By Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL

Rosh HaShana sermon 5778: Being a Good Jew

Most of us were born after the rise of a Jewish State, and can't imagine life otherwise. But some people consider it God's miracle.

Theodor HerzlTheodor Herzl

One hundred twenty years and one month ago, August 29th, 1897, a secular Jewish reporter from Austria named Theodor Herzl called together as many visionary Jews as he could to a conference in a small, out of the way hall in Basel, Switzerland, to propose an outrageous concept: that the wandering Jews should have a national home, preferably in the land of our origin, Israel.

Remember, the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine, as it was then called. Audacious as it appeared for a private individual to convince the Ottoman Empire to carve out a Jewish homeland: incredibly, just 51 years, 2 World Wars and a Holocaust later, Israel burst on the world stage as a State among the nations of the world.

Consider the impossibility of the proposition: No one foresaw the First World War, or Great Britain and France seizing control of the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire. No one could foresee the Balfour Declaration, or its re-affirmation in the League of Nations, or the founding of The United Nations, all of which played pivotal roles in Jews acquiring and settling in their own state after 2000 years of exile. But Herzl's vision: Im tirzu, ayn zoh aggadah: "If you will it, it is no dream," became reality.

People said, "It will take a miracle."

On November 29th, 1947, 70 years ago less two months, the just organized United Nations voted that Britain should create Jewish and Arab States in their Palestine mandate. Immediately Palestine's rejectionist Arabs launched a civil war, and on May 15th, 1948, the armies of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt together with expeditionary forces from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen invaded Palestine, determined to destroy the newly-born state of 600,000 Jews. This even while daily survivors from Europe's Holocaust poured in from Europe to their final refuge. As the world anticipated a second Holocaust, the infant David defeated the Palestinian Goliath with cunning and a good measure of luck.

Most of us sitting here were born after the rise of a Jewish State, and can't imagine life otherwise. But some people consider it God's miracle.

Maybe these events you knew. But here's one you don't know. On Sunday, May 14th, 1967, the 19th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, spontaneously gave a sermon to his students at the Rabbi Kook Yeshiva. In a wholly unanticipated state of excitement, without preparation he blurted out, "Where is our Hebron. Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem – have we forgotten it? And where is the other bank of the Jordan River? Where is every clod of earth? Every piece of God's land? Do we have the right to cede even a centimeter of it? God forbid!"

Israel's 1949 armistice borders excluded the biblical Jewish cities: Hebron, Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and Western Wall, Shechem, and the east side of the Jordan River. As if in a holy-roller fit of inspiration on this 19th anniversary of the State, Rabbi Kook reached into his gut and preached his deprivation: that the Jewish homeland excluded God's biblical cities.

As if fulfilling a premonition, the very next day, Egypt's President Nasser mobilized troops into the Sinai Peninsula, preparing for war. Israel called up reserves. Three weeks later, on June 5th, 1967, Israel pre-emptively destroyed the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian air forces, gaining air domination over the Middle East, which continues to this day, and resulting in a war lasting just 6 days, tripling Israel's size.

The shocked world gasped. In advance of the threatened war, hand-wringing Israelis, preparing for the looming catastrophe, had dedicated park land to bury thousands of dead soldiers and civilians. The population trembled. But instead, the very cities Rabbi Kook had spontaneously lamented just 3 weeks earlier, without any provocation whatsoever, became Israeli land. Israel became America's hero. And some people considered it a miracle.

In his essay about believing after the Holocaust, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel writes:

What, precisely, did being a good Jew mean? It meant taking upon oneself the entire destiny of the Jewish people ...

(To Believe or Not to Believe, in From the Kingdom of Memory, p. 25)

None of us chooses the world of our birth. We did not ask to be born into just the third Jewish commonwealth in the last 3,000 years. We get what we get. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel states, however, "We take upon ourselves the entire destiny of the Jewish people."

Are there responsibilities in your life you didn't choose, but there they are, and you accept them? Your parents? Your children? Your brothers or sisters? American democracy? The safety of your community? Paying for the damage of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma?

Fallen into your lap, with no effort on your part whatsoever, lies the hope, HaTikvah, of 2,000 years of Jewish history: saving the soul of the Jewish people.

If you were raised a Reform Jew, like me, then you were told that to be a good Jew is to be a good person, and to attend High Holy Days.

If you were raised Conservative you were told, to be a good Jew is to be a good person, plus shabbat and keeping kosher at home, and at Beth Shalom: two days of Hebrew school a week.

