Reform Jews need more Shabbat
Once again, I find myself overwhelmed by the power of this day. Here we are, united with men and women from many congregations but of one faith, bound together by our mutual sacred task. Our spirits soar when we join in the chorus of nearly 5,000 voices intoning the prayers of Shabbat.
There is a magical quality to Shabbat at Biennial. When we ask our delegates what was their most powerful experience during their five days here, the great majority say “Shabbat.” We treasure these twenty-four hours together, because, for once, we celebrate Shabbat as it is meant to be—a respite from errand running and clattering commerce, a day when we pay attention to the holy and the pull of Jewish time.
We also treasure the fiery enthusiasm of our Shabbat t’filot. Supporting one another in our prayers, we experience together an outpouring of soul, transporting us into the embrace of God. Of course, it was not always so. For most of our history, delegates came to the Biennial to debate and deliberate but not to pray. At our Biennials, as in many of our congregations, prayer was often boring and lifeless.
But then, more than a dozen years ago, we began a Movement-wide conversation about worship. Focusing our attention on Friday evening, we undertook to create services that were heartfelt, inspiring and community-building. And we succeeded. The glory of Reform Judaism has always been its ability to reinvent itself to meet new spiritual situations, and we did exactly that. In a mere handful of years, our Erev Shabbat services were radically transformed, changing from somber to joyful and from passive to engaging.
This revolution has not come easily. Our rabbis and cantors have worked hard to avoid the faddish and the trendy. At the same time, they have been relentlessly creative, developing forms of worship that are both contemporary and traditional. And the result is that on Erev Shabbat, our synagogues are often overflowing and our worship is often a sustained celebration in song. Many of our members have opened themselves, for the first time, to the music, poetry and passion of heartfelt prayer.
But as proud as we are of this dramatic transformation, now is the time to step back and to see what remains undone.
When we undertook to revive Erev Shabbat worship, our intention was not to focus solely on a single hour of Friday night prayer. Erev Shabbat was to be the key, opening the door to a discussion of the Shabbat day in all its dimensions.
Such a discussion is long overdue. The late Erev Shabbat service was introduced by Isaac Mayer Wise in 1869. Because Jews worked on Saturday, it literally saved Shabbat for the Jewish community. No other Reform innovation has had such long-lasting success; and this service will remain at the very heart of our Shabbat celebration.
But in the last half century, working patterns have changed. Not everyone works on Saturday now, and Jews, more than ever before, crave spiritual sustenance and meaningful ritual. With members returning to the synagogue on Friday nights, we had hoped that some of them would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer and to a serious conversation about the meaning of Shabbat.
But this has not happened, and we all know one reason why that is so: the character of the Shabbat morning service. With the morning worship appropriated by the Bar and Bat Mitzvah families, our members who come to pray with the community often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like interlopers in their own congregation. On Erev Shabbat, we invite our members in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away. On Friday night, we entice them with exuberant prayer and a community of celebration and song. But on Shabbat morning, we leave them turned off and disappointed.
These are serious matters. If we allow our services to be privatized; if we give up ownership of Shabbat and of our own sanctuaries; if communal celebration gives way to a bar mitzvah performance—if all these things happen, how can we remain the dynamic Movement that we have become?
These concerns are broadly shared. At our last three Biennials, our workshops on the topic of Shabbat morning worship have been filled to overflowing with laypeople searching for answers; and in the last year, I have spoken to hundreds of rabbis and cantors who overwhelmingly express their dissatisfaction with the status of our Shabbat morning prayer.
What have our leaders told me? They have told me that they are worried. The bar mitzvah, like other significant moments in Jewish life, is meant to occur within the context of an open and caring community. But our members now feel that they are entitled to a private, individual bar mitzvah. And this means that what should be public and inclusive has become private and exclusive, with the focus more on the child than on the community. The result is that we in the congregation become voyeurs rather than daveners, and feeling uncomfortable, we stay away.
The results are tragic. We lose young families, whose children cannot stay up late on Friday. We lose seniors, who avoid nighttime driving and prefer to pray during the day. We lose those wanting to say Kaddish and those who are simply looking to join their community in prayer.
And not only that. We are also sending a message about bar mitzvah that we do not want to send.
