Sermon: Two Letters
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
September 9, 2016/7 Elul,5776
Friends, I am going to tell the truth on this Shabbat. This week was a sermonic nightmare for me. I want to get to Rosh Hashanah, and still I am expected to deliver a message on Shabbes. “Ok, I got it covered”, I told myself at the beginning of the week. And then I sat down yesterday to get this done, and I quickly uncovered that what I had planned to say bordered on the idiotic. I threw it away and began writing again. Yesterday, I wrote half a sermon, and still realized that I did not know that I was saying. Double “oy”. So start all over again. And in the middle of the night last night, God spoke to me. “Jonathan, speak to my people and say . . .” So this evening my talk to you is doubly inspired. It is inspired from heaven above and inspired from the desperation that the sun is setting on Friday evening, and my people need a message.
I was saved by an article I read in the Forward about a Conservative rabbi and his congregation. Generally speaking, when articles appear about rabbis in the Jewish press, it is not good news. And this poor rabbi, almost two decades my junior, has had a rotten summer. He has served his congregation with great success for the past seventeen years, and he is in trouble. So tonight I am going to share with you two letters that I would love to send, but I won’t really send. The last thing this rabbi or congregation need is my two cents from the peanut depot in Birmingham, Alabama.
The first letter:
My Dear Colleague,
What a rotten summer you have had! My heart aches for you and your family, and for the turmoil that has you roiling. Inadvertently, you have created a tornado, and you do not know exactly where it is going to land. But rest assured, there will be some measure of destruction, and you share a good portion of the blame.
What were you thinking? You were organizing a congregational trip to Israel–that’s good–and you put on the itinerary a visit to Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah? That was not a good idea. The earth erupted under your feet. Yasser Arafat was responsible for more Jewish death than anyone since Adolph Hitler. He had glorified a culture of terror which has become the battlefield that has plagued not only Israel and Jews around the world, but has blossomed into al Qaeda and ISIS. He was the first to make terrorism kosher. And you want to bring your congregation of Jewish Americans, many of them traveling to Israel for the very first time, to stand at Arafat’s tomb? What good would possibly come of that?
Itineraries to Israel change, and I know that you have dropped this one like the hot potato that it is. But your congregation has erupted, and everybody’s fingers got burned.
Now, my fellow rabbi, I will share with you something personal about me. I have been to Arafat’s tomb. I stood by the guards and watched them reverently and suspiciously watch me watch them. I was disgusted by the experience. I am glad that I went, though. I was traveling for a week in Israel with a small study group of Christian colleagues from Birmingham, and we spent a day in Hebron, Bethlehem, and Ramallah. I did not enjoy the experience. But traveling is not only about enjoying, but also learning and experiencing. So I went to Arafat’s tomb and stood there for some five minutes and then I left and told my study partners this true story.
When I was a young rabbi in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of meeting the esteemed Rabbi Moshe Rosen, who was the leader of the Romanian Jewish community and one of the twentieth century’s Jewish heroes. Our colleague shepherded his community through the dark years of communism and helped the large bulk of Romanian Jews make aliya to Israel. Rabbi Rosen told us this story. On his first trip to Moscow in the late 1950’s, Rabbi Rosen was met at the airport by a delegation of Jews. “Rabbi Rosen, what would you like to see in Moscow.” Rabbi Rosen replied, “Take me to Stalin’s tomb.” “Stalin’s tomb? You want to go to Stalin’s tomb?” “Yes, take me to Stalin’s tomb.” So off they went to Red Square. Rabbi Rosen stood at Stalin’s tomb for five minutes, got back in the car and then went on to his hotel. One of his handlers asked him gingerly, “Rabbi Rosen, why would you, of all people, want to visit Stalin’s tomb?” He replied, “I wanted to make sure that Stalin was dead, and that I was not.”
When I stood before Arafat’s tomb, I kept repeating Rabbi Rosen’s line. “Arafat is dead, and I am not. Arafat is dead, and I am not. Arafat is dead, and I am not.”
You see, one can go to bear witness to a tomb, even of your enemies. But I fear that that was not your motivation. You were motivated to show sympathy, or at least an understanding to your congregation of the Palestinian narrative of suffering under the occupation. If you as an individual want to spend a couple of weeks in Ramallah, you will enjoy the falafel and ice cream shops and jewelry shops on the vibrant and bustling streets of this wealthy city. Don’t wear your yarmulke. I assure you that Ramallah is a lovely place to visit. But it is not your place. It is the place of those who deny our people’s return to Zion after our millennia of painful exile.
You are a rabbi among the Jewish people. You have an obligation to tell the Jewish story. You should feel the pain of your people yesterday and today inside the marrow of your bones. You should worry about the Jewish future. Will Jews be safe? Will Israel be strong? What will happen to us if Israel fails? I cannot imagine the pain my community in America would feel if Israel were to be weakened or in some way falter.
I know too, that you are a rabbi among the Jewish people. We are taught by our sacred texts to be rahamim b’nai rahamim, merciful ones–the children of those who show mercy. Of course we do not delight in the suffering and indignities of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people. This narrative of strength runs counter to the Jewish narrative of kindness and compassion for all people. I understand this, too. I believe that you are thoughtful and sensitive, maybe even more sensitive than me. I admire you for your sensitivity to the pain of others.
