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Talking Points

After the Arab Spring, a summer of Israeli protests, and the Palestinian bid for statehood, what will rabbis say in their High Holiday sermons?

Allison Hoffman
September 23, 2011
Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine
Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine
Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine
Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine

Israel and the Palestinian bid for statehood have dominated this week’s news, and whatever happens at the United Nations, Jews around the world are certain to be thinking and talking about it during the upcoming High Holidays. There were other big stories this summer, too: the Arab Spring, for one, and what some see as a rejuvenation of Israeli civil society by the tent-city protesters. Tablet Magazine asked a range of rabbis from across the country—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; from New York to California, Florida to Illinois—what they’re planning to tell their congregations.


Rabbi Jack Moline
Agudas Achim, Alexandria, Virginia

I’ve been at this 30 years, and for 20 of them there’s been some crisis around the holidays that demanded our attention. In 1993 when they had the signing of the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn we all had to rewrite our sermons. But there are very few things in this world that you have to consider if you’re going to be a Jew. One is God, one is Israel, and another is your relationship to the Jewish people. So it’s my responsibility when the largest number of people come together to be Jewish to raise all of those issues. People come to synagogue on the holidays for strengthening and introspection. They don’t need my opinion. They want orientation.

Rabbi David Wolpe
Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, California

The Palestinian statehood issue is this year’s crisis, but I’m not sure it’s fundamentally different from anything that’s gone before. My father began the holidays with the state of the Jewish world on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and I’ve repeated that. And it seems to me that a great issue for human beings individually and for Israel as a country is to what extent you act on your own interest, and how much you act based on what other people think of you.

Rabbi Laura Geller
Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, California

Every year we have a contemporary-issues discussion on Yom Kippur afternoon. I have found that the advantage to doing it in that format is that you can bring in more than one voice, and it’s not a one-way conversation. Our theme this year is “coming home,” so the Yom Kippur forum will be framed in terms of coming home to Israel’s values in its Declaration of Independence, or in terms of asking whether Israel is our home enough to care what’s going on there. What responsibility do you have as a Jew to pay attention to Israel?

Rabbi Barry Freundel
Kesher Israel, Washington, D.C.

I do my year-in-review sermon on the second day of yontif. What I try to do is take the biggest issue of the year and discuss it with Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur eyes. But it’s a target in motion—because of the vote at the U.N., because we don’t know if there will be a new Intifada, because the old alliances are weakening, because the southern borders are less safe.

Rabbi Sidney Helbraun
Temple Beth-El, Northbrook, Illinois

I’m coming at it from both the standpoint of the Arab Spring and the internal movement in Israel. I heard a report on NPR a few weeks ago with a botanist who found out nitrogen can leach into plants directly through sedimentary rock, and that changes the whole nature of what people assumed about how botany works. And the researcher said, “Well, we have to throw out the textbooks.” The way science views changes of the status quo is that it’s very exciting, even if it uproots everything that your life’s work is about.

We’re always afraid of change. I’m one of the few rabbis from Chicago who did not vote for Obama but would today. He’s changed the dynamic after eight years of George Bush. Bush could not have been more in lockstep with Israel, but Gaza wound up with more missiles, and Israel wound up fighting a war.


Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Boca Raton Synagogue, Boca Raton, Florida

I feel like this is a pivotal time in Israel’s history. The honeymoon period where the world felt badly about the Holocaust and where people felt guilt and were willing to give Jews a pass has ended, and I think the world is returning to its animosity. We can disagree about policy all day long. If we are critical about Obama and the administration’s messaging on Israel, we need to be critical about our own messaging.

Moline: For too many people Israel has stopped being a value and become an issue instead. And the issues are always crises, which exacerbates the problem. It’s less important that we’re able to argue for or against settlements, or a unified Jerusalem, or a two-state solution than that we can make the case for Israel, period.

Geller: It is the function of the holidays and of a rabbi to remind people that Judaism is not just personal. It is a journey that happens among a people and brings us a connection to a particular place. And part of the challenge right now in North America is that for many liberal Jews, it isn’t.

Moline: It’s less to do with Israel per se than with a general disaffection with the institutions of Jewish life. But I’ve seen a polarization—people who are to the right are harder to the right, and people who are to the left are harder to the left. Maintaining the middle is very difficult.

Wolpe: Israel as a sovereign nation has to make its decisions based on internal considerations knowing that the world often judges it unfairly. But it’s dangerous for Israel to lose the sense that we have to care how the world sees us. Judaism recognizes the idea that a decent respect for mankind is a value—it’s called maras ayin. It is a Jewish value to care what other people think, and that Israel’s reputation in the world should not be a matter of indifference for us.


Freundel: On any issue you want to talk about, there are Jewish values, and most of the time what Judaism has to say doesn’t fall neatly into the Democratic or Republican side. So with the U.N. issue, I can talk about questions of international responsibility, and what allows you to be a player on the world stage, because there are examples in the Torah of nations that cannot. And there is in Jewish law discussions about covenants, and the two-sided nature of things—so while I don’t want to talk about policy, I can talk about attitudes in terms of how you look at people you’re in partnerships with.

Helbraun: We’re living in this world where everything is changing. Other religions are about control, but Judaism says no, we have to educate everyone, we have to give knowledge to the masses. And we’re seeing the ramifications of that—the Arab Spring is an example of people seeing they have power over their own lives. The question is how they’re going to exercise it. But you also see this generation in Israel that says, “We may not have power over the peace process, but we do have power over how we’re living our lives internally.” For decades people have said we’ll deal with religious-inclusion issues after we have peace. Well, waiting for peace is something none of us have control over, but there are other aspects of society that are 100 percent in our hands. So there’s also an awakening in the Israeli consciousness.


Rabbi Andy Bachman
Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, New York

We have hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets. That’s the largest Jewish protest movement for social justice in our lifetime. What is lost on American Jews is, hey, 6 million Jews live there and speak Hebrew every single day. There is a whole other Jewish reality going on.

Geller: It’s a watershed moment for Israel. It’s the Israeli Arab Spring, but it’s not clear where it’s going to lead—it’s easier to say, “We’re deposing a dictator” than “We’re reshaping society.” I think it’s a shift from the original vision of Israel to a different kind of social contract.

Goldberg: I use Israel as a springboard to get into questions of community. I wouldn’t tell Bibi what to do in the tent protests, but I can talk about what a reminder it is of Israel’s democracy that a quarter of a million people can protest housing prices while people in neighboring countries are gunned down for protesting in the street.

Bachman: I want to link it to the broader question of what ideas we have as a community about the organizing principles of our lives, and to what degree they translate into Jewish identity questions, and beyond that, to building a just society. I think it’s a really powerful opportunity to talk about Israel beyond the tried and true, and possibly alienating ways we engage in Israel.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.