Author Archives: Rabbi Brant Rosen

About Rabbi Brant Rosen

I'm a rabbi, blogger, and activist with a special interest in Israel/Palestine justice work.

On Anti-Zionist Jews and Anti-Zionist Judaism

As I’ve written previously, this past March my synagogue Tzedek Chicago, following a long process of membership deliberation, announced our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a congregational core value. As I/we fully anticipated, the response to our move has been powerful, ranging from deep appreciation to vicious denunciation – with very little in between.

Needless to say, the issue of anti-Zionism has become something of a third rail in the Jewish community over the past few years. There have been increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism; just this past week, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt devoted an entire speech to this issue at the ADL’s National Leader’s Summit. In truth, our congregation’s decision to affirm anti-Zionism was partly motivated by this phenomenon. As our board statement explained, the tenor of the current moment has made the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists all the more critical.

The response to our decision on social media was, to put it charitably, “lively” – particularly on Twitter. But beyond the nastiness of toxic trolling, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the negative blowback contained a familiar and recurring trope: namely that Zionism is intrinsic to Judaism. Thus, our critics claimed, opposing Zionism is tantamount to opposing to Judaism itself. 

This claim has long been a common line of attack against anti-Zionists. This past Wednesday, as a matter of fact, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt used this very line of reasoning in this (highly recommended) New Yorker interview:

Zionism, a desire to go back to Jerusalem, the longing for Zion, isn’t something that David Ben-Gurion came up with. It isn’t something that Theodor Herzl came up with. It has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years. You can’t open a Torah on a Saturday morning for your daily prayer, you can’t go through a holiday, without seeing these references.

Greenblatt is correct, of course, to say that the longing for Zion has long been embedded in the faith of Judaism. Eretz Yisrael is undeniably intrinsic to Jewish tradition – and yes, it is ubiquitous throughout the Torah, liturgy and rabbinic tradition in general. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe.

And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism = Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – i.e., a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.

This does not mean that the land in not important in Jewish tradition – quite the contrary. Following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE, diaspora Jewry uplifted the land tradition as a spiritualized ideal. But the yearning to return to Zion was a characteristically framed as messianic aspiration – not a political program. This aspiration was expressed in a number of ways: through prayers expressing a desire to rebuild the Temple, through Biblical laws that centered Eretz Yisrael, even as they were adapted for observance in the diaspora, through festivals and through Torah readings that invoked God’s promise of the land to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to name but a few.

It is important to understand that Zionism – i.e., the political ideology and movement to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine – did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that “it has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years” is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.

It is even more disingenuous to claim that the current rise of anti-Zionist sentiment among Jews is in any way anti-Jewish or antisemitic. On the contrary, many Jews – including increasing numbers of young Jews – embrace anti-Zionism not as a matter of traditional messianic belief, but as a deeply held matter of Jewish conscience. Those of us who identify as Jewish anti-Zionists recognize the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism: i.e., the creation of a Jewish majority state through the dispossession and oppression of another people.

I completely understand the outrage of Zionist Jews by such a suggestion. But as an anti-Zionist Jew, I will never yield an inch to the misguided, cynical suggestion that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to opposition to Judaism itself. 

In the end, this struggle is not over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over the kind of Judaism we ultimately seek to affirm. 

ADL CEO Misrepresents Report on Antisemitism to Attack Palestinian Groups

photo: John Cherry/Getty Images

Cross-posted with Truthout

Keen observers have long noted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is essentially a xenophobic Israel-advocacy organization masquerading as a Jewish civil rights organization. If there was ever any doubt, this became abundantly clear at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit on May 1, when CEO Jonathan Greenblatt delivered a prerecorded speech, ostensibly to discuss the mission of the organization in light of its just-released 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. Instead, Greenblatt spent the majority of his time denouncing anti-Zionism (i.e., legitimate opposition to an ideology that promotes an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine) as antisemitism. In his speech, he specifically vilified three Palestine solidarity groups — Students for Justice in Palestine, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace — terming them “hateful” and “extremist.”

Greenblatt’s doubling down was particularly notable because his message represented a change from the ADL’s official statement that “anti-Zionism isn’t always antisemitic.” Indeed, it was difficult to not be struck by the sheer amount of time he spent on the subject — and the vehemence with which he pressed his talking points:

To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

Anti-Zionism as an ideology is rooted in rage. It is predicated on one concept: the negation of another people, a concept as alien to the modern discourse as white supremacy. It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people. And, when an idea is born out of such shocking intolerance, it leads to, well, shocking acts.

Greenblatt’s claims were particularly cynical because they actually flew directly in the face of the ADL’s own 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which found that of the 2,717 incidents it recorded last year, 345 (just over 12 percent) involved “references to Israel or Zionism” (and of these, “68 took the form of propaganda efforts by white supremacist groups.”) Though he actually opened his speech by invoking his report, Greenblatt actively misrepresented its findings, choosing instead to vilify three organizations that legitimately protest Israel’s human rights abuse of Palestinians. Most outrageously, he actually equated anti-Zionists with “white supremacists and alt-right ilk who murder Jews,” as if the rhetoric of Palestine solidarity activists could in any way be comparable to the mass murder of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

By singling out these Palestine solidarity groups, Greenblatt was clearly employing a familiar strategy utilized by the Israeli government and its supporters: blaming the current rise in antisemitism on Muslims, Palestinians, and those who dare to stand in solidarity with them. The “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” trope has also been the favored political tactic of liberal and conservative politicians alike. It is most typically invoked to attack supporters of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Pro-Palestinian activists well know there is no better way to silence and vilify their activism than to raise the specter of antisemitism.

As journalist Peter Beinart has put it, “It is a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because antisemitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimizing Palestinians.” Of course, the rise in antisemitism is alarming, but as ever, the greatest threat to Jews comes from far-right nationalists and white supremacists — not Palestinians and those who stand with them. It is particularly sobering to contemplate that this definition essentially defines all Palestinians as antisemitic if they dare to oppose Zionism. But what else can Palestinians be expected to do, given that Zionism resulted in their collective dispossession, forcing them from their homes and lands and subjecting them to a crushing military occupation?

The growing crackdown on anti-Zionism can also be understood as a conscious effort to stem the growing number of Jews in the U.S. — particularly young Jews — who do not identify with the state of Israel and openly identify as anti-Zionist. The backlash against this phenomenon has been fierce — at times perversely so. In a widely discussed 2021 essay, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy lamented the growth of anti-Zionist Jews, by labeling them as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Chicago-area Reform rabbi gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”

Beyond these extreme protestations, it bears noting that there has always been principled Jewish opposition to Zionism. While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish).

My congregation, Tzedek Chicago, recently amended our core values statement to say that we are “anti-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people — an injustice that continues to this day.” Our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a value came after months of congregational deliberation, followed by a membership vote. As the Tzedek Chicago board explained our decision:

Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsionhome demolitionland expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In a 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report, stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored — on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

While we are the first progressive synagogue to openly embrace anti-Zionism, there is every reason to believe we will not be the only one. At the very least, we hope our decision will widen the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse on the subject in the Jewish community. As Shaul Magid recently — and astutely — wrote:

[Israel is] a country stuck with an ideology that impedes equality, justice, and fairness. Maybe the true messianic move is not to defend Zionism, but to let it go. Maybe the anti-Zionists are on to something, if we only allow ourselves to listen.

Whether or not organizations such as the ADL succeed in their efforts to falsely conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism depends largely on the response of the liberal and centrist quarters of the Jewish community. Indeed, Greenblatt’s doubling down on anti-Zionism may well reflect a political strategy seeking to drive a wedge in the Jewish community between liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Jewish establishment organizations, such as the ADL and American Jewish Committee view this moment as an opportunity to broaden their political influence, with the support of right-wing Democrats and Christian Zionists. The end game of this growing political coalition: an impenetrable firewall of unceasing political/financial/diplomatic support for Israel in Washington, D.C.

In the end, of course, the success or failure of this destructive tactic will ultimately depend on the readiness of Jews and non-Jews alike to publicly stand down Israeli apartheid and ethnonationalism — and to advocate a vision of justice for all who live between the river and the sea.

“Israeli Apartheid and the Path to Teshuvah” – A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

An Open Letter to the Jewish Community from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

We, the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, stand by the recent reports which use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli rule over Palestinians. The past year’s reports by B’tselem, Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International contain well-documented evidence describing how the State of Israel maintains a system of identity-baseddomination over Palestinians. This detailed evidence demonstrates the systemic and shocking human rights violations and extreme violence and cruelty unleashed upon Palestinians living both under Israeli military and civil jurisdiction. 

Rabbi Brian Walt, one of the signers of this letter, grew up in South Africa under Apartheid. He writes: “The finding that Israel is an Apartheid state is shocking to me – and it should be to every Jew and person of conscience.  Instead of demonizing these human rights organizations, we who care about our Jewish ethical and spiritual heritage must grapple with the harsh and deadly reality documented in these three reports.” 