But the Palestinians as a people want to kill us. They want to harm us. I am sure that you have guards outside your synagogue to protect your worshippers from those who hate us and would hurt you and your people if they could. If you have stories to tell, the story of our return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland and the ingathering of the Jewish refugees from decimated Europe, the Arab lands and the former Soviet Union and the blossoming of Hebrew culture and the complexity and blessing of living in a Jewish country, is a God inspiring story. Why would you as a rabbi not tell our story?
With all humility, my dear colleague, your mistake was not the five minutes planned for Arafat’s tomb. Your mistake was that you wanted to impress your congregants who look to you to teach them Judaism to identify with the narrative of people who want to destroy what we all hold as precious. That is what got you in this hot water. I wish you luck. And I truly hope that the New Year, 5777 will be a whole lot better for you than the year now ending.
Shalom uv’racha, peace and blessings,
Here is my second letter.
You are mad, hopping mad. And I share your anger at your rabbi. You turn to him for spiritual advice and instruction. He should be the example of living Judaism. He is your teacher of Torah. And in a boneheaded move, he offered to bring his congregants to Arafat’s tomb. You want his head served to you on a platter. You want to show your rabbi and rabbis everywhere that they cannot violate or harm the State of Israel with impunity. You believe, as do I, that the State of Israel, with all of its imperfections, is still the blossoming of our people’s redemption, the re-entering of the Jewish people into history, and that in its not very great neighborhood, Israel is a light to the nations. Like me, you are angry at all of her persistent critics, many of whom delight in anti-Semitic tropes. You worry about the Jewish future, and you have devoted a great part of your personal and spiritual energies to keeping Israel safe and secure and combating the lies and distortions about Israel that are repeated everyday by liars and anti-Semites. I get it. As a rabbi serving a wonderful Jewish community of my own, I stand with you and believe what you believe.
And then you learn that your rabbi wants to take your congregation to pay tribute to Yasser Arafat! You want to blow up!
Richard, you did good by exposing your rabbi’s foolish mistake. And now I think you should do more good and let it alone.
According to the article I read, you have been relentless in your criticism of your rabbi. You have turned to social media and the press in a campaign to fire your rabbi and send him and his family packing. I understand where you are coming from. But I think you should stop. You have made your point amply and forcefully, and I agree with you. People have listened to you. Your rabbi has listened to you too.
Richard, I have been in the rabbi business for forty years. It used to be that Israel was a source of unity for American Jews. We could count on Israel to bring us together in common cause. In my own rabbinate and in my special community of Birmingham, Alabama, Israel still unites us, enthusiastically. But I recognize that not all of my colleagues agree with me, and not all of my communities are so blessed as is mine.
What concerns me is that when the love of Zion narrows, only narrow people will be able to love Zion. You and I have to broaden the engagement with Israel to not only be with people who think like we think, but with people who feel that they can question without being hurt or attacked. Zionism used to be the broad brush which brought us all together, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, reform and conservative and orthodox in common cause. Now, the landscape has changed. I am deeply saddened by this, as I suspect that you are.
Rabbis on the “right” and on the “left” are scared to talk about Israel. They are scared that they will rend their congregations in two, and they are scared that they will lose their jobs. They are scared of people like you. In some places, it can be easier for the American Jewish community to disengage from Israel than to stand together to support Israel.
I do not know your rabbi and I do not make excuses for what he has done. I share your outrage.
But I think you have made a mistake. Your rabbi has repeatedly offered to meet with you and to discuss with you. He has apologized and admitted his error. I would imagine, more than anything, he would love to find a way to reconcile with you. And you refuse to meet with him. Richard, please rethink this.
We need to show how Israel and Zion can bring us together. Your rabbi and your congregation and your cause and your own soul would benefit from seeing each other face to face as human beings and not as adversaries with pitchforks. You need to do this. You cannot keep your rabbi as your adversary if you refuse to speak to him. And who knows, maybe he has learned something. Pirkei Avot teaches: “The greatest hero is the one who make of his enemy a friend.” Your rabbi has become your enemy. You have an opportunity to make him your friend. You must avail yourself of that opportunity.
I believe, Richard, that you have an obligation to sit with your rabbi face to face, hear his words and examine his heart. And he has to do likewise with you. You must first attempt reconciliation. Who knows, but maybe he has been changed by the experience? And who knows, but maybe you can be changed by the experience? And then if you are not satisfied, you can leave the congregation or continue to express your displeasure. But first, you and your rabbi have to encounter each other and listen with an open heart.
Too soon, we will all face God in judgment and give an accounting for our lives. We will be judged by our deeds and our passions and how we have spent our energies and devoted our lives. We will also be judged by how we have listened to other people and how we have opened our hearts to encounter our adversaries. We do not have to love them. We do not have to turn the other cheek. From a Jewish perspective, that can be wrongheaded. But we do have to encounter them when they seek to pursue peace. It is admirable to pick up the lance and charge ahead to fight for what we believe. But sometimes, Richard, the better part of valor is to put the lance down. And wisdom is to know the difference between these two approaches.
I wish you a year of blessing and peace for you and the Jewish people and our brothers and sisters in Zion.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller