Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Labors of our Hands

“May the delight of the Eternal our God be upon us, and, indeed, may the work of our hands prosper!”
These words conclude Psalm 90, a biblical call for a life of wisdom and contentment. And this passage refers to the concept of m’lachah, or the labor in which we engage to support ourselves and our families, and which provides us personal dignity and strength.
Sometimes our work defines us. As a Rabbi, I certainly become associated not only with my wonderful synagogue, but also the Jewish tradition that is centuries old.
My task to make this ancient tradition live for all our members.
Sometimes we define our work. People of creativity and flexibility who employ a set of skills or run their own businesses need to make split-second decisions about accomplishing their work.
They may be known for the consistent quality of their work, yet their “product” may be quite different with each and every contract or assignment.
And sometimes we have no creative influence over the work we do: Factory workers, administrative personnel, stay-at-home parents or those who serve others for hourly wages have rigid work assignments that seem to change little or require few creative flourishes.
Yet they feel no less proud of their labor, nor do they refrain from adding originality and quality to their work.
Each of us contributes mightily to the collective labor of the world, something that we declare on Labor Day each year. But as many holidays have become, this annual observance has devolved into a flurry of retail sales and a rush to get in ‘just a bit more summer.’
As we approach Labor Day this coming September 7, let us recall that each one of us contributes significantly to the health of our society through the labors of our hands, and also that God delights in the work we do. Outside the home, or in it; on behalf of many or few: Whatever we do adds to the quality of the world, and we should be content with work well done.
May God, indeed, prosper the work of our hands!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Debate About Pro-Israel Christians

Greetings to you, dear reader. I have been absent from this blog for a while, with busy winter and spring seasons. But I return here to update you on an ongoing interest of mine, the subject of whether we Reform Jews should be engaging with pro-Israel evangelical and fundamentalists, of the ilk of Christians United for Israel.

In the recent edition (Summer 2009) of Reform Judaism Magazine, my friend and colleague Norman Cohen and I undertake to present, in 300 words or less, a spirited dialogue on this question, with Rabbi Cohen saying “yes” and my saying “no.” Below are the two columns, which I commend to you. And what follows are some responses that I have received as a result of Reform Jews – and others – reading these columns and being moved one way or another to answer back to me.

But first, the two columns, pro and con:

Debatable: Should Reform Jews Engage with Pro-Israel Fundamentalists? (Copyright 2009, Reform Judaism Magazine, www.reformjudaismmag.org)

YES by Norman Cohen

There are many good reasons to have a relationship with fundamentalist Christians who consistently advocate pro-Israel positions in the political sphere.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us to say “thank you” and reciprocate with a positive gesture of our own—certainly not to turn our backs on those who extend a hand in friendship.

When our youngsters are bombarded on college campuses with anti-Israel rhetoric and demonstrations, who comes to their defense? Christians who share their love for the State of Israel. And when Israelis are killed and wounded in terrorist attacks, which organizations raise thousands of dollars to provide needed assistance and relief for the victims? Organizations such as Christians United for Israel.

Keep in mind, too, that not all fundamentalist pro-Israel Christian groups try to convert Jews or claim that Jews have been replaced by Christians as God’s chosen people. Christian United for Israel, for example, has denounced such proselytizing philosophies as inappropriately triumphalist.

In maintaining a relationship with Christian fundamentalists, we also have the opportunity for dialogue and influence—to persuade them of Israel’s need to compromise for peace, to make them aware that the Jewish community is not monolithic about politics or social issues, and to offer them new Jewish connections with us.

Reform Jews need to face head-on the bigotry and prejudice many of us have against conservative Christians. We need to publicly acknowledge that they have been among the strongest supporters of Israel at a time when some of our liberal Christian allies on social justice issues have led the charge against Israel through their divestment resolutions and repeatedly fail to condemn Arab terrorism. It is time we give thanks to Christians United for Israel and similar groups who help preserve the safety and the future of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Norman M. Cohen is spiritual leader at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

NO by Jonathan Biatch

Before we engage in alliances with pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists, we must ask: Do their actions help Israel?

