Jewish Journal


October 23, 1997

In Times of Sorrow


Ceramic bas relief by Albert Greenberg

"I am sure," said Sinai Temple's Rabbi DavidWolpe in his Rosh Hashanah sermon, "that in almost every pulpit inAmerica from whatever denomination rabbis are speaking about theterrible strife we are enduring -- Jew against Jew, as well as Jewagainst Arab -- in the Land of Israel."

Judging from a roundup of sermons delivered onLos Angeles pulpits, Wolpe's assumption is accurate, if too narrow.Rabbis from across the denominational spectrum pronounced the Jewishbody politic both in Israel and at home in need of urgentcare.

At Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Laura Geller spokeabout the conflict between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewsthat has spilled out of the Holy Land and into our own communities.She called on Reform Jews to boycott Orthodox institutions that denyreligious pluralism in Israel. Wolpe, too, focused on Israel,reminding a packed congregation that our criticisms must notovershadow our affections. Rabbi Joseph Kanefsky of B'nai David Judeaurged that all three movements find conciliation, or at leastunderstanding, by enlarging their sense of responsibility to allJews. The "vital premise" for establishing honest dialogue, saidKanefsky, is for every side to realize its fallibility. And whatbetter time to start than the season of atonement? Following areexcerpts from the three sermons. -- Robert Eshman, AssociateEditor

'A Judaism Real for Us'

By Rabbi Laura Geller

Imagine my surprise when I awoke on the Shabbat before Purim toread in the L.A. Times that I wasn't Jewish anymore! The headlilneread: "Non-Orthodox Not Jews, Rabbi Group to Claim." Now it's truethat the headline was misleading. The article actually said that theUnion of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada declaredthat Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. Their adherentsare Jews, according to Jewish law, but their religion is not Judaism.

Thanks for the clarification. I'm Jewish; my temple isn't. ...

The tension between some Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews hasescalated beyond words. Most recently, the Reform kindergarten inMevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, was firebombed early in themorning on the day school was to begin. While the police have notidentified the arsonists, many Israelis believe that the bombing wasthe work of those Jews who want to undermine the growth of ReformJudaism in Israel. ...

Who is hurt by all of this?

Reform and Conservative Jews are certainly hurt.

But their number is so small, you can say. Only two percent of theJewish Israeli population identify themselves with the Reformmovement. Another two percent with the Conservative movement.

But these numbers are misleading. Strictly Orthodox Jews are asignificant minority in Israel -- only 14 percent of Israeli Jews.Strictly secular Jews? Twenty-one percent. That leaves the vastmajority of Israelis, who are pretty much like us, searching fornon-Orthodox spiritual content in their lives. ...

My biggest fear is that some American Jews will use the outrageousbehavior of the Orthodox establishment as an excuse to disengage fromIsrael. But without Israel, American Judaism loses part of its soul,part of the wellspring that nurtures our religious imagination, muchof our past and perhaps all of our future. Without Israel, Hebrewbecomes a dead language, and Hebrew scholarship becomes a remnant ofthe past. Without Israel, our Judaism is a shadow of itself, anunthinkable relic. ...

Should we separate ourselves from all Orthodox Jews? Not at all.We have much to learn from those Orthodox teachers and institutionswho respect our integrity and are willing to learn from us as well asteach. Individuals like Rabbi Danny Landes from PARDES in Jerusalem,who was our scholar-in-residence several years ago. Or Rabbi DavidHartman, who brings rabbis from all denominations together to studysacred texts in an atmosphere of mutual respect and learning. We allare enriched by learning with Jews who are different from us, as longas the learning and interaction occurs with a context of mutualrespect. But -- and this is critical -- we must stop supportingOrthodox institutions that have contempt for Reform Judaism. ...

why do Reform Jews still send them money? ...

Many of us believe, deep down, that they, the Orthodox who looklike our great-grandfathers, are authentic Jews and we, Reform Jews,are not authentic. Many of us believe that their grandchildren willbe Jewish, but ours will not be. Many of us pray here but send themmoney, just to make sure there will be a Jewish future.

That is the real problem. The question is not: will ourgrandchildren be Jewish, but, what is the quality of our Jewish life?Sure, we want to guarantee a Jewish future, but our first prioritymust be to make sure we live a Jewish present. Our children and ourgrandchildren will be Jewish if they see that Judaism means somethingto us, that it creates meaning in our life, that it gives us a senseof roots and a purpose, that it opens up a connection to God. Noamount of guilt money to fundamentalist Orthodox groups can do that-- only our own commitment to our Jewish lives.

Our task is to create a Judaism that is real for us, thatintegrates the truths of our tradition with the challenges of themodern world. Our task is to make Jewish choices based on learning --to experience the joys of wrestling with our sacred texts, tocelebrate Shabbat, the rhythms of the years and the cycles of ourlives -- to find ways to open ourselves to the Divinity thatsurrounds us and that calls us to repair the broken world. Our taskis to create a Jewish community that can transform our lives, acommunity that is passionate, activist, visionary, artistic, caringand spiritual. And part of that task involves Israel, being connectedwith Jews like us who are searching for a meaningful spiritual lifethrough our Reform movement.

'Teach Them To Love'

By Rabbi David Wolpe

For those of you who only study Talmud, "The Simpsons" is anevening cartoon show about what we call in current lingo, anextremely dysfunctional family. And it is Thanksgiving at theSimpsons and Marge's mother comes over, and Marge answers the door.And her mother says, "Listen, I have terrible laryngitis and I can'ttalk at all. I just want to say one thing: You've never done anythingright."

We laugh at that in part because it's a parody of parentalcriticism. It's criticism with all the love sucked out of it. It'sjust bad. And part of what that teaches us is that criticism is anearned privilege. Why do you listen to people who criticize you?Primarily if they've already shown you that there's some love there....

If I stood up today and just criticized the congregation, justlambasting you...what would you say to me? You would say, look, it'sone thing to criticize once you know and love people. But how can youbegin to criticize before you've demonstrated any affection? And youwould be right. ...

It's true of God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiba talks aboutyisurin shel ahava, the sufferings of love. You think, he says, thatGod criticizes you because he hates you? Quite the opposite. Thecriticism is based on a deep and abiding affection. Without that Godwouldn't care. This has been a tremendous and unsolved problem ofAmerican Judaism. There was a generation of Jews that grew up nativeto the tradition and they loved it. But that didn't mean they didn'thave criticism of the tradition. They had powerful criticisms. Partsof it left them cold or indifferent or angry. But, unfortunately,they raised their children knowing the criticisms but notunderstanding the love. They gave them everything that was wrong, butthey did not give the deep connection that they felt. They thoughttheir children would imbibe their love along with their reservations.But since what they enunciated was their reservations...the childrengrew up with a sense of absence and distance but without the love.

I tell you this because it may be happening again. This time myfriends it is happening with Israel. In contemporary American Jewrywhen we talk about Israel the discourse has been bleached of themiraculous. We no longer talk about the wonder, we talk about itsproblems...

Our disillusionment is rife, our marvel and astonishment hasturned to pain. I am not suggesting that no one should criticizeIsrael or that no criticism is in place. ... I am sure that in almostevery pupil in America, from whatever denomination, are rabbis whoare speaking about the terrible strife we are enduring -- Jew againstJew, as well as Jew against Arab -- in the Land of Israel. Peoplespeak about the fractioning of our people. It's serious, it'simmediate and none of us should underestimate the scope of theproblem. But underneath that reality rumbles a greater reality whichis that our children don't hear the love anymore.

For those of you who have a romantic conception of Jewish history,let me tell you this is not the first time that Jew has foughtagainst Jew. ...It's not new. ...

But let me warn you in opposition to everything that you hear frompsychology; sometimes your children hear what you say and not whatyou mean. And when all you say is it's terrible what's going onthere, that's what they hear: That is a place where terrible thingsgo on. So please, do not scold Israel to your children until you singto them of your love. Remember that we have a generation who are nowadults who don't remember '48, who don't remember '67, who don'tremember '73...when Israel was a besieged David in a sea of Goliathswho yet managed to survive. ...

So before you anatomize, and analyze and judge the people of theland, give them your love. There is a place for critique, animportant place, but it should be on the far side of affection.That's true with people, it's true with Judaism, it's true withIsrael. ...

Send your children there...go there yourself...see it, don't holdyourself aloof, don't make that mistake. Let us teach our childrenthat a piece of our hearts is there in that wonderful, unfathomableand mysterious land. ...Teach them that when blood is shed in Israel,we still cry, and that when Jews fight, we are grieved, not becausewe hate, but because we love. ...Teach them to see the flaws in theLand, yes. Teach them not to be silent when they see something theythink is wrong, absolutely. But first I ask you, I beg of you beforeyou teach them to criticize, teach them to love.

'God Is Close to All Who Call'

By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

How does the modern believer continue to honestly maintain theconviction that the redemption will invariably come? I suggest thatthe answer lies in our ability to understand and apply the words ofthe Talmudic sage, Rabbi Hiya. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Hiya andhis colleague, Rabbi Shimon, were once walking together beforesunrise in the valley of Arbel. As the first rays of the sun slowlybegan to appear, Rabbi Hiya commented to his companion, "thus will bethe redemption of Israel. It will unfold little by little." RabbiHiya teaches us that we need not be able to envision the entireprocess of redemption to believe in it. We rather need to becommitted to being able to do "a little bit," to advance the processof Israel's repentance -- the precursor of Israel's redemption -- onesmall step. The rest has to be left in the capable hands of thegenerations that will follow us.

I would suggest this morning that the "little bit," the small stepthat is upon our generation to achieve, is to create as large aspossible a Jewish community that feels a sense of mutualresponsibility, and that is engaged in a common conversation aboutGod and Torah. ...

A few months ago, I participated in a wonderful forum at the UCLAHillel with Rabbi Richard Levy and Rabbi Ed Feinstein. ...

In response to audience questions, Rabbi Feinstein candidlyconceded that it had been an error on the part of the Conservativemovement to have omitted Talmud for many years from its religiousschool curriculum. And Rabbi Levy conceded that the Reform movement'sdrastic alterations of the traditional liturgy had been a mistake.And I, for my part, professed my belief that Orthodoxy has madeserious errors in these past few decades, concerning the issue ofwomen's ritual participation within the framework of the halacha.Mistakes can be made, and corrections can be made. This is a vitalpremise for establishing the Jewish community that senses mutualresponsibility, and that engages in a common conversation about Godand Torah. ...

A phrase from the Rosh Hashana liturgy must be borne in mind. "Godis close to all who call upon Him sincerely." If God does so, surelywe should do so. There are many Jews whose theological views weabsolutely disagree with. The way that many Jews have chosen topractice their Judaism is a way that we are unable to embrace, or toaccept as being equal to our own. But we must realize that very oftenthey are as sincere in their beliefs as we are. They call out to Godon this day as sincerely as we do.

And so we absolutely can create a Jewish community that deeplysenses mutual responsibility, and that engages in a commonconversation about God and Torah. To cite the words of Rabbi JonothonSachs, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, "...the covenant wasaddressed to the Jewish people as a whole. And the Jewish people as awhole cannot be identified with the views of any particular group. Itlives in the conversation between the groups..."

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