Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?

I gave this talk at Yom Kippur in the fall of 2008, not long before the U.S. elections that year. It draws heavily on parts of our upcoming Torah portion, Toldot.

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769                  By Rabbi Maurice Harris

A long time ago, a matriarch of our people went through an agonizing pregnancy.  Her name was Rivka, or Rebecca in English, and Genesis tells us that she went through excruciating physical pain while she was carrying twins.[1]  The text, written in poetic Hebrew, reads:  “…the children struggled in her womb, and she said, eem ken, if it has to be like this, lammah zeh anochi, why should I exist?”

Rebecca was a decisive woman, and she went directly to God to ask for guidance or an explanation.  God answered her with a prophecy:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ – two nations are in your womb.

וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ – and two separate peoples will issue out from your body.  One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.[2]

And God’s words were fulfilled.  Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, Esau, who came into the world red and hairy, and Jacob, who followed grasping onto his brother’s heel.  According to tradition, Jacob went on to be the forefather of our people.  Esau went on to be the founder of the ancient nation of Edom.  The rabbis later told us that Esau was also the father of their arch-enemy, the Romans.

Today we are all like our ancestor, Rebecca, on two fronts.  First, we are, as Americans, pregnant with twins.  Two nations are within us, two competing visions of what this country should be.  Similarly, as Jews who love Israel, we are also pregnant with twins.  Two Israel’s are within our people’s consciousness – competing visions of what Israel should be.  Each of these sets of twins have been locked in a painful struggle of wills for a long time, but we are on the verge of a birth here in the US and in the land of Israel as well.

Here at home we all know there’s an election coming up.  Because of the laws that govern how religious congregations maintain their non-profit status, congregational clergy are not allowed to endorse specific candidates when they are preaching or representing their congregation.  What we can do is weigh in on issues, and in fact I believe we have a duty to do so.  In a few weeks this country will give birth.  It will give birth to twins – a red twin and a blue twin.  One will emerge mightier than the other – perhaps only by a hair’s breadth, but mightier nonetheless.  The weaker one will have to accept the dominance of the stronger one, at least for a while.  Whichever one emerges mightier, these brothers will have to live together.twins

We are the midwives of this twin birth.  And here’s what’s at stake:  the idea of America.  That’s right, the culture war.  Jesusland vs. Ecotopia – you make the call.  In our founding national myth, are we going to emphasize Jefferson’s enlightenment ideals or the Puritans’ religious zeal?  Are we going to tolerate gay people so long as they stay properly on the margins, or are we going to welcome and appreciate people of all sexual orientations?  Are we going to make an idol out of the free market and call any act of regulation an abomination, or are we going to make a decision that markets are here to serve people, not the other way around.  There’s a reason that the golden calf was, after all, made of gold.

The culture war is uncomfortable for us as a nation.  Like Rebecca, our nation cries out in pain as these two camps battle it out within.  There’s a part of us that wants to search out the paths to reconciliation, to hold facilitated mediation sessions so that we can learn to appreciate one another’s viewpoints and renew our commitment to living positively together despite our differences.  Even Jacob and Esau eventually reconciled, though it’s interesting to note that they didn’t go on to live in the same neighborhood after they finally made up.

I don’t like fighting and I believe that we all have a lot that is valuable to learn from our ideological opponents.  There is a time and place for conservative and liberal Americans to work together and get out of the dynamic of constant battle.  I want to do that reconciliation work, but I don’t want to do it living in a theocracy.  In the words of King Solomon, there is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.[3]  A time for silence and a time for speaking.[4]  This is a time for speaking out and for acting, a time to fight for something.

The Torah speaks bluntly and harshly of the natural consequences that will befall a people who stray far off course, and our beloved country has strayed very far off course.  By launching a war of aggression we have displaced millions of civilians in Iraq and we have killed tens, or maybe hundreds of thousands.  The press isn’t covering it, but those millions of displaced people are living in other parts of the Middle East now, stressing the local resources of hundreds of cities and towns in the region.  You and I paid for that.  The Talmud says, “Who is wise?  One who turns an enemy into a friend.”[5]  The Talmud doesn’t say what you should call someone who does the opposite – turn lots of friends or indifferent people into enemies.

