Speaking of Israel: Rabbis and Freedom of the Pulpit
Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Richard A. Block
President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
At the CCAR’s 125th Annual Convention
Chicago, March 31, 2014
One Erev Shabbat, a rabbi and temple president stood in a receiving line to greet people after the service. Passing along, a congregant said, “Rabbi, that was the worst sermon I’ve ever heard.” As the man walked away, the president said to the crestfallen rabbi, “Don’t listen to him. He just repeats what everyone else is saying.”
As every rabbi discovers, people don’t always appreciate our sermonic offerings and sometimes object to them, mildly or vehemently. One congregant writes me whenever I address a social justice issue, objecting to what she calls “politics from the bima,” and admonishing me to stick to “religious” matters. Another objects to the term “social justice” altogether, claiming it is a synonym for the agenda of the Democratic Party. In election years, some try to discern from my sermons which candidate I support, then express approval or disapproval according to their personal predilections. I’m sure you have similar stories.
“Freedom of the pulpit” is a cherished value in Reform Judaism. A 1953 CCAR resolution proclaimed, “By the demands of prophetic precedent, [Rabbis have] the right, duty and obligation to express [themselves] on all matters which [they feel] involve moral and ethical issues. [They do] not necessarily [speak for their] individual congregations, but…for Judaism and its principles...” At the same time, the resolution asserts, “Every opportunity should be given to laymen to express publicly opinions and beliefs, which may not necessarily mirror those of the Rabbi.” That year, the UAHC also affirmed both free rabbinic expression and congregants’ right to disagree and dissent.
The invocation of “prophetic precedent” for sermonic autonomy reflects our sense of ourselves, that as Reform Jews, we are “heirs to the prophetic tradition.” We are moved by Isaiah’s summons to “unlock the shackles of injustice…[and] let the oppressed go free…” and by Micah’s vision, that “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” Like Amos, we feel called to “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing spring.”
That said, though our ancient prophets continue to inspire us, we would be wise to hesitate before claiming prophetic status. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, “The prophet[s words] are often slashing, even horrid – designed to shock rather than edify…Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness...the prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security…The prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Who would want to have or be such a rabbi?
Not surprisingly, prophets were rarely popular. Ahab called Elijah, “troubler of Israel” and his wife, Jezebel, had prophets of Adonai slaughtered wholesale. Jeremiah complained he had “become a constant laughingstock” at whom everyone jeered. Zedekiah had him thrown into a cistern, then jailed. One tradition claims Jeremiah fled to Egypt and was stoned to death. The Targum to Isaiah reports that after the prophet, fleeing pursuers, took refuge in a tree, Manasseh had it, and him, sawn in half.
The “prophetic precedent,” of course, is not the only paradigm of rabbinic leadership. Our tradition calls Moses, Rabbeinu, our Rabbi and Teacher par excellence, whose foremost characteristic was very non-prophetic: humility. Why was he called “Moshe Rabbeinu,” not “Moshe Navienu?” The reason, Leonard Kravitz taught, is that a prophet’s role is to speak the truth without regard for the consequences. Rabbis must move people.
Since, unlike prophets, rabbis cannot afford to ignore the consequences of our words, a more modest and pragmatic approach is to acknowledge openly, as we prepare to express profound convictions, that some will disagree, as will surely be the case with this sermon, and to admit, as I do freely, that we neither possess nor claim a monopoly on truth. As the Mishnah observes, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim. With derekh eretz, contradictory truths, and those who proclaim them, can coexist. And the quality of our civic discourse would be much improved if we prefaced even strongly held opinions with the words, “I may be wrong, but…” The CCAR, our congregations, communities, and Movement must be safe places to share diverse viewpoints and consider competing ideas with open minds and good will, even as we recognize that there must be boundaries and, like the cohanim of our parsha, we bear the burden of deciding who remains outside the camp and who may be admitted. If we preach and teach with humility, the Talmud assures us, “Words coming from the heart enter the heart.” I pray it will be so this morning.
I consider that approach wise, because even without the grandiose presumption of prophetic authority, every worthy rabbi occasionally provokes heated disagreement and bitter dissension. As Israel Salanter famously observed (in the gendered language of his era), “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.”
Rav Joseph Soloveitchik went even deeper in The Lonely Man of Faith, writing, “I am lonely…[T]hank God, [I] do enjoy the love and friendship of many…And yet,…I am alone because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends. The words of the psalmist, ‘My father and my mother have forsaken me’ often ring in my ears.”
