I have been composing this dvar Torah in my head ever since the Israeli election results began to pour in. It was much harder to actually put my thoughts down on paper. I sat and stared at my computer screen for some time.
What could I say in response? What should I say?
As I mentioned in my email to the congregation last night, I participated in a conference call yesterday sponsored by T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights, formerly Rabbis for Human Rights North America. It was very helpful.
One thing that struck me was how worried congregational rabbis are at the prospect of addressing this issue from the bimah. They fear alienating some of their members, particularly those who are at either extreme of the political spectrum. They fear that some will even leave the community as a result. They fear that speaking out will further stir things up and cause deeper divisions than already exist in their communities, divisions that may impact other aspects of their lives and practices as a community.
I fear these things too. Whether or not I agree with every everyone’s political views, I still value their—your–presence in our community. I also value all the other ways that we can and do come together as a community.
Some of you do not want your rabbi to speak about political issues from the bimah, particularly if she has a different viewpoint than you. You have communicated that to me—directly and indirectly. Some of you, on the other hand, want me to do precisely that—to speak out on these issues, to be a more outspoken leader—not only within our own community, but also beyond, among the Jewish people, among those of other faith traditions, in our city, our State, our country, in the world. You too have communicated your approval, and disapproval, when I have spoken out, and when I have not.
While I certainly have my own political views and will work hard—in my role and position as rabbi, as well as in my private life as a Jew–to bring about change guided by these views and commitments, my role up here, on the bimah, is not, I believe, to bring my own political analysis to the Israeli election, or to Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions in the days leading up to it, and in the days since. There are others of you who have read more than I, who are more politically savvy than I, who are, I would even say, more intellectually astute than I am on these complex issues.
My role is, however, to bring my understanding of Jewish tradition—including of Jewish values and ethics–to bear on the situation. To remind us of what is, and is not acceptable behavior, according to Jewish teachings. To draw on our Tradition to help guide us—as individuals and as a community–as we discern how best to respond, how best to go forward.
First then, I want to remind us of one of the mitzvot, one of the many sacred obligations of Jewish Tradition, found in the Book of Leviticus: Lo Tees-nah et achi-cha bilva’vecha; hocheach tochiach et amitecha; v’lo tisa alav cheyt. “You shall not hate your brother or sister, your kinsfolk, in your heart. Reprove your kinsfolk, but bring no guilt upon yourself because of their sin.” (Lev. 19:17).
The Torah reminds us that it is our obligation to be social critics when we see that society or individuals are making terrible mistakes. We must rebuke them, we must speak out publically, even against those who are our “kinsfolk.” It is our sacred obligation.
But, the text also reminds us, we must not hate them in our hearts. There is nothing constructive about hatred. Hatred does not bring about change; it only breeds more hatred, more alienation, more defensiveness. It only creates a deeper wedge between people. We see this from those who see themselves as our “enemies.” We even see this among our own kinsfolk, who might hold different views than our own.
In the process of rebuking them, the Torah teaches us, we must not do anything that will bring guilt upon ourselves. We must not violate our own values, our own understanding of what is right or wrong. We must act with dignity; we must not treat others, as Rabbi Hillel said, in ways that we ourselves would not want to be treated.
I’d like now to address the specifics of what happened—Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab voters, his remarks about a two-state solution, and the Israeli public’s response as expressed in the overwhelming outpouring of support that he received in the election. But again, I’d like to address these issues through the lens of Jewish teachings.
“Va’yivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem elohim bara oto. . .” (Gen. 1:27): “So G-d created the human being, in the divine image, in the image of G-d did G-d create them,” it says in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation. Commenting on this verse, the Mishnah (M. Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches us about the concept of Adam Yachid: One Single Human Being. One being was created at the beginning, the Mishnah teaches, so that no one can say, “My father [parent] was greater than your father [parent].” This is considered by some to be a paradigm for the natural dignity and equality of all citizens in any given society, since each and every one is created in the image of G-d. Judaism values the dignity of all people, not just Jews.
The Jewish State, Israel, was founded upon these values. In the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, it says: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
In other words, all Israel’s citizens are to be ensured complete equality and social and political rights. This of course includes its Arab citizens, who must not only have the right to vote, but in the spirit of any good and healthy democracy, ought to exercise that right by going to the polls—in great numbers. To single out one group, Arabs, based on their ethnic identity or Peoplehood, and to suggest that their going to the polls “in droves” is in any way problematic or not in the best interests of the State is not only contrary to the Mishnaic teaching that all members of the society deserve dignity and equality, but it is also contrary to the very ideals upon which the State was founded. How might we have responded if a presidential candidate in this country tried to rally his supporters by suggesting that they must vote in order to outnumber the blacks who would turn out, or even, to outnumber the Jews who might turn out? This kind of language has no place in a free, democratic society; it also has no place in a nation that is founded upon Jewish values and ideals.
Many political analysts have commented—again better than I ever could or should–upon Mr. Netanyahu’s statement that under his leadership there would be no Palestinian State—even though he had actually affirmed the creation of such a State in 1990 at Bar-Ilan University. Many have also commented upon the fact that Mr. Netanyahu is now “clarifying” his remarks in a way that suggests that he may not have meant what he said in the run-up to the election. The problem is not what he believes or does not believe; the problem, from a Jewish point of view, is: which of the two statements is true? Was Mr. Netanyahu telling the truth when he responded to the reporter on Monday who asked, “If you are prime minister, a Palestinian State will not be established?”, and he responded, “Correct”– or, was he not telling the truth in order to gather more votes—simply in order to win?
