As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for Kol Nidrei, the evening service at the start of Yom Kippur.
Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!
Kol Nidrei 5778 - Main Sermon
Fifty years ago, in 1967, something miraculous was about to occur. Twenty years earlier, in 1948, we had somehow managed to establish a Jewish State in Israel, in the Promised Land, though one crucially important landmark had not made it onto the Israeli side of the border; the Western Wall. After Israel was born, the Jewish People spent two more decades praying with the Temple Mount and its peripheral wall only in their minds; it was not yet a place where our feet could stand or our hands could touch. But when Jordan joined the countries attacking Israel in 1967, and IDF forces quickly started pushing Jordanian troops back - in what we later came to call the Six Day War - our soldiers knew the Western Wall, the Kotel, was within reach.
One such fighter, an Israeli paratrooper, was named Avraham Sela. I read about Sela in an article by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Klein Ha-Levi writes about Avraham Sela - that he was born in Iraq, came to Israel as a young boy, and that it was the dream of his life to one day stand at the Western Wall, something which was forbidden by the Jordanian government when Sela was young. He joined the military and fought in the battle for Jerusalem, but was sadly wounded in the hills outside the city. When Israeli forces finally conquered and reunited the entire Old City, Sela was stuck in a hospital bed. When he found out his company was there for the actual moment of liberation, he felt tremendous joy and pride, but also sadness and disappointment that he could not be there with them. Those iconic photos of soldiers leaning against the wall and weeping were his friends… but not him.
It took him months to rehab from his injuries, but Avraham Sela worked hard to recover, and when he was finally ready to be moved to an IDF rehabilitation center, he asked his driver if they could stop in the Old City first, so he could finally, finally stand by the wall itself and touch its stones. And so they did. As he got out of the car, he was still in tremendous pain from the lingering machine gun injury. He had to shuffle forward because it was so difficult to walk, but he wasn’t going to miss this moment because of some bullet. He was about to touch the wall itself, he made it right up to the stones, when he heard a harsh voice behind him yelling: “Bachur!! Young man!! Put on a kippah!” An Orthodox Jew was screaming at him. Klein Ha-Levi writes: “Avraham froze. In his excitement to reach the Wall he’d forgotten to cover his head. The abrupt tone of religious authority stunned him. Profoundly offended him. He who had so anticipated this moment, who had been ready to give his life for Jerusalem, to be treated with such contempt – He turned his back to the Wall and didn’t return.”
If you were here for Rosh Hashanah, or if you read my first two sermons online, you know that the theme of my Divrei Torah, my talks, this year is “Harmony.” I don’t want to speak directly about the word “harmony” until tomorrow, but please do keep thinking about why it is our theme, and what that word, in the context of what you’re hearing at our holiday services, might mean to you. Each sermon has focused on a different emotion that I think we need to emphasize more and acknowledge in ourselves. Last week, we spoke about joy and then anger. Tonight, I want to talk to you about longing, about yearning.
I actually want to share with you two separate stories about yearning that in some ways have nothing to do with one another… and in other ways are entirely intertwined.
As you probably guessed, my first narrative is about Israel. I again want to thank Jordyn Kaplan, Noah Katcher, and Maddie Speirs for sharing with us a little bit about their experiences in Israel this past summer. As these three wonderful teens demonstrated, Israel is a very important part of the life of our community. We teach about it in our religious school, we celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, we emphasize Hebrew language in our school and throughout our congregation, and as many of you know, I led two congregational tours to Israel in 2011 (with Noah and Jordyn) and again in 2015, and we are VERY excited to already have 25 people signed up for our next trip, scheduled - God willing - for October of 2018. If you’re interested in joining our group, we’d LOVE to have you. You can speak to me, Alan Schapire, or Karen and Louis Stesis for more info. I have also shared before from this pulpit that I myself lived in Israel twice, once as a child and again with Rebecca when I was in rabbinical school. I’ve participated in, and led, groups traveling to Israel from Sweden, England, and the US, and so far, I have been to Israel more than 20 times. It is precisely because I love Israel that I struggle deeply with her.
The very name, “Yisrael” means “one who wrestles with God,” and I definitely wrestle tremendously in my engagement with Eretz and Medinat Yisrael, with the Land and - most certainly - with the State of Israel. I am a Zionist; a Proud Zionist. And it is truly bewildering to me that somewhere along the way, the word “Zionist” became a slur,
especially among some liberal groups. I have heard them rattle off Nazism, Fascism, and Zionism, like they’re comparable, or cut from the same cloth. This past summer, several times - once at a Gay Pride Parade and once at a rally in Chicago called the Dyke March - Jewish participants, and mind you they were ENTIRELY on board with the stated goals of all the other marchers, were asked to leave, because they waved rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. Their link to Israel was too strong. When confronted by the organizers, these Jewish marchers didn’t disavow the Israeli government, the Israeli state, the occupation, and the settlements vociferously enough, and so they were told to leave. Turned away, almost reminiscent of Avraham Sela at the wall.
