This Year, Any Rabbis Afraid to Talk About Israel to their Congregations – Should Quit

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-27-11

Word on the American Jewish street is that Israel has become such a divisive topic that some rabbis stopped giving sermons about Israel.  A rabbi who avoids talking about Israel is like a presidential candidate who ignores the economy; dodging such a central issue eventually drains credibility regarding all subjects.  Any rabbis afraid to talk about Israel to their congregations should quit – and retreat to the university which appreciates tunnel vision.

When a rabbi avoids “Israel” as a topic, the delegitimizing forces who oppose the Jewish state’s existence win.  Israel – they rarely say “Israeli politics” – is divisive when it becomes compulsively politicized. Reducing every conversation about Israel to the Palestinian issue is not just a distortion but a perversion. It internalizes the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel, ignoring the many spiritual, ethical, ideological, intellectual, philosophical, and personal dimensions one can bring to a discussion about Israel without mentioning Bibi Netanyahu or the Palestinians.

The politicization of Israel has become so obsessive, so ubiquitous, that many dismiss conversations about these other dimensions or about Identity Zionism as attempts to evade the “real” issues. Left and right are equally guilty of overly politicizing the Israel conversation. Too many of the Israel-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave it crowd seem addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without clamoring about the latest threat to Israel, the Jewish people, and Western civilization itself – we being, of course, the canaries in the coal mine.  On the left, too many of the Israel’s-right-is-all-wrong crowd seem equally addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without bemoaning Israel’s latest misstep – and Israel’s alleged original sin in being born. Viewing Israel through a radical Palestinian lens is like only seeing the US in black and white, as one big racial injustice. Decades of disproportionate attacks against Israel and Zionism have caused this damage, as the unreasonable, one-sided charges eclipse everything else.

Rabbis are teachers. They should educate their congregations about the Land of Israel’s centrality in traditional Judaism as well as the State of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life today. This mission does not require stump speeches for Likud or J Street.  As one who opposed “Rabbis for Obama” for unnecessarily politicizing their pulpits, I want rabbis who engage Israel, talking knowledgeably and passionately about the Jewish state and its potential without dictating their particular peace plan from their plush suburban podiums.

Rabbis are also leaders. Too many complacent, careerist CEO rabbis forget to lead, fearing – as I heard one rabbi admit at a rabbinic convention – that every interaction they have with a congregant might be that Jew’s last interaction with a rabbi. You cannot lead if you constantly seek applause or fear being fired. The great Mussar moralist, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught:  A rabbi who they don’t want to drive out of town deserves no respect; and a rabbi who lets himself be driven out has no self-respect.

Rabbis today must push their congregations toward civility, carving out safe space for fellow Jews to discuss controversial matters, including Israeli politics. The first step toward civility is fostering humility – especially regarding Israel.  So many Diaspora Jews are so sure they know what Israel should do. Admitting uncertainty, acknowledging complexity, approaching Israeli politics modestly while being more open to learning other ideas from Israel could cool tempers, nurture civility and educate effectively.

This new year, as Jews gather in synagogues and look to their rabbis for guidance, I hope the rabbis lead, reframing the conversation about Israel. Rabbis should champion Identity Zionism, explaining that Zionism is Jewish nationalism, a unifying peoplehood platform that can serve as a touchstone for a scattered people with diverse beliefs who remain bonded by a common heritage, homeland, and high ideals. They should learn from a recent Wesleyan graduate, Zoe Jick, that “pro-Israel” is a political term more emphasizing Israel’s actions, while “Zionism” – a term many Americans Jews dislike because it has been delegitimized  – is the broader term denoting “belief in the Jewish national movement.”

We need a Zionist conversation, unafraid of the topic – or the label – exploring the meaning of our dual religious-national base, appreciating the opportunity Jewish sovereignty gives us to live our ideals and build what we at Hartman’s Engaging Israel project call “Values Nation,” pondering the delights and challenges of living 24/7 Judaism in our old-new land. Let’s discuss the social protests –to learn how Judaism balances communal needs with individual prerogative, then apply that knowledge to every Western country’s socioeconomic dilemmas. Let’s analyze the Jewishness of the Jewish state, asking how we moderns express communal values and find meaning in a soul-crushing age. And let’s articulate that sense of familiarity and family many of us feel when wandering around Jerusalem, asking what existential need that satisfies.