Bar mitzvah is the occasion, symbolically at least, when a young person joins an adult community of Jews. But you cannot join what does not exist. A regular community of worshippers, who would be best suited to mentor the child, is not even present. At the average bar mitzvah what you almost always get is a one-time assemblage of well-wishers with nothing in common but an invitation.
And worst of all: Absent a knowledgeable congregation, worship of God gives way to worship of the child—and self-serving worship is a contradiction in terms. Rabbis, cantors, educators and presidents all told me how painful it is to sit in a service where the child is the star and the theme is “Steven Schwartz, King for a Day” or, “Sarah Goldstein, Queen for a Day.” Inevitably, this leads to speeches in which every boy or girl is smarter than Einstein, a better soccer play than Mia Hamm, more of a computer whiz than Bill Gates and more of an activist than Bono.
Let’s be honest. There is something profoundly wrong here. On every Shabbat of the year, there are hundreds and hundreds of bar and bat mitzvahs in Reform congregations. But rarely does anyone walk out of those worship services saying: “That was so spiritually fulfilling that I can’t wait to come back next week.”
Many of our congregations have created Shabbat morning experiences centering on Torah study, while others have alternative minyanim that serve a small but committed core. These are important and welcome in every way, but the majority of our synagogues have given up hope of ever having a regular congregational worship experience on Shabbat morning.
What I am hearing from our rabbis and cantors is that the time has come to say: If it’s not working, let’s not do it anymore. If I want to go to temple on Shabbat morning but I won’t presume to do so without an invitation from the bar mitzvah family, the time has come to try new things.
We all recognize that this will not be easy. The current system has many virtues. When I ask members of our congregations what was their most meaningful experience in the synagogue, very often the answer is: the bar mitzvah of my child. Many join the congregation precisely because they hunger for the ritual of bar mitzvah, which is their means of publicly declaring their desire to be counted as Jews. And neither should we forget the serious study in which our children engage; educational expectations for bar mitzvah are far higher today than they were a generation ago. Finally, some of the most moving moments that I have ever experienced in a synagogue are the addresses of bar mitzvah parents to their children; whatever their failings, these speeches may be the last time that a parent expresses, in public, her love for and pride in her child.
Nonetheless, the answer is not more of the same. The best answer is an integrated service—a service in which the child joins the congregation and the congregation does not merely watch the child; a service in which the child’s obligation is not to perform, but to lead the congregation in prayer; a service in which parents are encouraged to reshape their speeches as blessings; a service that remains truly meaningful for the bar mitzvah family without feeling like a private family event. The best answer is public, communal worship that all of us, and not just the bar mitzvah family, want to attend.
Can we do this? Of course we can. I am optimistic because a number of our most creative synagogues are already changing their worship patterns. Temple Beth Am of Seattle offers Shabbat morning prayer that brings together the bar mitzvah family and regular worshippers, makes room for congregational Torah readers and aliyot, and gives the child a special and honored but still limited role as service leader. And in cases where an integrated service is simply not possible, new approaches to alternative worship are reaching out to far more than a handful of committed members. At Congregation B’nei Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a service at 8 a.m. draws a significant number of regulars, including older people, parents with children in soccer uniforms, and merchants who open their stores at ten o’clock.
The message that we are hearing from our rabbis and cantors is twofold: First, a great religious Movement does not forego regular Shabbat morning communal prayer; and second, if we are to succeed in changing our worship culture, we need a Movement-wide approach. In a moment I will suggest how we might begin.
But first let me share with you a feeling that I have. This discussion in the Reform Movement is part of something larger—and that is, a readiness to look seriously at the broader question of Shabbat observance. Communal worship is a critical part of such observance, of course—some of us go to synagogue on Erev Shabbat and some on Shabbat morning. But even for those who do not go at all, there is a new openness to the commandment to observe a weekly day of rest.
Why is this happening?
Because we now understand that Shabbat was always central to Reform Judaism. Isaac Mayer Wise was a firm proponent of a traditional Shabbat. And for Classical Reform Jews, Shabbat was a serious matter. True, they significantly reduced both the duties and the prohibitions of the day, but what remained was observed with scrupulous dedication.
Also, other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed. Communal leaders outside of the synagogue love to talk the language of corporate strategy. They engage in endless debates on the latest demographic study. They plan elaborate conferences and demand new ideas. But sometimes we don’t need new ideas; we need old ideas. We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition; less strategic thinking and more mitzvot; less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.
But most important of all, Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave? When work expands to fill all our evenings and weekends, everything suffers, including our health. But families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with email as playing with his children.
For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible. Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working altogether on Shabbat; after all, it takes a certain amount of effort to study, pray and go to synagogue. But we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy and to take a stroll through the neighborhood. We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.
And this most of all: In synagogue and at home, we are asked to give our kids, our spouse and our friends the undivided attention that they did not get from us the rest of the week. On Shabbat we speak to our children of their hopes and dreams. We show them that we value them for who they are and not for the grades they get or the prizes they win. During the week we pursue our goals; on Shabbat we learn simply to be.
I don’t delude myself. Most Reform Jews are not there yet. But our research indicates that we have more closet Shabbat observers than we realize. And remember: At our camps, Shabbat comes alive; it is a tangible, visceral experience that our kids love. In fact, our camps, youth groups and Israel trips have created a whole cadre of young people who are open to observing Shabbat as Reform Jews. Our challenge is to make sure that they don’t have to go elsewhere to do it.
Our first task is to help all who are interested to think through what Shabbat observance means for a Reform Jew. For most of us, it will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit; it will not mean the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe; it will not mean an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions. We fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason.
It will mean instead approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism. It will mean emphasizing the “Thou shalts” of Shabbat—candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community—rather than the “Thou shalt nots.” It will mean expanding our understanding of rest, and defining in new ways what is, and is not, work. It will mean providing Reform Jews with the support of a loving community so that they can feel commanded without feeling coerced.
To start this process, we have compiled fifty-two suggestions—one for each week of the year—on creative ways to celebrate Shabbat as a special and holy day. They are contained in a Gift of Shabbat Box that each of you will receive as you leave the service this morning.
But let’s be honest. We don’t have all the answers yet, and in fact there will be no single answer, no one-size-fits-all program. Our diverse Movement has many groups, and they will require different solutions. We have no intention of legislating personal observance for our members, and if we did, they wouldn’t listen anyway. I know that because I have struggled with issues of Shabbat observance most of my life, I change my practice with some frequency, and I insist on my right both to change my mind and to make my own decisions.
Nonetheless, my personal goal is to define a regular pattern of observance that is comfortable for me as a Reform Jew, and I welcome the input of others who are engaged in a similar struggle.
What I am proposing, therefore, is the following: Let us work on this together as a Movement, with the clear understanding that there will be no dictates from above. Let us turn to our congregations and our most committed members, and let us ask them to generate answers from below.
Specifically, I am asking our congregational leaders to do two things.
First, appoint a Shabbat Morning Task Force that will consist of ten to fifteen members and will meet weekly for eight weeks. This Task Force will worship on Shabbat morning in the synagogue for four weeks and will attend Shabbat morning services in two other area congregations. It will also study Jewish sources about Shabbat. The Union has prepared a Shabbat study guide and a detailed manual of the creative ways that synagogues throughout North America are thinking about Shabbat morning prayer. After discussion and further study, the Task Force will present recommendations to the board and staff of its congregation, and to our Movement, on how Shabbat morning services might be reimagined and enhanced.
Second, select a Shabbat Chavurah consisting of eight to twelve people that will both study about Shabbat and actively observe it over a period of three to four months. This will be a program of Shabbat immersion for an elite group of individuals who want to be Shabbat observers in an authentically Reform way. At times they will come together for study, rituals, and community; and at times they will observe individually and in families. Here too we have prepared materials to guide them. As a Movement, our hope is to learn from them. Let us see what their experience is, what they choose to do and not to do on Shabbat afternoon, what they learn and feel. Let us see how their beliefs about God, covenant and the Jewish people evolve. Let us see what kind of help they need from their synagogues and their Movement.
We have created two listservs, one for Task Force members and one for Chavurah members, so that they might exchange ideas with each other. Two years from now, when we gather in Toronto, we will honor all those who have participated in these groups and we will invite both congregations and individuals to share their stories. We have also created a Shabbat blog so that every member of a Reform synagogue can be part of this discussion.
Some congregations may choose to create only one group and some none at all. Most will wait until later in the year or next year to begin. Rabbis, cantors and educators will guide us here, as they always do, but they have far too much on their plates and we must be careful not to add to their burden. The premise is that we have in our midst thoughtful and committed volunteer leaders who are excited by the prospect of reviving Shabbat and who will help us redefine what Shabbat can mean in our lives.
I cannot tell you where this will go. We will return in two years and see where we are. But I have great confidence in the collective wisdom of this great Movement once we are mobilized to act.
We should be realistic, of course. Renewing some form of regular Shabbat observance among the members of our Movement will take time, and what we are proposing is only the first step. The plan is to begin with a chosen few and to heat the core, in the hope that the heat generated will then radiate in ever-widening circles.
But surely we must begin. Shabbat, after all, is not just a nice idea. It is a Jewish obligation and one of the Ten Commandments—indeed the longest and most detailed of them all.
As Reform Jews, we will approach it in our own way and refashion it for the modern world. But approach it we must. As Arnold Jacob Wolf has reminded us, Shabbat is not in heaven or beyond the sea. It is part of the divine agenda and a taste of eternity, but also wholly human and humane. Without Shabbat we may be lost; in its rediscovery, we may yet be found.
We have many other items on our agenda, of course. I attach special importance to a proposal that our Union has developed for dialogue with our Muslim neighbors.
For several reasons, this program of dialogue is especially critical now.
First, there exists in our community a profound ignorance about Islam, along with a real desire to learn about what moves and motivates Muslims today. We must respond to this desire with serious programs of education.
Second, we live in a world in which religion is manipulated to justify the most horrific acts, a world in which—make no mistake—Islamic extremists constitute a profound threat. For some, this is a reason to flee from dialogue, but in fact the opposite is true. When we are killing each other in the name of God, sensible religious people have an obligation to do something about it. Our task is to find the voices of moderation and to reclaim from the fanatics the true essence of religious belief.
Third, as a once-persecuted minority in countries where anti-Semitism is still a force, we understand the plight of Muslims in North America today. Yes, thank God, most American and Canadian Muslims are treated with dignity. But since 9/11, we do not lack for purveyors of hate who see Muslims as a fifth column and who engage in the ugliest form of stereotyping, casually ascribing to all the guilt of a tiny minority.
I am proposing that we work together with ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA is an umbrella body of more than 300 mosques that brings together 30,000 people at its annual convention. I was the first major Jewish leader to address this convention, and in my remarks this August, I discussed the dialogue project that we hope to launch after the Biennial.
We chose ISNA as our partner because it is the closest equivalent to the Union within the American Muslim community. It has issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of terror, including a specific condemnation of Hizbollah and Hamas terror against Jews and Israelis. It has also recognized Israel as a Jewish state and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These statements provide the framework of common values that we believe are necessary for a fruitful dialogue to occur.
We have no intention of avoiding the subject of Israel in our discussions. Some have suggested that we do so, but a Jewish-Muslim dialogue that does not deal with Israel and Palestine would be pointless.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the president of ISNA, will address us tomorrow. She is a powerful spokesperson for a community that is overwhelmingly moderate in their views, and what we want to do is join them, encourage them and learn from them.
The building blocks of this program are in place. Together with ISNA, and working with both Jewish and Muslim scholars, we have produced a manual and video that we hope will be used by Union synagogues and ISNA mosques in a five-session dialogue. We have already identified ten locations in which one synagogue and one mosque have agreed to pair up and pilot this program. Other interested synagogues should contact our Commission on Interreligious Affairs and we will work with you to find a partner. We have also prepared a detailed adult education curriculum on Islam, and we are urging every synagogue to consider offering a course on Islam as part of its adult education program.
Following my speech at the ISNA convention, our proposal for dialogue was warmly welcomed in our Movement. In the broader Jewish community, however, we heard many loud voices of reaction, including the suggestion that we reconsider because of the need to maintain “the unity of the community.”
Let it be plainly said: This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. We have had quite enough of the shrill voices who profess to speak in our name and who use the slogan of “unity” to impose their views on the moderate majority. North American Jews remain now what they have always been—centrist, reasonable and ready to reach out to their neighbors.
Some Jews, we know, have made common cause with fundamentalist preachers who describe Muslim Americans in near-Satanic terms. But if these Jews are not protesting such attacks with all the power at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves. The last thing that we want is to build alliances that rely on or accept the trashing of another religion. And while we will fight Islamic extremism with every ounce of our being, we have been the victims of indiscriminate hatred for far too long to inflict it now on others. Jews have never taught hatred as an answer to hatred, and we will not begin now.
My friends, we enter into this dialogue with our eyes wide open. We know that there are not a lot of Muslim Zionists, and that ISNA—a large, unwieldy coalition—contains some elements that cause us discomfort. We also know that while we have had extraordinary success with dialogue in Great Neck, St. Louis and Omaha, so too have we had our share of failures.
But none of this deters us. We will not be like those in the Jewish community who assert a willingness to talk to Muslims and then find a thousand reasons not to do so. Our plan will be simple: We will not feed each other pabulum, and we will assert our convictions with passion, even as we remain respectful of our disagreements.
And we do this because of our deep conviction that America is different, one of the very few places where the promise of true pluralism is not too wild a hope; and because we know as religious Americans that in this great country, we are stronger and safer when we transcend our fears and work together, rather than apart.
In our Torah portion this morning, we read of the first known example of centralized economic planning. Joseph used the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine, and then with the famine as a pretext, seized the land of the peasants for his Egyptian master.
However, while the Torah describes this economic model, it does not endorse it. When the Children of Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the biblical text mandates that property rights and economic freedom were to be respected there, along with the rule of law. Still, this is not the end of the story; the Jewish view of economics is a nuanced one. The Torah also mandates that free markets were not to be given full sway—they were to be tempered by social welfare and practical compassion. No one—no one—was to be reduced to humiliating dependence or excluded from the support of the body politic.
These considerations come to mind as the debate continues in America over the economic arrangements appropriate for American society. When talking today of those denied the blessings of our political system, we think most frequently of the 47 million people without health insurance, and thus without assured access to decent medical care. We think of the pain, chaos and indignity imposed on these Americans, who know that a single profound illness or injury can devastate their lives.
Of course, this is hardly a new story. Because the fact is that we live in a country with a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that causes horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone.
We know that the uninsured tend to let minor illnesses grow into major illnesses before seeking treatment. The press is filled with stories of a mother with a lump on her breast who worries about the cost of checking it out, and a father with chest pains who decides that seeing a cardiologist is too expensive. We are aware that lack of insurance sends thousands of people to an early grave every year and plunges millions of Americans into severe financial distress.
It is not my intention to discuss with you the mechanics of providing health insurance. Some, including our Movement, prefer a single-payer system in which the government provides health insurance, and some want insurance delivered by private entities under government regulation.
But what we do need to discuss is the fundamental question of values that is as yet unresolved by our society: What do we owe each other as Americans?
The Jewish answer is: Communities are obligated to provide healing to all of their citizens. The Shulchan Aruch makes the point very simply: “If the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood” (S.A., Yoreh Dei-ah 336:1).
The Jewish answer is: Something is profoundly wrong when somebody else’s medical crisis is no longer our problem, and when we are so unwilling to come to each other’s aid.
The Jewish answer is: Providing health insurance for all is about helping a family member, a neighbor, or a fellow citizen because, next time, any one of us could be facing catastrophe. It is not just about them, it is about us.
We all know the practical problems that have, thus far, prevented us from providing medical insurance to all Americans. What ever plan is adopted, drug and insurance companies may face reduced profits; health-care providers may have to accept reductions in income; and middle-class families may have to pay more for the coverage they receive.
In a country such as ours, it is natural that honest, well-intentioned people are going to differ about how to fix health care. But that is what we pay politicians for—to lead our country in finding some reasonable compromise.
And now is the time. Every uninsured family is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The time has long since passed when our leaders should have done what every other advanced country has somehow managed to do: provide all its citizens with essential health care.
No more excuses, please.
And no more claims that we have nothing to learn from other countries. Our Canadian members, as well as British and Israeli Reform Jews, will be happy to tell us about the health care problems in their countries. But how many of them would prefer the American system to their own?
And no more talk by congressional leaders and White House aides, all with superb health insurance provided by the taxpayers, about how we need to focus on “the long run.” What do we say to the uninsured divorced mother, valiantly raising three children, hounded by medical bills she cannot pay? She doesn’t need access to medical care in the long run; she needs access right now. And what do we say to the 9 million children in this country who do not have health insurance? We ask those children every day to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and the time has come for us to pledge them the unfettered access to decent health care that they deserve.
We don’t know if this country will elect a president committed to providing health insurance to all Americans. And if we do, we don’t know if he or she will follow through. We have watched many times before as our leaders, bullied by the drug and insurance industries, rationalize their surrender in clouds of earnest words and good intentions.
But we need not look only to Washington for answers. In light of federal failures to address this issue, most states are considering plans to cover uninsured residents. In California, Maryland and Vermont, the crucial debate is well underway. Our Massachusetts congregations have already demonstrated how effective we ourselves can be. Progress on the state level is important in and of itself; and if we succeed there, our next president will be far more likely to actively promote a national solution.
I propose, therefore, that this Movement begin immediately to support state initiatives to expand health insurance. In almost every state of the Union, we have identified one Reform synagogue that has agreed to coordinate these efforts. We will bring Reform Jews, and our allies, to state capitals and we will make our voice heard and our presence felt.
I also urge the major communal organizations of the American Jewish community to join with us. There was a time when the Jews of America would have spoken with a single voice on this issue. There was a time when to be a Jew in America meant not only to care for our own, to fight for Israel, to educate our children as Jews; it also meant that whenever we saw injustice afflicting our neighbors, our Jewish souls would rush in to bring balm to their wounds. But I fear that is far less true today than it once was.
In recent years, there has been a feverish conversation among communal leaders about how to connect young adults to Jewish life. We all agree that they need Torah study, Jewish ritual and connection to Israel. But all of this has not been enough.
Well, here is my suggestion to these leaders about what they need to do next: They need to speak up for justice. They need to speak up loud, proud and unafraid.
Because our young people are very wise. They know that a Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real mission and therefore no real purpose. They don’t understand how Jews can pray for the sick every day and then do nothing to get health care to those who need it. In the end, if the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world and of their lives, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.
And one more point: Our synagogues have a responsibility to promote good health that goes beyond public activism. Are we providing healthy food choices at our meetings, onegs and in our classrooms? Are we educating children and adults about Jewish teachings on health? Are we offering fitness programs to our members in all age categories? Our Department of Jewish Family Concerns has prepared a congregational audit that suggests how each of our synagogues can do more to keep its members healthy, and I urge you to review it with your leadership.
My friends, the health insurance situation in this country is a disaster. If we continue to tolerate it, we will lose our humanity, and no matter our other accomplishments, we will have failed as a people and a nation. So let us work to change it, piece by piece and child by child—until no cry for help goes unheard. Only in this way can we honor the image of God in every human being.
Permit me to conclude with a few words about the State of Israel.
We all know the terrible dangers that Israel now confronts: threats of annihilation from the leaders of Iran; the constant rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s cities; and the venomous hatred of Jews and Israel proclaimed by the leaders of Hamas. All of these matters, and the threat from Iran above all, require our urgent attention. We support the government of Israel as it struggles with these problems, and we commend its efforts, before and after Annapolis, to advance the cause of peace.
But this Shabbat I am concerned with something else: the studies that show North American Jews to be less and less attached to the State of Israel. This increasing alienation is not our problem alone, but it is more prevalent in our ranks than among our more traditional brothers and sisters—and it speaks to our failure to teach some very important lessons to the members of our synagogues.
And the central lesson is this: We live at an extraordinary moment in the history of the Jewish people. After 2,000 years, we have once again established a sovereign Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. This nation is a cause for thanksgiving and rejoicing.
Israel, after all, is the one place in the world where Judaism belongs in the public domain, where Hebrew is the language of everyday, where Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the calendar, and where Jews can apply Jewish values and the Jewish spirit to every aspect of life. And this too: Israel has returned us to history, and given the Jewish people control over its destiny—which means achieving real power and mastering the gun. Achieving power, as we know, sometimes means misusing power, but this is far better than being powerless in a dangerous world. Because, in the absence of power, all other Jewish values can be turned to dust.
We are blessed to be living at this moment. We are blessed that we are able, if we choose, to set foot on the soil of the Jewish state, and to do what Moses was not permitted to do. And not only can we walk on that soil, as he did not, but we can build on it, and watch children grow up on it, speaking the language of the Bible, revived at last as a spoken tongue.
My friends, this precious moment—a moment of renewal, rebirth and possibility—is ours, and we must decide: Will we seize it, or will we squander it?
