Should Rabbis Talk About Israel?



by Rabbi Yair Robinson

When I checked Twitter on a recent morning, I found an old picture of me and some colleagues making the rounds. It was from a few weeks before our ordination, May of 2003, taken for a Cincinnati Enquirer photographer for an article about ordination. In it with me are rabbis Michael Shulman, Dalia Marx, Debra Kassoff, and Jon Linder. Boy, do we look good! And I’m happy to say that each of my colleagues have gone on to do meaningful work.

So I was surprised to find this picture attached to a blog post by Ben Greenberg, responding to Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s post, “Should Rabbis Talk About Israel?” (The picture has since been taken down, but I include the Enquirer photo here. Nice-looking crew, no?) Greenberg’s post, titled “Why Rabbis Should Not Talk About Israel,” suggests that to do so is self-defeating and not what our congregants are looking for. He writes:

The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.

Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.

I sympathize with Greenberg. There are lots of times when my congregants clamor for me to preach about Israel, not from a position of values, but geopolitics. During my first Lunch & Learn at my current congregation, I spoke for half an hour on Judaism and Ecology (the advertised topic), leading the group through texts, until I was interrupted by an older woman who said, “Excuse me, rabbi. While this is all very good, what’s going on with Israel and Gaza?”

For a generation, rabbis were often the way Jews got their information about Israel: through congregational trips, sermons, discussions on Middle-east politics, appeals for Israel Bonds, etc. Rabbis were expected to be knowledgeable about the subject – but as rabbis increasingly gave voice to concerns about human rights, the peace process, the role of the Orthodox in dictating Jewish and personal life in Israel, etc., members affiliated with certain organizations began to ask rabbis to speak only about “kosher” topics. This was true at last year’s AIPAC conference, where our rabbinic affinity lunch was all about how Israel was surely going to bomb Iran – and how we would discuss the subject with our congregants. Zehu, that’s final.

For many rabbis, speaking about Israel has become (as one prominent New York rabbi said at a Rabbis for Human Rights-North America conference years ago) a “third rail,” touched at our peril. Why bother speaking about it? We’re not experts on foreign or military policy; often our congregants want us to take positions we’re not comfortable with, and when we do take those positions, we’re criticized for talking politics, as if taking a hard-line right-wing position was no less political than a left-wing one.

And the issue of rabbis getting into hot water is a topic as old as the institution itself. Many of us know the stories of David Einhorn being run out of Baltimore for being an abolitionist or Isaac Meyer Wise getting into a fistfight with his temple president over kashrut. The “Israel thing” is only the latest in a long debate about whether rabbis have the freedom of the pulpit – that is, to preach freely.

You know what? Rabbis talk Israel. Rabbis talk politics (at least, what other people call politics, though I call it human and civil rights). Rabbis talk about what is meaningful for them – through the lens of Torah, to be sure. I look at my ordination certificate and read the words yoreh yoreh yadin yadin v’yehi adonai elohav imo, “Whatever he teaches, he teaches, whatever he decides he decides, and may Adonai be with him.” (Hey, it’s my certificate, it says “him.”)

To be sure, we teach Torah, but we also get to decide how we teach Torah and about what, including how we feel and what we see about Israel. We get to walk people through our own internal process, to show nuance, to advocate for Israel, share our love of Israel, and also our concerns and loving rebukes about Israel. And our words, b’ezrat haShem, God-willing, come out of a place that is authentic and true. This is no less true when I speak about homelessness, or the death penalty, or gun control, or economic policy, or caring for our elderly, or any other topic that gets to the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Yes, that means I will say things that will challenge – and sometimes offend – people. Good! Rabbis are supposed to challenge their communities, not out of anger, or self-righteousness, but love – love of Torah, love of Israel, and love of God. We have an obligation not only to our congregations but the tradition itself, and that means bringing people, as Rabbi Sirbu says, into the conversation. To simply turn a blind eye to part of it, regardless of Movement, is to surrender.

To those who say that it threatens their job or their congregation’s membership, I disagree. I have seen congregations over the last 10 years offer free memberships, refuse to take positions on complicated issues, and offer a whole variety of services and programs designed to market the congregation effectively. What works in the end, at the congregations I have seen succeed, are the ones that have spoken to their core mission and vision and said, “These are the values we uphold. This is who we are. This is what we’re about” – often taking very strong “political” positions. Likewise, the rabbis I see succeed are the ones who cultivate the relationships, to be sure, but also speak their mind freely and invite others to participate in the long conversation we call Judaism. People want to associate themselves with integrity, period.

I had a conversation with some non-Jewish colleagues the other day, and we were discussing how whenever a professional class arises, a lay class appears as well, and the professional class too often infantalizes the laypeople. This cuts both ways; we as rabbis often infantalize our congregants, acting as if they’re not sophisticated enough to handle a complex issue (i.e. let’s just give them fun outreach programs) and laypeople infantalize us back, telling us that we shouldn’t challenge them. I don’t know how Michael, Jon, Dalia, or Debra (my friends in that picture) feel about this issue, but I’d like to think that all of us have worked hard to empower the members of our communities, to challenge them in healthy ways, to let them in on the process, to trust them. To say, “Don’t talk about Israel” is an act of mistrust, and I intend to trust my community.

With that in mind, I’ve had my say. What do you think?

Rabbi Yair Robinson and his rabbinic colleagues prior to ordination in 2003.

Rabbi Yair Robinson and his rabbinic colleagues prior to ordination in 2003.

Rabbi Yair Robinson serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.

Originally published at A Good Question!

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3 Responses to “Should Rabbis Talk About Israel?”

  1. avatar

    I don’t know how it would be possible to talk about Judaism and not about Israel. Since converting to Judaism in 2001, I have discovered that my always-Jewish friends run the gamut between, “Israel? Meh.” to gung-ho Zionism to making aliyah as baalei teshuvah. For most (and for me) there seems to be a pull to the land of Israel, an interest that goes beyond that of the average American. We have to talk about it. There may be a boundary that crosses over into American politics as relates to Israel, so rabbis should be careful about treading on the tax-exempt status of the synagogue. We need our rabbis to take stands, to teach, to guide, on every Jewish subject…through the lens of Torah.

  2. avatar

    Welcome to my world! I run secular tours of Israel, and have Jewish, Christian, atheist, and the occasional Muslim guests. I don’t see that the line you walk is much different than what I do: I present as many facts as I can- and I also present the facts from several different viewpoints (no, no such thing as “Jewish” reality, let alone “objective” reality. I have a spectrum of guests who run the gamut from passionately pro-Israel to those who barely tolerate it, if at all (much as you might find in a modern synagogue). It takes practice, but guests realize quickly I’m not here to take anyone’s side, but to give them information to help guide their decisions.

  3. avatar

    When you say “talk about Israel” I am not sure what you mean. Are you talking about an honest discussion of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians? That seems to be the biggest elephant in the room.

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