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Loyalty - August 23, 2019

 

Dear Friends,

 

I remember as a teenager, in Religious School and in youth group, we used to debate whether you were a Jewish American or an American Jew. We were challenged to think about the primacy of our loyalty; Are you first and foremost a Jew who happens to live in the United States, or are you an American, who happens to be Jewish? Theoretical debates in the context of a youth group event is one thing; having your loyalty publicly questioned by the President of the United States is another.

 

The word “loyalty” carries with it tremendous implications and historical gravity for Jews. For centuries, we Jews have been accused of a lack of loyalty to the nation in which we live. No matter how long we lived in a country, or the extent of our military participation, or the role we played in government and the wider society, there were those who questioned our loyalty. Anti-Semitic tropes have claimed that Jews have greater loyalty to the Jewish people and, since 1948, to the state of Israel than the nations in which we lived. This claim of disloyalty or secondary loyalty has led to persecution against Jews for centuries.

So, when President Trump used these words earlier this week, he was using language which resonates deeply within our hearts and minds as Jews. While it was not immediately clear what disloyalty the President was alluding to, he later clarified that he was suggesting that Jews who vote for Democratic candidates are “being disloyal to the Jewish people and … very disloyal to Israel.”

I am secure in my loyalty to the United States as a public school educated, tax-paying, voting citizen who participates in the wider community.

I am also secure in my loyalty to the State of Israel. Having lived there twice for a year each, and visited over a dozen times, sent my children there multiple times, supported it financially, spoken about it publicly, studied its history, language, culture - I think that I am good.

Finally, as a rabbi, I think I can feel reasonably good about my loyalty to the Jewish people.

To call into question my loyalties because we differ in opinion is an insult; but not one that I am losing any sleep over. My concern is a broader one.

As I have said before, I do not believe that President Trump is an anti-Semite, but, as David Harris of the American Jewish Committee said, he is wandering in places where anti-Semites can think that he is and that gives them leeway. The vagueness of his remark allows others who do not listen with a critical ear to thinkthat Jews are disloyal. In situations like this, leaders need to ask if we are contributing to or are we tamping down on the divisive rhetoric.

 

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded, once again, "If you obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors:" (Deuteronomy 7:12) For a few thousand years, the Jewish people have had a covenant with God, and for the next several weeks of Torah readings, we will be reminded of the importance of staying loyal to that covenant. As Reform Jews, our understanding of that covenant is not so black and white. While we may not fulfill the letter of the laws, we stay loyal to the spirit of those laws.

However, today it’s actually not onlyabout loyalty. As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Josh Weinberg (whom I also quoted last Shabbat) wrote: “It’s about taking our fate and destiny into our own hands, using our strength, affluence, and intellect to right society’s wrongs and do what we can to make the world a better place. Any individual who bothers us with questions of loyalty to them or a specific party is just a distraction from our mission. Nearly a half-century ago the famed Rav Joseph Soloveitchik summed this up quite succinctly:

A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.”

(Kol Dodi Dofek, based on Rambam's Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)

 

  1. and faithfulness have their place. We as Jews can and should be proud of who we are, of our tradition and our age-old civilization. But pride does not equal blind faith and loyalty today is earned through ideas and inspiration, not through demands or threats. We’ve had our loyalty to rulers tested time and again from Pharaoh to Ahasuerus, to medieval kings and lords, to Napoleon’sGreat Sanhedrin, through 1950s McCarthyism... In today’s world, it is about loyalty to one another and to our mission of building the Jewish people and the Jewish State; to use our strength and our will to make the world a better place.”

 

But, if you really want to know to what I am loyal, let me tell you:

I am loyal to God, who guides my morality through the Torah as read through Jewish tradition.

I am loyal to my family with unconditional love.

I am loyal to America even when and particularly when I criticize America for not upholding God's values.

I am loyal to the Jewish people as my people, even when and particularly when I criticize the Jewish people when they stray from God's values.

I am loyal to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and a refuge for the downtrodden, even when and particularly when I criticize Israel when she strays from God's values.

My loyalty is to God. Anything else is idolatry. So, it seems fitting to end with a prayer to God:

 

  1. v'Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, our God and God of our ancestors. Bless and guide our nation. May it always be a stalwart of justice, freedom, and compassion. Implant within the leaders who serve our communities, our states and at the highest levels of power, intentions and actions that fulfill Your greatest ideals for our nation. With intent, we pray that all our citizens be brought together to live the values embodied in the words of your Torah and the instructions of the many generations of our teachers. We ask that speedily and in our day we see a time when all the residents of our country are free from any form of discrimination, bigotry or baseless isolation. We yearn for the time we will all meet the highest of our noble national intentions. Help us also to be the instruments of your goodness and creators of peace in this land and across the world. Let us say Amen.
  2.  

- Rabbi Alan Litwak 

 

 

Israel Banning and Welcoming People into the Land - August 16th 2019

Dear Friends,

For those who want to get into the Land of Israel, this has been a tough week. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gets banned from Israel.  After earlier striking a rock instead of speaking to it, Moses is reminded that he will not be going into the land. 