As people deeply committed to Jewish life and culture, we believe Jews should read these reports in the spirit of prophetic witness and atonement, like the texts we read on Yom Kippur, which challenge us to turn from violence and break the bonds of oppression so a new dawn can burst forth. Many of us have witnessed these realities on the ground for decades. The reports confirm what Palestinians have been telling us all along: Israel’s system of control is based on the idea of Jewish supremacy. 

It is with deep sorrow that we once again witness leadership in Jewish institutional life ignore, dismiss or condemn the reports as antisemitic. On the day of the public release of Amnesty International’s report, leaders of the Reform movement issued an email calling on Reform rabbis and member congregations to condemn the report, claiming the decades-long research was “replete with discredited and inaccurate allegations, including a deeply wrong accusation of apartheid.”  

Denial is a common response that surfaces when we are asked to face difficult realities that upend deeply held views. However, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detail at length how Israel’s systemic policies, rooted in racism, have brought suffering to millions of Palestinian lives. Shouldn’t these claims cause us to at least read the reports and hear the direct testimony of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians?

We believe that we must face the moral challenge that these reports present to us. As Hillel said, “Go study!” We call on all people of conscience, including Jewish people in our communities, to read the reports carefully. Secondly, we call on the leaders of the Jewish community, rabbinic and lay, to facilitate open discussion on the reports, including inviting representatives of the organizations to talk about the report in your community and to answer questions.  We also encourage rabbis and leaders to facilitate open and respectful dialogue and debate in our communities about the issues raised in these reports.  We cannot work for healing justice if we live in denial of the reality Palestinians have been facing every day since 1948.

As Jews of conscience, Israel’s system of apartheid has created a moral emergency for us. We cannot turn away. Instead, we long for the kinds of conversation which accurately reflect the reality on the ground, a reality that B’Tselem calls Jewish Supremacy. The conclusion reached by these three well-respected human rights organizations that Israeli governance fits within the international definition of apartheid is a renewed calls to people of conscience. We must examine how the claims of these reports reveal the ways we are complicit in sustaining Israeli apartheid, and commit to repair for the systemic injustice choking Palestinian lives. May our study lead to active repair of the harms of apartheid. This is the only path to teshuvah.

– The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Amnesty International’s Apartheid Report: Parsing the Jewish Communal Outrage

photo: The Guardian

When Amnesty International announced the release of a 278 page report entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” you could already sense the storm clouds gathering. Even before it was actually released, the Israeli government publicly asked Amnesty to withdraw it, calling it “false, biased and antisemitic.” A group of six American Jewish organizations launched their own preemptive strike, claiming that the report was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and incomplete,” seeking only “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

When the storm finally broke on February 2, it didn’t take long for the outrage to come raining down. US politicians from both sides of the aisle issued fierce condemnations (DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, called it “baseless”, “biased” and “steeped in antisemitism.”) The Jewish institutional establishment likewise let loose: the Anti-Defamation League pronounced it “hateful,” inaccurate” and “irresponsible;” the American Jewish Committee called the report “a canard” and a “libel;” and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, claimed the report sought “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

The three of the major American Jewish religious denominations piled on as well: the Union for Reform Judaism expressed its “profound disappointment and explicit condemnation” of the report; the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism labeled it “outrageously dishonest” and “deceitful;” and the Orthodox Union condemned the report as an “ideologically driven polemic.” (As of this writing, the Reconstructionist movement has yet to release a statement.)

It’s doubtful that the authors of these terse and hastily released statements actually read the report, which is nearly 300 pages and took four years to research and publish. And not surprisingly, none of the statements directly addressed the specific findings of the report beyond the use of “A” word. Rather, they rolled out their tired and increasingly desperate-sounding pro-Israel talking points: that such claims “demonized” the state of Israel, that Israel is a thriving democracy that gives equal rights to its Palestinian citizens and that criticism of Israel only serves to inflame antisemitism against Jews.

By contrast, statements from Liberal Zionist organizations were less harsh, admitting the reality of Israel’s human rights abuses even as they disagreed with the report’s use of the term “apartheid.” J Street threaded the needle very carefully, affirming that “Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary” while calling out Israel’s “deepening de facto annexation of the territory it has occupied since 1967.” When it came to the report itself, however, J Street declined to “endorse its findings or the recommendations.”  

The response released by Tru’ah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights condemned “the very real human rights abuses that Palestinians face every day,” but objected to “many of the report’s assertions, language choices, assumptions, and conclusions.” (They remained notably silent on the specifics of their objections.) In the end, Tru’ah’s true agenda was revealed by their call for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution: an argument for essentially maintaining the status quo even as Israel’s human rights abuses continue unabated on the ground.

It’s worth noting that while both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem released similar reports on Israeli apartheid last year, neither inspired the same level of collective vehemence as the Amnesty report. This is likely because as one of the most prominent and well-known human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty’s report makes it that much more acceptable to isolate Israel as an apartheid state. Israel and its supporters know full well that Amnesty’s use of a term such as this can move Israel more quickly down the road to international pariah status.

This report also differs from previous reports in terms of its conclusions, particularly its explicit support of Palestinian refugees right of return. And while it does not openly endorse BDS, the report does call on governments and regional actors to “immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer, including transit and trans- shipment to Israel of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance.” It likewise encourages them to “institute and enforce a ban on products from Israeli settlements in (their) markets and “regulate companies domiciled in (their) jurisdiction in a manner to prohibit companies’ operation in settlements or trade in settlements goods”

In the end, human rights reports alone cannot themselves hold Israel accountable. They can, however, create space to make it more acceptable to publicly acknowledge the systemic roots of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As journalist Maureen Murphy wrote in her excellent piece, What Makes Amnesty’s Apartheid Report Different?: “Amnesty’s report is a strong indicator that an analysis beyond the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is becoming mainstream.”

In the meantime, I hope that anyone concerned with justice in Israel/Palestine will do what the organizations above cynically failed to do: read, consider, discuss and share the content of this important and groundbreaking report.

A Jewish Congregation Considers Affirming Anti-Zionism as a Core Value

At our December 2021 meeting, board of my congregation, Tzedek Chicago, voted unanimously to recommend amending our core values statement to state explicitly that anti-Zionism (rather than “non-Zionism”) should be articulated as one of our core values.

Recognizing the significance of such a step, the board also agreed unanimously that this decision should be processed, discussed and ultimately put to a membership vote. To this end, Tzedek Chicago is holding a series of town hall meetings and will send out an online ballot to members in March.

Here, below, is the text of a Q/A that the Tzedek board drafted and sent out to its members to explain its decision:

Why did Tzedek Chicago originally include “Non-Zionism” as part of our core values?

When our congregation was established in 2015, our founders developed a set of core values to provide the ideological foundation for our congregational life. In our final values statement, we included the following words in the section entitled, “A Judaism Beyond Nationalism”:

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people—an injustice that continues to this day.

From the outset, our founders made a conscious decision to state that Tzedek Chicago would not be a Zionist congregation. Most Jewish congregations in North America are Zionist by default. Among other things, Tzedek Chicago was created to provide a Jewish congregational community for those who did not identify as Zionists—and who did not want to belong to congregations that celebrated Zionism as a necessary aspect of Jewish life.

Why is the board recommending the change from Non-Zionist” to Anti-Zionist?

Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsionhome demolitionland expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In its 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored; on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

What about the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism?

While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are antisemites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish). Since the founding of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, there has always been active Jewish opposition to Zionism.

While Jewish anti-Zionists are still a minority in the Jewish community today, their numbers have been increasing, particularly among those under 30 years of age. Not coincidentally, we are witnessing increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism. There have also been public calls to categorize anti-Zionist Jews as “Un-Jews” and “Jews in name only.” Given the tenor of the current moment, we believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is all the more critical.

Anti-Zionist” describes what we oppose—but what are we positively advocating for?

While we affirm that Tzedek Chicago is an anti-Zionist congregation, that is not all we are. This value is but one aspect of a larger vision we refer to in our core values statement as a “Judaism Beyond Borders.” Central to this vision is an affirmation of the diaspora as the fertile ground from which Jewish spiritual creativity has flourished for centuries. Indeed, Jewish life has historically taken root, adapted and blossomed in many lands throughout the world. At Tzedek Chicago we seek to develop and celebrate a diasporic consciousness that joyfully views the entire world as our homeland.

Moving away from a Judaism that looks to Israel as its fully realized home releases us into rich imaginings of what the World to Come might look like, where it might be, and how we might go about inhabiting it now. This creative windfall can infuse our communal practices, rituals, and liturgy. We also believe that Jewish diasporic consciousness has the real potential to help us reach a deeper solidarity with those who have been historically colonized and oppressed. As we state in our core values:

We understand that our Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society. In our educational programs, celebrations and liturgy, we emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.

Does Tzedek Chicago expect every member to personally adhere to this new position?

As is the case with all of our core values, this position is not an ideological “litmus test” for membership at Tzedek Chicago. It is, rather, part of our collective vision as a religious community. We understand that every individual member of our congregation will struggle with these issues and must come to their own personal conclusions. The main question for all of Tzedek’s members is not “must I personally accept every one of these core values?” but rather, “given these values, is this a congregation that I would like to support and to which I would like to belong?”

What will this decision mean for our congregation going forward?