And Proverbs states: “For want of strategy an army fails, but victory comes with much planning.”[6]  We’re being told by some that now we should get behind an immoral and badly planned war because, six years into it, there’s finally a successful strategy.  We’re being told that victory is in sight.  Oh really?  Just what does that victory look like?  Why do I get the feeling this “victory” just means holding our fingers in the dyke indefinitely and trying to keep the floodwaters from bursting, while some fat cat oil companies take the opportunity to gobble up the Iraqi oil contracts?  How is it victory when you go from having the sympathy of much of the Muslim world right after 9/11, and therefore the political leverage to help secure a regional peace deal for Israel – when you go from that to having ruined the good name of our country through aggressive warfare and the use of torture?    In Genesis, after Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi, launched an ill-conceived attack on the town of Shechem, Jacob said to them: “You have brought trouble upon me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.”[7]  He could just as well have been speaking to our leaders.  The sages taught that there are three crowns in this world – the crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah, but that the crown of a good name is greater than them all.[8]  not in my nameWe’ve traded our good name abroad for a fantasy of how we might re-make the Middle East by using military force, and the people who led us down this path weren’t even willing to be honest with us that that was what they were doing.

Sadly, a part of the American Jewish community has helped make this happen.  No – there isn’t a Jewish conspiracy running the world, and no, AIPAC isn’t the secret power behind Washington’s foreign policy.  Anti-Semites have unfortunately had a field day with the fact that the Jewish community – like every other ethnic group – has a hawkish right wing.  I don’t want to give any ammunition to the anti-Semites, but I also don’t want our reasonable fear of anti-Semitism to prevent us from responding to those members of our community who have exerted serious power and advocated for the dishonorable path our country has taken.

The bottom line is that the right wing of the Jewish community in this country is well-organized and politically well connected, and it acts directly in contradiction to the values and politics of the vast majority of American Jews.  And we have sat on our hands.  Now’s the time for us to stop doing that.  One of the latest actions the American Jewish right has taken has been to send out 28 million copies of a DVD of a movie called “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”  They placed the DVDs as an insert in the newspapers of dozens of American cities, including The Oregonian in Portland.  They only sent the DVD to people in swing states in the upcoming election.  A non-profit group called The Clarion Fund sponsored this.  They state that their mission is to educate people on these issues.

Obsession is a classic piece of propaganda designed to convince the viewer to support a right wing agenda based on heightened fear.  Good propaganda doesn’t tell lies – it just cherry picks facts and images to try to generate a strong emotional reaction that will hopefully lead the average person to support a particular political agenda.  Is there a danger to the US and Israel from violent, fundamentalist Muslim groups?  Obviously there is, and no one is suggesting we should shrink from that challenge.  We need a healthy debate about the best ways to protect Western and Israeli targets from violent groups in the Islamic world, and that debate needs to be sophisticated.  It needs to look at what policies we maintain that strengthen or weaken Islamic fundamentalism, and it needs to remember that violent fundamentalism isn’t the normative state of any major religion.  But the makers of Obsession aren’t interested in that kind of discussion.  They are simply backing the far right in this election, and they appear to be hoping that if they can create a climate of abject fear of Muslims just before November 4th, and if they can target that effort to key states, then they can maybe tip the election their way.  28 million copies.  Obsession warns viewers that these dangerous Muslims even walk among us.  It’s like something out of Night of the Living Dead.  Who knows where these scary Muslims might emerge to try to harm us – maybe even the White House?


So who made this movie, and who paid for it, and who sent it out?  Raphael Shore, an Israeli-Canadian, made the movie, and founded the Clarion Fund.  He works full-time for Aish HaTorah.  And why would these people want the conservative candidate to win the election?  Not just because they want the US to pay more attention to radical Islam, but because they also want the US to support Israeli hard-liners who don’t want to give up the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

Let’s not let these members of the Jewish community speak for us.  These are the people who have joined hands with the so-called Christian Zionist movement to advocate against Israel negotiating a lasting peace that requires withdrawal from even one inch of land.  The Christian Zionists are supporting the Israeli far right because that fits their apocalyptic fantasy of the Second Coming and the end times.  By the way, Judaism ends up being completely replaced by Christianity in their fantasy, and yet somehow they present themselves as “friends” of the Jews.  And even more incredibly, some of our nationally prominent Jewish leaders, like Joseph Lieberman, have embraced this so-called “friendship.”  As my friend, a Methodist minister, put it, this is the “Jesus comes back and kicks ass” movement in the Evangelical world.  He’s as frightened of this movement as I am.

There is a time for silence and a time for speaking.  There is a time for action.  I want to ask you to do something.  Don’t sit on your hands.  Don’t go to Starbucks with your liberal friends and complain about the Jewish right or the American right.  Get in the fray.  Write the Jewish Review or the Oregonian about this fear-mongering DVD.  Speak as a Jew.  I’m going to put a link on our web site that suggests other actions you can take.  You’re a part of the Jewish people.  Don’t be bullied out of acting.  The far right likes to bully people who dare to challenge it.  Don’t be frightened.  This is your community.  You own a piece of the trademark on the word Jewish, and there’s nothing more valuable than the crown of a good name.  When a fellow Jew damages our name by supporting a politics of fear or fundamentalism, take it personally.  Your name has just been muddied.

