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HHD 2023 Sermons

Rosh Hashanah Sermon

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Yehuda Amichai the incomparable 20th century Israeli poet writes,

Every year our father Abraham would take his sons to Mount Moriah
The way I take my children to the Negev hills where I once had a war.
Abraham hiked around with his sons. “This is where I left
The servants behind, that’s where I tied the donkey to a tree
At the foot of the mountain, and here, right here, Isaac my son, you asked:

Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?
Then, up a little further, you asked for the second time.”
When they reached the mountaintop, they rested a bit, ate and drank,
And he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns. 

After Abraham died, Isaac started taking his sons to the same place.
“Here I lifted the wood, this is where I got out of breath,
here I asked, and my father answered: God will see to the lamb for the offering. Over there, I already knew it was me.”
And when Isaac’s eyes were dim with age, his children
Led him to that same spot on Mount Moriah, and recounted for him 
All that had come to pass, all that he might have forgotten.

This morning we read one of the most complicated texts we have from Torah, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. It is complicated not only because of the theological implications—What do we make of a God that asks us to sacrifice our child? — but also because it raises the human capacity to do the unthinkable. It is so easy to distance ourselves from Abraham. No, I would never behave like Abraham, we say.

But before we discuss Abraham and God’s actions, let me say a word about my own theology and what I think is happening in our sacred texts. In the Torah, I do not believe we find the revelation of God. As a liberal Jew, I understand the Torah to be a sacred document, imbued with our people’s search for meaning.

In the Torah, we don’t find God, we find a human attempt to know the unknowable, to draw close to the infinite, and most essentially for Judaism, to understand the demands--the sacred obligations--that are part of being a Jew.

Therefore, I do not reject a God that asks Abraham for his child on the altar, because I know that our Torah narrative reflects the human experience. No, we may not be literally sacrificing our children on God’s altar, but we sacrifice them in other ways, and not only our children, but our spouses, our friends, our families.  Before we judge Abraham or God for the binding of Isaac, it is worth all of us considering what or whom we sacrificed for our graduate degree, for the promotion we sought, or maybe even for our own mental health.

I know that a part of me is Abraham. Abraham is a part of us all.

All this may be true, and I am still so angry at Abraham. Is it Abraham’s complete willingness to sacrifice Isaac? Is it that while on the journey Abraham places the wood that he chopped for the sacrifice on Isaac’s back as they hike up the mountain? Is it the fact the angel has to call twice, “Abraham, Abraham…” to stop him from slaughtering his son? Yes, I am so angry at Abraham, because there is so much to be angry about.

He is not acting like the Abraham we’ve come to know in the last few chapters. He is not acting like the Abraham who runs out from his tent to greet strangers approaching. He is not acting like the Abraham who demands God save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 innocent people. Like the Abraham that has the audacity to say to God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” Yes, I am so angry at Abraham, and mostly, it is for his silence. Yes, Abraham’s silence is the blade that ultimately sacrifices his relationship with Isaac, with his wife Sarah, and maybe even with God. After the Akedah, there is no record of Abraham speaking with any of them.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard offers the most famous reading of Abraham’s silence, calling Abraham the Knight of Faith. In his essay Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that Abraham has left the realm of the ethical and thus entered into the realm of faith, and that his enigmatic silence is evidence of this leap. He writes “…there is no way to articulate Abraham’s motivation. If there were, we would not have left the realm of the ethical at all.”[1]

Ethics can be explained and argued, faith cannot. Faith for Kierkegaard is deeply individual and even ineffable. Kierkegaard, holds Abraham in reverence because of his unflinching faith.

Coming from a Christian framework, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on individuality and faith leaves his interpretation wanting in a Jewish context.

While there were a few 20th century Jewish thinkers who utilized Kierkegaard’s understanding, others such as Martin Buber rejected Kierkegaard’s sense of Abraham. I too find the idea of suspension of ethics for the sake of faith deeply troubling. Kierkegaard even acknowledges in his writing the inherent problem of his thinking, that a person may claim religious faith in some action in order to suspend the ethical, and says “is not a problem with faith, but a problem for faith.”[2] Of course, this outlook is alive and well in our country, we see, through the political earthquake of one election in 2016, the great damage that can be done when groups of people suspend their beliefs in the ethical for the sake of faith.

