Just 3 months ago, on Thursday morning June 26, I had the privilege of conducting the morning service at the egalitarian Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem and officiating as our own Stephen Freedman, son of Lois and Bob Freedman, became a Bar Mitzvah. It was an extremely emotional morning not only because we witnessed this wonderful life cycle event, but for many other reasons. So many aspects of who I am as a Jew and as a rabbi were evident that morning. I was in Judaism’s holiest place. History was on display as the actions of the Roman soldiers who destroyed the Temple 2,000 years ago could be seen in the form of the boulders they hoisted over the Temple mount laying in front of us. I was with members of our shul and was able to share my passion for Judaism and Israel in this very experiential way. But most importantly we were in the State of Israel - the country that is paramount to my Jewish identity.
As our synagogue group was touring and having days packed with spirituality and adventure, the country was preoccupied with the search for the three missing teenagers. News of the search for the boys was the top story every day, all day. Though our group toured as usual, the bus driver, tour guide and I would talk about the boys every morning. And then when the news broke that they were found it was as if all of Israel was in mourning. News on TV featured interviews with Israelis who expressed their outrage and grief. Thousands gathered for their funerals. Our group was at our kibbutz hotel in the northern Galilee at the time. After we boarded the bus the next morning I spoke to our group about the news and we all discussed the impact these murders would have on Israeli politics moving forward. None of us though could predict that only one week later - after we’d all arrived back home - that there would be war in Gaza.
Instead of flying back home from Israel, I flew to the Canadian Rockies to meet Lenore for a long planned vacation. Though of course the scenery was beautiful I was preoccupied with events in Israel. Wifi was spotty and being on an international calling plan was expensive so I felt distant and removed. It was only at the end of the day during our vacation when we arrived back at our hotel rooms that I could catch up on the news. And that news was heart breaking.
As the war raged in Gaza this summer I was filled with conflicting emotions. On the one hand I knew that Israel had the legal and moral right to protect itself and its citizens from mortal danger. Therefore I was extremely proud of the technological innovation of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. But, on the other hand innocent Gazans were being killed by Israeli missiles. Surely many of the Gazan casualties were terrorists but many were innocent victims. As a Jew I have a strong connection to the land of Israel but also as a Jew I have certain ethical and religious standards that guide my life. Should war, can war, be seen as an ethical or religious option?
The question of looking at war this way can lead us in a variety of directions. We could talk about Israeli politics and its policy toward the occupied territories and the Palestinians. We could talk about American foreign policy and its role in policing the world. But since we are in synagogue to reflect upon the new year its more appropriate to tackle these questions from a religious perspective.
In order to answer the question as to whether war in Israel can be a religious option we need to agree on this premise first - that we care about and support the state of Israel. Though that may be assumed by most of us in this room today, it’s not the case in the broader American Jewish community. The Pew survey that was published last October revealed that only 30% of American Jews feel a strong connection to the State of Israel. And as Rabbi Jill Jacobs - the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights - was recently quoted as saying in The New Yorker, “Many people I know in their twenties and thirties say, I have a perfectly good Jewish life here—why do I need to worry about this country in the Middle East where they’re not representing who I am as a Jew? I’m not proud of what’s happening there. I’m certainly not going to send money.” This quote, based on anecdotal information, seems to be accurate based on the Pew survey and it is frightening. 70% of American Jews see Israel as any other country - somewhere far away that they have no intention of visiting let alone supporting.
But Israel - as a concept, as a land, as a people, as a state - is an essential component of what it means to be a Jew. People can define what it means to be Jewish in a variety ways. We can say we’re Jewish by what we eat. We can say we’re Jewish by what we pray. We can say we’re Jewish by how we act. But we have to understand that an essential way to define what it means to be a Jew is through a connection to Israel. Being Jewish means believing in God through the lens of the Torah and Jewish tradition with the people of Israel in the land of Israel. It’s a 3-part definition that incorporates God, Torah and Israel (both people and land) and which makes us unique among other religious traditions.
