we saw great views of Mt. Rainier, or Tahoma, in the distance on the way back.  It was far away, and we had to zoom in, but there it was.  When we told her about our view, her response puzzled and intrigued me: “Oh,” she said, “the mountain was out today!”  The mountain was out...  What does that mean?  Growing up in Illinois, and living on Long Island, there’s not a lot of mountain talk… 

            Though I barely experienced it this summer, the Pacific Northwest is known for dreary, rainy, overcast days.  Many days of the year, you can’t see Mt. Rainier from the cities.  The haze, the light, the angles of the other mountains, the weather, all of these occlude the mountain from view.  So, when you can see it, the locals take to saying, “The mountain is out today.”  There’s a website where you can check to see if it’s out. 

But that’s not all, because in addition to that, and probably because, on average, the mountain is out somewhere between 80-100 days a year, the folks in Tahoma’s shadow also say that everyone should live every day as if the mountain is out.  In other words, live each day, no matter the weather, like the skies are clear and like the light is right and like you can see far into the distance, to the giant volcanic edifice towering over the horizon.  Even on days when the mountain is lost in the fog, on days when the mountain is hidden from sight though we know it’s there, we ought to still live our lives as if we can see it clearly.

            Today is Rosh HaShanah.  The mountain is out today. 

            What is it about mountains that so calls us to attention?  What is it about these high places that so much over the course of history called humans to something bigger?  Esa einai el heharim.  I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?” sang the Psalmist.[1]  A little while ago, our choir sang other words of the Psalms: Romemu Adonai Eloheinu v’histachavu l’har kodsho, Exalt Adonai our God, and let us bow toward the mountain of God’s holiness.[2]  In moments of desperation, we look up.  In moments of exaltation, we look to the mountain.  The Psalmist understood that it was not the mountain, but God who will serve as their help; not the mountain, but God whom we exalt.  The sense of God’s presence comes by looking up to the mountain.  Like getting into Mountain Pose, we are pulled upward as if by our spines.

Olympus, Fuji, Sinai.  Is it their size?  Is it that they are tall and draw our gaze upward?  Is it how they occlude the horizon?  Is it that their peaks are shrouded in clouds, their apex hidden from view? 

            Today is Rosh HaShanah.  And, the mountain is out today!

            A few moments ago, we heard expertly chanted by so many of our congregants in beautiful High Holy Day trope, the difficult story of the binding of Isaac.  I’m sure Rabbi Lowenberg’s introduction covered most of it, so let me just recap.  God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to Moriah, as a sacrifice, on one of the peaks that God will show him.  Why does God have to show him?  Shouldn’t Abraham just be able to see it?  Perhaps.  But Abraham is accustomed to going in the general direction when God commands.  “Go to the land that I will show you, and you shall be a blessing.”[3]  It seemed to work out the first time, so why not also now? 

It was a three-day walk for Abraham to get there, and one can imagine the mountain rising in the distance as “he looked up and saw the place from afar,”[4] walking through the valleys, his son and two servants alongside him.

            Looking up, Abraham sees a cloud on Moriah[5] and he knows that is the mountain God is sending him to.  Isaac, too, sees that cloud, and the two go on together.[6]

Abraham takes Isaac up that mountain with the wood, the fire, and the knife.  Abraham ties his son up.  And at the moment he is ready to plunge that knife down, the Torah tells us: “Then, a messenger of Adonai called to him from heaven:…‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.’”[7]

            The mountain is out today!  Mount Moriah emerges over us as we hear this story.  Tradition tells us that Moriah was always a place of sacrifice.  Adam, Noah, David, Solomon: all of them set up altars there.[8]  Only Abraham and Isaac’s story at Moriah is shared on this day.  And on this mountain before us, the Jewish people survive.  On this mountain, faith in God seems paramount, but faith in the future is the lesson.  The mountain is out, and it calls us to a future of life and trusting in a God that prefers life and blessing, even when it seems like everything is stacked against us.  Abraham was tested so that we wouldn’t have to be and so that would learn from his lesson.  Put down that knife.  Do not raise your hand to the boy.  The mountain is out and Moriah calls us to life.

            Why is Moriah out today?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to be called to Sinai on this day?  To be inspired to the moment of theodicy today?  I mean look at it.  It’s also covered in clouds.  It’s also tall and imposing.  It’s also a place of divine interaction.  Why not Sinai?  Why is the mountain of sacrifice out but not the mountain of commandment?