Regrettably, the dominant Christian-Zionist organizations advocate policies that undermine Israel’s security and the chances for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For example, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC) actively supports Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as part of “God’s plan for the Jewish nation.” Such encouragement provokes conflict among settlers and Palestinians, impeding progress toward a two-state solution, a policy goal explicitly advocated by the Union for Reform Judaism.

A second such group, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), also opposes territorial compromise. At its 2007 conference, CUFI board member Gary Bauer disparaged the notion of a two-state solution, stating, “We are praying that they [the settlers] never give up…even one centimeter of territory.” Further, CUFI founder and chairman Pastor John Hagee has called for pre-emptive military strikes against Iran that “would trigger nuclear conflict and devastating war and destruction between the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and the Islamic world.” Such an “end of days” bloodbath is hardly in the interest of Israel or any nation.

Moreover, how can we overlook Hagee’s vehement attacks on the dignity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, his derision of American Muslims as unpatriotic, and his explicit condemnation of liberal Jews as “poisoned” and “spiritually blind” (see www.jewsonfirst.org)?

Common interests and goals, such as support for Israel, can certainly unify people with otherwise divergent views. But when the values of potential political bedfellows clash so fundamentally with our own, we must reject their advances. CFOIC and CUFI are two such unwelcome suitors.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin.
(Copyright 2009, Reform Judaism Magazine, www.reformjudaismmag.org)

Now here is a sample of some comments that I have received. By the way, overall, seven of them have been positive, and three have been negative.

From a former congregant:
I wanted to thank you for your letter in the Reform Judaism magazine. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, escaped and was a strong atheist when I met Joanne. I agreed to raise the girls in Judaism and have, over the years, come to the point where I value my connection to Judaism as one of the most positive aspects of my life.

I know firsthand the anti-Jewish attacks of Christian fundamentalists and their total lack of respect for Jews (and many other groups, but I won't try to list them all - I don't have all day). They may say in public that Jews are the chosen people, but in private, my mother told my daughter (her own granddaughter) that she was going to hell. While I have become less cynical over the years, I remain 100% suspicious of love from a hate group. Your comments were completely on target.

In case you get responses that are not positive, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your comments.

From a current congregant:
I read your recent News/views article in the recent Reform Judaism and cannot agree with you more. After our visit in March to Israel many of the Israeli Jews that we talked with agree as well. I have great difficulty understanding the other side of this argument which in my prejudice feel 'money talks' and because they give to Israel they should be looked at differently. Thank you for representing us so well and sharing your views with other Reform Jews.

From a current congregant:
I just read your column in the Summer issue of Reform Judaism. I agree with you 100%. As you say, many of Israel's most vocal Christian Fundamentalist defenders undermine the ideals and the culture that make Israel a shining promise for humanity. In the Middle East and elsewhere, short-sighted political alliances of convenience often cause grave long-term problems. I fear that Israel is confronting that exact reality, as is the United States.

Thank you for your considered words, your courageous statement, and your wise leadership on this issue. I hope you will continue to speak out about controversial matters. I believe that is the appropriate and necessary role for a valued community leader.

From a total stranger who seems to like to throw stones from a distance:
Your argument against an alliance with pro-Israel fundamentalist Christian is flawed. You state that their political values clash with ours. They don't, they clash with yours. You may not meet many conservative Jews in Madison, but you are insulated from the real world if you think we don't exist. You denigrate the idea of a preemptive strike against. Iran. It would not cause anywhere near the blood bath that a nuclear armed Iran would. You assume a two state solution is the only way to go, when even the so called "moderate" Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. You accuse the fundamentalists of being bigots, when you are bigoted against them. But I forget, among secular progressives it is acceptable to be biased against fundamentalists, Catholics, and Zionists. Your friends on the left are at the forefront of the anti Zionist movement, yet you refuse to consider any alliance with our natural allies because you disagree with them politically. How astoundingly short sighted.