If you were Orthodox: all of the above and you couldn't ride on shabbat or holidays, maybe 4 days of Hebrew school, and you were expected in shul from time to time.

And then, the Jewish world added one more thing: The Nazis tried to wipe us out, killed 6 million of us in the Holocaust. Now we must support and protect the Jewish haven, the State of Israel. We owe it to our beleaguered people. We never know when it might happen again.

But after the Six Day War, we told ourselves: a miracle has occurred: we missed a second Holocaust. And the Jewish world changed.

When on July 4th, 1976 the Israeli Army saved Jews kidnapped on an international flight who had been taken to Entebbe Airport in Uganda and held captive, Israel proved it could and would protect Jews world-wide who were threatened, as Jews were threatened in Germany during the Holocaust. Another Israeli military miracle accomplished.

For many Jews, Judaism meant: to be a good person, and to make sure that Israel survived as a state of the Jews, just in case we needed it, and to protect against another Holocaust. After all, German Jews never saw it coming, and neither did we. So we might miss it if it happens again. Israel became not only our hope of 2,000 years, but our hope for future protection.

We saw Israel as haven and hope for the Jews needing refuge. But that's not the way everyone in the Jewish world viewed Israel. The ultra-Orthodox saw miracles, and anticipated God sending the messiah any day. It's implausible, unbelievable, virtually impossible, to establish a State in just 50 years. It required a miracle to defeat all of the Arab armies in 1948 and triple the size of Israel in 1967. No one saw it coming. It must have been a miracle for Israel to fly 2200 miles from Israel to Entebbe to save captive Jews. Clearly, they said, God's hand is working in history.

Do you believe the messiah is coming? Do you believe Israel is God's miracle? For the ultra-Orthodox, Israel means all of biblical Israel: Jerusalem, Hebron, and Shechem. They are God's gift, and cannot be Palestinian. For the ultra-Orthodox, Israel's existence means God will soon send a messiah, and the Jewish people are the agents of redeeming the world.

That's not your narrative of Judaism. That's not my narrative of Judaism. But it is the narrative of the ultra-Orthodox, who currently say such things as Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers, and Jews cannot answer Amen to the prayer of a Reform Jew. Combined with the Israeli political right wing, who insist Arabs don't want peace, the Ultra-Orthodox today control Israeli religion and its politics.

And if you are like so many American Jews, who desire to work for peace by sharing sovereignty with Palestinians, and believe Arabs and Muslims can be good people who desire peace for their children just as Jews do, then that narrative of the messiah and God's redemption may so turn you off that you are tempted to turn your back on Israel and 2000 years of Jewish hope.

But if you do that. If you turn away because your narrative of Judaism says Jews are moral people and you don't think Israel is currently acting morally, then you are turning your back on Jewish history and denying your responsibility for the Jewish people.

More than any other generation in the last 2,000 years, your and my actions will determine the destiny of the Jewish people not for just decades, but perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years to come. Do you accept the responsibility of a Jew, to take upon yourself the destiny of the Jewish people?

None of us, so far as we know, asked to be born into the era of the first Jewish State in 2000 years. None of us asked for the privilege of having the choice of living Jewish history. BUT DO WE ACCEPT OUR RESPONSIBILITY, DESPITE THE FACT THAT WE DID NOT CHOOSE OUR DATE OF BIRTH, TO TAKE UPON OURSELVES THE DESTINY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE? More than any other generation in the last 2,000 years, your and my actions will determine the destiny of the Jewish people not for just decades, but perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years to come. Do you accept the responsibility of a Jew, to take upon yourself the destiny of the Jewish people?

Political theorist Theodore Herzl was not the only Zionist visionary. Another man, a highly educated Jew who published in Hebrew rather than German, envisioned a Judaism reborn. He wrote by the name Ahad Ha'am, meaning: One of the People. He said Jews moving to the place of Judaism's birth would rebirth Judaism, revive Jewish culture for a modern world, that it would be like a wheel: the hub in Israel. And the spokes of the Jewish wheel would enable Jews like me and your rabbis and others here going back and forth: Israel to the diaspora and back again. The world's Jews living on the circumference of the wheel would benefit from the new Judaism created in the hub. Judaism would be revitalized.

And 120 years later that is exactly what is happening, and exactly what the ultra-Orthodox in Israel oppose by claiming that Reform Judaism is not Judaism and Liberal Jews cannot have a praying place at the Western Wall, and Liberal rabbis cannot convert or marry or bury Jews. We are fighting for the soul of the Jewish people, and by God your answer better be "yes."