The words of these distinguished rabbis came to mind when I read Steven Cohen’s report for the JCPA entitled “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis.” Of 552 rabbis surveyed, mostly Reform and Conservative, 39% reported they sometimes or often avoid expressing their true feelings about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians for fear of offending listeners. 18% said their private views were more dovish than their public ones. 12% were “closet hawks.” One in five reported being strongly criticized for views they voiced or feared significant professional repercussions if they were to express their honest opinions. While those ordained since 2000 and the “dovish” were more likely to be afraid than rabbis ordained earlier, moderates or hawks, fear was not confined to any one demographic.
Should we celebrate that most rabbis feel free to express their beliefs without fear, be alarmed that a meaningful number do not, or both? Do the data illustrate the inherent hazards of the rabbinate that Soloveitchik, Salanter, and Kravitz described? Or do they suggest something more ominous? Frankly, I’m not sure. Impassioned disagreement has been a prominent feature of Jewish religion and culture from our earliest days and is, arguably, a manifestation of their dynamism. The creation of the modern State of Israel was neither the beginning nor the end of such arguments. But given the powerful emotions evoked by the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our People’s ancient homeland after two millennia, in the wake of the Holocaust, and by the triumphs and traumas that followed, our pronouncements naturally evoke strong and divergent reactions.
It has long been so. In 1943, Houston’s Beth Israel announced that Zionists could not be members, spawning the creation of Emanu-El. In the 50’s, alienated by Abba Hillel Silver’s sermons on Zionism and Hebrew’s inclusion in his, now my Temple’s curriculum, some five hundred prominent members, including the son of Silver’s predecessor, Moses Gries, broke away to form a new congregation. Such schisms make today’s pushback seem mild by comparison.
The Pew Survey of U.S. Jews also stirred controversy last year. It found that a vast majority of American Jews of all backgrounds believe that “caring about Israel” is an essential or important part of being Jewish. At the same time, Reform Jews are much less likely than Orthodox and Conservative Jews to feel “very attached” to Israel or to have travelled there. While a clear majority of Jews believe it is possible to achieve a two-state solution, few believe the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort. Many, including a disproportionate percentage of Reform Jews, are also unconvinced of Israel’s sincerity and believe that settlements undermine its security.
Is there a causal connection between critical views of Israeli government policies and weaker attachment to Israel? For some, there may be. But the survey found that Reform Jews are also significantly less attached to holiday observance, synagogue attendance, Hebrew fluency, belief in God, and the importance of religion in their lives. Israel is just one of a broader set of concerns that we, as Reform rabbis, and as a Movement, must address.
And clearly, criticism and attachment are not necessarily incompatible. After 45 years of marriage, I am certain of Susie’s love for me, certainty undiminished by her well-justified assessments of my imperfections. As an American, I am profoundly aware of this country’s flaws and critical of policies and decisions of the current and prior administrations. Nonetheless, I love America whole-heartedly. I believe in its uniqueness and essential goodness. I served in its Navy and as a Special Assistant US Attorney. Lee Greenwood’s hokey patriotic song, I’m Proud to Be An American, moves me to tears. Notwithstanding this country’s shortcomings, I am profoundly attached.
I feel the same way about Israel, of which Susie and I are also citizens. There are aspects of Israel I find annoying, demoralizing, even horrifying. I support ARZA, IRAC, IMPJ, and the World Union, and I urge you, especially, to promote and campaign actively for the ARZA slate in the forthcoming WZO elections, because our Movement’s funding in Israel depends on it, and because there are things about Israeli law and society that absolutely must change. However, these feelings are manifestations of my bond with Israel, not impediments to it, and they are overwhelmed by the pride I feel at what is admirable, exemplary, even miraculous about the Jewish state. When I have a quarrel with Israel, it is a lover’s quarrel.
But while criticism and attachment can surely co-exist, there are proper and improper times, places, and ways to critique others, if we want our admonitions to be heard and to do more good than harm. The Torah commands, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.” Rashi explains: Rebuke him, but do not shame him publically. Going further, the Talmud likens those who embarrass others in public to shedders of blood.
Israel needs a many things, but one thing it does not need is more public criticism, which is ubiquitous. Some is legitimate, but lacks context. Much of it is exaggerated, unfair, uninformed, or plainly wrong. Increasingly, it lurches from offensive to anti-Semitic, rationalizing the shortcomings of Israel's adversaries and ignoring the worst abuses of others, focusing exclusively and obsessively on the Jewish State. This willful blindness finds expression in such ways as a blatantly anti-Semitic study guide circulated by the Presbyterian Church, and the immoral, hypocritical, and pernicious BDS Movement, which denies the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.
Thus, although I am a lifelong Democrat and a political liberal in both American and Israeli terms, I cannot, in good conscience, associate with organizations on the left, even those defining themselves as pro-Israel, that welcome and provide a forum to supporters of BDS, engage in public criticism of Israel heedless of how that criticism is exploited by her adversaries, prescribe policies its government should follow, and urge the US to pressure Israel to adopt them. I am utterly repelled by organizations on the right that profess to support Israel but oppose compromises that its government is prepared to make for peace and agitate against such measures.