If we examine these words we realize that most of this explanation is similar to how any other religion could define itself. A Christian or Muslim could say that being Christian or Muslim means believing in God through the lens of Christian or Muslim tradition with other Christian or Muslim people. Each religion has its unique path to God and its unique system of prayer and deeds. But what makes Judaism different is that last clause - a connection to Israel.
Christianity certainly has places that are holy to its religion. But they are holy because of the event that took place there. Bethlehem for example is sacred because Jesus was born there. But if Jesus had been born in Damascus then Damascus would be sacred. Therefore Bethlehem only became holy once a sacred event occurred there. Mecca is the place to which Muslims make pilgrimage because of the altar known as the kaabah that was there in the time of Muhammad. But if that altar was in Baghdad then Muslims would make the pilgrimage to Baghdad. Therefore Mecca is only sacred because of the altar there. In other words, in Christianity and Islam, places themselves aren’t inherently holy. It’s what happened at that place or the rituals done at that place that transformed the place into a holy site.
But in Judaism, Israel itself is inherently sacred. When God made the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God did so by designating the land of Israel as holy and then by bringing them into the land of Israel thereby emphasizing that the land would always belong to their descendants. When the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage they traveled for 40 years to the “Promised Land” of Israel. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai it recorded how most of the commandments would be observed in the land of Israel. When the Temples were built they were constructed in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. After the second Temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago Jews have been praying for our return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple. Almost every page of the machzor in your lap and in the daily prayer book makes reference to that longing for the return to Israel. Events and places are connected in Judaism making our attachment to Israel different from other religions. Our connection to Israel is sacred.
But, our connection to Israel isn’t just sacred and theoretical, it is also tangible. Our connection to Israel and the hope for our return hasn’t evolved or changed over the centuries. It has been continuous and strong. It has kept Jews alive through dark times. As Jews were killed by Crusaders, or expelled from Spain or slaughtered by the Nazis the hope for a Jewish homeland lifted them from the depths of despair. To question the need for a connection to Israel as Rabbi Jill Jacobs highlighted would be as if we were questioning the very essence of being Jewish.
With this understanding of our inherent connection as Jews to Israel we know why we were glued to the news this summer. Because Israel is our land, what happens there is important. If Israel is threatened then we are threatened. If Israel were just any other country then we wouldn’t care as much as we do.
Since we care we can now tackle the second part of the question - Israel’s moral conduct. On the surface this should be simple. Religion is supposed to be peaceful and is supposed to preach peaceful behavior. We should seek peace and pursue it as it says in psalms (Psalm 34) - בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ. Three times a day we pray for peace and when the Temple was standing the kohanim, the priests, would bless the people at the conclusion of the service, “may God’s countenance shine upon you and grant you peace.” Not only do we pray for peace but we recognize that one of God’s names is peace as well. Peace is what we strive for because it is an aspect of God.
But war is also part of God. When the Israelites crossed the sea and the Egyptians drowned, the Israelites sang a song - what is now chapter 15 of Exodus. One of the verses says, ה’ איש מלחמה ה’ שמו - God is a man of war, God is his name. In the later books of the Torah the Israelites are commanded to wage war against the Amalekites and the indigenous population of the land of Israel in order to settle in it. Even in Deuteronomy we find that one of the portions begins with the statement “ki teitzei la-milchama”, when you go to war, implying that war is inevitable.
So how do we deal with this obvious contradiction in our tradition? Does Judaism promote peace or does Judaism promote war? Clearly the answer is both and that may be hard to accept. If Judaism were only a religion we could understand the teaching and promotion of higher ideals. A religion which defines a relationship between God and people should guide people in how to lead sacred and saintly lives. Religion is meant to preach peace, love and harmony and religion is meant to encourage us to live that way every day.
