Read Rabbi Rick Jacobs' D'var Torah to the URJ Biennial 2017

Inside Leadership

Read Rabbi Rick Jacobs' D'var Torah to the URJ Biennial 2017

Rabbi Rick Jacobs on stage with the Torah during Shabbat morning services at the URJ Biennial

This d'var Torah for Parashah Vayeishev was presented before the 74th Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention on Saturday, December 9. 

Vayeishev, our Torah portion, is ominous. In the opening verses, Joseph’s tense relationship with his brothers disintegrates. In a matter of hours, rivalry becomes hatred. The brothers strip him of his tunic and throw Joseph into a pit. Ready to leave him there to die but later changing their minds, they choose instead to sell him into slavery for a few silver coins. We’re left stunned, wondering how our tribal ancestors could conduct themselves so completely devoid of morality? How did the ties that bind unravel so quickly? The parashah begins with the drama centered in the land of Israel and ends in the diaspora.

I won’t mince words. My question for us is simple: Are we at a breaking point in Diaspora-Israel relations? Is our relationship with our Israeli siblings, like that of Joseph and his brothers, in the pits?

If you’re Jewish, it’s likely that you live in Israel or in North America. How likely? Four out of every five Jews in the world live in these two communities. What holds together these two great communities and the others scattered across the globe are shared values, collective memory, and common aspirations. And we are honored that representatives of so many of those communities are gathered in that spirit with us here in worship this morning.

But, let’s speak honestly: there are also forces pulling our communities apart. The frustration, even anger, that the non-Orthodox Jewish majority feels as our religious rights in Israel are denied. The alienation many, especially among our youth, feel over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. The attentiveness of Israel’s government to Christian Evangelicals, while turning a cold shoulder to the concerns of progressive Jews.

Some issues that divide us at a given moment in history involve valid moral positions that are in tension with each other. This past week, we experienced such an issue over the timing of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Overwhelmingly, Jews across the globe are united both in our commitment to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to the recognition that Israel’s security and safety requires peace in the region.

Our love of Jerusalem is such a powerful dynamic in our communal and individual lives. Who, on their first visit to Israel, can forget the extraordinary experience of being able to walk to the Western Wall? To tread on the same grounds on which King David and King Solomon walked, where Amos, Micah and Isaiah, where Hillel and Shammai, where, for the significant majority of the past 3,000 years, Jews had walked. It is an experience filled with wonderment—and with reverence. Add to that, the dazzling wonders of the new city that Israel has built in West Jerusalem, the functional center of its governmental and cultural life - truly, for all of us, koseinu r’vayah - our cup runneth over.

On Wednesday of this week, by declaring formally U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, President Trump affirmed an age-old dream of the Jewish people. Now that the decision has been made, our Movement stands in solidarity with this recognition. Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be. The President was correct in noting that a sovereign state is entitled to name its own capital. And his act of formal recognition was a powerful repudiation of the efforts of those who would promulgate the lie that Jewish attachment to key areas of Jerusalem is only a myth. And we stand, unified with Israel and Jews everywhere, in condemning violence in response to this decision.

Before this decision, we expressed our serious concern – never, never about the concept -- but about the timing of these actions. Like many who champion Israel’s cause, we supported the position of President Trump’s Republican and Democratic predecessors, that such steps ought to be implemented as part of a broader strategy that enhances the two-state solution and thereby contributes to ensuring the safety and security of Israel, lest unilateral acts by the U.S. undercut peace process efforts and risk destabilizing the region.

We did not hear such a broader strategy in the President’s statement this week. However, we remain clear, as we have throughout the President’s first year that we welcome every opportunity to work with the White House on its efforts to advance peace.

The focus of my remarks this Shabbat morning are, however, on those issues that threaten more permanent damage to our relations with Israel. One major manifestation of such tensions are well-known to all gathered here. A few months back, after years of negotiations and good-faith compromises made on our part, the Israeli cabinet voted to “freeze” an agreement to create a meaningful pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On that same day, the Israeli government fast-tracked a bill that would, for the first time, entrust all matters of conversion inside Israel to the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. And just before Rosh Hashanah, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, added to the vitriol regularly invoked against us saying that we Reform Jews are “worse than Holocaust deniers.”

As always, let’s allow our Torah to be a prism to view our current predicament and perhaps, to help us envision a more healthy, whole, and hopeful future.

Va-yomer lo lech-nah r’eh et-shalom acheichah. (Gen 37:14)

Jacob sends his favorite son Joseph to check on his brothers who are pasturing their flocks. The text literally says Joseph is to see the “shalom” of his brothers. Chasidic master, R. Judah Leib Alter of Ger, said that Jacob did not intend to make Joseph a mere messenger to assess how his brothers were doing, for he surely could have sent one of his servants to do so. Jacob used the term shalom intentionally - he wanted Joseph to stop looking only at his brothers' faults. He sent him so that he should also notice their good traits, to see them in their wholeness.