Kierkegaard sees a knight of faith in Abraham’s silence, and our sages praise Abraham as well. However, Judaism’s voice is not monolithic. With the desire not to criticize a patriarch, our sages often see in Abraham and God decisions the need to justify or explain away. In the Talmud, our sages claim that God never really intended Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it was all a big misunderstanding. It was only a test they say, and the proof is in the end. Or, they reinterpret the word Olah, usually translated as burnt offering, as meaning to bring Isaac up on the mountain and nothing more. There is the famous midrash of certain items created just before the very first Shabbat of creation, the ram Abraham sacrificed is listed, therefor suggesting that even from the time of creation, God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Our sages never condemn God or Abraham for their actions, but clearly there is unease with the Akedah, as well there should be.

After reading the Akedah at least twice a year for a few decades now, I have come to recognize the moment when Abraham failed as a father. Abraham has left his home with Isaac, two servants and his donkey, they traveled for three days with no report of any conversation among the four. They arrive at the mountain and Abraham tells the servants to stay with the donkey and that he and Isaac will return after worshipping. Abraham takes the knife and the flint, and places the wood on Isaac’s back. They begin their journey. Suddenly Isaac asks, “Father…Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering.” Abraham answers, “It is God who will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” There, right there in that moment, those words from Abraham are the greatest trespass in the narrative, in between the words, what was left unsaid was the foundation of the lie Abraham told his son, his burnt offering.

In his silence of the truth, Abraham leaves Isaac no other choice than to conceive of his own narrative about the possibilities of what might happen. Isaac must fill in the blanks of Abraham’s bewildering response. After Abraham speaks these words to Isaac, the Torah tells us the two of them walked on together. Our sages claim this as evidence that father and son were in alignment, but this can’t be true. Yes, maybe they were physically together, but once the silence left Abraham’s mouth, they could no longer be together for they approached the mountaintop with separate ideas of what might be happening. And even if Isaac understood, even if he realized that he was the offering, even if he internalized that for his father to pass a test of faith he would have to be offered as a sacrifice, he didn’t know this for sure. There was no clarity in Abraham’s statement, there was only fear.

Psychologist Stephen Frosh writes, “There are communities that live in the shadow of their ancestors, whether or not these ancestors actually existed. The traces of these ancestral myths, if we can call them that, can be found in the lived experiences of all the later generations that are also struggling with the usual mix of ambivalence, distance and intimacy that is implicated in any 'real' relationship between a child and her or his parents. The ancestral myths, perhaps better understood as prototypes, feed into the ways in which identities are formed in the here-and-now.”[3] Regardless of how well we know the story of the Akedah it is a shadow of our ancestors that falls on us all. This story seeps into western culture because of how foundational it is to Judaism and Christianity.

Truth isn’t always easy. Yes, we say not to lie, to tell the whole truth, we teach this to our children and expect it from our friends and family and colleagues, but truth is not always easy. We are great at telling some of the truth, the part of the truth that won’t hurt us or seems safe to say out loud, but all too often the most important information is left out of the conversation. I’ve seen this over and over again in pastoral work throughout my rabbinate, family members, friends unable to share their deepest truths, struggling to say what is in their soul. Husbands, wives, spouses, children, parents, all of us shutting down rather than having to say the truth out loud. “I’ve done this.” “I said this.” “I feel this way.” “Such and such a thing is about to happen in our lives.” Yes, sometimes speaking the truth hurts and it can be frightening.

We can only imagine the fear that Abraham must have held as he walked up the mountain with Isaac, and then Isaac asked what was happening. Would saying what was about to happen make it real? Did Abraham struggle to get the words out of his mouth? “God is testing me and in turn testing you as well, my son.” In this silence, Abraham suffers a failure of imagination. There were so many other possibilities for Abraham that could have also been faithful!

Rabbi Chelsea taught us last night, Hannah’s silent prayer is the paradigmatic prayer for us today, what if Abarham would have done the same as Hannah, saying, וָאֶשְׁפֹּ֥ךְ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה va’eshpoch et nafshi lifnei Adonai, I pour out my heart, my soul, my very essence before the Holy Blessed One. Or rather than pouring out his heart before God, what if Abraham had poured out his heart to his son and his wife!? Faith must not be a total and complete trust in a God that we will never have absolute proof for, faith and therefor the concept of God must lie in the hope that we can imagine together, that we can share our pain, that we can share our anxiety, that we can share hopes and our dreams and our visions.

