Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Israel: In Our Hearts and On Our Minds" Weekend

written and delivered by Lisa Kingston, rabbinical student at HUC-JIR and Woodlands alumna.

I want to start off by thanking you for inviting me to your bimah. It feels like I’m right at home, on the same bimah where I became Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed. But I’ve spent some time away…in that far off land of Manhattan, (with some time in Israel too) at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. So tonight, I also feel like a guest.
And it as a guest, that I am going to offer you a derasha about a field that I have spent some time at school studying: Israel education. I emphasize that this is only a derasha, an interpretation of a topic that tends to cause disagreements among Jews everywhere. Instead of being a unifying force for Jews around the world, Israel arouses controversy and sometimes, even confrontation among Jews. Although Jews have worked and dreamt about a land of our own, the reality of the State of Israel has proven to be a challenge and not only for us. My role tonight is not to cause offense, nor to affirm what you already know. Hopefully it is to think about how we teach and talk about this challenging part of Jewish life that we call our homeland of Israel.[1]

In parashat Bo, our Torah portion of this week, the Israelites have not yet encountered anything even close to the land of Israel. They are still enslaved in Egypt, crying out to God for freedom. It’s in this parasha, that God brings on the final plague to the Egyptians, when, at the stroke of midnight, God strikes down the firstborn in every Egyptian household. At last, as all of Egypt wails in the darkness, Pharaoh “summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up! Depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!’” (Exodus 12:31). Finally, our cries have been heard. Finally we get to leave Egypt! But…Pharoah’s outcry is troublesome. Did we leave Egypt on behalf of our determination for freedom, while our God showed Pharoah his might and power with plagues? Or did we leave Egypt as cowards, narrowly escaping slavery at the last minute when Pharoah finally said Enough of God’s morally questionable antics? How we choose to read the central story of our redemption is important to how we understand Jewish identity. Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform asks, “Are we Jews essentially pioneers, working for freedom, and establishing our home in all the new lands which fate and faith have brought us? Or are we essentially victims, perpetually fleeing the next Pharoah, Hitler, or terrorist organization who would seek our destruction?”[2]

You may think that we Jews have gone beyond defining ourselves through only these two modes, but I want to argue that when we talk about Modern Israel we still rely heavily on these two Master narratives- of the Pioneer and the Victim. To be Jewish today requires a consciousness of the question, “Where and why do I belong? Israel education can help us look into the very core of Jewish belonging…but only if that engagement with Israel speaks to a contemporary Jewish identity.[3] These old narratives actually limit the ways we connect to Israel and prevent us from building a nuanced relationship with our Jewish homeland. We have used the Pioneer or Miracle Narratives to teach about the founding of our state. We have seen pictures of the blooming desert. We’ve danced and sung the songs of the kibbutznikim celebrating after a hard day’s work. We have sustained ourselves on a diet of milk and honey. The fledging State of Israel needed our love and our unconditional support, but this saccharine approach cannot help us deal with Israel’s current complexities. What happens when we are confronted with challenges facing Israel that don’t fit within that miraculous story?! The other narrative that we still use when referring to Israel is that of the Victim. It’s easy to draw a direct line between our lachrymose history of Anti-Semitism and the refuge of our modern state. We think about the numerous enemies that have sought to destroy the state and the ones that still harbor this hope. Israel to us is like story of David and Goliath- an underdog who prevails against larger enemies. Arnie Eisen and Michael Rosenak describe a number of factors for why the Victim Narrative is unfavorable. A new generation that has never experienced persecution and is distanced from the Shoah has arisen in both Israel and North America. Our generation has not personally experienced the State’s establishment and we have not known an Israel confined to pre-67 borders. We ask questions about our Jewish identity and see it as both connected to and disconnected from Israel and the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Israel is simply a fact of our lives- and one that seems complicated, western, high tech and affluent.[4] The narrative of Jewish victimhood that felt natural to many Jews of the past strikes most of today’s young American Jews as disingenuous or, as Peter Beinart has called it, a farce.”[5] But while it is generally agreed that these traditional Zionist narratives are not connecting young people to modern day Israel, there is also fear that teaching complexity might not lead to identification with Israel. Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelwitz address this idea in their upcoming book, saying that “making learning open-ended without asking for or providing clear answers to every question, allows learners to grapple with difficult issues, appreciate diversity and complexity of different points of view, and reflect critically on what Israel means to them in their own lives.” Struggling with Israel is not a middle of the road compromise- it is a “spark-flying technicolor ongoing interchange of ideas and passion.”[6] The more we approach Israel from varied angles, the more responsibility we will take for our relationship with Israel. When our relationship with Israel becomes one that we own and whose volatility no longer frightens us, then our relationship will move from an awkward inheritance to a living choice.”[7]

Think about someone you love. You love the way she can say just the right thing to make you feel better. Or you love the way he can tell a joke that only you find funny. But even the best relationships have challenges. That woman you love isn’t always on time. And that guy you love leaves dishes in the sink and the seat up in the bathroom. Israel is that relationship. I may hate the narrative of Beit Shemesh- about Haradeim who would spit on an 8 year old girl because of the way she was dressed. But Israel is still something I love. I love it because I’m a Jew and I know it’s just as an important part of my tradition as God, Torah, and Tikkun Olam. I have to feel comfortable loving a tainted Israel.

But this doesn’t mean we have to settle. It is our own stories and experiences in the land of the Israel that we must share. These are the stories that will build upon our grand narrative; these stories include all people, and allow us to hear all voices.

What are the Israel narratives that we want to share?
Maybe it’s the story of a new Russian immigrant, struggling to learn Hebrew in Ulpan.

Maybe it is the story of a gay man in Tel Aviv, marching for pride among his community.

Maybe it is a story of a Palestinian living in the West Bank, hoping for independence.

Maybe it’s the Israeli scientist, working towards a cure for a terminal disease.

Or maybe it’s Us- Reform Jews, praying with friends and leaders at the Kotel in peace.

Israel is all of our stories and it is all of ours to share. It is all the symbols, beliefs, expressions, and actions out of which Jewish belonging is knit.
These are the narrative strands that weave together the nation we call Israel and give us hope for its future.

As we read the beginning of the Exodus story in the Torah, we are reminded that all Jews that share an ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage with one another and the modern State of Israel is the crossroads of our connection. No matter where we are, we are connected through our common history and shared narratives.
This evening I pray that each of us can find within ourselves our personal Israel narrative. I hope we can search to find the stories we want to share, to set aside the narratives of old in exchange for the stories of the new. When we discover the story meaningful to each of us, we affirm Israel’s role in Jewish life and help foster a sophisticated love, ahavat tzion, for the next generation.

[1] The idea of framing the conversation around a derasha is from Jan Katzew and used in his sermon “From Arab Spring to Arab Fall” Yom Kippur, 2011.

[2] Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake, “The Fugitive Aramean and You” Ki Tavo, September 20, 2008/ 20 Elul 5768. Torah Commentary Archives

[3] Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelowitz: Israel Matters: A 21st Centurary Paradigm for Jewish Education (Book Proposal)

[4] Arnold Eisen and Michael Rosenak “Teaching Israel: Basic Issues and Philosophical Guidelines”

[5] Beinart, Peter, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, NY Review of Books, June 10, 2010 (from RH 5771)

[7] Robbie Gringras, Makom

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