Friday, 22 July 2011

A Masorti Relationship with Israel - and Much Else

Sermon about two things,

Even though it’s dangerous to try.

Firstly – I’m interested in what it means to be Masorti –

Secondly – I’m interested in our relationship with Israel.


This week 17th Tammuz

Midst of Three Weeks

Destruction of Ancient State of Israel

Breach in the wall.

Important to realise the incredible miracle we are living through.

Remind ourselves that a once mighty State of Israel was eclipsed by Roman might and that resulted in almost 2000 years of stateless wandering.


Good time to think about in context of Parasha


Gad and Reuven,

Standing on the banks of the river Jordan prefer to stay in the Diaspora

In many ways like all of us.

Living in a time of Israeli sovereignty, but finding ourselves here, in London.


Gad and Reuven asking to remain outside land of Israel does not go down well.

Shall your brothers go to war and you shall sit here?

Why do you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over to the Land.

The tribes go back to Moses, offer to lead out the Israelites in war if they can be awarded land on the far side of the Jordan

Ne­aletz Hushim – Halutzim – pioneers, lead out the troops –

Lo Nashuv – we will not go back, until the land is safe.

Placates Moses.

And this is exactly what happens, they lead out the troops and only return when the war is won.


To share some thoughts on the contemporary valence of this ancient debate.

Just as it was then, I believe it is fair to say it remains true that a Jew living outside the Land of Israel is susceptible to being challenged that we are walking out not only on the promise of the land – the covenant, but also on our relationship with those living in the land.

I believe Jews are permitted to live outside the Land of Israel, but we pick up a responsibility when we accept the comforts of a Diasporic existence, a responsibility towards those who make the State a sanctuary for all of Israel. We meet that responsibility, we repay that cost in our support of Israel.

Just as Gad and Reuven did back then, so too today we need to be at the forefront of those supporting Israel.


There is a clear-cut view of Israel that, God help us, is getting increasing air these strange days.

It’s the voice of condemnation and attack.

The voice that suggests that everything Israel does is rotten.

And as bad as it is to hear that voice from non-Jews it’s particularly galling to hear Jews attack Israel.

The self-hating Jews Howard Jacobson mocks so mercilessly in his Finkler Question are not being brave and iconoclastic they are forgetting what it means to be a Jew and they have no idea of what is really going on in Israel.

The truth is it is a dangerous time for Israel.

And it’s more dangerous to be in Israel than to live as a Jew in England.

The last thing that an Israeli needs to hear is a whinging Diasporite who pokes from their armchair without the fear of living under the Katushas and sending their sons and daughters off to war.

I don’t like that clear-cut view of Israel, it’s demonstrably untrue and it’s cowardly to utter it.


But there is another clear-cut view of Israel which I don’t accept either.

I’ve spent three years of my life in Israel, I speak the language, love the country dearly, I believe passionately in its right to exist in safe ands secure borders. But there has always been something that has held me back.

Something that has held me back from wanting to make my life in the hills of the Galil, the ancient stones of Jerusalem or the party-filled streets of Tel Aviv.

Something that has held me back from throwing all my soul behind the more nationalist voices of contemporary Israeli politics.


I was brought up at a time when, as young Jews involved in Jewish Youth Movements, we were taught to argue that that Israel was right even when she was wrong.

Trained to offer simple absolute support. Open wallets, open hearts to those plucky Israelis. And I’ve never really accepted that kind of discourse.

It had the advantage of being clear cut, but it had the disadvantage of being wrong.

Never felt comfortable with the Occupation of territories and governance of people who have not wanted to be part of the Zionist dream.

Never been able to accept that as a Jew, as a fellow seeker of truth, my job is to support, turning off critical faculties, suppressing my inner voices.


And then there is a related clear cut voice that, to be fair I only rarely hear today.

There is the clear cut Zionist voice that insists that the only place for a Jew is Israel. The clear-cut voice that assumes that the Diaspora only has any right to exist pending the establishment of a State, the voice that suggests that now the Diaspora should wither away, that the Diaspora is a mere footnote in the central Jewish narrative of our people.

I’ve never accepted that discourse either.

Never felt that the Diaspora was a vestigial organ to a body whose every central system was based in the Land of Israel –

Many of the most incredible gifts of our people have been intimately connected to being in the Diaspora –

The Bible – given in Sinai

The Talmud – Babylon

The Mishnah Torah

I could go on.