From the Israel-based director of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (read: settlements), who makes plenty of assumptions from my article:
...While you clearly have no tolerance for the settlement movement and the ideology that we represent, I wonder how you have the chutzpah to denigrate an organization that builds such wonderful relationships between Christians and Jews just because it supports a political or religious position that you disagree with. Is your support of Israel conditioned upon who is the prime minister? Will you withdraw your support of Israel if our country refuses to adopt the "two-state solution?" Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that the recent national elections in Israel sent a very clear message that the people of Israel no longer have confidence in the various peace processes that have been experimented with over the years. The recent campaign of the IDF in Gaza received overwhelming support among Israeli citizens. And perhaps you are not aware of the fact that it is young men who have grown up in the so-called settlements who, today, make up a significant percentage of the officers and soldiers of the IDF. Will you withdraw your support of Israel because the values of these soldiers and officers so clearly clash with your own?...

Back to Rabbi Jonathan:
Although one can say that it’s self-serving to offer the positive comments, I will let them speak for themselves.

The comments of the last writer, the director of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, make a great many assumptions. But the statement that I find most surprising is this: “I wonder how you have the chutzpah to denigrate an organization that builds such wonderful relationships between Christians and Jews just because it supports a political or religious position that you disagree with.”

My response:
I think that if one were to read my article again, one would find solid rationale for wanting to distance myself from this organization: Not that I disagree with their political position (though I do) but rather because they act in a political realm and hope for US governmental policy to change according to their view. When this organization, or the Christians United for Israel, expresses its belief, that is their right and privilege. But when they seek to influence United States or Israeli government policy because of their beliefs, I must stand up and forcefully disagree.

This debate will not soon disappear, and I look forward to further discussions on this issue.

Be well.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

'Women of the Wall' and Other Miracles

Twenty years ago last week, a unique Israeli revolution began. This was a revolt against a stubborn Jewish religious establishment that had denied basic religious rights to women. And last week, on the first day of the Jewish month of Adar, Israeli women celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of this uprising: in prayer, song, and disobedience to religious authority.

Last Wednesday, February 25, was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of “Women of the Wall”, an Israeli group dedicated to securing the rights of women to pray in loud and joyous voices at the Western Wall, the remnant of the Jerusalem Temple that Rome destroyed in 70 CE.

The Western Wall, prior to 1967, was a place of yearning and desire. Beginning from the time of Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 CE, many Jews had viewed this ground as truly sacred. Even though this wall had been merely the retaining wall that surrounded the precinct of the Holy Jerusalem Temple at the time of Herod (circa 5 BCE), because it remained standing after the destruction, it fired the imagination of Jews who dreamed for two millennia of a return to being able to fulfill the sacrificial rites as dictated by God in Torah. Here is a photo of the Western Wall and its sacred plaza:

In the years since the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, the Western Wall has become a place venerated by Jews of all kinds. However, early on in the Wall’s liberated history the Chief Rabbinate of Israel created a men’s and women’s side, which has led to the following dilemmas:

The Orthodox Rabbinate directed that men and women pray separately if they wish to approach the Wall; for Progressive Jews, this in itself was a painful situation. But a further consequence was to silence the voice of women in worship: To our Orthodox cousins, hearing women’s voices during a time of worship is understood as obscene or vulgar. Consequently, women are prohibited from praying aloud, singing, publicly reading from a Torah scroll, or otherwise engaging in public acts of worship in the Western Wall plaza.

Twenty years ago, Israeli women of different movements decided that enough had been enough, and they began to deal with this issue by worshiping together, and in loud voices. Over the years, women and men in this struggle have been detained or arrested for disturbing the peace; women have organized for regaining their civil rights; the “Women of the Wall” filed suit after suit in the High Court of Justice; and a special Tallit was designed and marketed for fundraising purposes. (I own one, as does my wife. Let me know if you wish to examine it.)