And that when we do, we won’t be met with rejection or skepticism or contempt, but with a partner interested in understanding, with a partner interested in imagining together. How might this story have been different had Abraham gathered Isaac and Sarah together to discuss what had been asked of him? How might all our lives be different if this was so? The shadow of our ancestors would be cast in an entirely different light.

In his poem, Yehudah Amichai has two different narratives for a father and son who were together and completely apart. Abraham recounts, “This is where I left The servants behind, that’s where I tied the donkey to a tree At the foot of the mountain, and here, right here, Isaac my son, you asked: Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” But when Isaac recounts the story to his children he offers, “Here I lifted the wood, this is where I got out of breath, here I asked, and my father answered: God will see to the lamb for the offering. Over there, I already knew it was me.” Tragically, the only similarity in Abraham and Isaac’s recounting is the lie and the silence of the truth Abraham knew.

Saying the hardest things in life can be frightening, we worry the words might do irreversible damage, we worry we may be judged or shamed or abandoned. The truth is, it’s usually not the hard things that destroy relationships, but the inability to say the hard things does. This is true in friendships and families and even synagogues. The hardest conversations aren’t what destroy us, it is our fear of having them that does. Speak from the depths of your soul, reach out to your loved ones, share what lies deeply and maybe we can stop the sacrifice.

[1] Koller, Aaron. Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (p. 36). The Jewish Publication Society. Kindle Edition.

[2] ibid

[3] In the Shadow of Violence: Isaac and Abraham Frosh, Stephen.

Yom Kippur Climate Sermon

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The Honduran mountains seem to be dripping with life. Wild rivers carving their paths through steep valleys, mountainsides cloaked in lush greenery, and narrow roads winding past homes and villages are some of the Honduran images that come to my mind. I've had the privilege of visiting Honduras twice in recent years, trying to better understand the root causes of migration.

One moment from my travels is etched forever in my memory—I was leaving a small village nestled in the Honduran mountains near the Guatemalan border. As I walked back to my bus over a rope bridge, an elderly man stopped me. He expressed his gratitude for our visit and asked if there was anything more I could do to help. He shared his plight: the primary source of his sustenance, a particular bean variety passed down through generations, could no longer thrive in his village due to changing weather patterns and reduced rainfall. He faced an uncertain future.

I never learned what happened to that man. I couldn't provide more assistance than what we had already given to the village. Yet, I knew that his story was just one among countless others. The UN estimates 21.5 million people are forcibly displaced each year by weather related events, and some believe there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050.[1] Human beings are migrating in staggering numbers and the climate crisis is undeniably one of its root causes.

As with gun violence in our country, we used to be able to remember the tragic events. We remembered hurricane Katrina because it was so catastrophic and unusual, but the uncommon is now common in our world. We've seen devastating events like the recent dam collapse in Libya. Without a doubt the dam collapse was caused in part by political rancor in Libya and inattention from authorities, but the collapse was likely also caused by climate change. Scientists believe “climate change probably intensified [flooding] it by supercharging Storm Daniel... One weather station in the Greek village of Zagora reported nearly 30 inches of rain in 24 hours, which the World Meteorological Organizations says is “the equivalent of about 18 months of rainfall”. The storm then intensified over the sea, becoming what meteorologists call a Medicane: a Mediterranean storm with hurricane-like characteristics. It made landfall in Libya on 10 September.”[2] Over 5,000 people are confirmed dead after the deluge erased entire neighborhoods in Libya, and some fear there could be as many as 20,000 killed by the dam collapse.

Of course, we don’t need to travel to North Africa or even the gulf coast to understand the ramifications of the climate catastrophe. No, anyone living in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Cleveland, Ohio, or New York City, knows the new reality in which we live. Here in Southeast Michigan, we traded our concrete winter skies for smoke filled summer skies. Many of us couldn’t leave our homes this summer because of air quality concerns from wild fires burning hundreds of miles away.

