“Hugging and Wrestling” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman


Forty-five years ago today, Israel was attacked and successfully defended itself in what became known as the Yom Kippur war.  Like many of you, I remember being in synagogue that day and first hearing the news announced from the pulpit.  The fear was palpable.  Our synagogue was hosting two Israeli high school exchange students for the semester.  Being with them that day brought home the very real fear in which they lived in a way that I had never experienced before.  Thankfully, Israel was victorious, but it was a pyrrhic victory and marked the beginning of the end of an era in Israel’s history.


I came of age in the glory of the post-67 war, a zenith of Jewish pride in Israel – David who slew Goliath.  We Jews, overcoming anti-Semitism and quotas in the US, could hold our heads up with pride.  Blue and white JNF boxes were ubiquitous and support for Israel – financial and political—was unquestioned.  Israel was the unifying factor in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.  We taught and imbibed the most idealistic images of Israel – the kibbutz, the great Israeli army where women were equal, the land of Chalutzim (pioneers).  In NFTY and Reform movement summer camps we sang Israeli songs with gusto and danced Israeli dances for hours.  I have vivid memories of being at Kutz camp when the success of Operation Entebbe was announced – the dining hall rocked with shouts of jubilation.


I was bitten by the Israel bug.   My first visit was on a NFTY college trip between my sophomore and junior years of college where we spent two of the six weeks on an archaeological dig.   I fell in love- not with a person, but with the country, with the very land of Israel.  I felt a deep spiritual connection with my past — not at the Wall, mind you but with the country as a whole – walking in the footsteps of my spiritual ancestors.  There was a big part of me that felt that I was “home.”


I returned to Israel after college as a volunteer on the newly established Reform Kibbutz in the Arava, Kibbutz Yahel.  There I experienced the fullness of Jewish life in this isolated community, planting roots for Reform Judaism.   I returned to the States but longed to go back to Israel.  I went back on a Jewish Agency sponsored year long program and ended up in living in Jerusalem, connected with the Reform movement and ultimately worked for two years in the NFTY in Israel office there.  Though I was in the process of making Aliyah, I decided to apply to the American rabbinical program as an opportunity to return home for a few years.  I had intended to move back to Israel, but life took a different turn and I chose to serve the Jewish community here in America.


Living in Israel I came to know the realities and complexities of the modern State of Israel, something quite different from the perspective I had as a teenager in America, enraptured by the idealistic vision to which we were exposed.  I experienced first hand the economic challenges of daily life and the stark divisions in Israeli society between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the latter who felt like and were then treated as second class citizens.  I was living there during Shalom HaGalil, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop the katusha attacks on Israeli villages in the north and when the horrors of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila came to light (36 years ago this week). I remember watching on my second hand tv in Jerusalem the evacuation of Yamit, the last Israeli settlement in the Sinai, when it was returned to Egypt in exchange for the first peace treaty with an Arab nation.  What a painful moment it was for the country, but how high were the hopes for what it could lead to.  I was so proud of our small but growing Reform movement, but so frustrated by the almost daily incredulity of the average Israeli when I tried to explain that, yes, I was religious, but no I was not orthodox and by the uphill battle for equal rights for liberal Jews that continues to this day.  I marched in rallies with the very new movement for an end to the occupation, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) as Israelis began to speak out against the actions of the government and the growing refugee crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


I returned to the States after my first year in the rabbinical program and sought ways to find my place with this new understanding of Israel.  I supported organizations and efforts that addressed directly the causes in which I believed.  The American Jewish establishment was still very monolithic on Israel:  we must support Israel, right or wrong was the very clear message.  As Diaspora Jews we have no right to speak critically about Israeli policies; unless we are living there and putting our lives on the line, we can have no voice of opposition.  We must defend Israel in public; any criticism is offered only in hush tones, only within “the family.”


This attitude has held sway within the Jewish establishment for decades, but not so among the Jews.  My own journey of coming to know the real Israel – with its strengths and its challenges – may have been more unusual because that awareness came from living there for four years, but that has been the journey of much of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community over the last 45 years.  As American Jews have become better acquainted with the realities within Israel and as the euphoria of the post -67 victory came into conflict with the on-going challenges of the occupation that resulted from it, Israel as the symbol began to unravel into the murky realities of nationhood and with it, the code of silence.