Our entire Jewish community would benefit from following this teaching, urging us to search for that which is good with our estranged siblings. This is not just a ploy to paper over deep disagreements with a veneer of civility.

Some here today could barely find a respectful word to utter to a right-wing Israeli settler, while others view young members of left-wing pro-Israel organizations as enemies of the Jewish people.

When Joseph is lost trying to find his brothers, he encounters a mysterious person known simply as Ish, who asks Joseph who he is looking for. His answer echoes through the centuries:

Et-achai anochi m’vakeish. (Gen. 37:16)

I’m afraid too many of us have stopped trying to find our connection with our Jewish siblings in Israel and North America who dress, vote, pray, and believe differently from us. The sense of klal yisrael, of the peoplehood of Israel, is becoming an endangered notion both for those who seek to delegitimize Reform and Conservative Jews and unfortunately even from us as liberal Jews. But we will never embrace an empty tribalism. We will show up in Israel and here in North America, proudly wearing our social justice and deep ethical commitments. This is fully in keeping with important strands of Zionist thought in influential thinkers like Ahad Ha’am, A.D. Gordon, Henrietta Szold, and Judah Magnes.

Vayeeru oto meirachok. (Gen 37:18)

The Torah text tells us that Joseph’s brothers saw their brother only from afar, and they didn’t like what they saw. Jews on both sides of the ocean need to see each other up close. From afar we appear to be increasingly foreign to each other.

It’s not only that too many Israelis, including far too many in positions of authority, have a distorted perception of North American Jews. Too many North American Jews see Israel only through a growing litany of government decisions and actions that are at odds with our core values.

We should never shirk our obligation to raise objections to policies that weaken Israel’s Jewish democratic core and undermine prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But we must simultaneously help our people fall in love with Israel, with her diverse and remarkable people, her founding vision, her creativity in its scientific, business and cultural achievements and so much more. That’s why we bring thousands of Reform Jews to Israel each year: teens on NFTY in Israel and for a semester on Heller High, as well as hundreds of congregational trips; and this is why we will continue to encourage our 18-26 year olds to go on Birthright.

At the same time, we take our Israel engagement work here in North America very seriously including partnering with the Jewish Agency to bring hundreds of Israeli shlichim or emissaries to North America to our URJ summer camps and congregations. These Israelis bring their love of Israel to our teens, campers and congregations, and in return almost all these Israelis tell us they have, for the first time, experienced a Judaism that is alive and compelling to them.

So let’s build on that. Let’s create a Reverse Birthright for Israelis here in the Jewish communities of North America. And let’s focus strategically on Israeli leaders, journalists, educators and cultural figures who can also help shape Israeli policy. We North Americans have powerful experiences during our visits to the Jewish State, but we should not underestimate the power Israelis experience when they spend time here with us.

Too many Israeli leaders including members of the current Israeli cabinet are woefully ignorant about Jewish life outside of Israel. A stunning encounter I had recently with influential Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, dramatizes the way he and most of his colleagues think about North America Jews. Minister Levin, who is a secular Jew, said publicly that “it was a mistake to give non-Orthodox Jews a place at the Kotel, because they’ll be gone in another couple of years due to assimilation and intermarriage.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu asked me to talk with Levin. I told the prime minister that Levin works for him and that he should talk to Levin. He told me “I did, but now it’s your turn.”

The next day, while in the Knesset for meetings, I encountered Minister Levin in one of the main hallways. I put out my hand: “Minister Levin, I’m Rabbi Rick J…” he stopped me “I know who you are.”

“Mr. Minister,” I said, “I heard your harsh words on TV about Reform Jews but you really have no idea who we are.”

I told him he had correctly identified us as collectively standing at the door to Jewish life, but that he had the direction wrong. We are not helping Jews out the door; but rather we’re helping bring more Jews inside.

I then invited him to the States to get to know the largest Movement in Jewish life and see from up close the vibrant, inclusive, intellectually honest, and passionate Judaism our congregations practice here. Indeed, I’d love to have the whole Israeli cabinet here at our Biennial so they could come to appreciate the strength of our North American Reform movement. But some Israeli leaders have forged strong connections. We are grateful to Israel’s President Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, who we meet with regularly and has become a strong and effective advocate for more understanding and respect between World Jewry and Israel.