A few days ago, David Wallace Wells published an Op Ed in the Times. Wells writes, “Canadian wildfires have this year burned a land area larger than 104 of the world’s 195 countries. The carbon dioxide released by them so far is estimated to be nearly 1.5 billion tons — more than twice as much as Canada releases through transportation, electricity generation, heavy industry, construction and agriculture combined. In fact, it is more than the total emissions of more than 100 of the world’s countries — also combined.” But, Wells continues, “what is perhaps most striking about this year’s fires is that despite their scale, they are merely a continuation of a dangerous trend: Every year since 2001, Canada’s forests have emitted more carbon than they’ve absorbed.”[3] Yes, let that sink in a bit, the great North Woods of Canada are contributing more to carbon emission than carbon sequestration.

This past winter, while I was on sabbatical, with the help of the Judaic Studies department at EMU, our congregation was able to host Mara Benjamin, a scholar of Jewish thought at Mount Holyoke. In her most recent writing, Dr. Benjamin is calling on Jewish leaders and thinkers to respond to the climate crisis theologically. Most Jewish organizations working on climate issues use stewardship as the frame in which they approach the issue. If we were just better stewards they say, things would be better. I am not so sure that is true anymore, we’ve been using the stewardship model for thousands of years and it hasn’t contributed to a healthy planet. Christians use this frame as well, like us, basing our understanding on a particular read of creation. Human beings, being the pinnacle of creation, are meant to subdue the earth and rule over it. Subjection has failed us. Our stewardship has not led to perfection, it has created climate chaos. You see, becoming better stewards isn’t the entire answer, it will not solve the problem we find ourselves in. No, Benjamin urges us to reorganize and reimagine our entire relationship to creation and our place on this planet.

Earth sits on the brink of collapse because we believe we somehow deserve all the stuff. We deserve the house, we deserve the car, we deserve the strawberries shipped from Mexico. To be clear, please don’t mistake my point as accusatory. The entitlement we feel is not our own doing, it is foundational to our economic systems. Even those who resist the urge to deserve, are engrossed with the rest of us in a world view that says, yes we do. It isn’t just our habits or economic systems that need to change, how we understand our relationship to this planet must be reframed.

Looking to the psalms is one way Benjamin suggest we might reframe our relationship to God and creation, specifically psalms 104 and 148. Benjamin writes, “these Psalms seem not only to decenter the story of Israel, but also to disrupt the triumphant positioning of human beings as the apex of the created order and celebrate the uniqueness of diverse animals, geologic formations, and weather events. In this vast but wisely ordered multiplicity, humans and their doings appear as just one more manifestation of divine creativity.”[4]

The Psalms are not the only place we can find this sentiment in Judaism. We find in tractate Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud, “The Sages taughtAdam the first human being was created on Shabbat eve at the close of the six days of Creation. And for what reason was this so? Adam was created on Shabbat eve so that if a person becomes haughty, God can say: The mosquito preceded you in the acts of Creation, as you were created last.”[5] If we are willing, we can search our tradition for new ways of thinking about our relationship to creation and this planet and new ways are essential if we are going to survive as a species.

While I may not be a climate scientist or policymaker, and I wouldn’t even call myself a climate activist. I am a rabbi. And while I commend the work of those trying to make a dent in the unfolding catastrophe we are living through (please don’t stop!), I believe that lamentation is a crucial step we've skipped in addressing this crisis.

For thousands of years, in the face of both personal and communal catastrophe we have responded with lament. Prayers and poetry, tears and tearing of clothes, wails of despair and cries of hope. We have an entire biblical book of this, in English we call it lamentations, in Hebrew—“Eichah meaning (How!). This first word of the book, eichah? Is not used as a simple how, but as an exclamation of incredulous horror. “How dreadfully everything has changed!” “How awful this is!” the open vowel of the emphatic ah, mimics a scream: Eichaaah. For when people are truly horror stricken, what astonishes them is how an ordinary day turned into a catastrophe after which nothing will ever be the same”[6] We are a people that knows the pain of destruction. From our multiple exiles in ancient times, to pogroms and the shoah more recently, sadly we are experts in experiencing grief and loss.

Like the first human beings expelled from Eden, we too find ourselves outside the gates of paradise. When the gates have closed and the entry barred, we lament. During our first exile in Babylonia, our ancestors used lament to ground themselves.

עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זׇכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃

Al Naharot bavel, sham yashavnu gam Bachinu Bezochreinu Et Tzion. By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and we wept and we remembered Zion.

אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלָ֗ם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי

Im Eshkachech Yerushalyim tishkach Yemini, If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right-hand wither.

