American Jews, Wake Up! A Rosh Hashanah Sermon!
With the Hebrew month of Tishrei fast approaching, every rabbi in America is agonizing over their sermon topics for the upcoming High Holy Days. What is in store for the Jews in the year ahead? What about the world in which we live? What can be said about God’s judgment and compassion for us and our people?
And no topic is more contentious than Israel. The crisis and chaos in the Jewish state terrify us all, and for rabbis, shaping a meaningful message is more challenging than ever before. I no longer have to give such sermons, but if I did, this would be my message to congregants this Rosh Hashanah:
Our thoughts turn on these High Holy Days to the State of Israel.
Israel is a miracle, and a grand success story. Its economic, military, scientific, technological, and cultural achievements astound us and fill us with pride. And as religious Jews, we retain an ineffable yearning for Zion and Jerusalem. We are drawn to the beauty of Eretz Yisrael and the majesty of the Hebrew tongue. For all of us, even the alienated and disengaged, Israel exerts a gravitational pull on the Jewish soul.
And this too: Israel provides a refuge for Jews everywhere. Stateless Jews are defenseless Jews. Still, while we like to think of Israel as powerful, we should not forget that it remains a small and endangered nation that can still disappear.
Our major concern today, however, is something else. Deeply troubling things are happening in the state of Israel, things that at the High Holy Days last year we could not have imagined possible in our wildest dreams.
I will not review in detail the recent actions of the Netanyahu government and the statements and policies of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Jewish supremacists who sit as senior ministers in his cabinet. They speak the language of extremism and bigotry. They see Israel as the eternal master of the land, while the Palestinian residents of the territories are to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water, lacking all rights and dignity. They refuse to offer any political horizon. Let it be plainly said: This is racist and wrong.
And the tragedy of Israel today is that its government has been commandeered by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and their cohorts – the racists, the Arab haters, the draft evaders, the delusionary liars.
To American Jewish ears, this seems unbelievable and impossible.
And yet it is so. The Kahanists have joined with the ultra-Orthodox, who have their own version of theocracy, and with the backing of the prime minister, this alliance has moved from the fringes to the Israeli mainstream. They are no longer on the margins of political life but at its very center.
They are intent that Israel should be a Jewish state, but not a democratic one. And in order to get there, they are prepared to defame Israel’s army, trample on Arab rights, encourage vigilantes, support convicted criminals and curse the U.S. government and its president. And when they are finished with that, they will demolish the rights of women, non-Orthodox Jews and the LGBTQ community. And all of this with the tiniest of legislative majorities and more than half of the country against them.
I say these words with reluctance and trepidation. They are a damning indictment. But as a lifelong Zionist and an unconditional lover of Israel, I admit that I am scared to death. What is happening in Israel is truly sickening.
This is no time for fairy tales or self-deception. In the Jewish state that I love, common trust is evaporating, norms are being destroyed and an unrestrained government is dismantling the democratic frameworks established over the last century.
Under normal circumstances, of course, the Supreme Court would provide those restraints. But for precisely that reason, the government has targeted the Court, hoping to decimate its power.
And if the radicals succeed, what will happen? There are many possibilities. One, as Thomas Friedman suggests, is that Israel might descend into Lebanon-like chaos. Another is that Israel could become an extremist, religious, conservative and violent state, isolated from the Western democracies with which it identifies.
And yet, as grim as all this sounds, I refuse to despair of the Jewish state.
I find my inspiration in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, its founding document. It sets out Zionist principles, affirms the right of the Jewish people to a state in the Land of Israel, and declares that Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” to all its inhabitants. These words ring out, as they always have, and serve as a rebuke to the brutish bullying of the Kahanist goons who make a mockery of Israel’s values while professing to speak in their name.
And I am inspired as well by the millions of protestors who take to the streets week after week. They understand instinctively that the cruelty and racism of the Jewish supremacist ministers are poisonous to Israeli society. They refuse to see Smotrich and Ben-Gvir as “normal” Israeli politicians, or the current government as a “normal” government. And they see the defenestration of the Supreme Court as an act of sedition, intended to overthrow Israel’s system of democracy.
And this above all: They have a deep love for their country, and a profound conviction that Israel can be – and must be – both Jewish and democratic. To their own surprise, perhaps, they have set aside private concerns, risen up, and confronted Bibi’s brazenness and demagoguery, both of which are unmatched in Israel’s history.
This is the moment of truth, they are saying: We will fight and die for a Jewish and democratic Israel, but if you steal our democracy, Israel as we know it cannot survive.
Do we have a role as American Jews in this battle? Israel’s fate will be determined by Israelis, of course. But Israel is not only a state of its citizens; it is also the center of a transnational people that see it as their spiritual home. And Jews everywhere have the right, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to join the debate on Israel’s essence and future.
And join it we must.
And that means being fiery and uncompromising in our devotion to an Israel that is just, Jewish and democratic.
That means supporting the protestors with all our hearts, and opposing the forces of darkness and messianism.
That means setting aside our restrained language and raising our level of urgency. Our community, let’s admit, has too often employed careful words against Kahanist actions that, if directed at Jews by non-Jews, would have elicited from us rage and indignation.
And we will do all of this not only because of the strategic damage that is being done to Israel, and not only because of our fear of civil war, and not only because if Israel unravels, American Jewry will unravel as well.
We will do this mostly because we look at the depravity of this lawless government, and we say: This is not the Zionism that the state of Israel was meant to embody. This is not the Judaism that the state of Israel was meant to produce. And as the protestors have shown us, this is not what the majority of Israelis want for their country, and we must stand with them in their struggle.
What is required of us is intimidating, to be sure. We see the pain and the trauma tearing Israel apart, and we are deeply troubled.
Nonetheless, we can draw strength and a measure of comfort from our tradition at this High Holiday season. According to rabbinic teachings, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world and the creation of humankind. And recalling the day when the first human beings came into existence, that tradition prods us to ask: Am I ready for the challenges before me? Can I meet my ethical obligations? Can I be strong when tragedy surrounds me? And if we waver in our response, it reminds us of the covenant between the Jewish people and the Holy One; demands that we do an accounting of our souls; and holds out the promise–or at least the possibility–of pardon, repentance, and return.
Therefore, on this sacred day, let us remember the teachings of our patriarchs and matriarchs. And no excuses: let us put our shoulder to the wheel and join the battle for a Jewish state true to Zionist ideals.