We believe the core value of anti-Zionism will open up many important opportunities for our community. It will guide us in the programs we develop, the Jewish spiritual life we create, the coalitions we join and the public positions we take. In a larger sense, we believe this decision will create space for other Jewish congregations to take a similar stand—to join us in imagining and building a Jewish future beyond Zionism.

In the end, we are advocating for this congregational decision in the hopes that it may further catalyze Jewish participation in the worldwide movement to dismantle all systems of racism and oppression. May it happen בִּמְהֵרָה בְּיָמֵינוּ—bimheira beyameinu—soon in our own day.

There’s More of Us Than There are of Them: Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

An op-ed version of this sermon was published in Truthout.

I’d like to begin my remarks this Yom Kippur with a sacred refrain that has surely been uttered aloud by many of us over the past several weeks:

Texas, what the hell? 

That’s right Texas, what the hell? Just when we thought we’d heard it all from you, there was the news on September 1. In just one day the Texas state legislature all but banned abortions in their state, passed the most restrictive voting laws in the US, and allowed Texans to carry handguns openly without a license. And if that was not nearly enough, this past June, Texas’ governor signed a bill limiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. 

Now, I mention all of this very advisedly because I know we have members who live in Texas – and I’m sure some of them are attending our service at this very moment. And I must also note that these trends are not at all unique to that state. If truth be told, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and South Dakota, are currently preparing abortion bills identical to the Texas legislation, there are twenty other states other than Texas that allow permitless handgun carry, and as of August 26, twenty seven states have introduced bills or have otherwise taken steps to restrict Critical Race Theory.

So while it might feel satisfying for progressives to pile on Texas, it’s probably more accurate to say that this particular state represents a larger phenomenon that has been part of our national culture for some time. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the rage of the white American man. 

White rage is, of course, nothing new, but it might be argued that it’s currently entering an era of renewed ferocity. Last month we learned from the Census Bureau that the percentage of white people in the US has actually decreased for the very first time. Since the last report ten years ago, the overall white population in the US has declined by almost 10%. In that same amount of time, the Latinx population grew by 23%, the Asian population increased by over 35% and the Black population grew by almost 6%.

When you consider that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy – that is, by white men, for white men – it’s not difficult to grasp the impact of news such as this. While the ranks of white supremacists may be shrinking, we can be sure that they won’t go away quietly. We know from history that a dying beast can still do a considerable amount of damage on the way down. Indeed, this is precisely what we’re seeing unfold in Texas and around the country: the anger of white supremacist, misogynist Americans increasingly galled by what their country is becoming. 

And they are galled. They’re galled by the fact that the US actually had a black president for eight years. They’re galled that there’s a new national reckoning going on over the legacy of slavery and structural racism in our country. They’re galled by the increased national attention being paid to police violence against black people and by a Black Lives Matter movement that mobilized the largest mass protests in US history last summer. They are galled every time another statue of a Confederate is toppled in a Southern state, as was the case at the Virginia statehouse last week. 

And it doesn’t stop there. They’re also galled when women, non-binary and trans people seek power over their own bodies – and really, when they just seek more power in general. They’re galled that there are now a record number of women serving in Congress, including a Palestinian-American and a hijab-wearing former refugee from Somalia. They’re galled by the #MeToo movement, which is literally removing sexually violent men from positions of power. Last November, they were particularly galled when a powerful voting rights organizing effort largely led by black women helped turn Georgia blue in both the Presidential and Congressional elections. 

Of course, white anger over voting rights in this country didn’t begin last year. It surged in 1870, when the 15th Amendment technically gave black men the right to vote. It surged again in 1920, when the 19th Amendment technically gave women the right to vote. And it surged again in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act went into effect. Even as we celebrate these landmark legislative events, we can’t look away from the immense resentment and rage they engendered – and continue to engender – throughout the US, which makes it all the more crucial that we keep fighting for real universal enfranchisement.

As we contemplate how to respond to the events transpiring in Texas and around the country, it’s immensely important for us to understand the historical power of white rage. This phenomenon has been part of US national culture since this country’s founding on stolen land, and its dependance upon the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The current brand of self-righteous white rage is reminiscent of the racist backlash that played out during Reconstruction. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the current devastating setbacks to public policy; on the contrary, should expect them. 

The staying power of white supremacist anger in this country sometimes reminds me of a certain Biblical trope. We’re all, of course, familiar with the story of creation in Genesis 1, in which an omnipotent God creates light out of darkness and separates the primordial waters of chaos. It’s a satisfying, deeply aspirational myth that expresses the vision of the world as it should be: a neat and tidy process by which the world moves from chaos to greater order and progress. 

However, scholars have pointed out that there is another creation story embedded in the Bible, influenced by the epic myths of the Ancient Near East that portray a battle between the gods and powerful sea monsters that represent the primordial forces of chaos. Biblical books such as the Psalms, Job and Isaiah describe God’s battle with a mighty sea monster named Leviathan, among others. Unlike the orderly movement toward progress that we read about in Genesis 1, this other myth portrays creation as an ongoing and even desperate struggle. And while God generally gets the upper hand, it’s not at all clear in the Bible that the primordial sea monster is ever completely vanquished. 

It sometimes occurs to me that our conventional, liberal view of history reflects a “Genesis 1 mindset,” i.e., an orderly movement toward greater progress, proceeding neatly from victory to victory. And while these landmark moments certainly represent political progress, they do not fundamentally change the foundational truth of this country. To put it differently, we too often forget that the sea monster is never fully vanquished. Yes, victories should be celebrated. But even more than that, they must also be protected

If we were ever sanguine about the threat of white supremacist resentment in this country, we should have no doubt about it after the past four years of Trump, which literally culminated in an armed insurrection on the US Capitol. This rage is real and it’s mobilizing in truly frightening ways. It’s no coincidence that among the bills passed in Texas earlier this month was legislation loosening restrictions on gun carry laws. Indeed, the dramatic spike in gun ownership and the erosion of gun control measures around the country should make it clear to us that the threat of white nationalism is deadly serious.

So where do we go from here? How do we possibly resist such fierce and unrelenting rage? Perhaps the first step is to remember that more than anything else, white resentment is fueled by fear – and in truth, white supremacists have genuine cause to be fearful. They’re afraid because they know full well that there are more of us than there are of them – and that our numbers are growing. We should never forget that while fear may be their primary motivation, it’s also a sign of their fundamental weakness. 

White nationalism is essentially a reactionary movement; that is to say, it has historically reacted to changes that genuinely threaten its power and hegemony in this country. But even though by definition, they’ve been playing defense, throughout American history, the liberal response to white supremacy has been to resist a strong offense as “too much,” “too radical,” or “too extreme.” White liberals often distance themselves from revolutionary people-of-color-led movements in this way. Those of us who are white must consciously resist this form of distancing, because this phenomenon is itself a form of white supremacy preservation. 

During the years of the civil rights movement, many white liberal leaders would publicly criticize movement tactics they felt were too radical or extreme. This is precisely what Martin Luther King was addressing when he so memorably wrote from a Birmingham jail, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” The black playwright Lorraine Hansberry put it even more succinctly; in a 1964 speech entitled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” she said publicly, “we have to find some way to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” 

In other words, as long as white supremacy is baked into the very systems that govern our country, we can ill afford to play defense. If anyone has any doubts, consider this: two months before the census reported the decrease in the white population in this country, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report that demonstrated how radically white minority rule pervades politics across the US. Despite the recent electoral gains for women and people of color, white men represent 30% of the population but 62% of state and national officeholders. By contrast, women and people of color constitute 51% and 40% of the US population respectively, but represent just 31% and 13% of officeholders. 

When the Reflective Democracy Campaign released these findings, their director, Brenda Choresi Carter, said it very well: “We have a political system in general that is not built to include new voices and perspectives. It’s a system built to protect the people and the interests already represented in it. It’s like all systems. It’s built to protect the status quo.”

As I read those words, I can’t help but ask: isn’t this what Yom Kippur is ultimately all about? Every year at this season, we’re commanded to take a hard, unflinching look at the status quo, openly admit what needs changing, and commit to the hard work it will take to transform it. It’s an inherently radical idea: to proclaim every year that the status quo is unacceptable and that nothing short of genuine intervention will do. If our Yom Kippur prayers are to mean anything at all, we must be prepared to act upon this radical idea. 

I know that many of you are involved in organizing and activist work that intervenes in our racist, inequitable systems so that they may more accurately serve the interests of all who live in this country. Truly, your efforts are an inspiration to me. Because in the end, when we fight for voting rights, reproductive justice, racial justice, economic equity, or any other issue, we’re not only advocating for specific causes that have suffered setbacks – we’re fighting to transform systems that are fundamentally unjust. 

So when we sound the shofar with a long blast at the end of Yom Kippur, let’s not only regard it as the conclusion to this season. Let’s consider it a call to action for transformation in the year ahead. And when the inevitable setbacks occur, let us not respond with surprise or dismay; rather, let’s remind each other that setbacks and backlashes are a sign of their fear, not their strength. Let us never forget that there are more of us than there are of them – and if we see fit to summon our strength, we can indeed recreate the world we know is possible. 

Gmar Hatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for a year of life, of justice, of transformation. 

