This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
“Rabbis must go beyond cheerleading on Israel” – so the title of Rabbi Jill Jacobs article in Haaretz goes.
Rabbi Jacobs’s words are worth considering as the High Holiday season begins:
To be a rabbi is to be a moral leader. Moral leadership requires us to move beyond cheerleading to drawing on our tradition acknowledge fear, address ethical questions, offer loving critique, and inspire the hope that will move our communities toward supporting peace.
As Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbi Jacobs is a religious leader with ethics at the core of her Jewishness. She should be congratulated for her efforts. But no matter how much passion she brings to her task, there’s something essential missing from her analysis.
Rabbi Jacobs still thinks moving Jews on the question of Israel-Palestine is important – and possible. She still has faith in congregational life – and its outreach on the political level. Her respect for rabbis struggling with their responsibilities as congregational leaders is evident. But like her search for common ground for both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide, such respect is misplaced. It continues the process of soul searching that is out-of-date and way too late.
Perhaps during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, these hopes could still be nourished. But now more than 25 years later with the situation as it is? With the people of Gaza still picking through the rubble and Jerusalem and the West Bank under increased occupation and settlement?
On this Rosh Hashanah – after Gaza – we need more. Much more.
Here’s Rabbi Jacobs on the struggle of rabbis:
It’s true that speaking about Israel is difficult. In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, I have heard from many anxious rabbis, worried about angering one segment of the community or the other, or wondering whether to address Israel at all.
This situation is especially pronounced for rabbis who move beyond the one-sided pro-Israel cheerleading and offer the experiences and stories of Palestinians along with those of Israelis.
Thankfully, courageous rabbis do engage their communities on this most difficult of issues. Some have shared with me draft sermons that draw on Jewish text and history to promote a relationship with Israel that includes deep commitment, loving critique, and the ability to hold multiple narratives at the same time.
The job of a rabbi is to be a moral leader. And there is nowhere in the Jewish community more in need of moral leadership than the Israel debate.
The problem is that rabbis aren’t trained for moral leadership. And in my experience with rabbis over the years, their employment almost always trumps their willingness to risk. As importantly, their ignorance about Israel – and Palestine – is palpable. For the most part, they seek to maintain that ignorance. The cost of knowing is too great.
Rabbi Jacobs on moving deeper than politics:
Our conversations about Israel tend to stick to the political. We wage wars of factoids, lobbing bits of data back and forth: The latest polling on who does and doesn’t support peace; evidence of one side’s bad (or good) behavior during the war; “proof” of whom to blame for the latest flare-up or for a long ago war.
These boxing matches lead nowhere. Each side digs deeper and deeper into its own position, and seeks out more and more data points to support pre-existing beliefs.
Rabbis hold the power to break through this standstill by helping their communities to cultivate deep empathy for all sides. Rabbis can bring the wisdom of Jewish text and tradition to deep questions about the Israel we want to create. We can look to rabbinic laws concerning the establishment of a just society for insight into creating a country that reflects Jewish values.
All sides? After Gaza, the end of any possibility of a two-state solution and an ever-widening militarization that seems endless?
There is a time warp here, as if Israel hasn’t defined itself, as if mainstream Jews haven’t staked out their position, as if Jewish leadership, including our rabbis, isn’t culpable.
Are the rabbis and Jews Rabbi Jacobs seeks to address innocent and therefore able to take time to reflect and move step by step? How long will this process take, even under the best of circumstances? And what does this mean for the Palestinian people?
Finally, Rabbi Jacobs on the role of the clergy:
According to an old adage, the job of the clergy is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. This especially rings true when it comes to Israel. Rabbis need to simultaneously address the very real fears of those of us with loved ones in Israel, and to push Israel to be a place that lives up to the best of Jewish text, values, and tradition.
“Our loved ones in Israel.” Like showing our love for Israel itself, this is exactly where political analysis ends and where depth is precluded. Which brings us to the sad realization that it is the very congregational structure of Jewish life and the rabbis that lead these congregations – no matter how both “struggle” with ethical issues – is exactly the wrong venue to place our energy during the High Holidays.
For the most part, Jews of Conscience are nowhere to be found in the synagogues during our Days of Awe – and for good reason. Rather than struggling for the right words to speak to other Jews, they are actively opposing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
After Gaza, perhaps the rabbis should abandon their congregations as most Jews of Conscience have. In exile, Jews may regroup and find another way to observe the Jewish calendar.
For without justice, what kind of God are we worshiping? And how can we repent our individual and collective sins of injustice when our Jewish institutions are enabling the injustice Rabbi Jacobs asks us to wrestle with?