            Rabbi David Guttman quotes Rabbi Hayim of Sanz: “At Sinai, we, the Jewish people were receivers.  At Moriah, we became givers…At Sinai God came down, at Moriah, [hu]man[ity] went up.  At Sinai, the voice of God was dominant.  At Moriah, the response of [hu]man[ity] was dominant.  At Sinai, God was the principal actor.  At Moriah, [hu]man[ity] was…Moriah is the priority mountain…At Moriah we ascend – and it becomes holy.”[9]

            Moriah calls us to action.  Moriah calls us to more than just blindly listening to God.  It was on Moriah that God’s promises all came true, but only after human action.  It was at the moment of the binding of Isaac that Abraham’s promise of progeny is sealed.  It is on Moriah where David builds his city and Solomon builds his Temple.  It was to Moriah where our ancestors made pilgrimage and offered their first fruits and the first of their flocks as thanks and praise to God for their great redemption.  At Sinai we listened.  At Moriah we acted.  What kind of year does Moriah call us to?  It calls us to a year of action.  A year of giving and a year of service to God, not through the work of sacrifice, but through the work of covenant, relationship, generosity, and love.  The mountain calls us to our best instincts today, it calls us to our most divine selves.

            But we don’t have to go to the mountain.  We can bring the mountain to us.  We can call the mountain out!

            When Jacob flees from his impulsive brother’s wrath and heads to his mother’s family in Haran, he stops along the way in the wilderness.  Famously, he has the vision of the ladder reaching to the heavens and, in response, he offers a prayer.  According to tradition, this is the origin of Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.  And, hidden in this moment, according to the sages, is the power Jacob has to bring God’s mountain closer to him. 

            According to the sage Rashi, when Jacob stops in the wilderness to pray, much more happens.  Rashi picks up on the language of the verse: “Vayifga bamakom, he came upon a certain place.”[10]  The place, according to Rashi[11] is Mt. Moriah, even though Jacob is nowhere near it.  But it’s the verb that stands out to Rashi, who explains that this verb, vayifga, seems to imply happenstance, like Jacob stumbled upon or accidentally ran into the place.  And if that’s the case, how did he do that?  How could Jacob have stumbled into Moriah?  Rashi explains that Moriah uproots itself and comes to Jacob at Beth El.

            The Sfat Emet[12] explains Rashi’s comment: “The will of a person is undoubtedly capable of arousing the holiness of God anywhere.  And so, when Rashi states that Mount Moriah uprooted itself and came here [to Jacob] – that’s because Jacob had a great desire to come to Mount Moriah, and so even though this place [Beth El] was very distant, Mount Moriah jumped right over.”  Even in this moment of difficulty for Jacob, with his family left behind and an uncertain future ahead, he calls the mountain to him and, in so doing, brings with it God’s promise of life and a powerful future.

            We can call the mountain to us.  We can call Moriah, with its promise of life and future and blessing.  We can summon the mountain if only we summon our will to be near it. 

            The mountain is out today!  And the mountain is out because we call for it to be!

            Being called to the mountain is powerful.  Calling the mountain to us is powerful. 

            But it’s not enough for the mountain to be out on this one day.  Rabbi David Wolpe, quoting Menachem Mendel of Kotzk,[13] teaches that for Abraham, the hardest part of the Akedah was not the three days’ walk.  It wasn’t the climb up the mountain.  It wasn’t binding his son.  It wasn’t sacrificing the ram.  It was coming down the mountain.  It was what happens after.  The mountain is on our minds today.  What about two months from now?  Four?  Eight?  This day, when the mountain is out, is meant to serve as the model for every day of the rest of 5784.  We don’t always have the words of Torah so imminent.  We don’t always have the mountain looming over us.

            The mountain is out today.  We are here in the synagogue.  We’ve said the prayers we need to say, and in a few moments we’ll hear the shofar and another year will be ushered in.  The mountain is surely out today.  It is our choice to live every day of 5784 like the mountain is out.  For when we make that choice, when we choose blessing and life, when we choose to look to the future with hope and anticipation, when we choose to exalt God by lifting our eyes toward the heavens to the peak of the mountain, when we make these choices, the mountain can be out every day!  And then, when the mountain is out every day, it will truly be a year of blessing and goodness for us all.

            Shanah Tovah. 


