Saturday, March 26, 2011


This was a guest דרש‎ given by Alan Stein on March 26, 2011 at Beth El Synagogue in Southbury, Connecticut.

One important point, not included in the דרש, is that there is no shortage of self-examination and criticism (both legitimate and illegitimate) regarding Israel within the Jewish community. In fact, if there was a tenth as much self-criticism within the Arab and Muslim communities as much as there is within the Jewish and general pro-Israel communities, there might be a realistic chance of peace.

This week's parshah is שמיני, since it begins "ויהי ביום השמיני" - "And it came to pass on the eighth day." This came after seven days of consecration of the כוהנים, the priests, preparing them for their service as כוהנים. It describes various sin offerings, goats, calves, lambs, oxen, rams.

To us, today, those sacrifices seem crude, barbaric. But they must be seen in the context of the times.

This was a seminal time of the formation of the Israelites and the Jewish people, the Jewish nation. We needed to develop our own rituals and traditions, but we did not do so in a vacuum. Our rituals were, naturally, adapted from those of the other peoples in those times, and sacrifice was a basic part of religious life.

The sacrifices of other peoples were not goats and lambs; they were human sacrifices. Thus the practices, as adapted by the Israelites, barbaric as they seem to us today, were a giant step forward in that time.

When the Jewish kingdom was established and the Temple built by King Solomon, the Temple became the center of Jewish ritual and remained the center, with interruptions, political and religious disputes and crises, including the split into Northern and Southern kingdoms following the death of King Solomon, for more than a thousand years.

A new crisis, an upheaval arose, with the Roman conquest, the destruction of the second Temple and the ethnic cleansing - they didn't call it that in those days, but that's what it was - of Jerusalem. A Judaism that had been built around the core of a sovereign Jewish state and a holy Temple in Jerusalem had to adapt to the loss of both, or fade away.

The solution was the creation of rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that has kept the Jewish people together for nearly two millennia.

This is discussed in an article, "Halacha's Moment of Truth," by Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy, in the current issue of Azure, a journal I get sent because of my membership in SPME, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. (In Hebrew, azure is "techelet," the mysterious blue dye for tallitot referred to in the Torah. Azure is available online at .)

According to Gordon and Levy, in rabbinical, halachic Judaism, "The Temple service was replaced by prayer. Holidays were reinterpreted. A fixed calendar was instituted. Torah study became the supreme value, compensating for all the commandments that could no longer be performed. And the importance of sovereignty was downplayed: for the sake of Jewish survival, the message had to be that sovereignty was not essential so long as rabbinic leadership remained."

According to Gordon and Levy, we now face another shift of "tectonic" proportions: Judaism must reconstitute itself as the religion of a sovereign nation, Israel.

Many of the important questions are already in play. Early on, the rabbis had to reconcile the commandment to keep the Sabbath with the necessity of an army protecting life on Shabbat. Other issues are proving more difficult and problematic, including the laws of shmita (letting land lie fallow every seven years), regulation of marriage and divorce, rules for acquiring citizenship, "who is a Jew?"

Shortly after Marsha and I joined Beth El back in 1977 - has it been that long? - our rabbi at that time, Joel Chazin, spoke on just this theme, saying the greatest theological issue of the day was the reestablishment of the sovereign state of Israel. He said Judaism had not yet begun to deal with it. Since then I've heard very little said about it until this article in Azure.

The editor's introduction to this issue of Azure is entitled "The Zionist Imperative." It deals with the Jewish connection to Israel in context of traditional Jewish community solidarity. It mentions the principle called Areivus, כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.

The first GA, General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, which I attended just before becoming president of the Jewish Federation in the late 1980s, had the slogan "We Are One," affirming the oneness of the Jewish people, in America, in Israel and around the world.

That unity was part of the thrust in the change of the name of the Jewish community newspaper to Chavurah, a name proposed by Gary Broder, who became the first editor of Chavurah. Gary included the catchphrase, "Do Not Separate Yourself from The Community," under the masthead, although that was unfortunately removed several years ago.

The sacrifices with Aaron in the desert were part of the beginning of that unity, and the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish state should be reinforcing that unity, providing a focus for that unity.

Unfortunately, there are some who are separating themselves from our community, even while doing so in the name of Judaism.

We have fringe groups of Jews, including JStreet, which misleadingly and inappropriately calls itself "the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby," falsely implying the mainstream Zionist groups like AIPAC, Hadassah and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are not pro-peace, while JStreet's alleged pro-Israel stance is questionable enough to be debated in the Knesset.

We have the misleadingly named "Jewish Voices for Peace," determined by the Anti-Defamation League to be one of the top ten organizations working to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Jewish state.

We even have the "Neturei Karta," self-declared as Orthodox Jews united against Zionism. The Neturei Karta align themselves with the most fanatical forces pledged to the destruction of Israel, advising Yasser Arafat, going into Gaza to demonstrate solidarity with Hamas and participating in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust Denial conference in Iran.

While there can be honest disagreement and there should be honest, good-faith debate about how Israel can best defend itself against determined enemies who remain bent on its destruction, the Jewish people must remain united, as one, in its support of the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The parsha Shemini, and all of Vayikra, deals with the formation in the desert of our people. Later in Shemini, it is described how, on the day that should have been the most glorious in the life of Aaron, the High Priest, Aaron's eldest sons, נדב and אביהוא, made an offering to God אשר לא צבה אתם, which was not commanded to them, ותצא אש מלפני השם ותאכל אותם, and there came forth fire from before the Lord and devoured them. One may argue by going beyond that commanded by God, Aaron's sons separated themselves from the community and the consequence was they were devoured by fire.

We survived for nearly 2,000 years without our own sovereign state, but even during that time the dream of Israel remained at the core of our being as a people and at the heart of our religion, so much so that both our Yom Kippur service and our Passover seder, coming in just a few weeks, end with the chant לשנה הבאה בירושלים - Next Year in Jerusalem.

We survived the destruction of the Temple, an earthshaking event for Judaism.

We are still in the midst of the theological earthquake involving the reestablishment of our state of Israel.

The destruction of Israel would be another earthquake.

Our capacity for surviving theological earthquakes is not necessarily unlimited.

We are obligated, as Jews, to keep the land of Israel in our hearts and to support Israel in its miraculous and continuing fight for survival.

1 comment:

There is NO Santa Claus said...

I think the Torah has at least a few instances of dis-unity among the ancient Hebrews. I don't know that today's anti-Israel Jews will be conveniently smitten by the Almighty, but at least it's useful to identify and alienate them.

Speaking of earthquakes, due to the ongoing crisis in Japan, the Israeli government is just starting to become alarmed by the lack of preparation for the next big earthquake in Israel. There is a reason the Roman ruins in Israel are in ruins: earthquakes.

A high magnitude earthquake could destroy Israel without anybody firing a shot. The Jordan River runs right along a major fault line.

Israel is prepared for so many contingencies of man-made disasters. It's time for the Jewish State to prepare for a natural disaster as well. It would be the greatest of ironies for the modern Jewish State to be destroyed by a natural disaster.