Before we could return to our land, we needed to weep, we needed to remember what was lost. We need to do the same today. Where have the butterflies gone? And the song birds? Yes, there are some around, but not like there were decades ago. This is worth crying about. And the storms that we’ve had, the lightening blazing across the sky, the storms are wicked today in ways I don’t remember from just a few years ago. The upheaval of the natural order is worth screaming and crying about.

But it is not just we who cry. In the Book of Jeremiah, as the destruction from the Babylonians approaches, God too weeps. “For the mountains I take up weeping and wailing, For the pastures in the wilderness, a dirge. They are laid waste; nobody passes through, and no sound of cattle is heard. Birds of the sky and beasts as well have fled and are gone.”[7]God is weeping now as well. God is crying for the man in Honduras, for the drowned Libyans, and for the forests now made matchboxes. God is crying for the loss of wild places, for the toxic waters a few miles from our homes. We need to weep, we need to write the dirge.

For 2,000 years we’ve called ourselves partners in creation with God, but we’ve squandered that partnership, it is a metaphor that has lost its power. If we are to heal this dying world, it will take more than solar panels and windfarms, it will take more than rewilding the land and pacific garbage patch clean ups. It will take our own healing as well. Healing from the grief and loss we are all in right now. It surrounds us and holds us even if we are unaware.

It is grief that makes us wonder, what will this winter be like? When will the next storm shut off the electricity again? Will the next unnatural disaster affect us directly? But grief and lament must be our teachers, for in lament we may find strength we never knew we had, we may find an imagination we’ve never accessed before, and we must find courage we need now more than ever.

It is hard to face the pain of dying world, but we must. Out of lament comes inspiration in Judaism. For it is in the penultimate verse of the Lamentations we find the source for the oft repeated high holy day refrain, Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha V’nashuva hadesh yameinu kekedem. Take us back O God, and let us come back, renew our days of old. In an essay about the theology of lament, my teacher Rabbi Rachel Ader asks, “According to our mystical tradition, language precedes everything, for the world is created with the alphabet. [God spoke and the world came into being] To unmake a world is to undo the alphabet of creation, to plunge the world constituted by language back into disorder, to strike it wordless. But how can the alphabet so violently broken be reconstituted?”[8] We have plunged the world into disorder and lost the language to explain our relationship to God and this planet.

We must start at the beginning, finding the vowels and consonants, the syllables to reconceive and rehabilitate a relationship that we have squandered. To find our language and create the world anew, we climb out of the pain of loss on a ladder whose rungs are made of wailing. On a night when we recite Kol Nidre, a prayer that asks God to absolve us for unfulfilled promises made in the past year and the year to come, let us not resolve to do better right now. Let us not promise to make changes that won’t last more than a week or two. Most of us haven’t done the work to prepare for those changes. But, we can promise to cry, we can promise to wail, we can promise to lament. Our ancestors sat by the Tigres and Euphrates crying out in memory for a place they had long since left. Their cries kept Jerusalem alive and our cries can maybe do the same. I am already in conversation with our Dayenu group about coming together for public lament, to read poetry, sing dirges, and remember the world we have lost for now, maybe on the shores of the Huron. Yes, I know, that sounds somber. It is. But if we are going to write this world anew, it is where we need to begin.





[5] Sanhedrin 38a

[6] Fall 2014 - For These I Weep-A Theology of Lament CCAR Journal

[7] Jeremiah 9:10

[8] Fall 2014 - For These I Weep-A Theology of Lament CCAR Journal

Yom Kippur Israel Sermon

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This past winter, my family and I embarked on an extraordinary journey in Israel that exceeded all our expectations. It was a dream come true and marked the first half of my sabbatical. During our two-month stay, we had the opportunity to study, improve our Hebrew, and introduce our children to the rich tapestry of this country. Sarah and I, having led numerous trips to Israel in the past, felt comfortable guiding our kids through the various religious, cultural, and political facets of this land. We were committed to providing them with a deep understanding of Israeli society, including the realities of Palestinian life. Our base was Jerusalem, but we explored both the southern and northern regions, spent quality time in Tel Aviv, and reconnected with friends from our camp days in our 20s. The entire experience was nothing short of exceptional.

