My Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!

It was a beautiful summer night in Jerusalem. Okay, in Jerusalem, all the summer nights are beautiful. I was offered an opportunity to attend an outdoor concert featuring a singer-songwriter, whose name I knew, but whose music was completely unfamiliar to me. His name is Kobi Oz. He first achieved fame, both in Israel and on the World Music Scene as the leader of a popular Israeli hip-hop band named Teapacks. Now, hip-hop is not my preferred musical styling, but while studying at the Hartman Institute, I’d heard about Kobi Oz from colleagues who were studying new trends in Israeli spirituality. They told me that Kobi Oz is one of the foremost figures in a growing wave of Israeli musicians who are on a new journey, a spiritual quest. An opportunity to sample his music in person seemed too good to pass up. Little did I know that the concert would prove to be the first of a number of powerful spiritual experiences for me this summer.

An avowed secular Jew, in recent years Kobi Oz has recorded two albums of music markedly different from that which brought him to the public’s attention. The first of the two albums is entitled, Mizmorei Nevuchim – Songs of the Perplexed. The title is a play on Moses Maimonides’ magnum opus, Moreh Nevuchim, The Guide for the Perplexed. The songs on this recording reflect Oz’s attempt to understand the world in which he lives. His lyrics include religious and spiritual themes, as he tackles myriad social and justice-oriented tensions in contemporary Israeli society. Both a spiritual seeker and a political thinker, Kobi Oz is unabashedly a voice of the new generation in Israel who believe that their state is both militarily secure enough to handle its hostile neighbors and strong enough to wrestle with questions of national purpose, vision, economic and social justice. Oz openly questions the assumption that so long as Israel faces security challenges, social justice issues must be set on the back-burner. This summer saw that assumption rejected by the masses. Having served their time in the IDF, the rising generation in Israel is posing critical questions, and they begin a question akin to that which God addressed to Adam in the Garden of Eden after he and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: ayeka? Where are you? Today, the younger generation in Israel, in truth, Israelis of many generations are asking, Where are we? Where are we in the crafting of a moral and just Jewish state? Where are we in our dream of becoming a light unto the nations? Where are we in the development of a culture of equality, dignity, tolerance and pluralism? Kobi Oz has become a powerful voice for these questions.

My time studying in Israel this summer began towards the end of what was known as the “cottage cheese” revolution. Fed up with the high price of this basic staple on the breakfast table in nearly every Israeli home, Israelis boycotted the companies which produce some of the freshest and most delicious cottage cheese I have ever tasted. It began on Facebook, and spread quickly. Soon the companies were knuckling under and reducing their prices from over $3 for a tiny cup of cottage cheese the size of a small yogurt to a somewhat more reasonable price point, by Israeli standards. This was followed by a series of other boycotts such as “the baby-stroller” protest in which parents marched to protest the high cost of child-care, and a doctors’ protest over salaries. Many of these protests went unnoticed in the West, until a small group of young Israelis began setting up tents on a main street in Tel Aviv and camping out to protest the high cost of housing in Israel. This evolved into the largest sustained protest movement in Israeli history, spreading from city to city. I saw the early tents in Tel Aviv. By the time I left Israel in late July, tents were popping up in Jerusalem. By the end of August there were tent cities in close to a dozen cities all over Israel. There were also weekly marches, in which hundreds of thousands were participating throughout the country every Saturday night at the end of Shabbat. Israelis, Jewish and Arab, young and old, rose up to tell the nation’s leaders that it is time to address the nation’s social ills and internal life, rather than continuing to put these issues on hold until Israel’s security and stability in the Middle East are resolved.