But as I explained a few moments ago Judaism is defined as understanding God through the lens of Torah and Jewish tradition “with the people of Israel in the land of Israel”. That phrase transforms Judaism from a religion to a religious society which means that there have to be laws to legislate our actions. When we include that connection of Torah and the land and people of Israel, Judaism becomes a religion for the here and now, a guide for daily practice, as opposed to teaching ideals for the world to come.
What our Jewish tradition has done over the centuries then is attempt to add holiness to our daily lives. Other societies created legal systems to protect people from each other. Some societies, like America, base those laws on truths that are self evident - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But Judaism teaches that life isn’t about happiness for happiness’s sake, life is about finding meaning and fulfillment every day.
That legislation or system of mitzvot isn’t just meant to guide Jewish lives around the world, it’s also meant to guide the laws and policies of the State of Israel itself. It is not surprising then that throughout our history our tradition has been radical, compared to other societies, in how it treats the conduct of war. In the Torah we are told that if we lay siege to a city we are not to destroy everything in sight. We have to let the fruit trees stand so that when the siege is over people, the vanquished, will still have food. Maimonides in his summary of Jewish law even suggested that the siege can only be on 3 sides of a city to allow people to seek food and help. We are supposed to treat captives, especially women, with respect. War therefore isn’t a game Israel can play like other countries do, war is something to avoid. But if there is no other option but to strike then the conduct of the war itself must be as humane as possible.
The other aspect of this war is the need to understand the enemy’s values. This is not meant to be an indictment of the civilians in Gaza but rather an indictment of the policies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It was clear throughout the war how Hamas used civilians as human shields. Hamas stored artillery in schools, hospitals and mosques and summarily executed anyone who they thought collaborated with Israel.
As Israel comes up against this evil Israel still maintains the Jewish attitude to war. Part of the IDF policy for example is that “IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity, and property.” The IDF released several videos during the war which showed how pilots avoided such civilian targets. Some may still question why the number of Gazan deaths was so high compared to Israeli deaths. But it seems clear that Israel did everything in its power to expedite the war and to aim only at military targets.
Another aspect of Jewish tradition is ensuring that we act both in times of peace and in times of war in an ethical manner. If Israel made mistakes during the war this summer and acted immorally then the Israeli government will investigate. That’s part of being an ethical and religious society and we should be proud of Israel for conducting its affairs this way.
Though the war against Hamas raised these foundational issues of our connection to Israel and the conduct of war we can at least take to heart that our tradition provides us with a way to steer through these crises. The world is a dangerous place and by extension our personal lives are filled with obstacles. The challenge is how to deal with these awful events. Our tradition is there to provide us with the religious principles necessary to make the appropriate decisions. Though going to war is never the best option, it sadly sometimes becomes the only option. Protection of citizens, ensuring the country’s survival, eradicating evil are some of the principles that Israel considered before starting the war.
Though we may want Israel to be different from other countries; though we may want Israel to always be a light unto the nations; though we may want to always be proud of Israel we know that challenges will always arise. It’s how Israel responds that should make us proud. We should be proud of our Israeli soldiers - some of whom we met on our trip this summer. They are teenagers - Ethiopian, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, native or new immigrants - who love Israel deeply and know that Israel stands for morality and justice. We should be proud of Israel for while it wages a defensive war scientific discoveries and medical innovations take place at the same time. We should be proud of Israel because when questions arose about its conduct it set its judicial system in motion to investigate.
This whole conversation about Israel’s moral compass should also serve as a metaphor for our own personal reflection and evaluation. Israel - the State - needs to be moral because Israel - the people, each and every one of us - needs to be moral. Just as we are proud of Israel and just as we continue to advocate for justice in Israel so too we should be proud of ourselves. As we are free to raise questions about Israel so too we should raise questions about ourselves. What are our moral and ethical principles? Have we stayed true to our beliefs? What will we do to make the necessary changes so that we - personally - can be a light unto the nations?
May this season of reflection be meaningful and may this be a year of peace and tranquility in Israel. Amen.