At this point in time, the Rabbinate has been the winner in the many court cases brought by the Women of the Wall, the last one declaring that the women should respect the decisions of the Orthodox Rabbinate. But their determination to wade through the court system and to wait out more positive results is strong, and they anticipate an eventual success.

I don’t believe that I, as a male, had ever experienced life on the ‘disallowed’ side of the mehitzah, the divider that institutions of Orthodox Jewry use to separate men from women during worship. Last week, however, the roles of male and female worshipers were reversed, as the men in our group stood behind a separation fence to witness the Women of the Wall engaged in disobedient prayer. Here is a photo of what my view was like on that day while trying to worship with the women at the Western Wall:

If you could look clearly through this divider and peer into the midst of serious worship, it would look like this:

This male worshiper was quite loud in his objections to the women singing. He tried to prevent the singing and stop the “atrocities” against God:

Here he is engaged with one of the males in our group who insisted that he lower his voice so that the women could worship:

The struggles for religious equality, as well as those struggles for Israeli societal equalities of minorities of all kinds, are at the heart of Israeli society today. As the nation strives toward a peaceful resolution with its Arab neighbors, it begins to turn inward and address its internal problems. The religious inequality of males and females, Orthodox and Progressive Jews, Israeli Jews and Arabs, will be those efforts that will occupy our people over the next fifty years. And I invite you to come to Temple Beth El next Friday, March 13, as I report on my recent trip to Israel and to describe some of the struggles that I witnessed during my visit.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

‘It’s Hard to Be the Pope’

About the recent scandal regarding the reinstatement of a bishop who has denied the Holocaust, the Pope asked that his clergy and his faithful “support the very delicate and weighty mission of the successor of the Apostle Peter, who is custodian of the unity of the church.”

I guess it’s hard to be the Pope।

“There were certainly management errors on the part of the curia, I want to be clear about that,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, director of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and liaison for Vatican-Jewish relations. He underscored that he was not consulted before the pope’s decision was announced.

Fifteen months ago, at a meeting at the Vatican, I met Cardinal Kasper along with other Catholics and Jews who toil at strengthening Catholic-Jewish relationships.

At that time, Pope Benedict XVI had ascended to his position, and the influential United States bishops who appreciate and take part in Catholic-Jewish dialogue were able to convince Kasper to arrange for us to visit the Vatican, explore the thorny issues that have an impact on Catholic-Jewish relationships, and sit on the ‘bimah’ when the Pope held his weekly audience. We were all on a very optimistic trajectory.

In the last few weeks, however, the rich potential for broadening Catholic-Jewish relationships was almost destroyed by Benedict’s action to repair a breech within the Catholic church. The unintended consequences of rehabilitating Bishop Richard Williamson brought embarrassment to an institution already beset with many other problems.

The Pope had not anticipated affecting the sensibilities of the world-wide Jewish community. Yet he learned that the ‘private’ opinions of a bishop, even an excommunicated one, matter. And the fact that Benedict has instructed Bishop Williamson to recant his Holocaust denial is already going a long way to maintain the integrity of his office and his Holy Self.

It may be difficult to be the Pope, but even more difficult may be admitting to and moving beyond mistakes that we make as human beings. And in that, Pope Benedict XVI succeeded.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Israel and Palestine: Where To Go From Here

In the New York Times on Wednesday, January 28, Thomas Friedman places an intriguing op-ed piece about possible ways to rebuild trust and confidence among Israel and those nations that surround our Jewish homeland. Click here to read it.

In the article, written as an imagined letter from Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to President Obama, he suggests that the Saudis push forward with the so-called “Abdullah Peace Plan” that the Saudis suggested six years ago. The King volunteers sufficient funds to pay for physical reconstruction and security needs to maintain order and build trust as borders are decided and weak governments strengthen.