Make no mistake about it; Jewish life here in North America is strong. Very strong. Think about it: Today there are in North America, more Jewish books being published, more Jewish music, dance, theater, and films being produced; more Jewish courses of study being offered by more universities; more synagogues with richer and more extensive Jewish programming than ever before. In some of these aspects, we surpass Israel. We’re not disappearing. We’re not fading away. With all due respect, we have as much to offer Israel as Israel offers us. And the best way to help her leaders understand that -- is to have them spend time in our vibrant communities.

And while we are on the subject, let’s stop using the label “diaspora,” in describing ourselves. Diaspora implies a center and a periphery. Let us use the term “world Jewry” instead. Today, there is more than one center of Jewish life. This is not new for the Jewish people. Remember that the most authoritative Jewish intellectual achievement, the Babylonian Talmud, was created in 6th-century Babylonia, and throughout every period of our people’s history for that past 2,000 years, more Jews have lived outside of Israel than in our homeland.

Let’s stop thinking that Israel unilaterally sets the agenda for World Jewry. That paradigm is broken, and the time has come that we replace it with an ethos of an interdependent, mutually responsible world Jewish community with two powerful centers, North America and Israel.

Va-yomer Yisrael el-Yosef ha-lo acheichah ro’eem beeshchem. (Gen 37:13)

Geography matters. Joseph is sent to find his brothers near Shechem. Today that would-be Nablus in the heart of the Northern West Bank, which is surely a part of the biblical land of Israel. This narrative is used by some to bolster the Jewish claim to all of biblical Israel as our inheritance.

That argument has validity—in the abstract. But given the realities of the world today, pursuing that inheritance now runs counter to higher Jewish values. Continuing to spread Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank endangers any possibility of a two-state solution, which is indispensable for a realistic peace agreement, thereby undermining the Zionist enterprise of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic state.

I’m not naïve; we are clearly not close to a two-state solution, though, as I indicated before, I am encouraged by the U.S Administration’s efforts to advance a renewed peace process, which I have conveyed directly to them in my discussion with U.S. Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt.

But this is clear: There can be no legitimate Jewish state that is not a democracy. A one-state solution that would deny Palestinians any claim to sovereignty would result in the abandonment of either the Jewish or the democratic essence of modern Israel. I couldn’t imagine losing either.

This, too, is a place for honesty. The Occupation is real. As Ariel Sharon, hardly a left-wing progressive Zionist, noted back in 2003: "You cannot like the word, but what is happening is an occupation -- to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.”

Ending the Occupation is in Israel’s interest but calling for an end to the Occupation is not the same as resolving the underlying issues of security for Israel and sovereignty for Palestinians. One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland living side by side with Israel.

A robust debate has been underway in Israel about whether or not settlements truly make Israel more secure. It divides the Israeli public, Israeli politicians, as well as former IDF commanders and Israel security services heads.

We cannot and should not make Israel’s policy decisions – the people of Israel live and die by those decisions—but we can ask that in their deliberations they listen to the voice and opinions of those who are devoted to Israel’s well-being and can offer perspectives they may miss.

In that spirit, we should and will challenge those who wrongly suggest that lovers of Israel must support the most extreme ideology of the Settler Movement as part of the core commitment of Zionism. And we can explain how counter-productive it is to Israel’s support in North America and in the Jewish community for the Israeli government to ask that we speak up on college campuses or in front of main line Protestant groups in favor of expanding settlements. As settlement expansion undermines the possibility of two states for two peoples, so does BDS by delegitimizing Israel’s very existence. I made that case and helped defeat a BDS resolution at the Unitarian Universalist Convention last year.

Too often Israel’s defenders are asked by hardline advocates to include the entirety of Israel’s West Bank settlements in the pro-Israel argument, denying the reality of the Occupation. We Reform Zionists, with a long track record for Palestinian rights and opposing settlements, can be particularly effective in such settings and have a crucial role in making the progressive case for Israel.

At the same time, in spite of the Israeli government’s bending to the discriminatory demands of ultra-Orthodox parties, our Reform Zionist movement in Israel is flourishing. Two weeks ago in Jerusalem, I was inspired to be present as HUC-JIR ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi. These 100 rabbis, along with a large, growing network of devoted lay leaders, are leading congregations all over the map of Israel.

The Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism recently commissioned a comprehensive new survey and found that the majority of Israelis, from across the political spectrum, have positive attitudes of Reform Judaism after experiencing first hand a wedding or bar or bat mitzvah at a Reform congregation. Also, a clear majority of respondents support the right of Reform and Conservative Jews and Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel. And a clear majority of Israelis reject the claim that Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism.

This survey, conducted by one of Israel’s most respected political pollsters, found that 7% of Israelis identified with Reform Judaism—a greater percentage than ever before. If you add the 4% that self-identified as Conservative, that means that 11% of Jewish Israelis identify themselves with non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams.