As I see it, all such entities, left and right, exhibit implicit disrespect for Israel as a democracy. They believe they understand Israel’s best interests better than Israel does, that Israel can’t be trusted to do the right thing absent outside influence, and that they know best what risks Israel should take and sacrifices it must make, even though they, themselves, will not have to face or bear them. I choose, instead, to heed the CCAR’s Centenary Platform on Reform Judaism & Zionism, which lists “political support” as the first of “our obligations to Israel.” I elect to make common cause with others who believe that Israel’s security depends on broad bipartisan political support for the US-Israel alliance, regardless which party controls Congress, the White House, and the Knesset.
Though essential at all times, that is all the more urgent when the leaders of Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, deny the Holocaust and quite evidently seek the capacity to threaten or perpetrate another. And when the latest round of US-sponsored, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks teeters on the brink in the face of President Abbas’ updated version of Khartoum’s three No’s: no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; no compromise on the claimed “right of return;” no commitment that a peace agreement would end the conflict. If that failure occurs, many will reflexively blame Israel, even if Palestinian intransigence is again the cause, and the next phase of the invidious international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state will begin in earnest.
I am not suggesting we pretend Israel is perfect, ignore the complex moral challenges it faces, disregard its occasional failures or excesses in the exercise of power, or encourage unquestioning approval of whatever its government does. Ardent support for Israel does not permit us to deny that Palestinians, too, have rights that deserve acknowledgment and suffer hardships no one would willingly bear. But, for example, when Israel’s security barrier is described with preposterous obscenities like “apartheid wall,” we must make sure people know the facts: that 96% of it is a fence, that there are Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims on both sides of it, that it was erected as a last resort by a prime minister long opposed to doing so, after more than a thousand Israeli women, men, and children were murdered by suicide bombers in cafes, malls, buses, and Passover seders, and that Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered it moved when it caused unjustified privation. Whatever our views on the security barrier, settlements, and “the occupation,” we are morally obliged to make it clear: that Palestinian terrorism preceded them; they were not its cause; that they are not the conflict’s origins, but its manifestations; and that they will not be resolved by boycotts, denunciations, or unilateral measures, but only by a permanent peace agreement that the parties alone can achieve.
Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is…a time for silence and a time for speaking.” The challenge for us as rabbis, individually and collectively, is determining which time it is, and when the time comes for words, to choose them with utmost care. Thankfully, I do not fear professional repercussions or criticism for sharing my true views about Israel. Nonetheless, I exercise discretion as to which truths I speak, and to whom, where, when, and how I do so. We have precious few opportunities to address our entire congregation or community on matters of paramount concern. To me, it feels unconscionably self-indulgent to squander them criticizing Israel, even when it may be deserved. Inevitably, despite the disclaimers we offer, some who lack a strong attachment to Israel will hear only the negatives and be alienated from her. And when we address a wider public, the danger and need for care are exponentially greater.
Where Israel is concerned, rabbis have a primary duty: to nurture ahavat Yisrael - love for, identification with, and attachment, loyalty and commitment to the Jewish state, its imperfections notwithstanding. The highest and best use of our pulpits and voices is not to focus on Israel’s flaws, but on its virtues, to rebut distortions, oversimplifications, and falsehoods, to provide context and perspective, to inoculate those who will study on campuses rife with anti-Israel hostility and to support them once they get there. It is to acquaint people with Israel the vibrant democracy, that guarantees freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly, where relentless self-scrutiny is the national pastime, and women, Arabs, religious minorities and gay and lesbian persons enjoy rights, protections, and opportunities unknown elsewhere in the region and most other places, the Israel that has sent humanitarian aid and emergency relief missions to more than 140 countries and provided medical care to more than 700 Syrians wounded in a genocide to the world seems mainly indifferent, the Israel that rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, the only time in history that white people took black people out of Africa to free them, rather than enslave them, the Israel whose arts and culture are as rich as its geography is various and its beauty is breathtaking, the Israel whose myriad innovations in science, medicine, and technology are contributing so much to humanity, the Israel that is infinitely more than the sum of its conflicts.
It is also the Israel of my favorite poet, Yehuda Amichai, who wrote HaMakom SheBo Anu Tzodkim: The Place Where We Are Right.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Cherished colleagues and friends, it is beyond the power of words to express the depth of my gratitude for the privilege of sharing my truths, doubts and loves with you, of partnering with you in the sacred endeavor of our rabbinic calling, and of listening, together with you, for the whisper of the wings of Shekhinah. In this, as in all else, now and always, I pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts will find favor with the Holy One of Blessing, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.