Friedman suggests that the Saudis put their money where their mouth is. He also wants them to develop the chutzpah to use their diplomatic might – if any – for good purposes.

Despite his tongue-in-cheek suggestions, Friedman also underscores a truly possible scenario that envisions nations of the Middle East taking responsibility to govern regional affairs wisely, to accept the nation of Israel into their midst, and to suppress the hegemonic desires of Iran.

What’s missing from Friedman’s analysis? The role of Syria in a regional peace plan, and the role of Israel in helping to create and maintain trust between them and their Palestinian neighbors.

Syria’s name is not even mentioned in Friedman’s piece, yet they will undoubtedly be deeply involved in a future plan. Israel and Syria have to establish their modus vivendi as they apportion the Golan Heights between them and decide upon water rights. Those will be difficult negotiations, to be certain.

It would also be a boon to relations between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel were somehow involved in the physical reconstruction of areas in Gaza that suffered in the recent fighting. Short of supplying funding for Hamas’ blundering, illegal and immoral warfare from within civilian areas (according to Friedman’s proposal, Saudi Arabia would fork over 25 billion dollars – petro dollars, clearly! – to pay for the rebuilding), Israel has construction and other expertise that, if employed with the right security measures, could go far to engender good will on the Palestinian street.

Not only would there be partnerships formed among Israeli and Palestinian builders, but as electronic, commercial and other kinds of infrastructure are laid down, business ties would surely increase, establishing a pattern of cooperation and collaboration that could be a model for the future.

As the economy of Gaza enlarges, so, too, could human alliances of many kinds. This is what truly is needed in that region of the world so tormented by violence and mistrust.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Will Wisdom Also Be Our Legacy?

It was about time.

It was about time for the people of the western Negev to unburden themselves from the relentless terror of tense daytime hours, and constant, sleepless nights.

It was about time to react to the terror of running to the bomb shelters while counting down those fifteen seconds from the first alert to the probable time of a missile’s impact.

And it was about time to stop living each day with its nerve-shattering present, and uncertain future.

And yet:

At the same time that Israel asserted her obligation – and her right – to defend her people – actions, by the way, that had earned the support of more than 80% of the Jewish population in Israel – I have to hope that each Israeli had in mind the exhortation of Hillel that we find in Pirkei Avot [1:12]: “Be disciples of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it; loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them close to the Torah.”

Last Wednesday morning I ran into an Israeli friend and I asked him about the mood of the people of Israel this week. His answer sadly, did not surprise me: “Militaristic,” he said. “Very militaristic!”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that even his admittedly left-of-center friends in Israel whom he called “haters of war and ferocious opponents of the West Bank settlement movement” support the Israeli government actions in Gaza. He quotes their statements about members of the American Jewish left: “What did they think, that we would just sit there forever, while Hamas fired rockets into our cities?”[1]

This is completely reasonable. Whether from the standpoint of employing the Jewish value of “din rodef,” or the ‘self-defense’ argument; or from the standpoint of international law and the United Nations charter, a country may act to protect itself and its citizens from danger.

And yet –

At this point, almost three weeks into the “Cast Lead” operation in Israel, we must have many doubts as to the wisdom of continuing the operation.

When the number of civilian casualties comes close to overtaking the Hamas combatants; when significant numbers of civilians are wounded and killed by the bombing of United Nations and humanitarian facilities even when they are shown to contain Hamas weapons caches; when press freedoms are curtailed in the name of “keeping the journalists safe;”

At the conclusion of it all, what will be our legacy as the children of Jacob, the people of Israel? What are going to be the values that we carry forward from these precarious times?

I bring this question forward in light of the Torah portion Vayechi, which we read last week. In this parashah, the Joseph saga comes full circle:

  • Joseph and a full entourage of Egyptian servants and counselors travel to the Promised Land to bury his father Jacob;
  • Joseph resolves his difficult relationship with his brothers;
  • And the descendants of Jacob establish their place in Egyptian society, setting the stage for the eventual exodus of Moses.
One particular vignette from this portion stands out tonight: the private gathering to which Jacob calls his sons prior to his death. At this solemn reunion, Jacob offers to all his children predictions as to their eventual fates.