Towards the end of our stay, we ventured into the West Bank with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder and director of Torat Tzedek, or Torah of Justice, an organization dedicated to human rights advocacy. Rabbi Ascherman has been on the frontlines as a human rights defender since the 1980’s. He led Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel for many years before founding his current organization. Rabbi Ascherman took us just north of Jerusalem to witness the lives of Palestinian farmers and shepherds. We observed as volunteers from Torat Tzedek stood guard, offering protection against harassment from nearby settlers intent on forcing the Palestinians off their land to make way for more Jewish settlements.

After touring for half the day and speaking to some of the Palestinians he works with, we got back in the car with Rabbi Ascherman and headed home. As we drove, I had one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had as a father. We were discussing how Rabbi Ascherman navigates his Zionism and his commitment to human rights. Specifically, I asked how he manages the college interns that come to work, how does Ascherman avoid turning them into anti-Israel activists? Rabbi Asherman, however, directed the question to my children, seated in the backseat. In a heartbeat, they responded with remarkable wisdom, emphasizing that every society has its flaws and bad actors, and every government can make regrettable decisions, but this does not condemn an entire society.In that moment, I felt an immense sense of pride as a parent. Sarah and I had achieved our goal of instilling in our children both a profound love for Israel and a healthy dose of critical thinking.

I believe more and more American Jews are awakening to this reality. We have been sold a bill of goods for too long, those who suggest that American Jews only offer support and never any critique of Israel offer a false dichotomy. So too, those on the left that condemn liberal Zionists, claiming real progressives cannot stand in support of (in their words) a colonialist regime. No, this too is a false dichotomy that relies on the narrowest of readings of history. We must be able to do both with Israel, love and critique.

As Rabbi Chelsea reminded us on Rosh Hashanah, in Judaism we are meant to engage in tochechah, when we see something wrong, we are obligated to get involved and offer rebuke.  50 years ago today, Israel was under siege, with a surprise attack in the north as Syria invaded and from south as the Egyptians tried to retake the Sinai Peninsula. After the 6-day war in 1967, Israelis thought they were invincible, leaving them completely unprepared for this surprise attack. With significant tank losses in the north, Israelis were terrified they wouldn’t hold their lines. 50 years ago today, there was real concern that Israel was going to be destroyed by invading armies. Today, that threat is no longer external, today that threat comes from Israel’s own government.

For the past 10 months, Israelis have taken to the streets every Saturday night to protest the ruling coalition's sweeping judicial reforms. A staggering 25% of the population, equivalent to 76 million Americans, has joined these protests. It's important to note that these demonstrators do not oppose all changes to the judiciary but argue for a necessary national conversation on the matter. The coalition claims that the judiciary wields too much power and that the Supreme Court's selection process is flawed. They seek the ability to appoint judges and overturn rulings that do not align with their agenda, effectively giving them unchecked power.

We know the consequences of weakened democracies – the rights of minorities are trampled upon, marginalized communities suffer, and extremism takes hold. In an illiberal Israel, the LGBTQIA community, Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank, and liberal Jewish communities will be further ostracized. Sadly, this July, the collation passed the first in a series of bills they are hoping for. “The Knesset passed legislation that abolishes the “reasonableness doctrine,” which the Supreme Court of Israel has employed to evaluate government policies. It is a practice used by high courts in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries. The doctrine operates exactly as it sounds: the court determines whether a given government policy is sensible and sound.”[1] The legislation removes an essential check on the parliament’s power. Ultimately the coalition wants to ensure they can pass any legislation they desire without worrying the Supreme Court will strike it down.

Rabbis are supposed to know their congregations. When discussing a particular delicate issue, it is assumed the rabbi knows where their congregation falls ideologically and I think I have a good sense of this on many issues. However, when it comes to Israel, I have no idea where our congregation stands. In today’s political landscape, living in a liberal college town does not mean there is wide support, even among Jews for Israel.

In fact, from some of my most recent conversations with members about Israel, my sense was that many feel rejected religiously by Israel and therefor feel uninclined to engage with Israel at all. These are feelings I completely understand. As a liberal Jew and rabbi, Israel barely makes room for me. Without a doubt there are deeply hurtful policies that deny the legitimacy of non-orthodox Jewry and even some in the Modern Orthodox world. In terms of treatment of Palestinians inside Israel proper and within the West Bank, I am also dismayed. No, Israel is far from perfect.  

