A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
Rosh Hashana 5782
Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket
Imagine if you will – I know that this might be difficult –but try: Amidst a great democracy, once opposing views have become poisoned. Instead of reasonable people approaching problems from differing points of view, the atmosphere has become so polarized that people with differing points of views are deemed villainous, traitorous, and downright evil. Heads of opposing factions now carry great weight and power, vested in them by their followers to achieve their goals regardless of cost. With greater power some are tempted to bend long held rules to prop up their own needs. Some even flaunt convention simply to enrich themselves while others aren’t paying attention. A few do it so often that the people become habituated to hearing about these violations and they figure that it really doesn’t matter. A head of state tries to pressure the press – once free and unfettered – to report the news that supports a particular political point of view. That head of state plays fast and loose with the rules – so much so that the opposition pushes for criminal investigations – which lead to charges being filed. Meanwhile the rifts between parties become so cavernous, the very fabric of society is threatened, riven to the point of anarchy.
You might think that I am speaking about the current situation in present day America, and in fact, there is nothing that I just said that doesn’t directly apply to our current situation. However, I wasn’t – at this moment – speaking about these somewhat United States, I am speaking about the State of Israel. In a Parliamentary system, with many political parties, Israel has as many political opinions as residents – many, but not all, voting citizens. Former Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has been driven from office (and almost bodily from the Prime Minister’s residence) and is facing multiple criminal indictments, including charges of manipulating the press, corrupt business practices, and accepting gifts and emoluments. The country has been riven by political poison. Settlers – ultra-nationalists – have co-opted and occupied land long held by Arab communities. Palestinians, once offered a Gaza strip complete with agricultural and economic infrastructure: working farms, factories, power grid and housing, leveled much of what existed – perhaps out of spite – but now live in abject squalor and near economic ruin. Religious parties vilify those who do not hew to their particular interpretation of faith — even though those who differ call themselves “religious”. Non-religious parties balk at the entitlements past governments offered to the religious communities to help spur the growth of a Jewish community almost decimated by Nazi Germany. Russian immigrants, who entered the country with talents and education are still treated as second-class citizens. Jews from Sefardic and Mizrachi communities (Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, the Iberian Peninsula) continue to feel discrimination at the hands of “higher-born” Ashkenazi Jews (European). Moderate Israelis protest the continued build-up of the military – that sends young people to stand at dangerous check-points. The economic support of the burgeoning military has robbed the educational system – once the finest in all of Europe. And the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community is frayed.
And despite the wild differences, something remarkable happened in June. A majority of politicians put aside their enmity and decided to look inward at what they had wrought.
It became clear that the malaise started at the top and trickled (actually, cascaded) down to all aspects of Israeli society. The once heroic (by association with his brother Yoni), articulate, suave Israeli ambassador to the UN named Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, rose to the heights of Israeli politics as Prime Minister and became more and more strident as his years in office wore on. Convinced of his own power, he thought of himself as “Prime Minister for Life” – a Teflon PM. Learning at the feet of his political mentor, Donald Trump, Bibi picked up all the tropes used against the opposition. People were trying to steal the election, the press was out to get him, foreign actors were directing the opposition. His followers and sycophants picked up these messages and ran with them. As the government spun out of control, the country at first wracked with COVID, and then over-confident that it had conquered it, also spun out of control. And the only democracy in the Middle East was swiftly moving towards anarchy. New elections were called – the fourth time in two years. 120 Members were elected to the 36th Knesset but no clear winner was apparent. The President gave Netanyahu, who headed the Likud ticket and had the highest percentage of votes of the 13 qualifying parties – 24.19% — the first chance to form a coalition government. After the requisite time passed, Netanyahu was unable to create a coalition of 51% even with the ultra-orthodox parties. Yair Lapid, a former television talk show host and news anchor headed the second-place party Yesh Atid (There is a Future – a party that Lapid started in 2013). He was then offered a chance to create a coalition. The ultimate question was how he could build a coalition – but more important to him, how could he restore Israel’s democracy and heal the wounds inflicted by years of corrupt and contemptible leadership. He had to focus on ousting Netanyahu – who went on a campaign to create a unity government, attempting to preserve his political hold.
