Who’s Pulpit is it Anyway – Talking About Israel

A few years ago, during a prior Israel military conflict with Gaza, synagogues were encouraged to place a banner on their front lawn that read “We Stand With Israel”. For me, it seemed like a no brainer. Even with my somewhat leftist views, Israel has always been an important part of my life.

At our synagogue, a congregational meeting was convened. What was surprising to me was the feeling by many that such a banner would be a lightning rod that might cause anti-Semitic acts to the synagogue building. That we would need to increase security at the synagogue in order to better protect the pre-school students. A city not too far away has a somewhat large Arab and Palestinian population. Such a banner might invite people to act in a negative ways.

The severity of these viewpoints was also surprising. This experience confirmed for me firsthand that opinions about Israel in the American Jewish community are really all over the map.

This summer’s Israel-Gaza war will no doubt bring about many High Holy Days sermons. Not only is there a captive audience, but the daily bombs – and the deaths, injuries and destruction – that we viewed or read about daily and even experienced in real time with the siren app remain fresh in our minds.

Rabbi James Rudin’s recent article titled “The First Battle for the Free Pulpit” about Rabbi Stephen Wise gives us a sense of history. Wise was ahead of his time – and American Jewry – in terms of his Zionist views and the creation of a Jewish state. Wise was hesitant to take a prestigious job at Temple Emanuel in New York City if he was not going to have the freedom to preach his views:

“How can a man be vital and independent and helpful, if he be tethered and muzzled? A free pulpit, worthily filled, must command respect and influence; a pulpit that is not free, howsoever filled, is sure to be without potency and honor….”

Recently, there has been debate even in more progressive (politically) leaning synagogues when rabbis have taken stands in support of Palestinians and Gaza residents. One example is the controversy over Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City) public statements throughout Operation Protective Edge that highlighted suffering endured by Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, which did little to alleviate a growing sense of isolation felt by supporters of Israel during the recent conflict.

Another example is Rabbi Brant Rosen’s recent resignation from the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation in Evanston, IL due to his ongoing outspoken criticism of Israel.

What will happen when the Rabbi’s Israel sermon this year is 100% supportive of the recent war? Or if such a sermon expresses support for the plight of the Palestinians? Or is critical of the recent approval for new construction on the West Bank?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie – my former boss – in a recent article suggests that many rabbis are more apt to avoid controversy in such sermons for the sake of communal harmony. A sermon critical of Israel is likely to bring the wrath of the congregant who gives a significant gift to the Jewish Federation. At least this guy cares and is not afraid to show it.

I have a hunch in many synagogues there is a critical mass of the congregation that lacks much passion either way about Israel. While this is sad, it remains an important challenge for synagogues.

What has to happen after the High Holy Day sermon about Israel has to be more than just comments, emails, posts and text messages like “Great sermon, Rabbi”, or “Yasher Koach”. There needs to be discussion to heighten our collective knowledge about Israel as well as an encouragement of divergent opinions.

2 Comments on “Who’s Pulpit is it Anyway – Talking About Israel

  1. One of the problems with High Holy Day sermons about Israel, especially critical sermons, is that for the vast majority of liberal Jews this is the only thing they will hear their Rabbi say about Israel all year. This is due mostly to the fact that this is the only time they attend services, but even for those who are actually dues paying members and attend more often there is no ongoing informative dialog or debate which can help to inform congregants who may get most of their news from CNN, The New York Times, Haaretz or to a much lesser degree Arutz Sheva.

    When Rabbis speak about Israel and the never ending “situation” with its neighbors, sympathy for Palestinians is almost exclusively if not just primarily linked directly to accusations of wrong doing on the part of Israel. Unfortunately for the Palestinians they are more the victims of their own leaders, the surrounding Muslim world and its UNRWA handmaiden. When Rabbis criticize Israel and heap responsibility for the Palestinians upon Israel, that’s a real problem. Because if they are truly interested in Palestinian well-being then they would spend more of their time and energy year-round protesting corrupt PA leadership, protesting summary hangings and executions in Gaza, protesting the use of civilians as human shields, protesting the use of child slave labor to dig terror tunnels, protesting the way the Palestinians are treated by their Arab / Muslim hosts and the UN, and protesting how they have been condemned to their most unfortunate fate while being used as pawns for decades against Israel. The lives of Palestinians in Arab lands is arguably much worse than the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, but nary is a word said about that.

    When Rabbis criticize Israeli construction in the West Bank, they rarely if ever talk about how Israel aids its Palestinian neighbors, or how Israel provides access to water, electricity and other important services. Even Gaza was getting electricity from Israel during Protective Edge, as well as food and other supplies by truck. The terror tunnels were built with cement that passed across the Israeli border into Gaza over the past several years in the guise of humanitarian supplies. What other country does this for the populations of territories that have elected leadership sworn to their destruction? More importantly in the context of this article, do Rabbis talk about this when they are critical of Israel?

    Why is it only or primarily Israel that is the subject of rabbinical criticism when it comes to the situation? If there is a real and committed interest in the wellbeing of the Palestinians, then there would be an informed discussion and critique of the parties that are primarily responsible for denying them that wellbeing. And there would be ongoing activity to doing something about it and making their voice heard. In the absence of that, then at best critique of Israel is merely a convenient opportunity to direct frustration against the only parties that a Rabbi really has any voice with at all. Those are Israel and the Jewish People. At worst, the criticism of Israel comes from another font. Are Rabbis attempting to truly inform, or do they just want to make a screed?

    To the informed attendee, a High Holy Day Rabbinical critique of Israel sends a message about a Rabbi who is at best uninformed or unrealistic. To an uniformed attendee, a Rabbinical screed can reinforce what they are already getting from the media and perhaps turn them farther away from Israel. In either case, what positive is accomplished?

    Rabbis have freedom of the pulpit. Congregants and others have freedom to react and respond. Maybe they will express their wrath, or maybe they will choose to withhold donations to the synagogue, forget about becoming a member, or otherwise withdraw support. Say what you wish, but don’t complain when people let you know that they don’t like what you said. When you speak from the bema you have begun a conversation, and people will talk back to you. If you don’t like the way people respond to certain things that you say, you can either refrain from saying those things or you can accept the fact that there will be replies.

    Just don’t complain about freedom of the pulpit.

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