There is no question that Israelis are well aware, on a daily basis, of their precarious reality: the continuation of missiles from Gaza – many of which strike Kobi Oz’s hometown of S’derot on a daily basis; the attacks in the south which originated from the Egyptian controlled Sinai; the continued rantings of Iranian President Ahminijhad threatening to destroy Israel; the growing tensions with neighbors like Turkey and Egypt, with whom Israel has had relatively good relations in the past, which are now souring rapidly and precipitously. At the center of all this, is the on-going conflict with the Palestinians which, as of last week, is now unfolding at the United Nations. No one knows how this chapter will play out in the weeks and months ahead. Against the backdrop of geo-political changes and the reality of Israel’s existence in an increasingly hostile region, the price of cottage cheese, or more importantly housing, seem less significant. But just as there has been a growing spread of uprisings in the Arab nations surrounding Israel, where the masses are demanding to be released from the iron rule of dictators and oppressive regimes, in a markedly different, and yet paradoxically similar vein, Israelis too are demanding that their leaders wake-up and pay attention to their voices and their needs. Israelis are asking, “Where are we?” Who are we? Where are the Jewish values and the democratic principles our Declaration of Independence proclaims in the real world in which we live? How do we release ourselves not only from the crushing economic pressures, but also from the dissonance of our ideals as a nation and the injustices we witness on a daily basis? Sick and tired of political corruption and stalemate, Israelis want action from their leaders. And they want it yesterday.

Kobi Oz’s Songs for the Perplexed, released in 2009 and its sequel released earlier this year capture the angst and frustration which one sees quite openly in Israeli society. Listen to a part of the lyric from one song, ironically named T’fillat Ha-Chiloni – The Prayer of the Secular. Couched in religiously evocative terms, Oz’s plaintive verse contrasts social protest with the perplexing reality of living in a society riven with tension; whose reality is a diversity which must find a way to live within that diversity:

Father, oh merciful Father
Be to me a trusted soul-mate
Cushion my heart in your faith
Lend to me awe at the sound of Your name

. . . I prayed at a Jewish minyan
Next to me a Haredi trembled a volcano of fears
For the sake of G-d he is a systematic robot
Hugely sweaty, blessed with (many) children
Next to us a National Orthodox who worships dust
And for all his invasion of the past
He praises battle-dress as if the battle’s won
And we all live by his sword
An immigrant and caretaker decorated in a hunched back
A Reform Jew with a brand new cover, or a different book.
A traditional and his lad Bar Mitzvah boy . . .
And from behind there is a wild rustling and whispering
Headscarves and wigs and hair-do’s
For on the other side of the divide lifts the sensuous sound
The feminine voice of the non-counted

Bless thy children of all kinds,
both religious and also secular
Father, oh merciful Father
Be to me a trusted soul-mate . . . .

This is but a small sample of Kobi Oz’ voice, which is one part of the chorus of voices, venting the growing frustration and discontent among Israelis. It is the voice of Israelis’ desire for their nation to find its footing amidst its many challenges. Several times during the concert I found myself moved to tears (as well as laughter.) I was hardly alone. The crowd, packed with several hundred Wexner leaders, from North America and Israel, as well as American teenagers was moved again and again by Kobi Oz’s sharing of his moral and spiritual journey. In truth, Oz is speaking to both the younger generation, and to older generations as well. Over two months since my return from Israel, I still find myself listening to his music, and that of others of this New Israeli Spirituality on a daily basis. There is something in all of this that is speaking to my soul and the many questions I have as a North American Jew who deeply loves and cares about Israel and her people. An Israeli rock concert, featuring an artist whose work was entirely foreign to me, was among the last places I expected to be moved to tears.

As I followed this summer’s protests in Israel, I was struck by the relative civility with which they dealt with the myriad challenges they face. As I reflect on the capacity of most Israelis to disagree, loudly, vigorously, and yet with a sense of their shared reality, I am reminded of the steady drumbeat of other experiences in the past year, which for very different reasons, have also brought me to the brink of tears. During 5771, our community’s ability to speak about Israel has taken a huge turn for the worse. This past year, the divide in how Jews and Jewish communities talk about Israel has gotten increasingly nastier. From my point of view, here in the Boston we seem to have made ourselves the epicenter of just how ugly this discourse can get.