This figure is roughly equivalent to the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Non-Orthodox Judaism in general and Reform Judaism are gaining remarkable strength throughout almost all sectors of Israeli society.

Vayeimk’ru et-Yosef la-Yishma’elim b’esrim kasef vayavi’u et-Yosef Mitzraimah. (Gen. 37:28)

They sold Joseph for 20 pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.

Did the current Israeli government sell non-Orthodox Jews for some political silver? That’s what the worst of coalition politics is about: this kind of wheeling and dealing.

Immediately following our Torah reading, we will hear in the Haftarah the words of the prophet Amos who rebukes those who dare pervert our tradition’s moral imperatives: 

Al-michram ba-kesef tzadik. (Amos 2:6) “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just.”

We gathered here know full well that our cause is just. And we won’t tolerate our rights being sold for political expediency. In case you’re worried, we will win the struggle for an egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. We will not accept the bread crumbs that the Prime Minister is throwing our way. A second-rate space will never be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world. Standing up for the rights of all Jews at the Kotel can get you roughed up, as a group of us found out a few weeks ago as we carried eight Torah scrolls into the upper Kotel plaza.

A victory for equal rights at the Kotel is important both intrinsically and symbolically. Making the Western Wall an image of Jewish equality, is a crucial step that can create momentum in Israel towards ensuring religious and civil equality for all streams of Judaism and for secular Jews, throughout the Jewish State – in matters of marriage, conversion, equal support for our synagogues, rabbis and schools, and so much more.

My friends, leaders of this great Movement, this is not a moment for us to watch from the sidelines. Between now and our next Biennial, our North American Movement will double its financial investment in growing Reform Judaism in Israel. In the past seven years—our Israeli Reform Movement—the IMPJ—has doubled the number of Israelis who self-identify as Reform Jews, so now when we double our investment, we can continue to grow more rapidly our Israeli movement and its influence.

And in doing so we will double the number of weddings, b’nai Mitzvah, those who study with us, who attend our early childhood centers and more.

And we are fortunate to have partners who share our vision of Israel as a true Jewish homeland for all Jews. One such partner is UJA-Federation of NY. For many years, they have been advocates and significant funders of religious diversity in Israel, and invested in Reform Movement initiatives and institutions in Israel, including funding for IRAC, HUC and IMPJ.

As we reach towards our aspirations and commit to a new level of engagement and significant financial investment in Israel, UJA-Federation of NY has reaffirmed its willingness to stand with us.

I am pleased to announce that they are ready - with materially additive dollars and leadership - to help expand our reach and increase our effectiveness in engaging generations of Israelis on the Jewish journey.

I’m optimistic that many other federations and organizations will follow and that those of you who are active leaders in federations across North America will be assertive in asking them to follow NY UJA’s model. Indeed, URJ, with the able leadership of ARZA and ARZA Canada, who tirelessly work to promote Reform Judaism in Israel, will make certain to join with the IMPJ and all arms of our Reform Movement and our allies in the Federations and across the Jewish world to ramp up this critical initiative.

And finally, Joseph finds himself, as do we, outside the Land of Israel. Rather than being powerless and vulnerable, Joseph uses his opportunities and gifts to rise to be second only to Pharaoh. So too, we here in North America have used our opportunities and freedoms to become a respected and influential community. From his leadership perch, Joseph saves those starving in the Land of Israel, and much of the world as well. His ties to Israel remain unbroken for eternity when he demands a promise from his brothers that their descendants would take his bones with them when they return to Israel.

And what of our ties to Israel? Are we at a breaking point? We must acknowledge we are coming alarmingly close.

Is it too late? I know with certainty, when I see what this Movement has accomplished, that it is not. I know it is not too late—if we, the largest and most diverse Movement in Jewish life, act to build Reform Judaism strong enough to fulfill its immense potential in Israel to capture the moral imagination and the spiritual questing of the people of Israel.

That, friends, is my call to you this Shabbat morning: to echo Joseph’s words: Et achai anochi m’vakeish, I am searching for my siblings.

Let each of us search for our brothers and sisters in Israel knowing that the only way we’ll truly find them is not by looking at each other from afar but rather by leaning in closer than ever, by embracing each other, recognizing both our faults and our achievements, our limitations and our potential for greatness.

Let us celebrate two great centers of Jewish life bound together in shaping the destiny of the Jewish people. We are one diverse and strong Jewish people. We are not obliged to agree with all of our siblings, but rather to stand up for and to them as we feel more responsible for each other.

Towards the end of the Joseph narrative, we read that our patriarch Jacob’s soul is forever bound up with his son Joseph - et nafsho k’shurah v’nafsho - and so it is with our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Israel. Let us see each other in our splendid wholeness, up close, and as equals in pursuit of shalom. And let that begin today.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 900 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

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