To those who are unhappy with this or that policy of the State of Israel, I say: Get in line. We know from long experience that Israeli politicians can be every bit as incompetent as our own. But politics has nothing whatever to do with our connection to the Zionist idea. This idea did not originate with Herzl or the Holocaust; it originated in the soul, in the words of the Psalmist, in the prayers that we say every year at our Pesach seder and every day in our siddur and in the Birkat HaMazon. Listen to those words: “Rebuild Jerusalem the holy city, speedily in our day.” They do not mention Ehud Olmert or Benjamin Netanyahu. Our connection to Israel is rooted not in ideology but in a religious vision and in a dream of what Israel can become.
And make no mistake: Israel needs us now as never before. Without us, it would not have come into being; without us, it would not be strong. And it still requires our political activism, our financial support and our frequent visits. And it requires us to answer the lies and distortions of the Israel haters, including the self-haters in our midst who see the rights of every group except their own.
But, of course, we need Israel just as much as Israel needs us. Because it is a place, even now, that inspires us and that pumps the dynamism of Jewish life through our veins. And as Reform Jews, we need Israel more than others, because we are not yet firmly established on Israeli soil. For us, the stakes are high. If we fail to create a significant presence in Israel, this failure casts doubt on our authenticity as a religious movement. In other words, if we do not become a force in Israel in the next generation, we will have consigned ourselves to the margins of Jewish history. It should be said that Reform successes in Israel give us every confidence that this will not happen, and that is why our support of Reform Judaism in Israel is so vitally important.
I first visited Israel in 1968, and as soon as I arrived I fell in love with the land and its people. My home is here, of course, and I have devoted my life to strengthening Reform Judaism in North America. But Israel has never ceased to live in my consciousness, and I have always been willing to stake my life on its sacred destiny. And my wife and I have made a special effort to pass along our love of Israel to our children, because we know that no matter how deep their Jewish commitments, if they do not share in the miracle of Israel, their Jewish lives will be immeasurably impoverished.
So what do I ask of you? I ask you to return to your congregation, to work with your rabbi and to strengthen—through programs, missions and material support—that web of love and obligation that links us to the Jewish state.
I also ask you to be messengers to the members of your synagogue.
And the message is that our connection to Israel is unconditional, nonnegotiable and utterly independent of any particular government or policy.
The message is that Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood where the Jews, after 2,000 years, are finally on their own. Israel is not a perfect country; it is not Disneyland or summer camp. It is a contentious country, as complicated and as divided as the Jewish people themselves. But even though it is a place where occasionally the extremists seem to predominate, it is also a country where, most of the time, the best impulses of its leaders and its people determine the direction of the state.
And so, as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state, let us join together in gratitude to the Eternal One of Blessing. How fortunate we are to be present for this historic celebration! Let us remember that Israel’s fate rests not only in the hands of Israel’s citizens, but in our hands as well. May we be ready for what the times require and our tradition demands: that we be untiring partners in the building of Zion.
I am confident that we will respond to this challenge, just as I am confident that we will respond to all of the challenges that I have laid before you.
After all, who are these Jews who are the members of our Movement?
They are Jews who search for spiritual wholeness in a secular age.
They are Jews who find in ritual, in prayer and in Shabbat a touch of eternity, and, perhaps, just perhaps, a glimpse of the reality of God.
They are Jews who reach out to their neighbors and care about the suffering of those around them—Jews who believe in a different America, an America that is larger than our own egos and bank accounts, where we use our collective energy to assert the values of fairness and justice that form the moral basis of this great country.
And they are Jews who embrace the Jewish state because they are deeply attached to the Land of Israel as the cradle and resting place of the Jewish spirit.
And this above all: They are Jews of the synagogue, partners in a sacred odyssey of a sacred people, who know that through the Reform synagogue, the impossible slowly becomes possible. And they see their task, and ours, as carrying that message from this place into the world and into our lives.
We are fortunate beyond words to have such Jews in our congregations. Because of them, all who see us will know that we are a community blessed by the Eternal One. All who see us will know that ours is a Judaism not only of yesterday but also of tomorrow, a Judaism that blends the best of tradition with the best of what we encounter, a Judaism that is, as it was in days of old, a tree of life for those who hold it fast, bestowing happiness on all who cling to it.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. Shabbat shalom.