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.
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.