Last year’s gut-wrenching events – surrounding the invitation and subsequent dis-invitation of J-Street’s leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami to speak at a sister congregation; the attacks on the New Israel Fund; the ugly campaign to remove J-Street and other groups from under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and the campaign to impugn my friend and colleague, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the newly chosen leader of our Reform movement, have left me in a state of pain. I am watching a Jewish community, which cherishes the reality of living in a free and open society, divide against itself. Among us, we hold widely divergent views on Israel; on how to speak about Israel; about whether to criticize Israel and Israeli policies; about where, when and if we might speak our criticism or to whom we should direct our support, and what form that support should take. I will not say there is only one acceptable position when it comes to Israel. As I have stated from this pulpit on numerous occasions, we must be open to hearing viewpoints other than our own. I do believe there are redlines which should not be crossed – such as support for the BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has as its ultimate goal the complete de-legitimization of the State of Israel. I cannot help but see the energy around the move to the United Nations as a piece of that campaign to delegitimize Israel. It is striking to note the shift in nuance among numerous Palestinian leaders and other world leaders who speak in terms of an occupation that dates not from 1967, but rather from 1948, the founding of the state. Nevertheless, I know that my views on Israel are not the only acceptable ones. Time and time again I have urged discussion and dialogue within this community, not so that we may convince one another of our correctness, but so that we may, to the best of our capacity becomes allies in support for Israel and her people (which I do not define as support for all of the policies of Israel’s government.)

Friends, like a majority of Israelis, I believe wholeheartedly in the need for two states living side-by-side. I believe that both sides – or shall we say all sides, have made mistakes. I’m not prepared to draw up a balance sheet at this moment. I believe that it is high time for the Palestinians, and other Arab nations to recognize the right of Israel to exist in a clear-throated and unequivocal manner. It is time for them to stop telegraphing the message that Israel is an illegitimate state. I also believe that it is time for the Israeli leadership to begin to act in an equally clear throated, straightforward manner to address the myriad challenges, domestic, and justice-oriented, as well as in regard to Israel’s Palestinian neighbors. In the words of former PM Yitzchak Rabin, “No more war. No more bloodshed. ”

Friends, the same must go for us here in our Jewish community. We may not be shedding blood in a literal sense. But the ferocious and ugly campaigns on the part of various groups, both left and right, to claim the mantle of being the only legitimate voice for the Jewish community is damaging our community. It distresses me greatly that its continuation could drive us to a point of division from which we may not be able to recover. In a world in which I believe there is truly a vicious and forthright campaign to discredit and delegitimize Israel as a nation, we can ill afford attempts to delegitimize one another as members of the Jewish community. At the end of the day we need to find ways to listen, to disagree and to work together with respect and a common sense of purpose. Israel’s reality may be more existentially threatened, but our future as a community is also at risk. Perhaps Israelis themselves have modeled a bit of disagreeing in a civil manner for us this summer.

As I listen to the voices of Israelis and Palestinians who simply want their children to live in a world of security and peace; as I listen to the voices of strong proponents of Israel in our midst and of those who are feeling more disenfranchised and disconnected from the reality or even the ideal of Israel, I find myself perplexed. Where are we? Where are we headed? In my perplexity, I hear Kobi Oz’s voice,

Father, oh merciful Father
Be to me a trusted soul-mate . . . .
Bless thy children of all kinds,
both religious and also secular. . .

and I hear the voices of others in Israel. They are sparking my soul to new questions and to a renewed desire to find a way in which we can all live with one another. My upcoming course, Engaging Israel will be one part of my attempt to foster a different kind of discourse. I hope you will join me. Friends, we must find a way to walk into this New Year together as a community – and together with all of our diversity and with our Israeli brothers and sisters who are as diverse in their views as we are.

Shanah tovah

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