Why? Because the ultra-Orthodox claim that anything new is forbidden by the Torah: he-hadash asur min haTorah. And right now they have complete political control over Israel's religious life.

But they are ultimately going to lose. Because there's a Ruth Calderon, who grew up secular and has a PhD in Talmud, and was a member of the Knesset in the Yesh Atid party. She founded the first Israeli secular, pluralistic and egalitarian Beth Midrash, Jewish study hall for women and men.

And there are hundreds of study groups creating a modern Judaism, and 50 Reform congregations with hundreds of b'nai mitzvah annually, and even weddings although Israel refuses to register them. There's Women of the Wall, led by Reform Judaism's Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the premier social justice organization, IRAC. WoW insists on praying as women and at the Western Wall, a right guaranteed by Israel's Declaration of Independence. Israel's police unconscionably lifted the skirts and blouses of 4 women, one month ago today, as they entered the Western Wall Plaza to pray, ostensibly searching for contraband Torahs. Ahad Ha'am's vision is being fulfilled every time a woman leads prayer at the Western Wall, every time a Jew in Israel prays on the beach on Rosh Hashanah, studies Talmud and midrash from new interpretations, reads the modern Hebrew fiction of Amos Oz and David Grossman. We sit here because we are Jews. We cannot just ignore or walk away from the greatest event in Jewish history in 2000 years. We didn't ask to be born now, but by God we were.

You've studied the Holocaust and worry about it happening again? This is bigger. You're heard of the Jewish Golden Age of Spain? This is bigger. You've heard of the Zohar and Jewish mysticism, and the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law: this is bigger. Why? Because for the first time in 2000 years Jews are speaking Hebrew, and living by a Hebrew calendar, and self-governing, and creating new laws and new interpretations. Is this hard? You bet it's hard. But be heartened that we are the first Jews in 2000 years to have a role in an independent Jewish state, a state that can and will determine the destiny of the Jewish people. You cannot walk away. You maybe didn't ask for a place in Jewish history, but by God it's yours.

I want you to change your vision. I want you to stop being a Herzl Zionist who supports a political state in which you do not live, and start being an Ahad Ha'am Zionist who shares in renewing the Jewish people. All of us must accept our role. We are a world-wide people, no matter where we live. Our history and destiny are the history and destiny of the Jewish people, just like Israelis. Our lives are inextricably linked.

I demand you to be part of Israel, because you have the inexplicable privilege of living in the 21st century, when the hope of 2000 years is fulfilled. That was Ahad Ha'am's vision: we are all a part of the Jewish renewal, wherever we live. That is the demand of Jewish history. If you are a political lefty, read Haaretz and 972 Magazine in English online. If you are on the right, read the Jerusalem Post and Israel Today. Read the novels of David Grossman and Amos Oz in English.

That's not your preference? We live in the age of electronics. See Israeli movies. Form Israel discussion groups and Jewish novel groups. Read short stories about modern Jewish life.

And certainly, support the Israel Religious Action Center, and Hiddush: for Religious Freedom and Equality, to support Jewish pluralism in Israel. Yes, money is required, but better you should be the support than send the support. Demand that Federation do the same, and the local Jewish philanthropic funds.

Jewish Israel must be democratic and pluralistic, or it fails the test of history and will vanish.

You have before you today a statement signed by rabbis from all the movements except the ultra-Orthodox. It's virtually unprecedented. All the signatories demand a democratic and Jewish Israel, representative of the entire Jewish people. Jews in diaspora are wringing their hands about how Israel treats us. And indeed, political life in Israel right now hardly favors liberal Judaism. But I am telling you, and I don't have to be a prophet to say it: Handing Jewish life to the ultra-Orthodox, in the midst of the greatest renewal of the Jewish people in 2000 years, will destroy much of the Jewish innovation and promise that Israel makes possible. Is Israel a miracle? I will tell you this: Elie Wiesel was correct: the weight and responsibility of 3,000 years of Jewish history, it's promise to be a blessing to the world, continuing as the people who brought the Bible, and ethical monotheism, and the Golden Rule, and universal literacy to humanity, not to mention the CT Scanner and now much of the technology for self-driving cars: the genius for creativity and spirituality among the Jewish people is the promise of Israel. The responsibility is ours, even if we didn't ask for it.

Millennia ago Rabbi Tarphon wisely foresaw, "It's not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free from it altogether." God placed us here for a reason; and only God knows why. We have been born into the greatest Jewish possibility of the last 2,000 years. That rests on our shoulders. But God gave us the choice. Choose wisely, and as the Torah teaches us, both we and the Jewish people shall live.

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