The Jewish people are good at remembering important dates. We left Egypt on the 15th of Nissan. Moses smashed the Ten Commandments on the 17th of Tammuz. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple on the 9th of Av.
Fifty years ago today – Yom Kippur, 1973 – was one of the worst days in our long history. For the suffering it brought to our people, tonight I feel religiously bound to remember this sad anniversary.
After its unimaginable success in the Six-Day War of 1967, the IDF grew overconfident. Military intelligence dismissed reports that Egypt and Syria were planning to attack. But the reports were correct. As Israelis spent Yom Kippur 1973 in fasting and prayer – or riding bikes and sitting on the beach – Egypt crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai. Syria invaded the Golan Heights and barreled toward the Galillee. Caught with their pants down, the IDF was at the brink of collapse. Barukh Hashem, thanks to disastrous errors by Arab generals, brave counter-attacks and extraordinary valor by Israeli forces and some significant, well-timed military support from the United States, Israel turned the tide, ultimately winning decisively. In the North, they reached the outskirts of Damscus. In the South, they crossed the Suez Canal into Africa, creating conditions that would result in peace with Egypt, five years later.
But victory did not come before scarring the Israeli psyche and body politic. In 1967, only 750 Israeli soldiers died, and the IDF seemed infallible. Six years later, it seemed very human. This time more than 2,600 died. More than 12,000 were wounded and captured. And these bitter events befell a tiny country whose population was only 3.5 million. Huge protests ensued, in which Israeli parents demanded: What did you do to care for our children?! The country plunged from euphoria to trauma. Fifty years later they’re still not the same.
If it were not for the carnage, loss and grief, I would consider this story a great metaphor for Yom Kippur. The IDF and the government were forced to stare at themselves in the mirror. As every Jew does on this holy day, they had to own their failures, confess and try to improve. Because every institution is vulnerable, even the ones we most admire. Everyone can falter. Everyone can fail. Everyone must confront their weakness. Everyone must try to do better tomorrow.
Tonight, 50 years from that terrible war – which some of you here in this room remember personally, as Israeli children – we should remind ourselves of the vulnerability the Jewish people had and still has before its external enemies. We should never take lightly the enormous responsibility Israel has to defend Jewish bodies and souls before very serious mortal threats. May they always succeed.
A famous story of the Yom Kippur War is about the iconic Moshe Dayan, the second baby born in the very first kibbutz, who was defense minister in both 1967 and 1973, a former IDF chief of staff, who lost his eye fighting Nazi-allied Vichy troops in Lebanon. This was one bad-ass Hebrew.
Taken to observe the fighting on the Golan Heights in the first day of the war, watching the Syrians slaughter Israeli tanks, Dayan lost his intestines. Dayan sat all by himself at a crossroads in the Huleh Valley, gazing East to the Golan Heights, listening to the artillery. His friend and brother-in-arms, Gen. Matti Peled came over to see Dayan crying. Peled reached out to touch his friend on the shoulder, and Dayan sobbed harder. He said: “.זה חורבן בית שלישי This is the destruction of the Third Temple.”
Happily, Dayan turned out to be wrong. But I cannot escape that image of the weeping, one-eyed general believing he was watching the Third Temple burn.
King Solomon built the first Temple; the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE. We rebuilt it 70 years later and that Temple lasted another 600 years; the Romans destroyed it in the year 70 CE and we’ve been waiting ever since. Now, Moshe Dayan was calling the modern state of Israel the “Third Temple.” Does that make sense to you? Can you think of the modern secular state as the manifestation of sacred Jewish nationhood, such that you might call it “the Temple”?
It makes sense to me.
It’s not that I believe God commands Jews to be Zionists – even though I am one with all my heart and soul. It’s not that I think our ancient Torah envisioned a modern secular nation state. It’s not that I am ignorant of all the unholy things that go on in human society and which deserve vigorous criticism. It’s not that I am unaware of the dangers of assigning transcendent religious meaning to human-scale institutions.
Nevertheless, I can describe Isael as the “Third Temple” because I believe Judaism is not only what is written in books, but what is enacted by our people through history, through our shared past, shared present, and shared future. What’s in the books is ideal Judaism and we need ideals. What is real Judaism? It is how the covenantal people – with duties toward God and toward each other – live together, how we build worthy societies. And there has never been an experiment in Jewish life like modern Israel.