Building a Global Congregation of Conscience: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5782

As many of you know, in January of 2020 it was my great honor to become Tzedek Chicago’s full-time rabbi. Among my first orders of business at the time was to find an office and a more suitable facility for our congregation. As it turned out, my search didn’t last too long. Soon enough, along with the rest of the world Tzedek had to hunker down and make our home in the land of Zoom. 

We weren’t at all sure what to expect in this strange new virtual world, but we certainly weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a word, we grew. We grew from two Shabbat services a month to weekly services, Torah studies, festival services and family programs. We instituted a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering as a check-in for our members. We also held increasing numbers of adult educational opportunities and concerts. The pandemic truly transformed the life of our congregation in astonishing and unexpected ways.

It didn’t take us long to figure out why. It was a time of profound social isolation. We all felt it palpably, some of us more than others. The world craved connection – and in this strange new world, religious congregations had a particularly crucial role to play. Like so many other houses of worship, Tzedek served as a sacred virtual space where we could regularly gather and overcome our increasing separateness from one another. 

But there was another way Tzedek grew as well: we grew geographically. Almost overnight, we gained regular members and attendees from around the country and around the world: from Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, among many other places. Again, it didn’t take long to understand why. We’d always drawn our members from a wide swath of the Chicagoland area and even some surrounding states. We were never strictly a local congregation; from the very beginning we’ve been a community bound together by our convictions. 

Those of us who founded Tzedek Chicago were very clear on this point: we really weren’t interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. We wanted to build a congregation on a foundation of core values. We emphasized “standing with the oppressed and calling out the oppressor.” We took “a stand against colonialism and militarism, especially when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.” We made a particular point of disavowing Zionism, stating that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this day.”

When we founded Tzedek, we drafted our core values even before we recruited a single member of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that those who joined us would join because they sought a Jewish community that shared their values. We just knew that there was a significant and growing constituency for the vision of Judaism we sought to promote. 

It’s been so gratifying to see how our faith has been validated these past six years. Speaking personally, it’s been a blessing for me. When I left my former congregation, I really never thought I’d work as a congregational rabbi again. I’m so grateful that Tzedek has given me this opportunity – and I’ve never, ever taken it for granted. 

Over the years, I’ve received regular emails from folks from across the country and around the world asking if there was a congregation like Tzedek in their home communities. I’d almost always have to say no, I didn’t think there was. But starting in 2020, of course, that question became moot. We became a global congregation in ways we never could have dreamed. As the world opens up (may it happen soon in our day!) we’ll certainly reinstitute more in-person services and programs. But our congregational leadership has made it clear that going forward, we’ll continue to be a primarily virtual congregation. The pandemic has changed us indelibly – and we welcome this change. We’re excited by the prospect of broadening our membership even further around the world to include anyone and everyone who shares our particular vision of Jewish community. 

While I’m on the subject of vision, I’d like to return for a moment to our core values, and why they continue to be so critical – perhaps now more than ever. I mentioned that when we drafted our values, we wanted to be explicit about the fact that we weren’t Zionist. Unlike other congregations, we weren’t praying for a “just peace” or “coexistence” between both sides. We didn’t claim that our members held “a variety of views” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We stated quite explicitly that we opposed the very concept of Jewish nation-statism. On that point we were, and continue to be, unequivocal. 

We weren’t the first progressive congregation to take this stance, but we were certainly among the very few. Over the past few years, the numbers of non and anti-Zionist communities has grown to a certain extent. Not long after our founding, Jewish Voice for Peace created a Havurah Network for spiritual communities such as ours, and we’ve been a proud, participating member of the network from the very beginning. Still, I confess to some disappointment that there still aren’t more congregations willing to take this kind of a public stand.

There’s no question that the narrative on Israel/Palestine is changing. Last May, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, released the results of a poll in which 34% of US Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 20% said they preferred “establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.” As you might expect, when these findings are narrowed down to Jews under 40, they skew significantly higher. 

It’s clearly getting harder and harder to ignore what Zionism has wrought. This past year was also the occasion of a report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem entitled, “This is Apartheid: A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The report ended with these astonishing, unprecedented words:

As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot…Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.

Tragically, last year was also the occasion of yet another devastating military assault on Gaza, killing 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. As with past Israeli attacks on Gaza, I found those weeks in May to be utterly unbearable. The massive loss of life. Entire families wiped out. Scores of Palestinians left grievously wounded and homeless. On top of that, of course, there was the appalling response of the Jewish community. Not just the organized Jewish community, whose craven support of Israel we’ve come to expect, but the so-called liberal, progressive Jewish community, who reacted to this moral outrage with equivocation – responding to war crimes committed in their name with rationalizations and hand wringing; with “yes, buts” or “both sides-isms.” 

When we openly state that our congregation is not Zionist, that’s more than mere semantics. It is a statement that the Judaism we lift up will not and cannot include apartheid, settler colonialism and militarism. This is not merely a political position – it’s a spiritual statement of conscience about what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of Jewish communities we seek to create. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that among all the issues that divide the Jewish community today, the role of Zionism is far and away the most critical. Can we truly imagine any other ideological divide that is more important – more morally consequential – than this? 

Lately, we’ve been hearing news of fairly prominent congregations that promote an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism – i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. As welcome as such a development is, however, I have to ask myself, is this so-called open-tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even desirable: to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate Israel, while others view it as an apartheid, settler colonial state? However well meaning, I cannot view this as anything other than an untenable, unbridgeable divide. 

In my very first sermon for Tzedek Chicago, I said the following:

I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.

Six years later, I feel this even more strongly: too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for taking a stand. But sooner or later, there’s a point in which the value of inclusion must give way to moral conviction. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to come clean about what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm, what kind of Jewish spiritual communities we seek to build. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Tzedek, a Jewish home in which I can speak my truth as a rabbi unabashedly and without compromise. I hope and trust it’s a community where you can openly express your most consequential Jewish truths as well. 

On Kol Nidre, we affirm the vows we make that we know we will not or cannot fulfill in the coming year. This Kol Nidre – and every Kol Nidre – let us also affirm the vows on which we will not and cannot compromise. Let us affirm that our Judaism does not depend upon the dispossession of others, but on the liberation of all. Let us continue building our congregation into a global community that is the living breathing embodiment of this vow. 

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all go from strength to strength in the coming year and beyond.

Mir Zaynen Do – Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5782

When I tried to think of the most appropriate saying I could offer you this Rosh Hashanah, I kept coming back to those famous Yiddish words from The Partisans Songmir zaynen do – “we are here.” It somehow feels right to invoke words of resistance at this particular moment, doesn’t it? It’s been a hard and painful battle for us all this past year, but we are here. Tragically, too many of our comrades are no longer with us, but, nevertheless, mir zaynen do. We are here. 

In an age of pandemic, just surviving itself can feel like a victory. So here we are: to date, COVID has claimed 640,000 lives in the US and over 4.5 million worldwide. And though it felt as if we’d finally turned a corner last spring, the arrival of the Delta variant was a brutal reminder that the pandemic is not at all behind us. The number of deaths is climbing again. Hospitals around the country are filling up, in some states to over-capacity. And though Trump is no longer our President, the Republican party continues to politicize the pandemic with ever-astonishing cynicism.

Despite a slight rebound last spring, things are still economically dire in our country. The percentages of those who are unemployed and uninsured are still shamefully high. Just this last August, the Supreme Court struck down eviction protections for most of the US, putting as many as 3.5 million households at risk of losing their homes, including hundreds of thousands of tenants this year alone. 

Last Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that, in a very real way, we’re all in a state of grief over the world we’ve lost. If we were to continue with this metaphor – and I still believe it’s an apt one – we’ve now gone through one full year of mourning. In Jewish tradition, the year following a loss is a spiritually intense time for mourners, traditionally marked by the regular recitation of Kaddish. When the first year is up, the intensive part of our observance is lifted and we begin our reemergence back into the world. We know, however, that we won’t be reentering the world as it was. That world has been forever changed. 

And so, even though the year of formal mourning is over, we’ll continue to say Kaddish regularly for the rest of our lives. We will never stop grieving what we’ve lost. The pain may come and go, but it never goes away entirely. Indeed, sometimes it will grip us when we least expect it. At the same time, however, we know that things can get better. If we work at it. If we affirm the truth of our healing and actively participate in the healing process. 

So all of this to say yes, it is one year later and yes, we are still experiencing the pain of the loss of the world we once knew. But while the reality of what was lost is still brutally painful for us, it is also true that there has been healing. We are not, in fact, in the same place that we were last year. 

Most obviously – and most importantly – last Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think any of us would dare to imagine that we would see a COVID vaccine any time soon. Then just a few months later, the first fully-tested immunization was approved. Let’s pause now and just try to grasp the enormity of this. It is actually unprecedented in scientific history to go from the onset of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine in less than a year. There is really no other word for it: the vaccine is a blessing. It is saving scores of lives as we speak and it remains our greatest hope to finally reach the end of this pandemic. 