I said at the beginning of this d’var that there are two births about to happen – one here and one in Israel.  This new year in the Jewish calendar, 5769, Israeli society will also give birth to twins, each of whom holds a starkly different vision of what Israel should be about.

One twin has made an idol out of the land and follows a very particular interpretation of the Torah with an absolutism that permits immoral action in its name.  He is the father of an Israel that would not be a democracy, that would annex the West Bank for religious reasons, and that would never allow non-Orthodox forms of Judaism to be equal in Israel.  He envisions Israel as a halakhic theocracy run by the Orthodox rabbinate.  The Torah would become the country’s constitution, and biblical land claims would be valued above the supposedly “secular” value of sharing the land with another people that also has an equal claim to it.  Non-Jews would be denied the vote but would be protected and tolerated so long as they caused no trouble.   Gays? Abomination.  Women rabbis?  Uh-uh.  Reform Jews? Heretics.   Reconstructionists?  What the hell is that?  This twin wants an Israel that’s the Jewish version of Iran.  He drives a car with a bumper sticker that says, “Medinat halachah halchah ha-medinah.”  Which means, “The nation has chosen to be governed by halakhah.”

This is scary, and it could happen.  As one of the rabbis at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem – an ideological center for the religious settler movement – said in an interview in 2006, “Democracy is not a value for us.  Justice is a value, and fairness, but not democracy. In the Book of Exodus it says that the Jews shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  It does not talk about democracy.”  The rabbi went on to explain that it would be an abomination for a Palestinian state to exist, and that the Jews must not give up control of any of the land that was part of Biblical Israel.  He said that the Arabs who choose to live under Israeli rule should not be allowed to have any say in the governance of Israel.  They would not be allowed to vote.  They would instead be treated as “protected foreigners” and allowed some kind of limited, local autonomy.  If they don’t like that, then they can leave, he said.

Folks, that scenario doesn’t exist yet in Israel, but if it ever did, that would be apartheid.  Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that if Israel annexes the West Bank and doesn’t allow the Arabs living there the right to full citizenship and the vote, then it will become like South Africa used to be.  When Jimmy Carter dared to say that this could happen to Israel, people on the Jewish right castigated him and isolated him.  Funny how Carter said it first, and it was supposedly proof that he was a closet anti-Semite, but then Olmert said it and it wasn’t taken that way.    Now Olmert is saying it loudly and clearly – Israel has to choose what it wishes to be.  After Jewish extremists recently publicized a 1.1 million shekel reward for anyone who murders a member of the Israeli group, Peace Now, and after the bombing a couple weeks ago of a left-wing Israeli professor’s home, Olmert has begun warning of the dangers of this violence-prone, fundamentalist Jewish right wing.  Olmert is also saying bluntly that Israel can only continue to be a Jewish-majority state and a democracy if it leaves the West Bank and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The professor the zealots tried to kill has warned that Israeli democracy is becoming threatened by this kind of violent bullying by Israel’s religious right.  A couple weeks ago, I read an on-line news story about Dr. Arnold Eisen.  He is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship rabbinical academy of the Conservative Movement in America.  The article covered an interview he gave about the importance of Israel learning to improve its integration of Arab-Israeli citizens. I read the “talk back” comments posted by on line readers.  It was filled with the most disgusting hateful language.  Dr. Eisen was called a traitor to his people, and several respondents added anti-gay slurs in reference to the  Conservative movement’s recent decision to become more inclusive of gays and lesbians.  When I posted comments applauding Dr. Eisen, I received the same kind of brute hostility.  This isn’t debating.  This is bullying.  I think we should stand up to it.

The other twin that’s waiting to be born in the Holy Land envisions a different Israel.  This twin sees that there are two peoples and two national narratives that need to be honored in a pragmatic way in order for there to be any chance at peace.  He wants Israel to have a stronger separation of synagogue and state, so that all the varieties of Jewish religious expression can flourish.  He thinks it’s a scandal that it’s harder for the varieties of Judaism to be recognized in Israel than outside Israel!   He believes passionately in democracy, and he sees in the Israeli character the potential to provide remarkable leadership on many regional and global problems.  He isn’t a biblical literalist or fundamentalist; rather, he treasures our Bible as a wellspring of wisdom, insight, and higher meaning.  He is guided by the vision that the Torah’s pathways are peace, and he is therefore skeptical when religious authorities seek to marshal Torah to  justify degrading behavior, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees by certain religious extremists in the settlements.  He believes that what will keep Israel safe and viable for decades to come is the following:  a strong and well-trained army, smaller borders that ensure a Jewish majority, a peace agreement with all its neighbors, stronger alliances with moderate Muslim regimes, and a strong friendship with the United States grounded in both countries’ traditions of human rights and democracy.  He also knows that Jewish messianic fundamentalism is probably the most dangerous path that Israel can take.