In our own lifetimes – or those of our parents and grandparents – Am Israel in Eretz Israel built Medinat Israel, an extraordinary testament to Jewish life. In the middle of the 20th century, we responded to unimaginable devastation with mighty affirmation. The Jewish people responded to the the worst desecration of the Tzelem Elohim, the divine image on the human face, with a great sanctification of God’s name. Through active evil, or complicity with evil or simple indifference to evil, over the last century the world’s attitude has been, in the words of Psalm 83: אָמְר֗וּ לְ֭כוּ וְנַכְחִידֵ֣ם מִגּ֑וֹי וְלֹֽא־יִזָּכֵ֖ר שֵֽׁם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֣ל עֽוֹד׃, “let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name Israel be mentioned no more.” Nazis, Soviets, Islamic radicals, even Western liberals said: It doesn’t matter if the Jewish people are wiped from the earth, in fact it might be better if they left.
We said instead: yes, Am Israel does matter, certainly to ourselves, but it should also matter to human civilization broadly. So, no thank you. We do not knuckle under. Instead, we respond to Jewish death by affirming Jewish life.
To build the state of Israel, Jews crawled out of concentration camps, fled the countries of the Islamic world, escaped the prisons of the Communist bloc, rescued our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. We gathered exiles from every country on earth and built new life in our ancestral homeland. We resurrected an ancient language and turned it into a modern one, nurturing a dazzling flourishing of Jewish culture. We built universities and libraries. Out of the terrible poverty of the early years, Israel built a thriving economy, especially in technology.
The State of Israel is not the Third Temple because the Torah says so. It does not. But because Judaism is not just Bible stories, not only ideas in holy books or rituals in synagogues, because Judaism is the reality of what happens to the people of Israel, even our secular society bears sacred meaning. Jewish life also matters in North America, France and Brazil. But today, Israel is the world’s largest Jewish community. It is not quite an absolute majority of Jews but probably soon will become one. So what happens to Israel is of great religious importance.
And on this Yom Kippur, like that one 50 years ago, we are in the midst of a crucial conflict that will shape our people’s future.
Some people in this room have asked me not to talk about politics tonight, and in my own way, I agree. Yom Kippur should be about the spirit, not the news.
But the current conflict in Israel is too fateful and to pass over in silence. So tonight I won’t talk about politics, exactly. But I will aspire to address the religious issues framing this crisis. I want to try to explain why this is so important for the Jewish people’s covenants with God, with each other and with our own history. To impress upon you the high stakes and inspire you to join the fight.
I want to ask what would make Medinat Israel worthy of Am Israel and its history, worthy of Torat Israel and its teachings. What would it mean for Israel to succeed as a Jewish state? And conversely, how would you know if it fails? These are haunting questions, raising challenging answers.
Before we get too much deeper into this, let me say clearly: of course I don’t know how this will all turn out. I am neither a prophet nor the child of a prophet, but I have perfect faith that our better angels will prevail. There are too many bright spots in Israel, too many virtuous, brave, wonderful people, to give up hope. This country is all about התקווה, the hope. When you feel despair, remind yourself, עוד לא אבדה תקוותנו, our hope is not yet lost. So I am keeping the faith and I hope you will do.
Presumably you know the major themes of Israel’s crisis: the current governing coalition is the most right-wing in its history. It includes no left-leaning or even centrist members, so no countervailing forces moderate its most extreme elements. Some in the government representing the Likud party are perfectly reasonable conservatives. I might disagree with them, but they got the most votes and that’s democracy too. But this coalition is built around:
- An ultra-Orthodox bloc that would alter the social fabric to diminish women’s rights, marginalize secular people and entrench preferential treatment for religious institutions.
- Extremist factions that amplify violent words and deeds against Arabs.
- And a different set of extremists working to transform the judicial system, removing most checks and balances on government power. This is important because Israel has no written constitution that would restrain the tyranny of the majority to trample the minority. We Americans know that this is precisely what makes a liberal society just and stable. With no written constitution, and if most of the proposed “judicial reforms” go through, any coalition with 61 Knesset votes could do whatever it wanted. It could pass a law that the next election will be in 10 years or 20. That Arabs can’t live in Jewish cities, or vote. That women can’t wear pants or ride the bus. Israel would become more like the illiberal democracies of Hungary and Poland, and less like the liberal ones in America and Britain. As a country with an official state religion and a powerful fundamentalist bloc, Israel could resemble Iran more than we could imagine in our darkest nightmares.