It has often occurred to me, when we gather for the High Holidays and pray to be written in the Book of Life for the coming year, we’re essentially coming to grips with the terrifying truth of our mortality. Every Rosh Hashanah we say the unsayable out loud: this time next year, some of us will still be alive and some of us will not. The Book of Life is a stark liturgical metaphor of this immensely painful truth. 

But it also occurs to me that maybe it’s not quite that simple. Maybe the book is a work in progress. Maybe, just maybe, there are a myriad of ways that we take the radical, audacious step to write ourselves into the Book of Life. If we ever needed a reminder of this, just think: last year, after the holidays were over and the gates were supposedly closed, so many people from around the world: doctors and scientists and researchers and immunologists and donors and vaccine developers and caregivers heroically took it upon themselves to write scores of human souls into the Book of Life.

So before I continue any further, I’d like us to pause and honor the blessing of this moment – to offer a blessing of gratitude for having been kept alive long enough to reach this New Year. Please join together with me: 

Blessed are you, spirit of the universe, you have given us life, you kept us alive and you have brought us all to arrive at this season together.

Now of course, while the arrival of a vaccine has been a game changer, it has decidedly not brought about the end of the pandemic. And in some ways I think this kind of magical thinking has contributed to the pain and confusion of our current moment. Last spring, when the shelter orders ended and the re-openings began, we all experienced a collective euphoria and elation that the world was finally getting back to normal. That’s why the mutations of the virus and the arrival of variants has been so brutal. That’s why we’re asking the questions now: will this ever end? Will it ever get any better? 

Again, these are the very same questions we ask when we go through the experience of grief: will things ever get back to normal? Will it ever get any better? Yes, the questions are the same – and the answers are the same as well. No, things will not get back to “normal.” But yes, it can get better. If we work at it. 

We know that this coronavirus will never be eradicated completely. The key is to suppress it to the point that it no longer poses a significant threat to us. When enough people have gained some immunity through either vaccination or infection – preferably vaccination – the coronavirus will transition from pandemic to “endemic.” It won’t be eliminated, but it won’t upend our lives anymore. It won’t cause our ICUs to overflow, force us to shelter at home and wreak havoc with our economy. We can learn to live with it

So therein lies both the blessing and the challenge for us this Rosh Hashanah. The arrival of the vaccine last year was an undeniable blessing. And this year, it seems to me, our challenge is to not squander that blessing. Our challenge is to advocate in no uncertain terms for the blessing of this vaccine to be spread as widely as is humanly possible in this country and throughout the world. 

I would go as far as to say that vaccine advocacy is, in fact, nothing short of a sacred obligation. In Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – is our most sacred religious value, the one that supersedes all others. That means fighting misinformation is pikuach nefesh. Advocating for vaccine mandates is pikuach nefesh. Making vaccines available to underserved populations that lack access to health care is pikuach nefesh

And there is every reason to believe we can succeed in these efforts. Strategically speaking, I don’t think it makes much sense to try to convince people who utterly refuse to get vaccinated to change their minds. I think the more effective strategy is to make the vaccine as widely available as possible to anyone and everyone. According to a recent poll, nearly four out of five adults in this country say they are ready and willing to get vaccinated. As well, the number of parents who report they are planning to vaccinate their children are increasing – more than at any other time during the pandemic. This is particularly critical, given that vaccines for children five years old and up will likely be authorized soon – and clinical trials are currently underway for children as young as six months old. 

I also want to stress that this sacred obligation is not merely local but global. Truly, one of the most shameful aspects of 2020 – and this was a year that had no shortage of shameful moments – is the phenomenon known as “vaccine apartheid.” The development of vaccines was indeed the result of the unprecedented cooperation between researchers, governments, and businesses throughout the world. But when it came time to roll them out, wealthy countries hoarded enough to vaccinate their citizens several times over. Now these countries are already administering booster shots – while fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received any vaccinations at all. 

But ironically enough, it is actually in our self-interest to ensure global vaccine distribution. Because the longer the world goes unvaccinated, the greater the risk for new variants to emerge that are even more dangerous than Delta – and the longer it will take for those of us in wealthy countries to achieve endemic status. This is one of the many tragic realities of the current moment: in this age of rising nativism and hyper-nationalism, we’re discovering that viruses don’t respect national borders. Economically powerful countries might find safety for their citizens in the short term, but as ever, our well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth. 

Here are some links that will give you more information about how you can participate in advocacy for global vaccine distribution. I encourage you to get involved in this sacred effort, whether in your own home country or abroad, to ensure that this life-saving blessing is made as widely available as possible. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we undertake a cheshbon nefesh – a soul accounting – of ourselves and of the greater community. We examine deeply and unsparingly the ways we as individuals are accountable to the collective. In our 21st century world, I believe it’s imperative that we define the collective as nothing less than the global community. I can’t think of a better kavanah – spiritual intention – for the New Year than that: to affirm that our well-being is irrevocably tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth. 

So this Rosh Hashanah, let us joyously say to one another, Mir Zaynen Do – We are here. Let us grieve those we’ve lost and celebrate the lives we’ve saved. Let’s continue to show up for one another.  Let us fight every moment of this New Year to write ourselves and our neighbors into the Book of Life. 

May it be a Shanah Tovah – a good year, a Shanah Bri’ah – a year of health, a Shanah Shel Hayyim – a year of life – for us all.

Who is the Stranger Here? Reading the Torah through a Decolonized Lens

Photo credit: 
Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald

Cross-posted with Jewschool.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, contains the well-known commandment: 

“You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Deuteronomy 10:19)  

While it’s often characterized as the most repeated commandment in the Torah – occurring a total of 36 times, that’s actually a bit of hyperbole – it actually appears only six times.[1]  The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud [2] but in the end, I’d suggest that the accuracy of this claim is really irrelevant. For liberal Jews in particular, this commandment looms large because it’s a powerful statement of collective empathy. The Jewish people, who have historically lived as “strangers in strange lands,” are as such commanded to love and protect all who know the experience of the stranger. 

The Hebrew word for “stranger,” is ger – a legal term in the Bible for “resident non-citizen.”[3] Throughout the laws of the Torah, there is a clear concern expressed for the legal status of gerim, who are often included in the ritual life of ancient Israel. In the commandment to keep the Shabbat, for instance, the “ger within your settlements” is included in the list of those who must cease from work.[4] God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.[5] 

Given the Torah’s tolerant attitude toward the “stranger,” this commandment is popularly invoked by Jewish communal leaders, particularly in reference to the issues of immigrant justice and refugee rights. This statement from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is a classic example, using the commandment to highlight the classic American dream of immigrant “opportunity.”

Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.  

Upon deeper examination, however, this use of the commandment to “love the stranger” is not as powerfully straightforward as it may first appear. This commandment – like all commandments in the Torah – is directed toward the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power. Even more critically, their position of power will be attained by means of conquest

In fact, this week’s Torah portion – the very same one that contains this famously empathic commandment – also contains a divine command to the Israelites to brutally dispossess and destroy the peoples of Canaan:

You shall destroy the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity…The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic, until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.

(Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)

In this context, we would thus do well to ask ourselves, what does it mean for Jews – particularly white Jews – to invoke this Biblical verse as we dwell on land stolen by a settler colonial power from its indigenous population? Or to put it another way, before intoning the commandment to love the stranger, we might first ask ourselves, “who is the real stranger here?” 

Indeed, we cannot deny the fact that the Biblical conquest tradition has historically been used – and continues to be used – to justify colonial dispossession, turning indigenous peoples into strangers in their own lands. In other words, the definition of who is a “citizen” and who is a “stranger” is – and has always been – determined by those who wield the power.

Where does this leave us, then? Is it even possible for Jews who cherish Biblical tradition to read the Torah through a decolonial lens? 

I believe it is. I would suggest that the first step is to ask questions precisely such as these. To avoid the temptation to ignore or wish away these kinds of texts; to actively challenge and interrupt the Biblical conquest tradition head on. For there is no getting around it: the Exodus story is not only about a people liberated by God from slavery – it is also about a people commanded by God to conquer and annihilate the Canaanites before occupying the land they inhabit.  

Reading the Torah through a decolonial lens also means coaxing out and amplifying the voices of the “strangers” in the text – the disenfranchised and colonized who might otherwise be voiceless to us. In this regard, I’ve learned a great deal from the pedagogy of commentators from outside Jewish tradition. One such teacher is the Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Warrior, who has written powerfully about the Biblical conquest tradition in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians:”

The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanites eyes. 

I find another important teacher in the work of black womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, whose book “Sisters in the Wilderness” lifts up the voice of the Biblical character Hagar as a role model for African-American women: 

Hagar’s heritage was African as was black women’s. Hagar was a slave. Black women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar was brutalized by her slave owner, the Hebrew woman Sarah. The slave narratives of African-American women and some of the narratives of contemporary day-workers tell of the brutal or the cruel treatment black women have received from the wives of slave masters and from contemporary white female employers.[6]

I realize that interpretations such as these are undeniably challenging for Jews who read the text literally, identifying Jewish experience exclusively with the experience of the Israelites. It is even more challenging for white Jews who benefit from power and privilege to reckon with the ways we are complicit in the European Christian legacy of colonization – a legacy that continues to do harm even now.