Israeli bumper sticker that reads “If there are no leftists, there will be no terrorist attacks.” It’s a spin-off of the more frequently seen “If there are no Arabs, there will be no terrorist attacks.” The implied threat / menacing tone is heard loud and clear by the groups that are being targeted.

There is a choice set before us in this birth, and we have an obligation to weigh in on it.  The Israeli right likes to say, “Well, you don’t live here, so you should keep your mouths shut.”  But this is hypocritical.  They didn’t say this when Rabin was in office.  Instead, they encouraged right wing elements of the American Jewish community to try to block Rabin’s peacemaking.  The truth is that we’re Jews and Israel seeks to speak for us in some way, and we have a duty to weigh in on its affairs.  We have a duty to the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement, who are constantly asking for our support.  The Israeli right openly accepts the support of the American Jewish right.  So don’t feel bullied and don’t be shouted down.

Popular bumper sticker of the Israeli left. It simply reads
Popular bumper sticker of the Israeli left. It simply reads “Peace Now.”

In this country and in Israel, we face a future in which the supporters of competing visions will live with each other regardless of which vision charts the course of the next few years here and there.  There are strong parallels between these two painful pregnancies.  The right wing twins in each country are almost identical twins.  They share an affinity for rigid thinking, a yearning for unquestionable authority figures, an attitude of triumphalism, and a tendency towards bullying people with opposing views.

The progressive twins in both countries are also fairly identical.  They share an affinity for flexibility and pluralism, a tendency towards limiting the power of authority figures, a propensity towards self-examination and self-doubt, and a habit of tolerating and respecting people with opposing views.  In both places, the right is better funded, more ruthless, and better connected.

So we must not sit on our hands.  I’ll close with a well known tale.  The Bible gives us the story of the young lad, David.  When the Philistines and the Israelites were battling each other in the Valley of Elah, each side’s army was stationed atop opposite hills.  For 40 days, the Philistine giant, Goliath, would walk into the valley between the armies and challenge anyone to dare to fight him.  No one among the Israelites was willing.  One day David, the youngest of 8 brothers, was bringing food rations from his home to three of his older brothers who were serving in the army, as well as provisions for the other men.  David heard Goliath’s challenge, and he went up to King Saul and said, Al yee-pol lev adam alav  “Let no one’s courage fail them.  I will go and fight that Philistine.”12c5b-sling_shot_103

I know you know this story.  King Saul refuses at first, but David persuades him.  When Saul gives David his armor, it’s too big and David doesn’t know how to walk around in it.  He ditches it.  Instead, he grabs five smooth stones and puts them in his shepherd’s pocket, and takes his sling shot.  Goliath comes stomping down into the valley, covered in armor and daring anyone to cross him.  David presents himself.  Goliath laughs.  Goliath charges.  David takes aim and slings a stone straight at the giant.  The rock hits Goliath square in the forehead and cracks his skull.  The giant falls down, and the Philistines are in shock.

There is a time for silence and a time to speak.    עֵת לַחֲשׁוֹת וְעֵת לְדַבֵּר This is a time for speaking out and for action.  We who want an America and an Israel that embody the highest values that a humane and compassionate Judaism offers need to stop sitting on our hands while our fellow Jews and fellow Americans on the far right act in our name.  We need to get into the fray.  When you see a bunch of fundamentalist slander on a Jewish blog or a talk-back section of an online article, put your comments in too.  When you find out that certain folks in the Jewish community are putting 28 million DVDs into peoples’ hands in order to make them fear Muslims, write letters to every paper they distributed it to saying this is not what Judaism is about.  When Agriprocessors in rural Iowa abuses animals and mistreats laborers at its so-called kosher meat plant, write letters and say, “That’s not what kosher should mean.”

If you feel as I do, I ask you, after Yom Kippur, to go to our web site and look for the link to a web page that will present you with many opportunities to make your voice heard and help shape the Judaism you want to see in the world. We are at a crossroads – a time of the birthing of twins, and we are midwives to that birth.  We are also being bullied by those who want a far right future to prevail here and in Israel.  How do you stand up to a bully?  First, like young David, when the bully roars, you say, “I will fight that bully.”  Then, without compromising your core values, look for the most effective way to win, and take action.

G’mar chatimah tovah.  May we all be written and sealed for a year of making the world a better place.

[1] Genesis 25 – Parashat Toldot

[2] Genesis 25:23

[3] Ecclesiastes 3:5

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:7

[5] Avot >>>>>

[6] Proverbs 11:14

[7] Genesis 34:30

[8] Avot ……..

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