Even in its imperfection, the Land of Israel sits prominently in our hearts. For 2,000 years our people longed to return to the land, that is what its called in Hebrew, by the way, Ha’aretz, as if there is no other land. We pray about Ha’aretz, we pray toward Ha’aretz, and we’ve dreamt about Ha’aretz. Yehuda Halevi, the 12 century Spanish poet and rabbi wrote, “My heart in the East But the rest of me far in the West— How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?” Halevi’s words are famous because they express so succinctly the yearning of our people for return to land. Regardless of how any of us feel about Israel today, for 2,000 years, our people have been longing for return.

Israel is not just a homeland for religious Jews; it is a homeland for the Jewish people as a whole. Yes, we are a religion, but we are so much more than that. Throughout most of the Torah, we are B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, we are a people. We are people of different colors, different ethnicities, and different backgrounds but we are a people. This is part of the reason, even though Israel denies liberal Jews full religious legitimacy, I still go back, I still love, and I still critique Israel, because it is filled with my people. More than half of all the world’s Jews now live in Israel. Israel is the most crucial Jewish project of the 20th and 21st century.  The future of the State may seem unrelated to us here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but if Israel becomes a failed democracy, it will undoubtably reshape American Judaism.

For the last 75 years, the American and Israeli Jewish communities have been growing apart, for many of the reasons I’ve mentioned already, but we’ve also grown together. Be it scholarship, ritual rediscovery, or sharing of music, food, and culture, our communities rely on each other for the vibrance of Jewish life today. In an illiberal undemocratic Israel, I can’t imagine that would be the case any longer. We must recognize that the judicial overhaul in Israel affects American Jews as well.

To those who believe that diaspora Jews should stay out of Israel's internal political conversations, we must remember that our support and voices have been instrumental in the formation of the State of Israel. Diaspora Jews have played a significant role in guiding Israeli policy through international bodies like the World Zionist Congress.

Leading Israeli journalists Matti Friedman and Yossi Klein Halevi as well as Rabbi Daniel Gordis recently coauthored an appeal to diaspora Jews, published last month in the Times of Israel. In their appeal they say, “With Israelis on the streets fighting for the liberal values they share with so many Jews around the world, this is no time for Diaspora silence or alienation. To the contrary: when someone you love is in danger, you draw closer…this is a moment for Diaspora Jews to find common ground with Israelis fighting for a country of which we can all be proud.” They continue, “We urge you to get involved in supporting the democracy movement…Invite representatives of the democracy movement to your community. Insist that your community’s missions to Israel include a meeting with movement leaders. Organize study groups to familiarize yourselves with the issues. Challenge your national Jewish organizations to respond to the state of emergency with the gravity it deserves.”[2]

Friedman, Halevi, and Gordis are calling on us to step up because of the dire consequences. It is all too possible that the democratic, liberal state we’ve known for 75 years will come crashing down as an authoritarian theocratic regime in the coming months. I know Israel is complicated for many of us. I know it is hard to engage with a place that does not seem to hold our same values and that does not seem to validate our existence. It may be that the Jewish family is a bit dysfunctional in that respect. But Israel needs us now. Israelis are asking for us to raise our voices, to support them as they fight for the future of their country.

As we learn from the Babylonian Talmud, “One who can protest the conduct of one’s household and does not protest, is held responsible for the sins of their household. One who can protest the conduct of the people of one’s town and does not is held responsible for the sins of their town. One who can protest the conduct of the whole world and does not is held responsible for the sins of the whole world.”[3]

When family is struggling, we offer help, we stand by and reach out. Let us not sit on the sidelines as the future of Israel is called into question. Call the Israeli consulate, tell them Israel must remain a democracy, that the judicial overhaul threatens the future of Judaism worldwide. Join ARZA, the Reform Movement’s Zionist organization and help support liberal Judaism in Israel. Go on a trip to Israel. There happens to one this summer for woman, but we are in the process of planning a community wide trip as well. Call your representative in Congress and ask them to so co-sponsor the concurrent resolution supporting Israeli democracy and opposing any actions that undermine Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state, Concurrent Resolution 61.

As we confront the challenges ahead, let us remember that we can love Israel and offer constructive critique simultaneously, that is certainly what my children would say.



[3] BT Shabbat 54b

Tue, May 28 2024 20 Iyar 5784