For the sake of heaven
I once heard a rabbi, a noted proponent of a Greater Israel, make a plea to his congregation for bipartisan empathy. This was just a few years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when both the Right’s dreams for an unchecked settlement movement and the Left’s dreams of a two-state solution appeared dashed.
“Friends,” he said, “whether we are on the right or the left, I think we can all agree that our dreams have died.”
“Except,” whispered a left-leaning friend, “his dream killed my dream.”
That’s the problem when rabbis talk about Israel. Any sentence that includes “we can all agree” means exactly the opposite. There are very few things all Jews can agree on, let alone when it comes to Israel. Rabbis who talk politics in the pulpit end up alienating somebody, unless the rabbi has unusual authority, the congregation is unusually homogenous, or the minority is unusually forgiving.
Better to avoid the topic altogether, or speak about Israel in the most anodyne or least controversial terms. I suspect that charitable groups that support the IDF or “lone soldiers” are having their moment because the welfare of the troops is something “we can all agree on.” What else? Not politics, not religion, not civil rights, not even social welfare (especially when so many of Israel’s economic issues are tied up in debates about the Arab minority or the fervently Orthodox).
As The New York Times reported this week, the Gaza war has made rabbis ever more reluctant to speak their minds on Israel. That’s especially true in the non-Orthodox movements, where reliably liberal domestic politics are more likely to clash with hawkish views on Israel. The rabbis quoted bemoan a lack of civility surrounding the Israel debate. The article cites a 2013 questionnaire by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; one-third of the 552 rabbis who responded said they publicly repress their privately held views on Israel. What’s more, “the ‘doves’ were far more likely to say they were fearful of speaking their minds than the ‘hawks.’”
For one noted dove, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peter Beinart recently suggested that rabbis refrain from sermonizing on Israel — not because they would be risking their jobs or alienating congregants, but because they don’t bring much that is new to a tired and ubiquitous debate. Congregants, after all, read the same newspapers, follow the same websites.
What rabbis should talk about, Beinart writes in Ha’aretz, is Jewish text. “The best way to ensure that American Jews stay connected to Israel is to ensure that they stay connected to Judaism,” he writes. The social science is with him: Studies consistently link the “distancing” from Israel not with politics but with lack of engagement with Jewish life in the first place.
I’d imagine many rabbis would find Beinart’s advice liberating, and limiting. Israel has become a central issue in the life and identity of American Jews. Considering this summer’s searing conflict, it would be weird and even derelict if the sanctuary were the only place where the country’s security and future were not being discussed. Surely “Jewish text” has a lot to say on just and unjust wars, self-defense, and Jewish sovereignty.
The question is whether we can teach, talk, and sermonize about Israel without pretending “we can all agree” or that one side has all the answers.
The answer lies in the rich Jewish literature on civility in argument, or what the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes as “the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.” Its pithiest expression comes from Ethics of the Fathers: “Every mahloket (argument) which is l’shem shamayim is destined to endure.” L’shem shamayim translates as “for the sake of heaven,” and almost literally means arguing in good faith — that is, with the intent of solving a problem, respecting the other party, and being open to the possibility of changing your mind.
The JCPA runs a “civility project” which has been trying to “build open, constructive communication across political divides on Israel.” Its website offers resources for talking about how we talk about Israel.
Rabbis can also talk about the need for and rewards of engaging with Israel — no matter your politics or interests. One of the most dispiriting trends of recent years is the attempt by various right-wing groups to discredit Jewish organizations — from J Street to the New Israel Fund — with which they disagree. Opponents tell themselves they are “saving” Israel from bad ideas, when what they are really doing is giving Jews fewer options for engaging with Israel. Rabbis should celebrate the diversity of opinion within Israel and among its support groups and promote those programs — right, left, center, sideways — that connect Jews to Israel through ideas, relationships, and activism.
Finally, let’s not put the entire burden on the rabbis to say the “right” thing. Let the worst thing to happen to you this holiday season be that you hear an opinion that you disagree with. Don’t blame the rabbi — thank her for sparking an argument for the sake of heaven.