I would suggest that the commandment to “love the stranger” can never be truly honored if it comes from a position of power or noblesse oblige. It can only be honored when those in power step back and amplify the voices of strangers so that they may assume a rightful place of prominence in the narrative. In so doing, we may yet come to see that the decolonization of the text is in fact inseparable from the decolonization of the world in which we live. 


[1] Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:21-22. Some versions of this commandment read “Do not oppress the stranger…” 

[2] Baba Metzia 59a

[3] The word ger would later be defined by rabbinical tradition to mean “proselyte” or “righteous gentile.”

[4] Exodus 20:10

[5] Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15

[6] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (New York: Orbis, 1993, 2013), p. 2. 

Judaism Beyond Zionism: Toward a New Jewish Liturgy

Introduction

In the spring of 2015, I helped to establish a Jewish congregation, Tzedek Chicago, motivated in part by a desire to create a religious space for those in the Jewish community who did not consider themselves to be Zionists. The founders of the congregation articulated this intention openly, in a core value we called “Judaism Beyond Nationalism:”

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its Indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

In the contemporary Jewish community, of course, identification with the Zionist narrative has become the sine qua non of Jewish identity. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the process by which Zionism – a 19th century European nationalist ideology that represented a radical departure from traditional Judaism – became normalized in the American Jewish community, it is fair to say that since the founding of the state of Israel, Zionism has become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of American Jewish life.

There are signs, however, that the linkage between Zionism and Judaism has begun to loosen in the Jewish community – particularly among younger Jews. According to a widely read 2013 Pew Research Center Study, 27% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 do not feel “very attached” to Israel and another 11% feel “not at all attached.” In a 2017 study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco reported that among Bay Area Jews, 22 % of the respondents reported that a Jewish state’s existence is “not important” or were “not sure.”

Beyond individual attitudes, the nascent beginnings of a “Judaism beyond Zionism” are organically developing outside the bounds of the Jewish communal establishment. As Atalia Omer has written,” we are witnessing the emergence of a “grassroots movement that seeks…to transformatively reimagine American Jewish identity outside the Zionist paradigm.” 1 Though still a distinct minority, the growth of American Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and Open Hillel attest to burgeoning desire for a Judaism that unabashedly challenges Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation – and in some cases, the very concept of Jewish statehood itself. 2

Another important indication of this shift occurred when Jewish Voice for Peace – an organization that promotes Jewish solidarity with Palestinians and “unequivocally opposes Zionism” – broadened its mission to include the goal of “Jewish Communal Transformation.” In 2011, JVP created its Rabbinical Council to provide “a prophetic Jewish voice inside the Palestine solidarity movement (and) create meaningful ritual, tradition and culture accessible to our growing membership.” JVP subsequently established its own Havurah Network, which it described as “an emergent network that gathers, supports and resources anti-zionist, non-zionist and diasporist Jews and Jewish spiritual communities across the country yearning for a vibrant Jewish life beyond nationalism that condemns and challenges white supremacy within and outside Jewish communities.”

1 Atalia Omer, Days of Awe: Reimagining Judaism in Solidarity with Palestinians, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 68.

2 Another important sea change occurred in July 2020, when prominent Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, a long-time Liberal Zionist, wrote the New York Times op-ed, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”

Jewish Diasporism

This newly emergent Judaism beyond Zionism is increasingly being described in positive terms as Jewish diasporism. While this term may seem redundant, we cannot underestimate the extent to which the importance of the Jewish diaspora 3 has been undermined in the era of Zionism. In an age when the idea of Jewish statehood has become thoroughly normalized, however, it is well worth remembering that Rabbinic Judaism originally emerged as a spiritual response to the experience of Jewish dispersion. 

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ACE, Judaism was a land-centered, Temple-based sacrificial system that was splintering into several competing sects. When the Temple was destroyed and the center of Jewish life shifted from land to diaspora, the rabbis adapted to this new reality accordingly, developing a religious system that could be observed anywhere in the world.

In truth, thriving Jewish diaspora communities existed well before the destruction of the Temple. When Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jewish community of Babylon to return to the land in 538 BCE, scores remained in Persia where they enjoyed relative economic stability, “unswayed by the promises of a distant homeland they had never seen.” 4 There were also significant diaspora Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world. Between the third century BCE and the end of the first century CE, Alexandria, Egypt became one of the most populous Jewish communities in the world, numbering at least several hundred thousand.

Judaism’s foundational Jewish text – the Talmud – was itself composed and compiled in Babylonia. In a similar way, the myriad of lands in which Jews have lived have provided fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity throughout the centuries. Indeed, the most important Jewish religious figures clearly reflect their specific cultural time and place: the great 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature, integrated Jewish theology with the Hellenistic Greek philosophy of his day; Maimonides’ classic philosophical treatises were deeply influenced by the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Spain; Franz Rosenzweig’s work clearly reflects the ideas of modern German liberalism.

This is not to say that the land of Israel ceased to become important in Jewish tradition. The symbolism of the major Jewish holidays is deeply rooted in the seasonal/agricultural rhythms of the land. A great deal of rabbinic debate in classical Jewish writings focused on how Biblical laws specifically pertaining to the land might be observed in a diasporic setting. There was also extensive theological speculation as to whether or not the land itself was inherently holy or whether it’s holiness derived from the commandments that were fulfilled there. 5

The rabbis also debated whether or not it was a mitzvah (religious obligation) for individual Jews to emigrate to the land. 6 At the same time, however, rabbinic authorities were virtually united in their opposition to the political reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth. While a yearning for the restoration of Zion is undeniably central to rabbinic Judaism, this ideal was expressed within a decidedly messianic context. Jewish tradition is replete with strong warnings against the creation of a sovereign Jewish state via human agency. 7

When political Zionism arose in the 19th century, it consciously sought to overturn the diasporic focus of Jewish life. A central Zionist dictum known as shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”) viewed the diaspora as an inherently inhospitable place for Jews; only through the establishment of a Jewish state in their “ancient homeland” would the Jewish people normalize and safeguard their existence among the nations.

Many classical Zionist figures were so vehement in their rejection of the diaspora that their descriptions of European Jewry reflected a palpable sense of internalized antisemitism. Zionist writer/journalist Micha Josef Berdichevski opined for instance, that the Jews of the pale were “not a people, not a nation, not human.” 8 Hebrew poet/author Joseph Chaim Brenner called diaspora Jews “Gypsies and filthy dogs” 9 and the Labor Zionist icon A.D. Gordon wrote that diaspora Jewish life was the “parasitism of a fundamentally useless people.” 10 The views of Revisionist Zionist founder Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was clearly influenced by European fascist ideology, infamously referred to religious diaspora Jews as “ugly, sickly Yids” and Zionist settlers as “Hebrews.” 11

Now six decades after the founding of the state of Israel, however, it might be claimed that the Jews who live there are experiencing a new form of exile. 12 On the eve of its establishment, the celebrated Jewish German political theorist Hannah Arendt presciently warned that the new Jewish state would be “secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” 13 Today, Israel is one of the most militarized nations in the world, a virtual garrison state with a traumatized national culture. More tragically, the movement that ostensibly sought to end Jewish exile ended up exiling another people in the process. The state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians, who today live under military occupation, as second-class citizens in their own land, or else in a diaspora of their own – as refugees or citizens of other countries – and are forbidden to return to their homes.

The Jewish population of the world is currently split almost in half between Israel and the diaspora. Where does this leave those in the diaspora who choose not to center our Judaism on the state of Israel; who refuse to celebrate a Judaism that glorifies ethnic Jewish nation-statism? Is there a place for Jews who want to celebrate the diaspora as dynamic and fertile ground for a new kind of Judaism? One that embraces Jewish existence among diverse nations as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial peoplehood? One that advocates for the universal redemption of all peoples?

Over the past two decades, prominent Jewish scholars have been reclaiming and reframing the concept of Jewish diaspora in compelling ways. Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, for instance, has advocated a conscious celebration of the diaspora as part of a larger project of Jewish empowerment:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic premise: once we were gathered in our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of the circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?… Jews worldwide number only about 13.3 million, a tiny minority except in Israel. Diasporism means embracing this minority status, leaving us with some tough questions: Does minority inevitably mean feeble? Can we embrace diaspora without accepting oppression? Do we choose to be marginal? Do we choose to transform the meaning of center and margins? Is this possible? 14

Daniel Boyarin has argued that the Babylonian Talmud itself is a “diasporist manifesto,” imagining its own community and sense of portable homeland:

The Talmud in its textual practices produces Babylonia as a homeland, and since this Babylonia is produced by a text that can move, that homeland becomes portable and reproduces itself over and over. The Talmud, I would submit, is not only the only classical work of the rabbinic period produced outside the Land of Israel; it is a diasporist manifesto, Diasporist Manifesto Number 1. 15

More recently, Susannah Heschel has suggested the concept of diaspora as a prophetic alternative to the traditional Jewish “embrace of exile:”

As prophetic, the diasporic Jew is never entirely at home, never content or complacent in a world of injustice. Diaspora transforms exile into Jewish creativity, as has happened for over two millennia. The prophet is a diasporic exemplar, leaving home and journeying to the urban seat of the political, military, and economic power to demand an end to corruption, exploitation, cruelty, and indifference. The prophetic position cannot exist by trying to end exile with statehood or by embracing exile as the essential mentality of Jewishness. To abandon diaspora in favor of exile is to walk away from the prophetic; to reject exile while embracing diaspora is to retain the prophetic passion for justice.