I recently asked some fellow Zionists what Zionist message they wish rabbis would give their congregants this Rosh Hashanah. Yoav Schaefer, an American-born former-IDF soldier studying at Harvard, suggested: “Zionism is not a noun.  It is a verb—a living ideal constantly being redefined and re-imagined, an ever-evolving pursuit toward perfection.  It symbolizes optimism and potential, a hope for a better and more just society, the dream of a country that exemplifies the values and aspirations of the Jewish people. “ Iri Kassel, an Israeli who directs the Ben Gurion Heritage Institute, emphasized the inspiring Zionist story of rebuilding the land which instills basic values of belonging, mutual responsibility and activism.  (For more see www.zionistsforzionism.com).

Zionism has always been a movement of bold moves and high aspirations. How tragic that Israel, Zionism’s creation, would turn some rabbis into meek Galut Jews, cowering from conflict. This year, let us hope for more daring vision and bolder challenges from our rabbis – on Israel and other important issues.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

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A Rosh Hashanah lesson

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-15-11

On July 15, Ronnie Cahana, the 57-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal’s Town of Mount Royal, suffered a massive stroke in his brainstem. He now lies immobilized in the Montreal Neurological Institute, unable to talk, walk or even wave.

Yet, his mind is intact and his spirit is soaring, and from his hospital bed, Rabbi Cahana is teaching his devoted congregants, his loving family and the rest of us, about the soul’s power and Judaism’s deeper meaning, even when we lose the physical, the material. “I live in a broken place,” he said when stricken, “but there’s holy work to do.”

Rabbi Cahana’s body is in trouble. A ventilator and other tubes do for him what most of us do naturally. Nevertheless, he may be the healthiest – and happiest – person I know. “Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis,” he preaches. “To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Before the stroke, this gangly, 6’2 Houston-born rabbi was the least Texan Texan, and the most unconventional Conservative rabbi, I knew – I befriended Ronnie and his amazing wife, Karen, decades ago in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement.

A dazzling personality, both vital and ethereal, as well as a passionate Jew and perpetual seeker, Rabbi Cahana has never done small talk. He makes even the most casual interaction intense and intimate. Watching him with his congregants and his family is wondrous. His “How are you?” is never perfunctory. Rather, it’s a sincere probe, asking whether you’re getting the most out of your life, nurturing fulfilling relationships while benefiting from the kind of profound interaction he enjoys with Judaism and God.

Visiting the bedridden rabbi, you brace for heartbreak and emerge uplifted. He mouths words – or laboriously blinks them out. When no one can read his lips, he closes his eyes, and someone starts reciting “a, b, c…” He opens his eyes at the desired letter. The “Blinkischer Rebbe,” as Karen calls him, blinks out stirring weekly sermons, greeting congregants from his “subterranean world,” urging them to use the blow he sustained to experience life and Judaism in new dimensions.

“I know the end will be good,” this rabbinic Stephen Hawking insists. “I did not lose anything. I gained.”

All summer, Rabbi Cahana has bathed in his extraordinary family’s love and laughter – he and Karen have five fabulous children, ages 14 to 23. Karen says it’s hard to despair when he’s so positive, when he delights in “feeling” every prayer for him, “visiting” with his late father, renewing his relationship to Judaism and God by painstakingly re-learning each mitzvah, bringing new meaning to each commandment.

On Tisha b’Av he fasted, demanding that his feeding tube be shut down. Every weekday morning, he puts on tfillin at the same time his congregants do.

“Finding spiritual paths in the hospital while vulnerable and fragile,” he blinked to them, provides “a great delight of the day… I hear the tone, rhythm, the light banter, music and join you. I know our sounds and I listen to your voices. Our prayers are good and honest, and God looks favourably on the kind.”

Currently, he can only wear the head phylacteries. This, he calls “the most healing of privileges. The retzuot [straps] course through the whole body… from the mind. Crown encircles the cranium. In the holiest of holies, the kesher, which we believe lies contiguously off of Hashem’s holy kesher knot, sits on the brainstem to heal, to repair, to purify the world.”

This year, I witnessed the miracles that can occur despite catastrophic brain trauma after my father took a serious fall and recovered remarkably. Rabbi Cahana has already progressed much faster than the doctors predicted. This Rosh Hashanah – as those who can rally around the Cahana family, bombarding them with the love and support they need – we should also learn from the Blinkischer Rebbe’s teaching.

Let us follow him, temporarily, voluntarily, into the realm of the purely spiritual, the world of the soul, his transcendent universe of pure Jewish thought and emotion. And let us return less complacent and more compassionate, less tense and more intense, less alone and more loving, learning that whatever this next year brings, “the end will be good.”