[1] Psalm 121:1

[2] Psalm 99:9

[3] Gen 12:1

[4] Gen 22:4

[5] See Rashi and others on Gen 22:4

[6] After Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 23:1

[7] Gen 22:11-12

[8] Based on MT Chosen Temple 2:2

[9] Guttman, Rabbi David, in Elkins, Dov Peretz Ed. Rosh HaShanah Readings p 143

[10] Gen 28:11

[11] Based on Rashi to Gen 28:11

[12] Sfat Emet Vayetze 2:6

[13] Wolpe, Rabbi David, as quoted in Elkins, Dov Peretz, Rosh HaShanah Readings, p 133

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Israel Today and Tomorrow

A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation on Shabbat Ki Tissa 5783, March 10, 2023

            I became a citizen of the United States in 2006.  After the one-sentence English test and the 10 question American History oral exam, all the new citizens are brought into a room to take the oath.  Just before taking the oath, the group and any visitors are shown two videos.  One, a message from the sitting president, welcoming us as new citizens.  Then, they show us the music video for the song “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood.  Don’t get this confused with Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.  No this is the country-rock anthem.  The chorus has the following lyrics.

            “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.

            And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.

And I'd gladly stand up next to you, And defend Her still today

'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land

God Bless the U.S.A.”

         On that day, I was so proud to finally be an American.  I had waited so long to take that oath.  I was denied citizenship once, which is a story for another time, but on that day, I was proud.  Flag-wavingly proud.  I finally had the right to vote and the ability to add a US Passport to my Israeli one.  But, it was 2006.  And the sitting president whose greeting I heard was George W. Bush.  And, without getting into it too deeply, and in what is no shock to any of you, I’m sure, I was not so proud of that man as our President.  I was not proud of the anti-gay marriage fervor that helped keep him in office in 2004.  I was not proud of the unjustified and destabilizing vanity war being waged in Iraq.  And so there I was, a new American, deeply proud of my country, raising my hand, swearing allegiance, and at the same time not proud of its government and many of its actions. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the juxtaposition of those two videos they showed us and how they brought up conflicting emotions of pride and shame.  These are emotions I’ve felt comingled again as Israel’s government has not lived up to the promise of its founding documents and principles, most recently with the crisis over the courts.  In the last few years, Israel has had election after election, a byproduct of its fractured society.  In that respect, Israel is no different than many other nations in this day and age of polarization.  In the last few years, Israel has barely had a stable government for more than a year at a time, as factions which used to get along or at least be willing to work together have polarized and decided that they will not work with each other.  In this most recent election, a governing coalition came together with the most extreme right-wing-religious parties.  This is not a government to be proud of.  This is not a government that is seeking to promote a Zionist vision for Israel that I believe in.  But, just because we have issues with the government, does that mean we stop our support for the nation?  Do we stop waving that flag?

How are we supposed to respond to this current crisis?  How can we be proud of and support Israel at a time like this?  Can and should we even be Zionists in a time like this?  Should we be Zionists anymore if this is what Zionism has come to, a government where ministers call for the wiping out of an Arab town, a government that is predicated on expanding settlements rather than achieving a lasting peace?  A government that traffics in antiquated religious sensibilities that run contrary to the majority of Israelis’ viewpoints and practices?

The short answer is yes, we need to be Zionists.  Yes, we need to support Israel.  But it may be time for us to change what that means for our community and for ourselves as individuals.  As this evening’s worship shows us in deep and powerful ways, as much as Judaism survives throughout the eras and generations, it also constantly adapts.  It is nimble, our Judaism, and it always has been.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is at best misreading history.  Our relationship with Israel hasn’t always been one way.  As is often demanded of American Jews, our relationship has been: yes Israel, right or wrong.  As the times change, so too must our relationship with our homeland.  And as Judaism and humanity progresses, so too must our Zionism. 

In 1885, a meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Pittsburgh declared the following: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”[1]  We are no longer a nation, these Rabbis said, but a faith group.  We are no longer expecting to go back to Zion.  We do not hope for a Jewish State.  This is 1885.  Before Dreyfuss, Before the first Zionist Congress.  This is 1885 in a time of expanding rights for Jews across Europe and America.  What need did our people have for a homeland when every nation was now a homeland?  It was also, of course, a time of violence and pogroms across Eastern Europe, leading to waves of immigration of more traditionally minded Jews to these shores.

            But of course, these Pittsburgh ideas were not universally shared beliefs among American Jews, and Zionism became a fixture in Jewish circles.  By the early 1920s Rabbi Stephen Wise opened his Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in competition to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  The JIR was proudly Zionist and in favor of free pulpits, rather than clergy hemmed in by their boards, prevented from speaking as they wish.  In the long run, we know Rabbi Stephen Wise’s direction for Reform Judaism, once on the fringe, became the norm.  Pulpits are by and large free, and as a movement we are unabashedly Zionist.

