By Ron Jager
On the very eve of the High Holy Days, a whirlwind has erupted in the Jewish world over whether rabbis in America should talk about Israel in their sermons. Despite Israel being forced into a war of self-defense against Hamas only a few weeks ago, and with ISIS on the warpath, making the Middle East even more volatile and dangerous for the only democratic country in the region, it seems that, rather than being a symbol of unity, Israel has been transformed into one of the most divisive issues in the Jewish world.
In the past, divisions within the Jewish world have often been acrimonious and heated, at times tearing communities apart. Yet can you imagine a holier mission for our legion of rabbis—especially around the time of the High Holy Days, when the Torah and tikkun olam are at the very center of our prayers and hopes—than to inject a love of Zion, irrespective of one’s political orientation? Shouldn’t our rabbis elicit the Torah’s wisdom during these holy days to create a sense of unity rather than division? If, however, there is an elephant in the sanctuary called Israel, is it wise to ignore that elephant?
Why do these American Jews, many young, many belonging to the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, find it so difficult to express unconditional support and love for Israel? Why do we find so little expression of unconditional support for Israel among them? Is it because they confuse supporting Israel with supporting official policy? That is, if they disagree with Israel’s policies, they find it difficult—even impossible—to express unconditional support for Israel.
Quite possibly, the real issue for these American Jews is that they are not especially connected to Israel only because they are not especially connected to being Jewish. Could the fact that more than 70 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry be related to this new phenomenon of relegating Israel to the sidelines? The tragedy for so many of these young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families is that they don’t even know what they’re missing. They can’t make an educated choice, because their parents, rabbis, and community leaders haven’t given them a strong enough foundation in what Judaism is really all about. They’ve never been challenged or inspired or touched by the Torah, the Rambam, or even by a juicy Midrash. They’ve never encountered something in the Talmud that was relevant to their modern life and helped them understand how to sustain a meaningful life.
Many leaders in the Jewish world have suggested that the best way to ensure that American Jews stay connected to Israel is to ensure that they stay connected to Judaism. According to this viewpoint, for American Jews, especially younger ones, Israel is just another Jewish thing. If you care deeply about Jewish tradition, you’re likely to care deeply about Israel: the place where much of Jewish history occurred and where roughly half the Jewish people on earth now live. How exactly can this be reconciled with the fact that Torah illiteracy is rampant among these young American Jews? Can multigenerational indifference and avoidance of religious texts be suddenly transformed from the dull and obscure to becoming relevant and meaningful?
For many Jews, especially American Jews, who have no inclination to be Torah-literate, Israel is their Judaism, or at least a big part of it. They talk, breathe, sleep, and eat Israel. They are up to date and highly informed about the Jewish world through their deep affiliations and connectedness with Israel. Israel represents the prism through which they can connect to their own Jewish identity without feeling at a disadvantage due to their lack of knowledge relating to the Torah and other Jewish texts. So when someone challenges the centrality of Israel in a public way, and decides to ignore the elephant in the shul, it’s painful and difficult, especially when that person is their rabbi.
Israel is still, without a doubt, the spiritual center and the central rallying point for global Jewry. This past year has witnessed a tremendous outpouring of support, a sense of real connection and identification with Israel. Hamas’s summer assaults on Israel, by rocket fire and underground tunnels, coupled with the spectacular rise of violent anti-Semitism that erupted around the world, has left American Jews feeling more aware of Israel’s vulnerability as well as of their own vulnerability, instilling a sense of Israel and American Jewry being two sides of the same coin.
The challenge for our rabbis is not simply ignoring the elephant in the shul. The real challenge for our rabbis will be to look inside the prayers and rituals of the High Holy Days and find the spiritual gems that will enlighten and deepen our personal and communal dialogue about Israel, reminding us that achdut ha’am is not only a long-term goal, but a means to that goal.
Ron Jager is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a field mental-health officer and as commander of the central psychiatric military clinic for reserve soldiers at Tel-Hashomer. Since retiring from active duty in 2005, he has been providing consultancy services to NGOs, implementing psychological trauma treatment programs in Israel. Ron currently serves as a strategic adviser to the chief foreign envoy of Judea and Samaria. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ronjager.com.