CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014 - 2

(Continued from page 1) SPEAKING

OF ISRAEL Rabbi RichaRd a. block

The invocation of "prophetic precedent" for
sermonic autonomy reflects our sense of
ourselves, that, as Reform Jews, we are "heirs
to the prophetic tradition." We are moved by
Isaiah's summons to "unlock the shackles of
injustice...[and] let the oppressed go free..."
and by Micah's vision that "nation shall not take
up sword against nation; they shall never again
know war." Like Amos, we feel called to "let
justice well up like water, righteousness like an
unfailing spring."
That said, though our ancient prophets continue
to inspire us, we would be wise to hesitate
before claiming prophetic status. As Abraham
Joshua Heschel reminded us, "The prophet['s
words] are often slashing, even horrid -
designed to shock rather than edify....Exhibiting
little understanding for human weakness...
the prophet disdains those for whom God's
presence is comfort and security....The prophet
is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist."
Who would want to have or be such a rabbi?
Not surprisingly, prophets were rarely popular.
Ahab called Elijah "troubler of Israel." and
his wife, Jezebel, had prophets of Adonai
slaughtered wholesale. Jeremiah complained
he had "become a constant laughingstock"
at whom everyone jeered. Zedekiah had him
thrown into a cistern, then jailed. One tradition
claims Jeremiah fled to Egypt and was stoned to
death. The Targum to Isaiah reports that after the
prophet, fleeing pursuers, took refuge in a tree,
Manasseh had it, and him, sawn in half.
The "prophetic precedent," of course, is not
the only paradigm of rabbinic leadership. Our
tradition calls Moses Rabbeinu, our Rabbi
and Teacher par excellence, whose foremost
characteristic was very non-prophetic: humility.
Why was he called "Moshe Rabbeinu," not
"Moshe Navienu?" The reason, Leonard Kravitz
taught, is that a prophet's role is to speak the
truth without regard for the consequences.
Rabbis must move people.
Since, unlike prophets, rabbis cannot afford
to ignore the consequences of our words, a
more modest and pragmatic approach is to
acknowledge openly, as we prepare to express
profound convictions, that some will disagree,
as will surely be the case with this sermon, and
to admit, as I do freely, that we neither possess
nor claim a monopoly on truth. As the Mishnah
observes, Eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim chayim. With
derech eretz, contradictory truths, and those
who proclaim them, can coexist. And the quality
of our civic discourse would be much improved
if we prefaced even strongly held opinions with
the words, "I may be wrong, but..." The CCAR,
our congregations, communities, and Movement
must be safe places to share diverse viewpoints
and consider competing ideas with open minds
and goodwill, even as we recognize that there

must be boundaries and, like the kohanim of
our parashah, we bear the burden of deciding
who remains outside the camp and who may be
admitted. If we preach and teach with humility, the
Talmud assures us, "Words coming from the heart
enter the heart." I pray it will be so this morning.
I consider that approach wise because even
without the grandiose presumption of prophetic
authority, every worthy rabbi occasionally
provokes heated disagreement and bitter
dissension. As Israel Salanter famously observed
(in the gendered language of his era), "A rabbi
whose community does not disagree with him is
no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no
man."
Rav Joseph Soloveitchik went even deeper
in The Lonely Man of Faith, writing, "I am
lonely....[T]hank God, [I] do enjoy the love and
friendship of many....And yet,...I am alone
because at times I feel rejected and thrust away
by everybody, not excluding my most intimate
friends. The words of the psalmist, 'My father
and my mother have forsaken me,' often ring in
my ears."
The words of these distinguished rabbis came
to mind when I read Steven Cohen's report for
the JCPA entitled "Reluctant or Repressed?
Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel among
American Rabbis." Of 552 rabbis surveyed,
mostly Reform and Conservative, 39 percent
reported they sometimes or often avoid
expressing their true feelings about Israel and its
conflict with the Palestinians for fear of offending
listeners. Eighteen percent said their private
views were more dovish than their public ones.
Twelve percent were "closet hawks." One in
five reported being strongly criticized for views
they voiced or feared significant professional
repercussions if they were to express their
honest opinions. While those ordained since
2000 and the "dovish" were more likely to be
afraid than rabbis ordained earlier, moderates,
or hawks, fear was not confined to any one
demographic.
Should we celebrate that most rabbis feel free
to express their beliefs without fear, be alarmed
that a meaningful number do not, or both? Does
the data illustrate the inherent hazards of the
rabbinate that Soloveitchik, Salanter, and Kravitz
described? Or do they suggest something more
ominous? Frankly, I'm not sure. Impassioned
disagreement has been a prominent feature
of Jewish religion and culture from our earliest
days and is, arguably, a manifestation of their
dynamism. The creation of the modern State
of Israel was neither the beginning nor the end
of such arguments. But given the powerful
emotions evoked by the restoration of Jewish
sovereignty in our people's ancient homeland
after two millennia, in the wake of the Holocaust,
and by the triumphs and traumas that followed,
2

our pronouncements naturally evoke strong and
divergent reactions.
It has long been so. In 1943, Houston's Beth
Israel announced that Zionists could not be
members, spawning the creation of EmanuEl. In the '50s, alienated by Abba Hillel Silver's
sermons on Zionism and Hebrew's inclusion
in his, now my temple's, curriculum, some five
hundred prominent members, including the son
of Silver's predecessor, Moses Gries, broke away
to form a new congregation. Such schisms make
today's pushback seem mild by comparison.
The Pew Survey of U.S. Jews also stirred
controversy last year. It found that a vast majority
of American Jews of all backgrounds believe that
"caring about Israel" is an essential or important
part of being Jewish. At the same time, Reform
Jews are much less likely than Orthodox and
Conservative Jews to feel "very attached" to
Israel or to have traveled there. While a clear
majority of Jews believe it is possible to achieve
a two-state solution, few believe the Palestinian
leadership is making a sincere effort. Many,
including a disproportionate percentage of
Reform Jews, are also unconvinced of Israel's
sincerity and believe that settlements undermine
its security.
Is there a causal connection between critical
views of Israeli government policies and weaker
attachment to Israel? For some, there may be.
But the survey found that Reform Jews are also
significantly less attached to holiday observance,
synagogue attendance, Hebrew fluency, belief in
God, and the importance of religion in their lives.
Israel is just one of a broader set of concerns
that we, as Reform rabbis, and as a Movement,
must address.
And clearly, criticism and attachment are not
necessarily incompatible. After forty-five years
of marriage, I am certain of Susie's love for
me, certainty undiminished by her well-justified
assessments of my imperfections. As an
American, I am profoundly aware of this country's
flaws and critical of policies and decisions of the
current and prior administrations. Nonetheless,
I love America wholeheartedly. I believe in its
uniqueness and essential goodness. I served in
its Navy and as a special Assistant U.S. attorney.
Lee Greenwood's hokey patriotic song "I'm
Proud to Be an American" moves me to tears.
Notwithstanding this country's shortcomings, I
am profoundly attached.
I feel the same way about Israel, of which Susie
and I are also citizens. There are aspects of Israel
I find annoying, demoralizing, even horrifying.
I support ARZA, IRAC, IMPJ, and the World
Union, and I urge you, especially, to promote
and campaign actively for the ARZA slate in
the forthcoming WZO elections, because our
Movement's funding in Israel depends on it, and
because there are things about Israeli law and



CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014

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CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014 - 2
CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014 - 3
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CCAR Newsletter May-June 2014 - 6
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