            In 1937, Reform Leaders once again gathered, this time in Columbus, OH.  Fascism was on the march in Europe.  The era of expanding rights for Jews and other minorities in Europe had ended.  An era of contraction and unimaginable destruction was on the horizon.  That, coupled with the growth of the Zionist project in Palestine, meant that Reform Judaism had to shift its perspective.  The Columbus Platform stated about Israel: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”[2]  By 1937, Reform Jews in America were supporting the project of Israel, in favor of it, even if not necessarily for themselves, and cognizant of its potential role and importance as a place of refuge for their coreligionists.  How prescient they were, and how unfortunate that the land did not become such a refuge for 6,000,000 of our siblings. 

            By the 1976 conference in San Francisco, the Reform Platform included the following:

We are privileged to live in an extraordinary time, one in which a third Jewish commonwealth has been established in our people’s ancient homeland. We are bound to that land and to the newly reborn State of Israel by innumerable religious and ethnic ties…We have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security, and defining its Jewish character. We encourage aliyah for those who wish to find maximum personal fulfillment in the cause of Zion. We demand that Reform Judaism be unconditionally legitimized in the State of Israel.[3]

This is in the aftermath of the six-day war and the Yom Kippur War.  Israel is no longer a small little nation; it’s now asserted itself.  Jerusalem is now under Jewish control and the Reform Movement has already established its campus there.

            By 1997, the Reform Rabbinate focused a declaration solely on Zionism.  In that document, we read: “Even as Medinat Yisrael serves uniquely as the spiritual and cultural focal point of world Jewry, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry are inter-dependent, responsible for one another, and partners in the shaping of Jewish destiny.”  The responsibilities enumerated for those of us in the diaspora deal with security, peoplehood, connection and focus on Hebrew.  The responsibility for Israel was described as follows:

Medinat Yisrael exists not only for the benefit of its citizens but also to defend the physical security and spiritual integrity of the Jewish people. Realizing that Am Yisrael consists of a coalition of different, sometimes conflicting, religious interpretations, the Jewish people will be best served when Medinat Yisrael is constituted as a pluralistic, democratic society. Therefore we seek a Jewish state in which no religious interpretation of Judaism takes legal precedence over another.

Has Israel lived up to its end of the bargain?  Given that Israel had no say, perhaps it’s better to ask whether our hopes for what Israel could be for us have been met?  The answer, particularly today, as we orient our hearts to the east is no.  Israel does not allow for equality of the various streams of Judaism.  Israel does not recognize our leaders as clergy, nor our life cycle as valid under religious auspices.  Israel allows for discrimination against women, minorities, and liberal Jews in the religious sphere.  And because religion and life are so intertwined there, it bleeds over into the society as a whole.

And yet, as the nation of my birth, and the homeland of our people, I still love Israel and still hope for the best version of Israel to emerge from this melee, for the prophetically called people to live up to the aspirations of peace and justice and light, for the society to allow for the variety and diversity that makes Israel so beautiful and special.  I believe it is still possible.  Because to be a Zionist today must mean not just supporting Israel, but pushing Israel to be the best version of itself.  The protestors in the streets these last two months agree.  They want an Israel that is democratic, predicated on social justice, and free for all.  They desire an Israel that strives for peace and security, that follows the rule of law, and that is not led by cult of personality.

            So, what’s happening now, and how do we respond to it?  If our heritage is one of looking at the changing times and adapting alongside them, what ought our next step be, and how do we do that in such a way that also keeps our connection to our history and our emotional and spiritual connection to this place that we call our homeland?  How do we maintain our pride?

At the root of the current crisis is the reality that Israel, though a parliamentary democracy, has no constitution.  There is no document that guides the way the government works.  There are laws that have been passed by the Knesset known as “Basic Laws” which guide and govern the functioning of the state and its institutions, and those laws together form a sort of constitution, though not codified or ratified by the populace.  Because Israel is a parliamentary democracy like the UK, what we know of as the Executive Branch of government is formed by members of the legislative body.  So the law makers are also the law enforcers.  This works well when there is a robust and independent court system whose role it is to overturn any laws that undermine certain basic human rights, or which go against the Declaration of Independence.  The Supreme Court of Israel is then the only place the minorities or protected classes can find any recourse from a law passed by the Knesset or a municipal policy.

The governing coalition is seeking with great haste to pass a law which will give the legislature, the Knesset, the ability to overturn any supreme court decision with a simple majority of 61 votes.  They have rebuffed President Herzog’s request to slow down the process.  The changes mean that any governing coalition, right, left, or center, can overrule the Supreme Court, on any case.  Rights of Arab Citizens of Israel, the Druze, Women in the public sphere, liberal Jews, Bedouins, the LGBTQ+ community, all minorities really are all therefore at the whim of whoever happens to be in charge. 