Lapid did something astonishing – he reached out to the head of the Yamina (rightward) party – a nationalist Zionist coalition (who supported the settler movement and believed in the prospect of a “greater Israel”). Naftali Bennett, the Zionist nationalist, and Yair Lapid, the moderate liberal, who espoused working with the Palestinians, came together for a quiet discussion. The unifying notion: get rid of Netanyahu at all costs. To make this fragile coalition work, Lapid made the selfless offer to allow Naftali Bennett to become Prime Minister for the first two years of what is hoped to be a four-year term. Eights parties came together to create this wild coalition: Yesh Atid, Blue and White (centrist), Yamina (ultra-right-wing), Labor (social democratic – historic majority party), Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home – secular nationalistic – originally Russian speaking Israelis), New Hope (national liberal party), Meretz (left-wing, green party) and the United Arab List (an Arab political party which is the political wing of the Southern branch of the Islamic movement). What a coalition! What brings them together is a desire to heal the country at its core. This government will not focus on the contours of international issues, it will not focus on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, it will not seek a seat at the G7 or G20. It will try to focus on the burning internal questions of the Israeli polity. Born out of the politics of necessity, this new coalition will have to face an opposition party led by a politically, and potentially legally weakened, Netanyahu. But one can hope that the politics of necessity will win the day – I would suggest that Israel’s survival as a democracy depends upon it.
Seven weeks ago, I stood on this very pulpit, after Shabbat events with Shirat HaYam, I addressed our host congregation of the UU community. It was the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av (Tisha B’Av). Tradition teaches us that almost all the tragedies of the Jewish people occurred on this date. The question was raised as to what caused the fall of the 2 Temples. It is said that the first Temple was destroyed in 586BCE because of three cardinal sins rampant in society at the time: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder. Why was the Second Temple destroyed? For a sin that was worse than all three of the sins that led to the First Temple being destroyed – in Hebrew Sinat Chinam: Baseless Hatred. Intolerance rose to such a level that humans lost… their humanity. They denied the essential holiness of others with whom they disagreed and treated them in heinous manner.
Seven weeks ago, on Tisha B’Av, friends and colleagues of mine known as Women of the Wall, who for the past 30 years have gone to the Western Wall at the beginning of each Hebrew month, went there to pray together. Every month, they are verbally abused, derided, and sometimes even arrested because of an entrenched ultra-orthodox rabbinate. On this Tisha B’Av, many were physically attacked and their prayerbooks were torn apart and stomped on by dozens of yeshiva bochers.
Shortly after this, a few lone voices from the orthodox rabbinate began to decry the behavior of the orthodox community in response to the protests of Women of the Wall, who simply want access and respectful treatment. My dear friend, Talmud Professor at Bar Ilan University, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Wolff posted on FaceBook and shared the teaching of his late, beloved teacher, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowich z”l, on what he called “The War with the Reforms.” In sum, he stated that the declaration from the Rabbi of the Wall thirty years ago, that the actions of the Women of the Wall were Forbidden, only hardened the hearts of those on both sides of the issue. The Women, now joined by women and men from all over the world, should be afforded the right to pray according to their custom, according to Rabinowich. But far too few within the orthodox hegemony are willing to accommodate behaviors that do not strictly conform to their standards and practices – and thus drive a wedge between Jews.
The wedge driven between Israel and the American Jewish community, especially the more liberal parts of our community, is starting to be addressed by new political leadership. Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai just issued an open letter to the American Jewish community (JTA Sept 1, 2021) acknowledging that past political leadership failed to uphold promises made in the past. “We in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities…. We believe in you, and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.”
Israeli society was on the precipice of moral decay because people stopped treating others humanely and the politics of necessity asserted itself – and we can only hope that this wake-up call will bring the transformation so desperately needed. In truth, this government of necessity has stumbled and sputtered, taken missteps, made grievous mistakes, and still exhibits moments of enmity, and downright childish behavior. But like every innovative solution to a gut-wrenching problem, it will take time to iron out the kinks, and one can hope that they find their way.
And we, sitting here in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” need our own wake-up call. The hatred that divides Americans is real, and palpable – we read about it, and changing the channels brings us up close and personal to hatred spewed over the airwaves and internet. Political rallies only stoke the flames of division and – truth and humanity are both at stake. It is time we turn to the politics of necessity and heal our own country – for the sake of our children and grandchildren and to rebuild the legacy of a democratic nation. Maybe there is something to be learned from the politics of necessity.
Shana tova u’mituka!