So my identity with Israel is in tension. There is my love and belief in Israel and my love of the Diaspora, and my concerns about Israel.

A relationship with Israel in tension.


I read this week an essay by David Grossman, one of the greatest contemp Israeli authors who helped me understand something quite important about this tension.

Grossman, who was born in Israel lost his son, Uri, killed by an anti-tank missile in 2006.


Grossman sets out the value of wandering – which we know much about – particularly as Diaspora Jews.

Wandering, says Grossman, gives us a freshness, an insight, an ability to stand outside discourse – particularly overly nationalist bigotry. Wandering, says Grossman, is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.


But then, Grossman goes on to say, we also have a sense of longing for stability – something we know about – particularly when we consider Israel.

As sense that there is an end to all this journeying, journeying since the time of Abraham the journeying across the wilderness, the journeying of exile. We want to have a home, a place we can just be, not just travel through.

So we have, as Jews, two urges; the urge to wander and the urge to nest.

A relationship in tension.


The importance of our wandering, as Jews, is certainly strong.

Even among native Israelis, perhaps especially among native Israelis – the largest Pesach Seder in the world is celebrated in Kathmandu, purely in Hebrew for the 2,000 plus Israelis who congregate there and at every other far-away-backpacker-filled corner of the world.


There are problems with lusting after wandering, always

Perhaps, speculated Grossman, the urge to wander explains why we, as Jews, can lack a conviction that we are a people of place – that we deserve to live in a country with traceable secure borders.

Perhaps it explains some of the Jew-driven criticism of Israel.

Perhaps this urge to seek out the new, Grossman goes on, explains why for centuries other people have been so eager to pin us down - determine just what a ‘Jew’ is.

People have wanted to pin us down like some kind of butterfly so we can be properly understood.


Perhaps, Grossman goes on, this dangerous wandering aspect of Jews explains why we have been penned into ghettos, confined exclusively into various fields of commerce, as if to make us comprehensible, easy to monitor.


Stunning insight.

The place of the tug of security and homeland, and the tug of being a wandering outsider.

This week looking out over the promised land it’s a tug Reuven and Gad clearly feel most strongly.

It’s a tension that cannot be bludgeoned away by argument, or solved in one side or another.

It’s a tension that must be negotiated, a tightrope walk to be attempted with care and courage.


So much for our relationship with Israel – my relationship with Israel.


What does it mean to be Masorti?

Between one pull and another a Masorti Jew is always going to feel a little uncomfortable with anything that sounds too neat.

Too clear cut.

Are we, as a community Orthodox? – do we accept the Divinity of the Torah is in any way simple and obvious – No.

But we reject the other pole of this argument equally? – Do we consider the Torah to be entirely a human series of voices, human and fallible, as fallible as you or I – Equally no.

There is a tension to our theology. Neither entirely one thing nor another.


Do we, as a community – hold onto traditions ancient and strange even though we cannot fully understand why it is so important that we don’t eat pig or we do light candles, this way but not that way – of course we do.

But do we, as a community – believe that sometimes some of these traditions need to be, and this is the language of Rabbi Jacobs, freed of accumulated grime and dirt just as an art restorer strips back the accumulation of grime and dirt attaching itself to an ancient work of art – of course we do.

There is a tension to our practice. Neither entirely one thing or another.


Infact you could cut into the thought and life of a committed Masorti Jew anywhere and it would always reveal tension.

Our relationship with Israel is made of the same stuff – tension – as any other element of our Jewish identity.

Judaism is not supposed to be easy.

Judaism is not supposed to be resolved simply.

It’s not supposed to be resolved at all.


This is the point.

We live in a world which is entranced by those who suggest that there are simple solutions to complicated problems.

As any sophisticated thinker will tell us – complicated problems need complex solutions.

Solutions that remain in tension.


Criticism of Masorti is that we fail to be clear.

For me it is our greatest strength.

We know how to stand in tension between alternate pulls.

Be they the pull between tradition and modernity, between human and Divine authorship of our holy scriptures or between our love of wandering and our desire for a safe homeland.


Criticism of Masorti is that it’s wishy-washy. Muddled, unclear.

Suggestion would be that if we could only side on one side of a tension or another we would, somehow, be better.

But it’s not going to be.

We will always be a people who look over the Jordan river at an inheritance so wonderful and feel a tug both to enter the land and to stay outside.


Shabbat shalom

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