Of course, the ban that you are all waiting to hear about was a little more recent.  Just yesterday morning, when it became clear United States Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s itinerary was entirely one-sided and anti-Israel, and following comments by President Trump that made it clear he did not favor their admittance, the government of the State of Israel reversed its decision to allow their visit and banned the two individuals from entering the State.  In his statement, Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel respects Congress but defended the decision. “As a free and vibrant democracy,” he said, “Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for, and work to impose, boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prevent the entry of people believed to be damaging to the country.”

In light of their track record of supporting BDS, of speaking out against Israel, and statements that could be deemed as anti-Semitic, if the Congresswomen had been allowed to enter Israel, by all indications, they would have used it as a propaganda trip to speak out against Israel and on behalf of the Palestinians. The news media would have covered their trip and hung on their every word.

To no one’s surprise, Israel’s decision has been met with mixed feelings.  Some suggest that it is a show of strength and others suggest that it is a blow to democracy.  While Israel’s decision may not promote democratic ideals, I actually would not argue that it is undemocratic.  Exercising their responsibility to defend themselves, countries, including democracies, reserve the right to ban anyone they feel might endanger them. Just because Israel is a democracy, does not mean that they have to let anyone and everyone in.  Israel is hardly the first government to ban people, and it is not the first time that Israel has done so.  Two years ago, Israel refused to issue visas to the international staff of the NGO, Human Rights Watch, which they declared as having an “extreme, hostile and anti-Israel agenda.”  Britain banned Menachem Begin in the 1950s, citing his work prior to statehood as a member of the Irgun who attacked British Mandate soldiers.  American law bans a variety of people, including those with communicable diseases, those convicted of certain crimes, and anyone who “seeks to enter the United States to engage solely, principally, or incidentally in… any activity a purpose of which is the opposition to, or the control or overthrow of, the government of the United States by force, violence, or other unlawful means.” In 2012, President Obama’s administration denied a U.S. visa to Israeli Michael Ben-Ari, a member of the hard-right Kach Party.  That was not seen as a breakdown of American democracy.  We were certainly strong enough in our democratic views to handle him, but we chose to bar his entry.  Israel has done the same. 

However, as my colleague and friend, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the current head of AZRA - the Association of Reform Zionists of America wrote: in Hebrew, there is a phrase, יש חכם ויש צודק - You can be right and you can be smart - What is right is not always what is smart.”

Let’s be clear.  Israel was faced with two bad choices here.  My contention, though, is that to hide behind the letter of the law, and suggest that this was an effective way of preventing these two individuals from voicing provocative criticism of Israeli policies, is short-sighted.  The challenges of what is happening in the West Bank cannot be hidden, not even behind walls or checkpoints.  In its attempt to silence the two congresswomen, my concern is that Israel has simply given them more anti-Israel ammunition. 

Let me suggest what I think would have been a better alternative.  Much has been said about the Congresswomens’ itinerary and their lack of meetings with Israelis or visits to any place outside of the West Bank.  I refuse to believe that their itinerary could not have been adjusted.  What if, rather than banning the Congresswomen, Israel had published a forceful statement to the Congresswomen, saying, “You have spoken out against us and we have every right to ban you.  However, we would rather engage in conversation and greater understanding.  We want to show you what we love about our country and invite you to work together with us in developing a stronger shared society, a culture of tolerance and pluralism, and a place where we are not afraid to sit with someone with whom we vehemently disagree.”  What if the condition for entering would be meeting with Zionist left-wing activists and Members of Knesset who denounce the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement for being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic? Put it back in their lap to refuse to meet with the Israel that we know and love.  Letting them in would not “show weakness” as was suggested by President Trump, but would show the vibrancy of Israeli democracy, where dissenting opinions are tolerated.  Stav Shaffir, a recent Member of Knesset, wrote, “A country with smart foreign policy would invite members of Congress with positions that we don’t like and make sure they’re exposed to the complexity of the conflict, see our narrative, and show the world that we are strong and open.”

Tonight, I have tried to demonstrate that there is strength and validity on both sides of this discussion.  What is of GREATER concern to me is that Israel cannot be a wedge issue between progressives and conservatives. 

The Zioness movement published a powerful statement to that effect, “Who wins at this game? Donald Trump, BDS activists, and frankly, those attempting to push the American left to adopt anti-Israel and antisemitic positions.

Who loses at this game? International Jewry, democratic norms, and pluralism. To all the American Jews who feel gut-punched today: Resist the temptation to turn your back on your community or the state of Israel. Sometimes … they get things wrong, but that does not mean you need to be ashamed of your Zionism. There is virtue in our steadfast commitment to ... a safe and secure Jewish state, despite our disagreement with decisions of its current government. [And, for those of you who define yourself as progressives,] there is also virtue in [your] steadfast commitment to [those] ideals, despite the fact that some progressive leaders perpetuate anti-Jewish bias and antisemitism masquerading as "anti-Zionism."”

I began with the statement that, for those wanting to get into Israel, this was a tough week.  That was not entirely true.  On Wednesday, 242 North American Jews on a Nefesh b’Nefesh charter flight landed in Israel and made aliyah.  From all walks of life and all strands of Judaism, they declared a desire to place their lot with the Jewish people and the Jewish State.  They were welcomed with singing and dancing on the tarmac and open arms.  That is the image and the story that I would like to hold onto this Shabbat.

- Rabbi Alan Litwak 

 

 

Fri, November 15 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780