Despite fears that such criticism would lead Jews to abandon Israel, studies have proven that not to be the case.  It is the nature of the relationship that is changing.  As Dov Waxman writes, in his excellent analysis of these changes, Trouble in the Tribe, “Rather than growing more disconnected from Israel, as many have claimed, American Jews have actually become more actively involved with Israel over the past two decades.  More American Jews are reading about Israel, learning about Israel, and going to Israel than ever before.  They are more engaged with Israel than previous generations whose connection with Israel was largely limited to donating money every year to local Federations to pass on to Israel.  The big change that is taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel is not that American Jews are disengaging from it, but that they are critically engaging with Israel – they are, as many now put, “hugging and wrestling with Israel.”[1]


A high percentage of those huggers and wrestlers are young non-Orthodox Jews, ages 18-35.  They did not grow up with any of the romanticized notions about Israel that their parents and grandparents had nor any of memories of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.  They don’t know Israel as David, only as Goliath, with its soldiers standing grimly standing at military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.  Various surveys of young American Jews demonstrate that Israel is less important to their Jewish identity than it was to their parents.   Their support is not automatic but depends upon whether Israel acts in accordance with their beliefs and values.  A 2007 survey by sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman reported that 40% of young Jews believed that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else” and more than 30% reported feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions at times.[2]


Young Jews seek an open environment and discourse where all sides of the issues can be discussed and debated freely.  This struggle came to light on college campuses with the Open Hillel Movement that began almost five years and the controversy surrounding students desires not to be limited by Hillel’s restrictions regarding the groups with whom they could engage.  As many will remember, the Vassar Jewish Union was the second group to sign on.  If young people who are struggling with Israel do not feel that their voice is acceptable in the Jewish community, they will abandon it and they will be lost to us – and potentially as supporters of Israel as well.


The struggles within the Jewish establishment over what it is means to be pro-Israel and who can claim ownership of the title Zionist came to a head in the summer of 2015 in the incredibly divisive and public battle about the Iranian nuclear Deal.  The vituperative attacks by each side against the other and the disgraceful claims against congressional leaders as being anti-Zionist and far worse, were absolutely appalling.  One good thing that came out of it was that it brought this core issue to the surface.  Some in the Jewish establishment, primarily those opposed to the deal, called for unity and decried the danger of disagreement as being confusing to American governmental leaders who were trying to figure out what it is the Jewish community wants and, therefore, would be detrimental to Israel.   Others, primarily those in support of the deal, saw this multiplicity of views as positive in that it made clear to our political leaders that there is no one Jewish spokesperson, no one Jewish representative, and no Jewish point of view when it comes to Israel and many other issues.


It is time to accept that there is no one group or viewpoint that has the monopoly on Zionism, that huggers and wrestlers are very much pro-Israel even if they are critical of policies of the Israeli government.   Enlarging the tent, welcoming a multiplicity of voices, even as we do need to establish some boundaries regarding those whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel, is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people as a whole.   Ultimately, such healthy debate will strengthen the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel and, perhaps, even improve perceptions of Israel around the world.


You will note here a common thread underlying my sermon today and that of Rosh Hashanah.  The polarization of American society in general is a factor for the increasing divide within the Jewish community, not only on matters related to Israel, but certainly impacting that debate.  We face similar challenges of not being able to listen across the divide because so much is at stake for each side.


I have a personal stake in this debate; I count myself among the huggers and wrestlers.  I have a deep love for the State of Israel, for my ancient homeland, and for what it can be.  I will defend its right to live in security and to defend itself from all who would attack it and I will defend Israel when, as is too often the case, Israel is treated unfairly by international organizations and other nations.


I take tremendous pride in the incredible accomplishments of this young, 70 year-old “start up nation” of worldwide leaders in science and technology responsible for, among other things, drip irrigation, the cherry tomato, and Pill Cam (capsule endoscopy that is now the gold standard for intestinal visualization).  I am among those who are completely reliant on WAZE to get around (did you know that it is an Israeli invention?).  Israel’s humanitarian efforts around the world save countless lives.  Who could not be in awe of their efforts this summer to save thousands of Syrian civilians, innocent victims of that country’s civil war, who were transported in and out of Israel in secrecy so their lives wouldn’t be at risk.


Yet, as a Reform Zionist I cannot be silent when I see my beloved homeland acting in ways that are counter to my understanding of Judaism, to the values that we hold dear and to the promises enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”  I share the view of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Reform movement who said, “My love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”


We have good precedent for the obligation to offer such critique, from the book of Leviticus, in the portion we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code: “Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”  We have an obligation to rebuke those we love when we see them doing wrong.  Incur no guilt – Rashi teaches, “do not shame him in public, in which you case you would bear sin on account of him.”  Thus, we need to be careful how we offer that critique.  The Kli Yakar, 17th century Rabbi of Prague, taught, “if you do not rebuke him then his sin shall be upon you because ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’”   We, Jews in America and Jews in Israel are responsible for one another and need to hold one another accountable for our actions.  We are partners in this enterprise of Jewish living as part of the Jewish people.  We are family and while we love one another, there are times when we will disagree; healthy families find ways to air those disagreements with love.