According to the coalition, this is a reform meant to check the power of a corrupt and overly powerful and influential state institution.  According to the opposition, while the court may indeed need reforms, this is a judicial putsch designed to centralize power in the Prime Minister’s office.  It is a turn away from a democracy, imperfect though it may be, to an illiberal democracy akin to Hungary, where the leader is not questioned or challenged.  According to the former VP of the Supreme Court, who spoke to the assembled Reform Rabbis in Jerusalem, Elyakim Rubinstein, this is akin to removing the Senate from the judicial confirmation process in America.  It removes a check and balance on which the society relies in order to function for all.

This is a leap toward dictatorship, or at least a step, the opponents say.  They are right.  Israelis have been coming out into the streets for the last number of weeks against this bill.  The most recent round of protests counted some 400,000.  That’s somewhere between four and five percent of the population.  That’s no small number.  In addition, the protests are growing.  There are reservists from elite units of the military, fighter pilots, security officials, entrepreneurs, and investors, all warning of the ramifications of the passing of this bill.  It will weaken the democratic character of Israel.  It is already causing a questioning of the chain of command, which for a nation whose military service is compulsory unless you’re Orthodox is a scary thought.  The pilots don’t want to serve for a nation that doesn’t live up to its ideals.  The reservists don’t want to serve a military which fights for a nation that doesn’t protect and preserve rights for all its citizenry.  The investors are worried that money will leave the country, alongside the talent.  Start-up nation may shut itself down.

At the protest I attended in Tel Aviv, along with 160,000 others, the chants were for first and foremost democracy: “de-mo-cra-tia!”  The chants were pro-democracy, pro-Israel, and pro-checks and balances.  At that protest, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the American Reform movement said:

We're here out of solidarity and out of concern, a concern shared by the vast majority of Diaspora Jews.  The Israel we love is Jewish AND democratic.  We can’t imagine a Jewish State that isn’t democratic but unfortunately there are those who can.  We know how precarious it can be to live as a minority. But we also know that our concepts of equal rights for all, our rule of law, our independent courts --our democracy—is what protect us.[4]

This is indeed a message that the leadership of the Reform Movement in 1885 could not have predicted.  Judaism changes.  Jews change.  Israel changes.  None of us should sit by as the land of our 2000-year hope becomes less than it could or should be after 75 years as a nationstate for the Jewish people.  None of us should be ok with this change because we feel that eternal connection, we know that something is different there for our people, no matter whether we drive on Saturday or not.

            It is time for us to change how we approach Israel and our Zionism.  It is time for us to invest in the places where the vision we have of Israel are most coming to fruition.  It is time for us to support wholeheartedly, and with all the shekels we can, the Reform Communities of Israel and the Israel movement for Progressive Judaism.

            One of the most powerful aspects of my recent trip to Israel was seeing the beauty, the diversity, and the joy in the Reform Jewish community in Israel.  Unlike a generation or two ago, where Reform Judaism was seen as an import from overseas, an American or European brand of Judaism incompatible with Israeli society and Israelis, today, Reform communities are thriving From Jerusalem to the Aravah to Haifa, even without government funding matching Orthodox institutions.  Thanks to the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus, Israelis are being trained as Reform Rabbis, bringing a different Judaism to the people: a Judaism that is inclusive, joyful, egalitarian, grounded in respect and dignity for all, and homegrown.  The melodies are familiar, but also there is a growth of Israeli Reform liturgy and music for it.  You know some of it from pieces we sing here.  Reform Judaism of Israel can establish the infrastructure to challenge racism, classism, inequality, and patriarchy.  They already do.  Israeli Reform Judaism is the product of and torch bearer for a Zionist vision that I can be proud of.  You want to support Israel, don’t plant a tree, don’t buy a bond, don’t send your money to AIPAC.  Send it to the IMPJ. 

            Just like at my citizenship ceremony, there are two videos playing before us today.  In one is an Israeli government which seeks to contract rights, mandate a particular form of Judaism, and consolidate power.  In the other, we see Israel brimming with potential, with those who seek a Jewish and Democratic state, with those who see that there is room for everyone and every expression of Judaism.  They see an Israel ready to make peace, an Israel ready to defend herself when necessary, and an Israel inspired by the prophets of God to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly.  They see the Israel of my dreams, of our hopes, and they need our help to make it so.  They represent the potential for a Zionism we can be proud of.  Let us help liberal Judaism thrive in our homeland, and let us work together to bring about the best iteration of our 2000-year old dream!  For, if we will it, it is no dream.

            Shabbat Shalom

[1] Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism

[2] Columbus Platform of Reform Judaism

[3] Centennial Platform of Reform Judaism

[4] Rabbi Rick Jacobs's speech to the demonstration in Tel Aviv, February 25 2023