In short, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new Jewish diasporism: one that neither stigmatizes existence outside the land nor romanticizes the experience of exile, but rather seeks to center the diaspora as the essential locus of Jewish life, creativity and purpose.

3 While I use the term “Jewish diaspora” here for the sake of clarity, it might be more accurate to refer to Jewish “diasporas,” as Jewish life throughout the world has existed in very different social, cultural and political milieus and throughout unique, distinct periods of world history.

4 H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 168.

5 See Mishnah Kelim 1:6: “What is the nature of (the land’s) holiness? That from it are brought the omer, the firstfruits and the two loaves, which cannot be brought from any of the other lands.”

6 From Talmud Ketubot 110a: “Whoever lives outside of Israel may be regarded as one who worships idols.” From Ketubot 111a: “Whoever returns from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment of the Torah.”

7 The classic rabbinic prohibition against reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth before the coming of the Messiah is known as the “Three Oaths.” See Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 8:11.

8 Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel, New York: Schocken, 1972, p. 61.

9 IBID.

10 IBID.

11 Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 17. For more on Zionist ideals of Jewish masculinity, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

12 See Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon, Exile Within Sovereignty: Critique of “The Negation of Exile” in Israeli Culture, from “The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept,”edited by  Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Sefanos Geroulanos, Nicole Jerr, pp. 393-420, New York, Columbia University Press, 2017.

13 Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, New York: Schocken, 2007, p. 396.

14 Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Indiana: Indiana University  Press, 2007, p. 200.

15 Daniel Boyarin, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p. 32.

Jewish Diasporism at Tzedek Chicago

Since its founding, Tzedek Chicago has become a practical laboratory for the development of this new Jewish diasporism, particularly through the creation of rituals that explicitly celebrate the idea of “diaspora as homeland.”

During the holiday of Sukkot, for instance, instead of the traditional lulav and etrog – the four species native to the Biblical land of Israel – we use symbolic species indigenous to the prairie of the Midwestern United States. 16 We are exploring diasporist approaches to other Jewish holidays as well. On the festival of Tu B’shvat, which typically falls in late January/early March, I offered this teaching to the Tzedek Chicago community:

In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. However, those of us who live in the diaspora of the American Midwest, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leafless trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

It is true, of course, that the Biblical land of Israel was central to Judaism centuries before the ideology of political Zionism emerged. As such, some might well claim that the decentering of land-based symbolism represents a kind of “radical surgery” to Jewish tradition. If, as I noted above, Judaism originally spiritualized the concept of homeland, might we still retain its land-centric aspects for their symbolic, mythic power?

Such a question fails to confront the radical way Zionism has transformed Judaism itself and how deeply it has influenced Jewish attitudes toward the diaspora. Just as radically, diasporic Judaism seeks to re-right this imbalance by lifting up and centering the idea of Jewish home wherever we happen to live in the world. In Kaye Kantrowitz’s words, “Where Zionism says go home, Diasporism says we make home where we are.” 17 For those of us who affirm that the entire world is and has been our actual Jewish homeland, these new, reframed rituals seek to celebrate the Jewish people’s adaptability – and the unique nature of the homes we have created for ourselves throughout the diaspora.

Another, related issue is the concept of “Zion” itself, an idea that is undeniably, indelibly imprinted upon Jewish tradition and Jewish liturgy. How might a diasporic Judaism understand this concept, whose meaning has been thoroughly literalized by political Jewish nationalism?

As stated above, the idea of the Jewish return to Zion was traditionally understood in messianic terms. This belief is particularly embodied in the concept of kibbutz galuyot (“ingathering of exiles”), which emerged during the Babylonian exile as expressed in the Biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. 18 In Jewish liturgy, this concept is prominent in a number of prayers, including the Daily Amidah and Ahavah Rabbah (“Abounding Love”), a prayer that is traditionally read before the Shema during the morning service and ends with the line, “May we be glad, rejoicing in your saving power, and may you reunite our people from all corners of the earth, leading us proudly to our land.”

Zionism lifted kibbutz galuyot out of its messianic context and reframed it in explicitly nationalist terms. It is notably referenced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as well as the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, both written in 1948 to explicitly celebrate the literal “exilic ingathering” of modern Jewry to the state of Israel. The Zionist interpretation of kibbutz galuyot has been internalized in American Jewish life as well. In many synagogues, for instance, it is even customary to sing the line “may you reunite our people” in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer to the melody from Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem.

How might kibbutz galuyot be reimagined in a diasporist context? At Tzedek Chicago, our version of Ahavah Rabbah is rendered thus, “May it lead us toward your justice, toward liberation for all who dwell on earth; that all who are exiled and dispossessed may safely find their way home.” Our new reading replaces Jewish particularism and exceptionalism with a universalist, decolonial ethic. As such, it is neither messianic nor Zionist. In this post-modern diasporist reimagining, Zion is not unique to the Jewish people and does not exist in any particular place. So too, kibbutz galuyot does not refer to the Jewish exiled alone but to all who have been – or continue to be – dispossessed throughout the world.

16 In 2018, a small group of radical Jews published a zine that offered “reflections, tips, and resources about creating your own diasporic lulav,” explaining, “Our lulavs – both the ritual object and the ritual acts – are situated in diaspora, and explicitly reject the colonization of Palestine and the mandate to use the “four kinds” (“arbah minim”) of plants associated with the biblical Land of Israel.”

17 Kantrowitz, p. 199.

18 See Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8, 66:20, Jeremiah 16:15; 23:3, 8; 29:14; 31:8; 33:7 and Ezekiel 20:34, 41; 37:21. The term itself was coined in the Talmud (see Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12a) and was later connected to the coming of the Messiah by Moses Maimondies (see Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings,” 11:1-2).

Jewish Anti-Militarism

In addition to re-centering diaspora, any attempt at promoting a Judaism Beyond Zionism must reckon seriously with the culture of militarism that thoroughly pervades the ideology of Zionism and Israeli society. As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has pointed out, “During the past sixty years, the assumption that a highly militarized Jewish state ensures Jewish security has become entrenched as an article of faith… To critique Israeli militarism is to critique Zionism in the minds of many contemporary Jews.” 19

Prior to the onset of Zionism, Jewish tradition promoted nonviolence and quietism over the glorification of war, 20 a doctrine generally traced to the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE). As Reuven Firestone has written, in the wake of this catastrophic event, “Jewish wisdom would teach that it is not physical acts of war that would protect Israel from its enemies, but rather spiritual concentration in righteousness and prayer.” 21

The rabbis were also painfully aware that the Hasmonean revolt centuries earlier had ended disastrously for the Jewish people. This uprising, chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees and commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah, was waged by the Maccabees, a priestly family who led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid empire. Their victory resulted in the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom – the second Jewish commonwealth – in Palestine in 164 BCE. 

The militarism of the Hasmoneans however, would eventually prove to be its downfall. Following the Maccabean victory, their brief period of independence was wracked by internecine violence, anti-rabbinic persecution and ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In 63 BCE, the Hasmonean Kingdom was conquered by the Romans (with whom they had previously been allied). In the end, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than one hundred years. 22

The rabbis of the Talmud were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees – secular stories of a violent civil war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light the Hanukkah menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. 23 Notably, the rabbis chose the words of Zechariah 4:6, Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was revived by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in their own military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book, The Jewish State, Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” 24 Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

This Zionist sacralizing of militarism and conquest represented a radical overturning of these central tenets of traditional Judaism. The term kibush ha’aretz (“conquest of the land”) was one of the terms used by Zionist settlers to describe their colonization of Palestine. 25 As noted above, many Zionist ideologues promoted the ideal of the muscular, heroic “New Jew” in contrast with Diaspora Jewry. Zionists were also instrumental in helping to form the Jewish Legions that fought against the Ottomans in Palestine in World War 1. During the British Mandate, Zionists created armed militias such as the Haganah (which later became the Israeli Defense Force after the founding of the state) as well as the more militant Irgun and Lehi.

In 1948-49, during what Jewish Israelis refer to as their War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba (the “catastrophe”), these armed forces engaged in the widespread ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from villages and cities throughout Palestine. Notably, these military operations often used names associated with Biblical history and Jewish religious tradition. For instance, a joint force of the Haganah and Irgun dispossessed 61,000 Palestinians from Haifa on eve of Passover 1948, in a campaign known as “Operation Biur Chametz,” (“Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven”) – a reference to the commandment to remove leaven from Jewish homes before the onset of the festival. 26 Another campaign, waged in the southern Negev desert and the coastal plain was given the name “Operation Ten Plagues.” 27

The Zionist movement and the fledgling state of Israel notably looked to the Biblical conquest tradition – and in particular, the Book of Joshua – as a model for its own conquest of historic Palestine. Though largely secular, Israel’s founders utilized the Bible as a canvas for promoting a national myth of a glorious military past. As scholar Nur Masalha has pointed out, “The Book of Joshua provided Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and muscular Zionism with the militaristic tradition of the Bible: of military conquest of the land and subjugation of the Canaanites and other ancient people that populated the ‘promised land.” 28 Ben Gurion himself viewed the book of Joshua as the most important book of the Bible; in 1958 he convened a study group at his home where Israeli generals, politicians, and academics discussed the book of Joshua against the founding of the modern state of Israel. 29

19 Lynn Gottlieb, Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, France: Earth of Hope Publishing, 2013, p. 19.

20  Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

21 IBID, p. 62.

22 For more on the history of the Hasmonean Kingdom, see Kenneth Atkinson, A History of the Hasmonean State: Josephus and Beyond, London: T&T Clark, 2016.