These threats have brought millions of Israelis into the streets in protests that have been going on for nearly a year, whose most recognizable chant is Deh-mo-krat-ya, a belief in democracy, the aspiration that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” These protests have attracted Israelis across the political spectrum – left, center and the moderate right.
We’ve had regular parallel protests in America too. I have attended several, as have many of you. And some of our friends have been among the key organizers, including Esther Sperber, who was our architect on the recent renovations. I especially want to salute Oz Ben-Amram who is here tonight and who has been a tireless worker and excellent leader. Oz tells me that if people want to get regular information about these events, please visit US4IL.org. Your energy and commitment remind us that millions of Israelis there, and thousands of Israelis and Americans here, are working toward a better country. You give us hope!
This is not just a fight for Israeli citizens. It is for everyone whose personal Jewish identity is bound up with the collective fate of Am Israel. It is definitely my fight and I hope it’s yours.
When Israel fought that terrible war 50 Yom Kippurs ago, the enemy was external. Barukh Hashem, Israel is great at fighting external enemies. When rockets are fired and terrorists cross the border, bad things can happen, but Israel will be just fine.
But on this Yom Kippur, our challenges are internal to Jewish society. In the words of the old comic strip Pogo, by Walt Kelley: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The ramifications of this vastly more difficult internal conflict may last even longer than 50 years.
That’s why I ask: what would make modern Israel a success as a Jewish state? What would make it a Jewish failure? What would make it worthy or unworthy of our people, its history, its ideals, its Torah? I’m sure you figured this out already, but let me be clear: I think the current government is unworthy of Am Israel.
Such a judgment absolutely does not mean that I reject Medinat Israel. It means that I must fight for a better one. If I tell you bad things tonight, I hope I also inspire you to fight for good ones. I support Israel by opposing its government. I believe with perfect faith that a better one is coming.
Like all protests, the gatherings on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, and in Washington Square Park, have scripts, chants and songs. A common chant is a single word: בושה/Busha. “For shame.”
This chant reminds me of a Talmudic teaching, from Tractate Yoma [86a], about Yom Kippur: What defines hillul HaShem/desecrating God’s name? Said Itzhak from the school of Rabbi Yannai: כׇּל שֶׁחֲבֵירָיו מִתְבַּיְּישִׁין מֵחֲמַת שְׁמוּעָתוֹ. The desecration of God’s name happens when your comrades, friends, fellow citizens are ashamed – mitbayeshim, when they feel busha – at your conduct. To the leaders of the Jewish state, who claim to lead the Jewish people: millions of your fellow citizens are ashamed of you. They think you disgrace their legacy, their community, their nation. As a religious Jew, I would add: you profane the name of God inscribed in ours.
If millions of people chant that you are a busha – you are failing as a Jewish state. But let us not only focus on what’s wrong. Let’s aspire to success. What kind of state would be worthy of our people’s history and aspirations?
First: A successful and authentically Jewish state would be self-critical and open to dissent. It would not be narcissistically defensive, insisting that whatever Israel does or whatever it says or whatever it becomes, our Jewish state must be right. For if only you cared about the Jewish people and if only you understood Jewish experience, and if only you knew about the holocaust … You would know that Israel is perfect. And if you dare to criticize Israel? That’s anti-Semitism.
Evidently there are lots of anti-Semites in Tel Aviv. Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu said the millions of Israeli protesters are in league with Iran. That is what every demagogue claims: my supporters are patriots and my opponents are traitors. But the problem is: today’s protestors include the backbone of Israeli society and the security establishment. Former IDF chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, is among the weekly protestors. So is Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, the internal security service. So is Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad, the foreign intelligence service. We must be in real trouble if those guys are working for Iran.
