Today, Israel and those who love her mourn the brutal murder of 13 year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The leadership once again searches for balance as it reels from the blow, struggling to arrive at the “appropriate” response. I would not dare offer an opinion on the matter, even if I could formulate one. As I prepare to share this message, another terrorist attack is unfolding in Bangladesh, with several already dead, dozens held hostage and ISIS claiming responsibility. I pray that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that the hostages emerge unscathed. But even as we struggle with how to respond to our neighbors and to the world in light of these events, I am still compelled to speak within our family to an issue that must remain at the top of our agenda as Jews. t is an issue of self-care. And such is the nature of these times. If we cannot care for our own well-being, we won’t be any good to anybody else. To that end:
Some of my colleagues believe that in this day and age rabbis must function as prophets, taking public stands on political and social issues from gun control to refugees to presidential campaigns. Judaism, no doubt, has what to say about all these topics of the day and more. As a rabbi, however, I see it as my task to educate about what Judaism says to all sides of these issues. After all, we know that Judaism rarely offers a single answer to any question, sometimes only offering another question in response. Being a rabbi certainly doesn’t qualify me as the authority on all topics that affect our society; being a Jew certainly doesn’t qualify me as owner of the only truth.
Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora must take back from the hands of the self-proclaimed prophets ownership of God’s word. Each of us is a prophet, each of us hears God’s word. When we own this fact and tear down the false altars that have been erected by those who have hijacked our tradition, Torah will once again emanate from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem. Her ways will be pleasant, and her pathways will be peace. Then we will certainly have what to tell the world.
As far as I am concerned, reading a sermon in print—especially a high holiday sermon—is nowhere near as effective as hearing a message in a room filled with community brothers and sisters. That being said, I am told that people often want to hear the crux of the messages if they could not be present for whatever reason. So hear is the crux, and just the crux (minus the lead in, the joke, and the sources in support thereof, available upon request)!
I’ll get right to it:
WE HAVE BECOME FAR TOO COMFORTABLE, BORDERING ON APATHETIC, AS FAR AS OUR JEWISH IDENTITIES ARE CONCERNED!
In May, the mayor of Rehovot cancels a bar mitzvah celebration for children with disabilities because it is scheduled to take place in a Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue. After Israeli President Rivlin reschedules the service to take place in his own residence, he cancels the service.
On Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, Tzohar (an Israeli organization of supposedly more open-minded Orthodox rabbis) cancels its invitation to Masorti and Reform rabbis to participate in the holiday’s all-night study session. The rabbis are subsequently re-invited, but are placed in a separate space from the rest of the program.
In June, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel tries to force the retirement of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat. The reason given is his age, but his willingness to train women to be Jewish legal experts and his willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue were the more plausible motivating factors.
In July, I am invited to participate in my cousin’s wedding ceremony (in my sister’s back yard), to be conducted by a Tzohar rabbi. Originally I was to be the officiant, but my cousin’s bride’s family pressured the couple to use an Orthodox rabbi whose wedding could be registered with the state as a religious wedding. The officiant calls me to the huppah as “Mister” Craig Scheff. I feel the sting on my cheek as if someone publicly slapped me. In that moment, I want to disappear. I am not a rabbi, and as far as I am concerned, in the eyes of the State of Israel, I am not a Jew.
Israel is my story. I was a slave. I came out of Egypt. I stood at Sinai. And so did you! We were all there! But someone, in the unlikeliest of places and with disproportionate power and influence, is attacking our identities, telling us were not there!
Ironically, the land of Israel was never guaranteed as a possession to our ancestors. It was part of a promise, conditioned upon our community’s behavior. We need to merit being in the land as a community of Jews. Somehow, the average Israeli has forgotten this message, and the ruling religious factions are happy to keep them in the dark. Israel’s survival depends upon more than secure borders and a strong defense. The larger community of Israel is being torn apart by a failure in shared ethics, by a disunity that is sweeping the Jewish community, and by a breach in our rich tradition of embracing diversity and pluralism of Jewish practice. The divide can be seen in our political arenas; it can be seen in the gaps between the generations and between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.
Israeli Jewish identity is shaped, by and large, by a sense of belonging to the land. There are no “religious” choices that need to be made. There is no soccer on Shabbat; school is closed for the holidays; and everywhere you go you are reminded of your rich, deep rootedness in the land as a Jew. American Jewish identity is shaped by religious values that have to be exercised and chosen from among a long list of competing social values, Israel being only one of them.
And there lies the disconnect. Jewish identity is controlled in Israel by those who deny us our Judaism, our very identity. We proudly send our children to serve in the IDF, only to discover that they have to fight a battle to preserve their Jewish identities, the ones we gave them. And we can’t afford the apathy, either here or in Israel, being created as a result of this disconnect.
Israel, the seat of our ideals, has lost sight of and must reclaim its mission as the destination, the intention, the hope of all Jewish people. And we as American Jews must awaken to the issue, engage in the cause and assist in bolstering the “secular Israeli” Jewish community’s efforts to reclaim its historic Jewish identity. We can no longer tolerate a Jewish Agency–an Israeli establishment–that will send emissaries to teach us about Israel without knowing who we are as Jews, without learning from us and carrying our message back to Israel. For Israel to be the home of all Jewish people, all Jewish people need to feel at home in Israel.
For centuries, our disunity has consistently led to expulsion, exile, and persecution. These events have almost always followed on the heels of schisms in our community that were the direct results of intolerance, a lack of empathy, one side’s claim of authority. For centuries, our unity has been based upon a multiplicity of approaches to Torah and to learning from others. Our rich tradition of arguing for the sake of heaven has helped us remain dynamic, adaptable, modern—a true light unto the nations. Torah has remained relevant because it has 70 faces.
In the year ahead, we plan to deepen our connection to Israel: through our partnership with Masorti and with the Masorti community of Zichron Yakov; by participation in Rav Siach (“Multiple Conversations”), the first partnership between the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and the Masorti Movement in Israel designed to enhance the exchange of ideas; by hosting guest speakers who will educate on the topic of religious pluralism; and by supporting the Masorti movement in our missions and family trips to Israel. In so doing, perhaps “Israel” will come to a broader acceptance and embrace of the Jewish identity, of the role we play in ensuring the continuation of our rich history, and of the great empathy we are meant to carry as Jews who came out of Egypt together.
Pass it on with love.
Gemar chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Craig Scheff