In our Shabbat School last Shabbat, we focused on various aspects of Derech Eretz—translated literally as “The way of the land,” but perhaps better translated: appropriate behavior.
Students learned that in the Book of Exodus it says “mi-d’var sheker tirchak”: “keep far from a lying word.” Our tradition teaches that we are forbidden from lying to another person. With our children last Shabbat, we learned that there are a variety of examples of lying. One kind of lying is when someone creates stories that have no truth at all, in order to be liked or to be considered knowledgeable. Even if these stories do not cause anyone a loss, they are considered a serious offense; in fact, the Talmud says that lying is equal to idolatry—one of the most serious offenses that anyone can commit. We also learned that a person must become accustomed to admitting, “I don’t know.” If a person finds it difficult to say this, then that person is likely to lie.
Perhaps Mr. Netanyahu would have been better off, as our Tradition guides, by responding, “I don’t know.” The “sin” that he may have committed, by saying one thing but meaning another—as he seems to have indicated in interviews since the election, is a very serious offense. It undermines trust—on many levels. Whether here in the United States or in Israel, it is essential that our leaders can be relied upon to be truthful with us, if we are to put our trust in them to lead us.
Mr. Netanyahu certainly has the right to have his own political viewpoints, and to decide for himself what is most in Israel’s long-term interests—as do each and every one of us. He—and the Israeli public–has the right to not want a sovereign state for the Palestinian people, or even to believe—as he said in his remarks after the election—that the time is not right for Palestinian statehood, that statehood is impossible right now—whether this is because of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and its pact with the militant Islamist Hamas movement, or because of the rise of Islamic terrorism across the region.
The question is, I believe, whether this stance is in the best interests of the State of Israel, or in the best interests of all those living in that parcel of land or that part of the world.
Again, I quote the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
We could say that it is a different world today, than the one that existed sixty-seven years ago. Sadly, I am not so certain that it is. In 1948, Israel was also surrounded by enemies who wanted its destruction. It is true that there are still many who want to see Israel destroyed. But not all. The biggest question facing Israel today is: what will most likely bring about peace? I—and many others–don’t believe that the hardline approach that has been taken these many years has worked, nor will it work; it will fan the flames of hatred, which will only cause the wedge that divides Israel from her neighbors to widen. After 67 years of tragic bloodshed on both sides, I believe that Israel must try something different. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman taught recently, Israel must pursue a more realistic peace, not an elusive idealistic peace, in order to realize the ideals that the framers of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel articulated when they said those words in 1948.
So, where does this leave us—as American Jews, or simply as Jews? The fact is, many voters in Israel did trust in Mr. Netanyahu enough—his statements and his viewpoints—that he could be re-elected as Prime Minister. The election results—whether we agreed or disagreed with, liked or disliked Netanyahu’s tactics—reflect the fact that many Israelis [and again, perhaps some of you as well] agree with his position—at least enough for him to have won 29 seats in the Knesset. In a democratic state, the candidate, or the party, that gets the most votes wins.
[Whether we live here in the United States or in the State of Israel itself]—each one of us must ask: What does this post-election reality reflect about the nature of the State of Israel? Are the values that were expressed by a significant number of Israeli voters consistent with our own values and ideals for the State of Israel, or are they not? If they are, then great; if they are not, then what do we do?
Now I say “we,” knowing that there are a variety of viewpoints among our members—including those toward either ends of the spectrum. I—as an individual—have my own responses to the questions. I will say publically here tonight that the values that were expressed in this election in Israel do not reflect my own values, and I will speak out and express them publically. Thousands of years ago the prophet Jeremiah said, “My bowels, my bowels! I am shaken in the chambers of my heart; my heart moans within me; I cannot hold my peace, because you have heard, O my soul, the sound of the shofar, the alarm of war.” (4:19). I too cannot hold my peace; for my own sense of moral integrity, I can do no other.
But/and . . .what about us as a community? As much as I personally might want us as a community to issue a statement or to act—by marching, lobbying, or protesting in other ways—I do not believe that we can—at least not yet. We ourselves are too divided, at least at this point, to come together with a common statement. For us to do something collectively, it would have to emerge more organically. At this moment, I don’t know exactly what that means, or how to go about it. As our tradition guides us to say, “I just don’t know.”
What I do know is this: in our effort to figure out what to do, or which way to go, we must not hate one another—there should be no hatred in our own community, or between us and those living in Israel. There is, as I said earlier, nothing constructive about hatred. Hatred does not bring about change; it only breeds more hatred, more alienation, more defensiveness. It only creates a deeper wedge between people. If it is truly peace that we want—for the Israelis and Palestinians who live in Israel as well as for those peoples in the surrounding territories and lands, then we must be willing, as another one of our sacred obligations guides us, “Ve’ahavta l’rey’echa k’mocha” (Lev. 19:18)—to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Is this naïve? Perhaps so. But, as Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel stated, “I would rather be guilty of senseless love than senseless hatred.” Let this be what guides us forward—as individuals and as a community– as we try to find our way.
Rabbi Zari M. Weiss