In contrast, Jewish tradition knows that dissent does not weaken society, it refines it by holding it to its ideals. The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) says: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁלֹּא הוֹכִיחוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה, Jerusalem was only destroyed because people didn’t criticize each other. The holy city was filled with good people who played nice. When they saw wrongdoing, they avoided confrontation. They went along … right over the cliff. Disaster came because no one in ancient Jerusalem said: Stop! Change course! Improve! So Kol HaKavod protesters! You might not know this Gemara, but you are fulfilling a profound Talmudic teaching: dissent makes society better.
Second: This is a fight to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Amen. Those two self-definitions have been indispensable to a successful Jewish state since Israel’s founding, and have been explicit in Israel’s Basic Laws since 1985. Fulfilling both commitments simultaneously is no small challenge in a country where 20% of the population is not Jewish. The long-time Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi famously quipped: “Israel is democractic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs.”
But combining democracy and Judaism – the flourishing of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty while maintaining the rights and dignity of every citizen – is a noble aspiration that is worthy of Am Israel.
The current crisis is often portrayed as proof that the two halves of Israel’s self-definition are incompatible, with religious people choosing “Jewish” and secular people choosing “democratic” and leaving Judaism behind. But this is false. Democracy is not merely one possible method of running a country. Democracy itself is religiously significant, because it affirms the most central Jewish teachings: the equality, dignity and value of every human life.
The Bible’s most important statement about humanity is that we are created בצלם א’להים/b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of God.” This phrase appears all of three times in the Torah: Genesis chapters 1, 5, and 9, all before Abraham and Sarah appear. Tzelem Elohim is not about the Jewish people or our covenant or our culture. It is an affirmation that every human life – Jews, and the 99.998 percent of humanity known as “non-Jews” – is equally and infinitely valuable. Please hold this in mind for a few minutes from now, because, sadly, we’ll see that some Torah students don’t know that.
Democracy is the political expression of this religious idea. Since every person bears God’s image, since every person is endowed with what the Rabbis called kevod habriot – inalienable human dignity – a successful Jewish state would treat every person equally, enjoying the protection and respect due to every other.
I will illustrate this by a small example I find inspiring, from the history of Halakha in the young state of Israel. Admittedly this case is a little arcane, but don’t worry about the details. Pay attention to the Jewish and democratic attitude displayed by R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel the first Sephardic chief rabbi of the new state [Mishpetei Uziel 4.17]. In an attempt – happily unsuccessful – to make Halakha the law of the land, R. Uziel addressed a significant obstacle: the second-class status of gentiles in Jewish courts. Under classical Jewish law, non-Jews cannot even testify, let alone be lawyers or judges. We need not discuss how he sought to rectify that, but why he raised the question.
It would be social injustice, he said, אין זה ממדת הצדק האזרחית, manifestly unfair to discriminate against citizens. Moreover, it would be unworthy for Israel to replicate the discrimination we ourselves suffered. “Did we not complain bitterly,” he said, “when they treated us this way in the lands of our exile? Nowhere in the civilized world do courts discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or religion. How could we make such a discrimination?”
Because we know what it means to be second-class citizens, or not citizens at all, our history demands that our country practice Jewish and democratic values of dignity and equality for all. In a successful Jewish society, the majority cannot steal from the minority. The strong cannot steal the land of the weak or rampage their towns.
Sadly, I cannot imagine a leader in Israel’s religious establishment today who would have the moral sensitivity even to ask this question. And this brings me to third point – an ugly point – about Israel’s success or failure as a Jewish state.
Our tradition says that everyone has good impulses, a yetzer hatov, and bad ones, a yetzer hara. I have massive sympathy with how difficult it is to be an Israeli fighting this lengthy conflict with the Palestinians. They’ve been hard neighbors. But we have to confront the toxic yetzer hara of racism in Israel. Any hatred is poison but there is way too much hatred of Arabs. We had better be better than that. A society that gives in to hatred is a Jewish failure. A country worthy of the Jewish people, a successful Jewish state will overcome this yetzer hara.
Of course there are sources of hope. Here are two example: there is a phenomenon called tag mechir or “price tag” vigilantes. If there is a terror incident, these thugs take it out on some Palestinian somewhere, even to the point of murder. But in response to tag mechir there is also “tag meir,” instead of the price tag, they are the “light tag,” fighting racism and promoting peace and coexistence. In Israel, almost every child attends one of four kinds of schools exclusively for their tribe: secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs. But there is also the Yad b’Yad or “Hand in Hand” network of schools, in which Jews and Arabs learn together bi-lingually, a model of shared citizenship. It’s so necessary. But not everyone thinks so. In Jerusalem in 2014, arsonists torched their first-grade classroom and spray-painted “death to Arabs” on the building.