This summer was one such time for loving critique when the Knesset passed the morally repugnant Nation-State Law, calling into question the very democracy of the State as it favored Jews and Judaism over one-fifth of its inhabitants who are not Jewish, including its Druze citizens who are a very loyal minority, even serving in the IDF.   It does not even mention the word democracy at all!   The law demotes Arabic from a state language to one of special status and has the potential to limit freedom of expression in Israeli schools.  Immediately, numerous organizations in North America, including our Reform movement, issued statements of outrage.  We spoke out against the actions of the Israeli government, but we spoke in solidarity with the center of Israeli society who opposed the law and with the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who stood in protests with Israeli Arabs and Israeli Druz.  This is not the end; law suits have been submitted to the Israeli high court and numerous Israeli organizations that work for the civil rights of minorities will continue to fight against it.  We can help by lending them our support.


The Nation-State Bill also has the potential to impact us as Reform Jews as it gives the state the right to “act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”  This law will further empower the Orthodox hegemony in Israel when it comes to issues of personal status and religious identity.  This challenge to the legitimacy and rights of liberal Jews comes almost a year after the Israeli government reneged on the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, a sacred site for all of the Jewish people, not just those who live according to Orthodox Judaism.  For decades now, our movement has been taking root within Israeli society with its more than 50 congregations and communities throughout Israel and institutions such as the Israeli Religious Action Center.  The Progressive Movement in Israel offers an alternative for religious expression to both Orthodoxy and secularism.   We can add our voices to this struggle by supporting our sister institutions in Israel, especially by joining ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  ARZA’s Campaign for Religious Equality, initiated after the unraveling of the plan for the Wall, is designed to strengthen the Reform Movement on the ground in Israel, to bolster the Israel Progressive movement as they fight for recognition and respect, and to build a Jewish Homeland welcoming of all Jews based on the core tenets of  Equality,  Democracy,  Pluralism and the vision of Israel as articulated by Israel’s founders and Declaration of Independence.    “ARZA is taking back the Z: unapologetic love for Israel, the land-people and the State is at the core of our beliefs,” it proclaims on its website.  “Zionism should not be devisive.  No one faction should be allowed to dictate “ownership” of the Z word.  ‘We are part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future’” writes Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of ARZA.[3]  I urge you to join me in becoming a member of ARZA and supporting these efforts for religious pluralism in our Jewish homeland.   Make your voice heard!  We make the process very easy for you; the option to join ARZA is on your temple membership bill.  Of course, you can always go to their website directly.


I cannot finish speaking about Israel without mentioning the elephant in the room, the 51 year- old occupation of the West Bank.  It continues to erode the moral fiber of Israel, creating a sense of hopelessness among Israelis and a self-perpetuating state of despair for the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.  But the fires of hope have not yet been completely extinguished on both sides as there are small efforts and organizations that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.   They need our support and our commitment not to let go of the hope for a two-state solution that will free both sides of the chains of this occupation.

I would like to invite us as a congregation to get to know the real Israel, with all of its gifts and its challenges.  To engage together in conversation about our hopes and dreams for its future.  There is no better way to understand Israel, however, than by experiencing it in person.  I would love to explore the possibility of putting together a congregational trip, perhaps even for next year, and would invite anyone interested to speak with me about it.  I would love to share with you the Israel that I love, to meet those who are devoting their lives to building an Israel that can live up the promises it holds.

I conclude with the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, composed in honor of the Birth of the State of Israel 70 years ago, expresses the hopes and dreams still within our hearts.  May it be so.


Avinu ­ – You who are high above all nation-states and peoples –

Rock of Israel, the One who has saved us and preserved us in life,

Bless the State of Israel, first flowering or our redemption.

Be her loving shield, a shelter of lasting peace.
Guide her leaders and advisors by Your light of truth;

Instruct them with Your good counsel.

Strengthen the hands of those who build and protect our Holy Land.

Deliver them from danger; crown their efforts with success.

Grant peace to the land,

lasting joy to all of her people.

And together we say: Amen.[4]



[1] Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe:  The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, p. 53

[2] Ibid., 50

[3] http://www.arza.org/homepage

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, p 288.

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