And it is Jacob’s prophecy regarding Shimon and Levi that I think about on this night. In the context of the Torah portion, Jacob’s prophecy offers an insight that relates to the evil of Shimon and Levi’s past:

“Shimon and Levi are brothers, and their weapons are tools of lawlessness. May my soul not come to be counted among theirs; let my presence not be connected with them! In their anger they slew men; whenever it pleased them they maimed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is overpowering, and their wrath, because it is so relentless. I will divide them among the people of Jacob; I will scatter them throughout Israel.”

What earned them such a dire prediction? It was Shimon and Levi’s vengeful reaction to the rape of their sister Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. Jacob recalled for his sons how the people of Shechem, after the son of the ruler of Shechem raped Dinah, sought a bride-price “of any value” for Dinah. The perpetrator of the rape says, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Only give me the girl for a wife.” He was motivated by based instincts, and he apparently felt that this bride-price was a reasonable compensation for the crime of rape.

Jacob’s sons suggested at the time that the people of Shechem become one with the people of Israel, and every male in Shechem be circumcised. And the people of Shechem agreed.

However, Shimon and Levi were totally infuriated by this “compromise” solution reached by their brothers. And to exact true vengeance against Shechem and his people, Shimon and Levi snuck into the city of Shechem and slew all the males.

Jacob never forgot this act of senseless revenge, and fourteen chapters later we read in this week’s parashah that Jacob predicted – wished, perhaps – that his sons would suffer a fate of isolation and utter destruction.

In our day, and in relation to the situation in the Gaza Strip, the situation is very different from a biblical case of rape and revenge. Shimon and Levi were unable to consider the ethical dimensions of their situation; they simply acted, and dealt with the consequences later.

We Jews, on the other hand, have the capacity and the responsibility to consider a complex set of questions that go beyond legal rights and international standards:

When it comes to the specific actions that Israel has taken in Gaza, when should appropriate and legitimate assertions of self-defense give way to acts of wisdom and discretion and judgment?

When does the criterion for any course of action advance from a legal right to actions that are more wise, prudent and just?

The serious predicament in which Israel finds herself should compel every Jew to search for the answers to these questions.

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine the horrors of unexpected missile attacks; they are simply not part of our day-to-day experience. Even for those who have spent time in Israel, rarely do they feel the force of a concussive explosion, or a terrorist bombing.

Similarly, few if any of us can put ourselves in the place of the Palestinians of Gaza, where Hamas uses schools, universities, apartment blocks, gas stations, and other public places to carry out their operations of terror.

It was once the case that the Palestinians trusted Hamas, as Hamas delivered an array of social services. Social welfare, food, fuel, education, and many other public accommodations were once all distributed by Hamas, and the residents of Gaza were lulled into a false sense of protection and caring. Now, Hamas uses its resources to conscript the people of Gaza, against their will, and subject them to the same fates as those who pull the trigger on the missile launchers.

Hamas, of course, will not ponder its ethical considerations, neither now or at a time of calm. The Hamas Charter unequivocally calls for the destruction of Israel, and participants in the so-called “Islamic Resistance movement” have their marching orders: In their view, each Muslim is obligated to fulfill their prime directive at any cost, even their own lives.

I believe it is time to abide by the many calls for a cease-fire. This is the answer to the question of what is just and prudent and wise.

I do not know of a suitable Muslim equivalent, but when I think of peacemaking among the Jews, as I mentioned earlier, I think of Aaron, who is a direct descendant of Levi, the son of Jacob whose “weapons are tools of lawlessness.” Throughout the history of Israel and Judaism, the image of Jacob’s lawless son Levi was able, somehow, to morph into his descendant Aaron, viewed as a pursuer of peace. And we who have inherited this legacy of peacemaking need once again to think about what is wiser in this situation, and to work toward emulating a model of searching, and discovering the formula for peace.