23 See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

24 Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, Canada: Atheneum, 1959, p. 225.

25  Firestone, pp. 181-182.

26  Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 186-211.

27  IBID, p. 462.

28 Nur Masalha, The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine, London: Zed Books, 2007, p. 24.

29 See Rachel Haverlock, The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Jewish Anti-Militarism at Tzedek Chicago

At Tzedek Chicago, our core values clearly and unabashedly condemn the glorification of war and violence. This is both a return to the traditional rabbinic approach as well as step beyond it. Our vision of Jewish nonviolence does not emerge from quietism but rather from the value of solidarity: the conviction that security for Jews is irrevocably bound up with security for all.

As we state in our core values:

In our education, celebration and communal observances, we honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.

Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. Through our advocacy, we take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.

Liturgically, we express this value in a variety of ways. For instance, in our poetic rendering of the prophetic portion for Hanukkah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7), the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees is reframed as a dedication to ideals of nonviolence and justice for all people:

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.

These values are also reflected in our Prayer for Reparation and Restoration. which we read in lieu of the congregational Prayer for Peace or Prayer for the Welfare of the Government. (Compare our prayer below for instance, with the Reform Movement’s “Prayer for Peace and Strength:”)

To the One who demands justice:
inspire us to become rodfei tzedek,
pursuers of justice
in our lives and in our communities.

Give us the strength to resist power
wielded with fear and dread;
fill us with the vision and purpose
to build a power yet greater,
a power rooted in solidarity,
liberation and love.

Grant us the courage to dismantle
systems of oppression –
and when they are no more,
let us dedicate our wealth and resources
toward the well-being of all.

May we abolish all forms of state violence
that we might make way for a world
free of racism and militarization,
a world where no one profits
off the misery of others,
a world where the bills owed those who have been
colonized, enslaved and dispossessed
are finally paid in full.

Inspire us with the knowledge
that real justice is indeed at hand,
that we may realize
the world we know is possible,
right here, right now,
in our own day.

May our thoughts and our hopes,
our words and our deeds
guide us toward a future of reparation,
of restoration, of justice,
al kol yoshvei teivel
for all who dwell on earth,
amen.

As a response to the issue of domestic militarization, the prayer below was delivered at a Tisha B’Av vigil, co-sponsored by Tzedek Chicago, at an immigrant detention center in Kankakee, IL. The text is an adaptation from the Biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the festival of Tisha B’Av:

We are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall.

We venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear.

We ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border.

Our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed.

We who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all.

Let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful.

Let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police
a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely.

From the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours.

Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians

At Tzedek Chicago, we understand solidarity with Palestinians not merely as a political position, but a sacred imperative. As we state in one of our core values, that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people.” Accordingly, we reject the ways that the establishment of the state of Israel has become sacralized as redemptive in most American synagogues.30 Needless to say, for those Jews who consider the Nakba to be an historic – and ongoing – injustice, the birth of the Jewish state has a decidedly different religious meaning.

We express our sacred solidarity with Palestinians in a variety of ways. One Passover, for instance, we invited Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to our congregation to speak about BDS as a liberation movement. In our advertising, we described the program thus: “Taking our cue from the season of Passover we will engage in a deep exploration of this important call for Palestinian liberation, and explore its profound challenge to all people of conscience.”

Tzedek Chicago also expresses Jewish solidarity with Palestinians through the use of sacred ritual. For instance, while most American synagogues celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) as part of the Jewish religious calendar, we observe this occasion through our recognition of Nakba Day – the day Palestinians mark as the day of their catastrophic dispossession. In our “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day” we use traditional Jewish liturgical/theological imagery to reflect our observance of this day as an occasion for mourning, remembrance and repentance:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:
Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

In another example of communal Palestinian solidarity, we dedicated a portion of our 2018 Yom Kippur Service to the Palestinians who were then being killed weekly by the Israeli military in Gaza’s Great Return March. In the introduction to this ritual, we stated:

 It is traditional at the end of the Yom Kippur morning service to read a Martyrology that describes the executions of ten leading rabbis, including Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael, who were brutally executed by the Roman Empire. This liturgy is included to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the cause of “Kiddush Hashem” – the sanctification of God’s name.

At Tzedek Chicago, we devote the Yom Kippur Martyrology to honor specific individuals throughout the world who have given their lives for the cause of liberation. As we do, we ask ourselves honestly: what have we done to prove ourselves worthy of their profound sacrifices? And what kinds of sacrifices will we be willing to make in the coming year to ensure they did not die in vain?

This year, we will dedicate our Martyrology service to the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed by the Israeli military during the Great Return March. This nonviolent demonstration began last spring with a simple question: “What would happen if thousands of Gazans, most of them refugees, attempted to peacefully cross the fence that separated them from their ancestral lands?”

Since the first day of the march last spring, demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders.

30 This sacralization is reflected in a myriad of ways, whether it be through the placement of the Israeli flag next to the ark containing the sacred scrolls of the Torah, the regular recitation of the “Prayer for the State of Israel” (which refers to its establishment as “the first flowering of our redemption,”) or the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) alongside traditional Jewish festivals.

Decolonial Judaism

As we have explored the meaning of Judaism beyond Zionism, we have quickly come to realize that many of these issues are rooted in more foundational concerns. For instance, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. As we grapple with issues of militarism we must invariably confront the connections between state violence and structural racism. Solidarity with Palestinians cannot be viewed in isolation from the larger legacy of settler colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in the US and around the world.

These connections have, in turn, given rise to critical questions, such as:

• In North America, white Jews are participants in the ongoing colonization of stolen land. How can we celebrate diaspora in a way that respects the land upon which we live and the Indigenous Peoples for whom it remains sacred? 

• In the United States, 12 to 15% of the American Jewish community are Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. How will white Jews center their experience and stand down the culture of White supremacy in the American Jewish community? 

• If we view atonement as a sacred imperative, how can we, as a Jewish congregational community advocate and participate in a process of reparations and rematriation for the members of Indigenous Nations and descendants of enslaved people? 

As a response to questions such as these, Tzedek Chicago has convened an internal task force “to explore how Tzedek as a community can best participate and support reparative justice efforts, especially regarding the harms of slavery and colonization.” We are also exploring ways to address these questions through Jewish ritual. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated a Sukkot festival celebration jointly sponsored with Chi-Nations Youth Council – a Chicago-based group that organizes on behalf of Native Youth in the region. Our celebration included the prayer, “Earth Shema,” written for Tzedek Chicago by poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

Wherever we walk, wherever we sleep, wherever we eat, wherever we pray upon the face of the earth, we shall uphold the first peoples of that place, those who have loved it longest and know its ways most deeply.  We shall listen to them, learn from them, follow their lead, defend them, and join with them to protect each other and our world, and of every two grains in our bowls, we will give one to the first peoples who sit beside us at the earth’s table. 

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love. 

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill. 

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 31

31  This prayer was written as part of Morales’ Rimonim Liturgy Project, a network of which Tzedek Chicago is a participating member. Rimonim seeks the creation of new liturgies that reflect, among other things, “a full integration of the lives and experiences of Indigenous Jews and Jews of Color of all backgrounds, diaspora-centered Judaism that is rooted in global Jewish cultures, and explicitly replaces Zionist content in our liturgy… and acknowledgement and accountability to Indigenous peoples on whose land non-Indigenous Jews are settlers.”

 Conclusion

In her analysis of Tzedek Chicago, Omer referred to our congregation as a “prefigurative Jewish community.” 32 I believe this to be an extremely apt description: Tzedek Chicago is part of a nascent movement that is consciously attempting to build and model a future Jewish community guided by the transformative core values of justice that we hold sacred. In the end, however, it is not only the Jewish world we seek to transform – it is the world at large.

This idea is perhaps most prominently expressed during our Shabbat celebrations, when we liturgically welcome the Sabbath as a weekly taste of olam ha’ba (“the “world to come.”) 33 As opposed to the traditional messianic view of this concept, we define it as “the world as it should be” – i.e., the very real world of equity and justice for which we work and strive and struggle during the week. When Shabbat arrives, our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to experience this world, so that when Shabbat ends, we will be reinspired, replenished – and ready to continue the sacred work that will bring it that much closer to reality.

With this vision in mind, I will conclude with one final prayer – Tzedek Chicago’s poetic rendering of Psalm 92 (The Song for the Sabbath Day):

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.

They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.

Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.

See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.

So tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

32  Omer, p. 155.

33  From the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b: “Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.”