But Zionism, the ideology itself, is NOT the problem! Zionism IS yearning. It is a response to the reality of the Jewish experience for centuries - MILLENIA - that we are not safe anywhere. It has been proven time and time again, and the desire for self-determination and for Jewish unity is really at the core of the Zionist dream. In that article I mentioned earlier, by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, he speaks directly to this question about Zionism. He writes, “Zionism was never only about creating a Jewish state; it was about defining Jewish identity. Zionism’s definition is peoplehood. The noun is “Jew;” all other identities – religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform, left and right – are adjectives.” And yet, this is why I wrestle. The word itself, and the meaning of this term that I love, have been co-opted - either by liberal groups who loathe it, or fundamentalist groups who use it to justify hate and violence. One of the leaders of the Conservative Movement of Judaism - our movement - Rabbi Gordon Tucker, wrote about this split in Zionism. “There is,” says Tucker, “in fact, a Zionism of fear. And it is not at all illegitimate… because it is about Israel’s role as a provider of safety for Jewish people in a world in which it is still not always safe to be a Jew. Zionism of fear is really a minimalist Zionism that does not say much about the positive things that a Jewish state could do for the furtherance and the flowering of Jewish culture. It is about safety.”
I understand this Zionism, and sometimes I feel it myself. But I also chafe against it. I worry when some Jews or Israelis use the victim status to justify terrible things. We use the Zionism of fear to avoid looking at the actions of the Israeli government, to deter ourselves and others from criticizing wrongs that we KNOW are taking place; either by Orthodox against secular and non-Orthodox, or by Jews against Palestinians. But Tucker goes on to say there is also a Zionism of love. THAT is really what we yearn for. That is what we try to teach about in Hebrew School, and that is why we send our children to Israel. To love the land, the heritage, the people, the food, even - we still hope - the state and its leaders. But I wrestle, and will continue to wrestle, because I cannot do that disingenuously. It has to be a relationship of respect, honesty, integrity, AND love. I need to say to you this evening, I’m struggling. I feel like the sense of mutual respect and equality isn’t there, and right now I mainly feel just the yearning.
I am in pain. I am in a serious struggle with this country that I love, because - in truth - it does not love me back. Right now, in Israel, my Judaism is not considered legitimate. My authority as a rabbi is entirely non-existent, that is almost a given these days, but furthermore, my rights, your rights, and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews visiting and even living in the State of Israel are under constant attack. A former professor of mine from JTS,
who made aliyah to Israel nearly a decade ago, Alex Sinclair, regularly writes for Israeli newspapers. Recently, he authored a think-piece in which he stated: “Liberal Jews are like... abused spouses. For decades, orthodox Jews have ignored our concerns, discriminated against our converts, insulted our rabbis, and used our money against us; yet we still smile weakly at them and cling to the hope that they’ll make nice. No. This is not about the unity of the Jewish people any more; it’s about the vision of the Jewish people. No longer can we allow that vision to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.” This is painful to say: “Israel does not love me back.” It is heartbreaking to admit. Especially when we - when I - fear that stating this aloud will label me a self-hating Jew.
That is why I felt I needed to rattle of my bonafides; the list of times I’ve been to Israel as well as the trips I have led and intend to lead back there. I need you to know that I love. But I am also afraid. And still, I yearn. I need to express how hurt I feel, and I need you to know how complex, nuanced, multi-faceted, and emotionally charged my relationship is to Israel. Gordon Tucker, whom I quoted earlier, employs a very agonizing, but evocative, image in his article. He states: “You have all loved. And so you know that love always desires to be requited, not for what we can do for the one we love, but for what and who we are. I love Israel. And I want it to love me back, not for what I can do for it. Israel has always been pretty good at that kind of love. But for what and who I am… We should not have to feel that our love is heroic, offered in the face of unrequited feelings.”
Right now, in the midst of a fight over access to that same Western Wall that Avraham Sela was willing to die for, and with constant battles over conversions, funding, and government support - ours is an unrequited love.
I know that’s hard to hear, and believe me, it is VERY hard to say… but it needs to be said. I don’t have answers - just as I didn’t have solutions to the tough questions I raised on Rosh Hashanah - but if I am going to be grounded in my own feelings, if I am going to be authentic and genuine, I need to also give voice to my pain. And with that comes a selectivity about groups I support in Israel, because we can’t be those abused spouses any longer.
