September 22, 2005
We Must Work to Build Solidarity in U.S.
Do you know anyone serving in Iraq? I intend to ask this question this year at Yom Kippur services. Of the 1,500 people who will hear it, I expect no more than a handful to say they do. I, for one, do not. Do you?
As it is for most of America, the Iraq war is an abstraction to many American Jews. We don't know by name anyone in uniform on the ground. And so, like most of America, it is hard for us to become motivated to take action. After all, what do we personally have at stake?
Contrast this scene with the historic events in Gaza two months ago: 53,000 soldiers and police were deployed -- 1 percent of the population or the equivalent of 3 million Americans. Even if an Israeli did not have a son, daughter or husband immediately involved, they likely had a friend who did. And even if they didn't have a friend connected to the events on the ground, just watching the pictures created a certain sense of inevitability: That could have been me in uniform.
Compulsory military or national service is the greatest factor in cementing solidarity between the citizens of Israel. Every child in Israel is raised with the assumption that they share the same future as their friends and neighbors: They will all go into the army. They are included in the same fate.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik termed this concept of shared fate brit ha-goral. In his work, "Kol Dodi Dofek," the rav argued that in light of the Holocaust, every Jew shares the same fate as every other Jew, no matter his or her connection to the Jewish people: "The individual, against his will, is subjected and subjugated to the national, fate-laden reality. He cannot evade this reality and become assimilated into some other, different reality." The implications of this reality include a shared sense of suffering with, responsibility for and action toward fellow Jews.
Times have changed in the nearly 50 years since Soloveitchik wrote "Kol Dodi Dofek." Israel, though threatened, is vastly more secure. Here in America, we are two generations removed from the Holocaust, and the concept of brit ha-goral rings hollow with this generation. Today, we are all about choice, not fate. Unlike in Israel, where the typical child orients his or her entire life around wearing a uniform in service to the nation, the American child is brought up to orient his or her life around -- in the words of the U.S. Army -- being all he or she can be.
In Israel, the disengagement provoked a national therapy session, a shiva house spanning the entire country. The tone of Israeli society was unbelievable: shared suffering, responsibility, fate. Israelis witnessed their children crying with each other, praying with each other, tending one another's wounds. And in those moments, all of Israeli society psychologically channeled itself into the homes in Gush Katif, and assumed collective responsibility for whatever fate had in store.
And here in America? Despite its mounting toll in lives and treasure, the Iraq War has still not overtaken American society as the No. 1 topic of conversation. The lives of celebrities, sports and entertainment are still further toward the center of our national consciousness. The suffering lies with the families of the soldiers; the responsibility lies with the administration; the fate simply lies.
American Jews have been looking for a meaningful way to respond to the disengagement. Some sent money to the evicted families. Others sent pizzas to the police.
Let me propose something much more immediate and demanding: That we, who have not chosen to move to Israel, engage our civic duty and develop in American society the exemplary kind of solidarity that our brothers and sisters in Israel displayed last summer.
In its most substantial form, this would mean advocating for reinstatement of compulsory military service, with a national service option for conscientious objectors. If we immediately shy away from this notion, we must at a minimum confront the moral question and explain why someone else's child should be asked to risk his life, while our own children lie sleeping 10,000 miles away.
Independent of this debate lies the clear moral and religious obligation to identify with those who are putting their lives on the line, and to support and sympathize with their families. Our synagogues should host returning soldiers and invite them to share their stories. Our communities should provide forums for anxious and grieving families to share their pride and their pain. We must make the effort to share their fate.
The central ritual of Yom Kippur in Temple times was the offering of two goats: One was sacrificed to God; the other thrown off a cliff in the wilderness. The goats were identical. All that separated them was a goral, a lot, an act of fate.
We no longer perform this sacrifice, but we read the story as part of the Yom Kippur service. Let us resolve this year to embrace the brit ha-goral that binds us as Jews here and throughout the world, and to create a society of shared fate here in America as well.
Rabbi Joshua Feigelson is a graduate of YCT Rabbinical School and campus rabbi at the Fiedler Hillel Center of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. For more, visit www.edah.org.