This government, by including Kahanist elements – which previous governments would have nothing to do with, which Bibi Netanyahu himself would have nothing to do with until last year – has apologized for and normalized and welcomed overt racism in a horrifying way. And that is an extreme Jewish failure.
I told you how I admire R. Uziel. Sadly, I have to turn to a different influential rabbinic voice – one which which leaves me astonished that this religion I love so much could go so wrong. But we have to know it, so we don’t apologize for it and know what we’re up against.
Itzhak Ginsburgh is rabbi to the most extreme and violent settlers. He teaches that this is simply our land and Jews must subjugate the non-Jewish residents. Arabs can stay if and only if they accept Jewish supremacy. If not they should be expelled. He and his students teach that Jews are permitted to kill non-Jews, even children, whom they suspect will become an enemy. And this is because Jewish lives simply matter more. Ginsburgh wrote – these are his words – “there are no grounds to compare Jews to gentiles in any way. … Israel is the chosen people. Do not equate yourself to other nations in any way whatsoever.”
Betzalel Smotrich – the finance minister – says Ginsburgh is a great sage, and advocates exactly his program of subjugation and expulsion. If, like me, you defend Israel against charges of apartheid – then you should know the current governor of the West Bank is in favor of apartheid. He claims that his ideas do not deserve that ugly name. But they do. He says repeatedly – not just once, not a slip of the tongue – that Israeli Arabs are “citizens, at least for now.” What do you think he means by that? A goverment built on such views is an extreme Jewish failure, unworthy of Am Israel.
I could go on but I don’t want to sap your good will. I want to inspire you for the good fight. Too many people look at these problems and say: Israel is peripheral to my Jewish life. I can be perfectly satisfied in the diaspora, as observant, culturally and communally engaged as I wish.
I say the fate of the Jewish state is too important for that response. Fifty years ago, Israel fought the Yom Kippur War to save itself from external enemies. Now, we face equally momentous challenges to correct our failures from within. I am asking you to join the fight for a Jewish and democratic Israel that will be worthy of our people’s Torah, of its past and future. That fight will always be worth having. If we don’t, it could be the destruction of the Third Temple.
So what do you, practically, to stand in solidarity with your brothers and sisters in this crisis? Learn. Give. Go.
- Learn: You should learn much more about Israel than you can get from the New York Times. Go to the websites of the Times of Israel and Haaretz. You can watch an endless number of subtitled videos from the protests. I also recommend the Promised Podcast and other shows on the TLV1 network.
- Give: Support organizations building the Israel you believe in. There are many worthy recipients and here are a few: Brothers and Sisters in Arms is a broad-based group of IDF veterans organizing many of the protests. I already mentioned Tag Meir and the Hand in Hand schools. Abraham Initiatives (whose American office is led by our on Jimmy Taber) works for equality and shared society between Jews and Arabs. The New Israel Fund supports most of the organizations building a just and civil society, so is an efficient .
- Go: Visit Israel and literally stand up for a Jewish and democratic Israel that would do us all proud. I’ve begun speaking to some of you about trying to organize an Ansche Chesed trip. So far the response has not been overwhelming. But if you are interested in visiting Israel with me, please email me and I hope we can make it happen.
Fifty Yom Kippurs ago our people battled for Israel’s physical survival. On this Yom Kippur, we continue to battle – this time for our moral, political and social survival as a worthy Jewish state. I know it’s frightening. I feel afraid too. But let me remind you that we are the people of hope, HaTikva. The Hasidic master Nachman of Breslov famously said “ein shum yeush ba’olam klal. There is no such thing as despair.” When you feel yourself a little shaky, hang on that mantra: There is no such thing as despair. It doesn’t exist. And for a visual image to keep yourself going: think of the tens of thousands of people, a sea of flags, in the scorching July heat, marching from Tel Aviv up the mountains to Jerusalem to protest at the Knesset. Od lo avda tikva. Our hope is not lost.