Next year: Let’s end consumerist Judaism by becoming Jewishly ambitious

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-7-10

Two of the most traumatic cataclysms Westerners endured this past decade coincided with Rosh Hashanah. September 11, 2001 fell one week before the Jewish New Year. Some religious Jews who normally would have been in the Twin Towers when the planes hit were delayed because of the slichot, repentance, hymns which extend the morning service in Elul. Then, two years ago, the financial system melted down during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some synagogues in New York, rabbis had to implore their congregants to turn off their Blackberries as the constant buzzing with market updates interfered with the PA system.

Alas, to echo White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, we collectively have wasted these crises. The high anxiety experienced around the High Holidays did not propel us collectively to greater spiritual or moral heights. Traditionally, wars and economic crises have triggered geysers of self-sacrifice, streams of idealism, pools of communal concern, amid waves of revulsion against the complacency that often accompanies peace and prosperity. After 9/11 some regretted not having done more good works during the good times. Americans considered making September 11 a national day of voluntarism. But most of us followed President George W. Bush’s advice to get back to normal, to return to the malls. The opportunity for mass reckonings or dramatic reform vanished.

Instead, an unchecked consumerism continues to pervert our politics, our culture, our intimate relations, even our spiritual lives. Consumerist Judaism distorts across the religious spectrum. Consumerist Judaism reduces our profound link in the chain of Jewish civilization to another take-it-or-leave consumption choice. It fosters a paradoxical sense of harsh judgmentalism and enervating passivity. We scrutinize Judaism hyper-critically, picking and choosing whatever fragments work for us, if and when it is convenient.

Rather than using our critical faculties as springboards to transform modern Judaism, we take it as it is. We behave like shoppers not owners, an audience to be lured not empowered agents of change and renewal, rarely taking responsibility to make Judaism better, richer, deeper, more meaningful.

As a result, a corrupting materialism has too many focusing on what they will wear to synagogue rather than how they will grow by going; too many rites of passage showcasing the fancy “bar” not the meaningful mitzvah; too many community leaders selected because of their net worth not their Jewish values; too many communal decisions driven by the bottom line not a transcendent vision. We risk turning our Etz Chayim, our ever growing and flourishing Tree of Life, into an elaborate icon, frozen in time, evoking the past but not heralding an appealing future.

To start acting like concerned Jewish citizens not lazy Jewish shoppers, we must become Jewishly ambitious. The awkwardness of the phrase reflects the rarity of the phenomenon. This goes way beyond a few New Year’s Resolutions, treating Rosh Hashanah like a second January first. We should set ambitious goals for ourselves as Jews, individually and communally. Rather than simply pressuring our kids to do well in school, to achieve materially, we should start inspiring them – and ourselves – to grow spiritually and communally. And our institutions must start becoming more dynamic and visionary, taking risks to accomplish great missions not just trying to survive.

Religious Jews need less humility regarding Judaism as a system while modern Jews need more. Too many religious Jews confuse the current religious status quo with God’s vision. Halachic Jews need to distinguish between Torah-based essentials and cultural adaptations that should change. Too many modern Jews fail to appreciate Judaism as a way of life, a worldview, a moral vision, not simply a catalogue of traditional rites, stories and superstitions.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would involve the religious world – in Israel and the Diaspora – rising up against the Rabbinate’s torpor, corruption and heavy-handedness – understanding that religion thrives from internal impulses reinforced by communal norms not government coercion.  It would involve remembering that mitzvot are means to morality and meaning, not chits to accumulate competitively or yardsticks for feeling superior vis a vis one’s fellow Jews. It would mean ensuring that Religious Zionism is more concerned with people than with land while building a state that showcases Judaism’s best values and Jews’ better selves.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would also involve secular Jews refusing to allow themselves to be turned off by letting the rabbinate or ineffective rabbis define Judaism. Instead, we need ways to turn on to a vital, substantive Jewish identity that is historic, authentic and challenging – not simply a quaint ethnic or ancestral ritual or two. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society not a slave to the latest trends.

To be Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life, we must take ownership. Individual happiness comes from taking responsibility for your own actions, for your destiny. Jews from across the religious spectrum can feel more fulfilled Jewishly by investing enough, learning enough, caring enough, committing enough, to make Judaism their own – and make the community better.

We forget how lucky we are. Never before have so many Jews lived with such freedom, with such prosperity. And for 2000 years we lacked a state that could serve as a point of pride, a source for protection, and, most important of all, home to half of world Jewry – even more if they choose to come. These gifts offer tremendous opportunities. This New Year let’s celebrate our good fortune with a mass Jewish revival, setting sweeping goals, taking more responsibility, pushing toward a Jewish community that thrives and a Judaism that sings an old-new song of revival and redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com