A number of friends have written to me in recent days asking for my perspective on the latest violence by Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria (aka ‘settlers’) against members of the Israel Defense Forces. And at first my reaction was, What is there to say? My rabbinic association, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, issued a condemnation of the ‘Price Tag’ phenomenon. And beyond that, I’m not sure there’s much for me to add: I’m not a citizen of Israel, and every sane person in Israel is saying the same thing: these people are criminals, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and let justice be done.

But that’s not what the people who wrote to me want, I suspect. What prompts them to write is a deeper challenge to their own identity as American Jews.

Last week I taught a session on Israel’s Declaration of Independence for heads of central agencies of Jewish education that was sponsored by the iCenter. Anne Lanski, president of the iCenter, began the session by asking everyone to introduce themselves by sharing what connects them with Israel. Some in the room were Israelis by birth. Most had lived in Israel for one or more long-term stays. Nearly all had traveled to Israel in the past year.

When it came to me, I responded that what connects me to Israel is that not a day goes by that I don’t ask, “Why haven’t I made aliyah?” This is one of the great unresolved questions in my life and in the marriage that Natalie and I share. Both of us feel a fundamental desire to live in Israel, to be ‘full Jews’ in the sense that A.B. Yehoshua talks about: enabling our Jewish identity, which is central to our lives, to achieve full expression in the way we actually live. The reasons we’re not there are many and complicated. When children are in the picture, when parnassa (livelihood) is in question, it’s not so simple. But the desire burns every day, and virtually every night before we go to bed Natalie and I have the conversation that begins, “Why don’t we live in Israel?” Ani bama’arav v’libi bamizrach.

In his infamous speech to the American Jewish Committee a few years ago, A.B. Yehoshua pointed out that the State of Israel has a relationship not only with its citizens, but with all Jews as a result of the statement in Megillat Atzma’ut (the Declaration of Independence): “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” This statement achieved expression in the Law of Return. And as a result, even though I am not a citizen of the State, I am a potential citizen. Ahad Ha’Am put it less politically in his formulation, in which Israel would be the spiritual center of Jews worldwide. I feel this every time I face east to daven, and in the central role that Israel plays in so many other aspects of my life, from the publications that I read to the TV shows I watch (S’rugim, Avodah Aravi) to what my children ate for dinner last night (Tival veggie burgers).

All of which is to say that Israel matters to me, deeply. It is impossible for me to imagine my Jewishness apart from Israel. It is impossible for me to imagine not wanting to be in Israel. It is impossible to imagine feeling fully at home in a Diasporic existence, even in a place as full of blessings as America. For me, the fact that when I get a latte in Israel they write yom tov in Hebrew in the foam–I can’t feel more at home than at that moment.

And that’s what makes so much of the news coming from Israel so tragic and painful. Yes, the news about the sickos who kill Arabs and attack IDF soldiers. Yes, the proposed and enacted laws attacking civil society. Yes, the corrupt and shameful Chief Rabbinate. All of that pains me. It pains me far more than any of the ways in which American society is broken, and that reminds me of where home really is for me.

But what it also does is test my ahavat yisrael. Can I call the Hilltop Youth Jews to whom I’m in some way responsible? Can I see the misogynists in Geulah or Beit Shemesh as my kinsmen? Would I count them in a minyan? Ahavat yisrael is the greatest attribute of my rebbe, Avi Weiss, and has always been the growing edge for my judgmental temperament. But sometimes judgment is warranted, sometimes people have to be cast out, because the survival and integrity of the rest of us depends on it.

Knowing the difference between the times for Hesed and the times for Gevurah is the test implied in Parshat Vayeshev and in the story of Hannukah. The brothers’ othering of Joseph, their attempted fratricide, is the lowest moment in the book of Genesis. Since the time of Cain and Abel, we have been trying to find a way for brothers to live together — Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — and here another set of brothers fails the test. Reconciliation ultimately comes, but at the price of years of torment and eventual exile.

Hannukah is the story of a civil war, waged by religious zealots–the Hilltop Youth of their day, perhaps. Yet since the time 1500 years ago when the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud virtually ignored the story of the Maccabees, right through our own day, the story we tell about Hannukah is less that of religious extremism winning out over accommodation than of the struggle to maintain integrity, identity and commitment in the face of the pressures to give up. The Talmud made the story not about war in the name of purity, but about keeping the miracle of light in a time of darkness.

I am a believer that, though history has its place, Jewish memory is more important than Jewish history. How we tell the story is ultimately more significant than the events that actually happened. The story of Joseph is a story about the challenges of reconciliation, and the long processes we have to go through to bring it about. The story of Hannukah is about the faith necessary to keep on going, even when we think there’s no way left to do so.

This week, this Hannukah, we need to remember those lessons more than ever.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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