[1] “On Gaza, Sense, and Centrism” The Forward, December 31, 2008.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A First Blog: Security for Israel, States for Two Peoples

Greetings to you, dear reader, on this secular New Year’s Day! May the events in our lives, and those of all our friends and relatives, lead us to better understandings and to peace!

This new secular year finds the Middle East in turmoil. It would not have been my desire to make my first entry on this new rabbinic blog a response to the current situation, but I must certainly address what is happening in Israel, Gaza, and the Middle East.

First, don’t take my word for it. At a minimum, dear reader, please stay abreast of the news. Know what’s going on. Read newspapers, websites, magazines and other resources: Look at
www.haaretz.com, www.nytimes.com, www.ynetnews.com, and others of your choosing. And support Israel with your love, your tzedakah contributions, and your concern.

The opinions below reflect only my own in consideration of Jewish teachings and tradition, as well as current thinking and analysis. But my voice is one amid the 14 million Jews around the world who have a very real stake in the future of the state of Israel.

In my mind there is no question that Israel has the right and responsibility to defend and protect her population, especially the 800,000 Israelis who now live within the apparent range of Hamas missiles, which can now reach Beer Sheva and Ashdod, 30 miles from Gaza. No nation in the world would or should surrender its duty to ensure its citizens’ safety. The fact that, over the last eight years, 8,000 missiles have landed on the Israeli cities and towns that surround the Gaza Strip is justification enough that Israel has an obligation to firmly establish a defensive shield. Operation Cast Lead says that “enough is enough.”

I must also mourn the loss of innocent life. There is no place for their families to turn for solace and comfort, except to those who placed them in harms’ way: Hamas and its agents.

There is the problem of what some call “proportionality,” that is, some would say that Israel’s response is out of proportion to the pain it received. But I think I agree with Alan M. Dershowitz of Harvard University, who said this early in 2008, in response to earlier rocket attacks on the population of southwestern Israel: “Proportion must be defined by reference to the threat posed by the enemy and not by the harm it has produced. No nation need allow its enemies to play Russian Roulette with its children.” In other words, the 8,000 rockets that landed on Israeli soil since 2000 could have each killed and maimed a score or more individuals. And every time a rocket hurdles its way toward some target, such is the assumption of the intention that must be made.

Israel is not looking to find a balance of wounded and killed. She simply wants to protect her citizens.

That Hamas would compel Israel to defend its land and citizens in this way has again proven the observation made famous by Abba Eban a generation ago. When asked about Yasser Arafat’s tendency to disregard openings of diplomacy, Eban is believed to have said that Arafat “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

In relationship to the current predicament in Gaza, Hamas has tried to seize the opportunity to make their case to the international community about the impoverished conditions in the Gaza Strip.

However, they miss the opportunity – yet again! – truly to help their people achieve better days in the near term, and a potential for a better future. Not only do they miss these opportunities, they bear the complete responsibility for the bloodshed and the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.

By turning the civilians of Gaza into human shields, and by storing weapons in mosques and forcing Israel to target houses of worship, Hamas reveals itself again as an inhumane, manipulative and blasphemous gang of thugs.

And by unilaterally canceling the six-month old cease-fire with Israel and returning to lob barrages of rockets that have terrorized southern Israel for eight years, they forfeit their sanction – if they truly ever had it – to govern their people in their best interests. The introduction of needed humanitarian supplies is further delayed, and Palestinians suffer at the hands of those whom they chose to lead them.

It is my hope that the daily lobbing of missiles and the retaliatory air strikes will soon end, and that the parties will engage diplomatically instead of militarily. Each people connected to the conflict – Israeli and Palestinian – deserve to live in their own states in peace, security, and health, and with the knowledge that their leaders are acting in the peoples’ best interests. Let us pray for cooler heads to prevail.