I also want to push a little deeper into this important emotional realization that I’m trying to articulate to you. When I understand how I’m feeling, how alienated this situation makes me feel, it SHOULD also motivate me to introspect. To look at myself in relation to others around me, and think about how I, as a representative of an establishment, am welcoming to, or alienating of, individuals in my own community. That is an important leap that is tough to take, but so, so crucial. When I feel a negative emotion, my inclination NEEDS to be to make sure I’m not inflicting that on someone else. Sometimes we do the opposite; when we are hurt, we hurt others. When we are teased, we tease someone weaker, so that we can feel strong again. But the prophetic call demands we do the opposite. When we hurt, we need to name that experience, and fight like hell to defend others from feeling that same way. With that in mind, here is my second example of yearning:
Talking about Israel stresses me out. But there is actually another issue that is even harder for me. I will admit to you right now, that there is no topic around which I feel greater pressure to change than interfaith marriage. I fear that we, as a Jewish community, continue to send mixed messages to interfaith families in our community. We welcome them in, we welcome many of YOU in this room into our family,
but then put up barriers and obstacles to participation. And so I worry: Are we creating a sense of unrequited love in a subsection of Ohev congregants? That is my concern. But on the other hand, this is a HUGE issue, and if - hypothetically - we were to consider breaking from our movement, and if I were to perform an interfaith marriage, we might alienate and disenfranchise people on another end of the spectrum.
I struggle with this issue more than anything else. Here at Ohev, I think we’re doing everything we can, within the boundaries of Conservative Judaism, to welcome and integrate interfaith families. All are invited up on the bimah, we hold aufrufs, pre-wedding celebrations, for interfaith couples getting married, and we acknowledge all lifecycle moments for all congregant families. I thought we were doing well. And we are! But last year, I felt that pressure increasing yet again. In the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JTA, Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok published an article that declared how essential it is that rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings. Oy. Welcoming families isn’t enough; continuing to reject them at that most important moment in their lives, under the chuppah, is hurting us tremendously. In their article, Fertok and Saxe write: “The data are unequivocal, that intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” Yisrael, my wrestling continues.
Part of the problem is, to be totally honest with you, my own stigma is virtually gone. This is a halachic and organizational hurdle. Which is no small thing, but let’s acknowledge the difference. We no longer say Kaddish and ostracize someone who marries out of the faith. We do not shun.
Just this past June, a colleague of mine from Mt. Kisco, NY, Rabbi Aaron Brusso, wrote an article in the Jewish Forward, addressed to the interfaith couples directly. He states: “[I know that] You are not rejecting something, you are choosing someone. I want you to know that I respect that and don’t expect you to be anything other than who you are, for me or anyone else.” Towards the end of his article, Rabbi Brusso also expresses this sentiment: “...let me say very clearly: you have done nothing wrong by falling in love. No one should make you feel shame and if they do, shame on them.” Even though Rabbi Brusso ultimately explains that he still cannot officiate at interfaith weddings, he demonstrates tremendous warmth and acceptance.
I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments, though in truth, I may actually be struggling even a bit more than Aaron Brusso. The data are pretty stark, and the people are very, VERY real to me; the requests I receive come from families I love, and people I respect. They yearn for inclusion. Two years ago, when we debated making non-Jewish spouses members, and ultimately DID make that monumental change, a congregant sent me an incredible letter. She is not Jewish, AND has raised wonderful children in this congregation. She talked about interfaith spouses being like journalists in a military conflict, embedded with an army unit. It’s a great metaphor. They are not soldiers in the war, but they ARE there every step of the way. They risk their lives too, and they form deep, meaningful, life-long relationships with the soldiers on the front lines. I could picture just such an embed, running alongside Avraham Sela in the battle for Jerusalem. Our fight for equality and acceptance in Israel is also the fight of interfaith families as well. A gender-dividing line at the Kotel divides them just the same, and they too would get yelled at for not putting on a kippah.
That same congregant also wrote in her letter to me, “Interfaith marriages aren’t good or bad, they simply are.” I agree completely. This is our community. This is who we are. And in the Jewish world, we have our different denominations. We are not one, uniform monolith, and honestly, we never have been. There have always been different groups of Jews, throughout our history. This is who we are. We are diverse… and we all yearn. We yearn for acceptance, peace, and equality. We yearn for a Zionist homeland; a Zionism of love and, perhaps, some fear, because that is our reality as well, and for a loving relationship with our Jewish homeland. We long for a love that is reciprocated; for who we are, not just what we can do.
And when we see ourselves yearning and longing, we must also remember our prophetic call to witness others’ yearning as well. Even when we don’t have answers, and we wrestle with challenging issues, we still need to see and acknowledge others who feel excluded and are searching for belonging and community. Sometimes we feel like Avraham Sela, fighting passionately for this place that we love, willing to give everything for its safety and security. And other times we are that Orthodox Jew at the wall, saying: “Yeah, that’s nice… but you’ve still gotta put on a kippah.” One important way to reconcile those two experiences is to just see them when they are happening. To notice when we are the gate-keepers, and when we are the ones longing to be granted entry.
The story of Avraham Sela touched me deeply, even though I personally don’t actually like going to the Kotel anymore. Maybe that’s actually why I love his story. I feel rejected there too. Unloved. But still yearning to be accepted. May we all - Jew and non-Jew, in Israel or the Diaspora, religious and secular - strive to embody the call of Yisrael, of wrestling with God, with ourselves, our communities, and our emotions. And with our beloved Zionist homeland. Strangely and paradoxically enough, in our wrestling may we also find peace, Shalom. Amen.