Category Archives: Religion

On Tisha B’Av 2022, Israel’s Baseless Hatred Unleashed on Gaza

Alaa Abdullah Riyad Qaddoum, age 5, killed by the Israeli military in Gaza City on August 5, 2022.

In August 2014, the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av arrived as Israel was waging a military onslaught on Gaza that would eventually kill 2,251 Palestinians, 1,462 of whom were civilians, including over 500 children. Tisha B’Av is traditionally observed a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and by extension, the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout its history. To mark the occasion of the festival in 2014, I wrote a new version of the first chapter of Lamentations (the Biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av). At the time, I suggested this new version be added to the ceremony to acknowledge the massive tragedy the state of Israel was inflicting on Palestinians in Gaza in the name of the Jewish people.

Now eight years later, the eve of Tisha B’Av 2022 arrives this evening amidst yet another grievous military assault on Gaza. As of this writing, 24 people have been killed and over 120 more have been wounded. The Israeli military reports it is preparing for a week long operation “that could take longer, if needed.” It is not currently engaging in any ceasefire negotiations.

As in 2014, Israel, its supporters and the mainstream media at large are selling this latest military onslaught by claiming “Israel has a right to defend itself” from Gazan rocket fire. But as I wrote about Israel’s actions in 2014, this is a cynical and empty posture. As was the case eight years ago, this new war on Gaza was openly and unabashedly provoked by Israel. The timeline leading up to this latest assault is a matter of public record that is available to anyone interested in reading past Israel’s hollow propaganda:

• This past May, it was reported that the Israeli military was expanding what it described as a “bank of targets” in the Gaza Strip it had identified since its most recent military offensive in 2021.

On Monday, August 1, the Israeli military arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp. The PIJ issued threats in response but took no action.

• Concerned that the PIJ would attack in retaliation, the Israeli military directed authorities to close roads near the Gaza border.

Yesterday, claiming that it was responding to an “imminent threat,” Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in Gaza, killing PIJ military commander Tayseer Jabari along with seven other people, including a 5 year old girl, Alaa Abdullah-Riyad Qaddoum.

• The PIJ retaliated by sending more than 100 missiles into Israel. The Israeli military reported that it had intercepted about 95 percent of the rockets. There were no reports of significant property damage.

• The US Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, stated that “the United States firmly believes that Israel has a right to protect itself.” 

This is, in short, purposeful wanton aggression. That it is repeatedly committed against a blockaded, besieged population of 2,000,000 who literally have nowhere to run raises it to the level of atrocity. It is no less abominable to rationalize it away by with the bromide that “Israel has the right to defend itself” or to blame Palestinians themselves for their own destruction by invoking the allegation of “human shields” –  a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.

These rationalizations are particularly profane in the way they rob Palestinians of their basic humanity. I remember thinking of precisely this on Tisha B’Av 2014 – and how incongruous it felt to engage in a ceremony of grief over Jewish loss while a nation state purporting to act in the name of the Jewish people inflicted such unspeakable losses on another people.

According to Jewish tradition, the fall of the Temple was caused by internal sinat chinam – baseless hatred – that wracked the disempowered, besieged Jewish community of ancient Jerusalem. In the age of Zionism, it seems to me, we must be ready to acknowledge a different kind of sinat chinam – one that is wielded by a Jewish state power against a people it continues to disempower and besiege.

As in 2014, I will not be mourning the destruction of the Temple this Tisha B’Av. I will be mourning the losses of yet another merciless war waged by Israel against the Palestinian people. And as in 2014, this will be my lament:

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Nakba: Jewish Religious Responses

“I Don’t Think I Can Celebrate this Holiday Anymore.”

As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I remember Yom Ha’atzmaut as the one day every year in which our city’s Jewish community would turn out en masse in celebration. I have vivid memories of our marching through the sidewalks of West LA, waving our Israeli flags, ending with a picnic at Rancho Park. As in many US cities, Yom Ha’atzmaut was the  “go-to” day for expressing our Jewish communal pride.

In addition to this annual event, I also remember regularly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious festival on the Jewish holiday calendar. Every year, usually on the closest Shabbat to May 15, our Reform Temple would acknowledge the occasion with special prayers and songs – including the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In short, Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only an occasion to express our Jewish communal solidarity with the state of Israel – it was a day we invested with sacred meaning. When I became a rabbi many years later, I accepted it as common practice to acknowledge Yom Ha’atzmaut in this manner.

Over the years, however, as my own relationship to Israel and Zionism changed, I found the religious observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut increasingly problematic, even painful. In a 2009 blog post, I shared my struggle publicly:

I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.

By this point I had come to believe that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a paradigmatic of a deeper moral problem: that the creation of a Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that was in fact still ongoing. I could no longer regard it as something to celebrate, let alone invest with religious meaning.

“May Our Eyes See the Complete Redemption of Israel”

The creation of a Jewish religious holiday by government legislation is, needless to say, unprecedented in Jewish history. Its origins date back to the period immediately following Israel’s birth, when the Knesset officially established the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar1 as its permanent date. At the time, Knesset members were unanimous that this holiday should have “traditional Jewish significance” and the new government subsequently created a committee to consult with Israel’s new Chief Rabbis in order to determine the precise nature of its religious observance.2 In a subsequent letter to their Rabbinate council, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel framed the day as a celebration of divine deliverance and redemption:

The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel.3

Over the next few months, Israeli religious authorities held extensive debates over how the new holiday should be acknowledged liturgically. Many of these questions focused on the recitation of Hallel – a series of Psalms of praise traditionally added to the morning worship service for festivals. The first formal Jewish liturgy developed specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut was a new version of  Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”), a traditional prayer recited on the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah praising God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. While it was not approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and did not gain universal acceptance upon its introduction, the practice of reciting Al Hanisim on Yom Ha’atzmaut has since grown in popularity and the prayer has appeared in many different forms throughout the decades.

The first Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut was written in 1949 by Biblical and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed and later published by the Kibbutz Hadati (the Religious Kibbutz Movement):

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.

You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land. 

And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.

For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen! 4

Using unabashedly Biblical language, this new prayer rendered the Zionist colonization of Palestine as an “awakening” and “return” to the Jewish peoples’ “inheritance.” The British Mandatory authorities were referred to as “an evil regime.” The Zionist militias’ dispossession of Palestinians from their homes (still ongoing at the time of its writing in the spring of 1949), was ascribed to divine intervention, using imagery that evoked the conquest of the Biblical Canaanites. Similar framing was used to describe the Arab armies that joined the war in 1949; the term “seven nations” was a pointed reference to the Canaanite nations dispossessed from the land by the Biblical Israelites in the book of Joshua.5

The final stanza of the prayer contained a reference to kibbutz galuyot (the “ingathering of the exiles”), God’s promise to return the Israelites to their land following the Babylonian exile.6 The term was used here according to the tenets of religious Zionism, which viewed the establishment of a Jewish state in the land as a necessary precursor to the coming of the messiah.7 The prayer concludes by looking forward to a return to the widest Biblical borders of Israel (from the Euphrates to the Nile) and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“To Serve God in the Joy of Victory”

In due time, American Jewish denominations would formally adopt the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday as well. The Conservative movement included its own version of Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its 1961 Weekday Prayerbook8 and later in its 1985 prayer book Siddur Sim Shalom:

In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time when our people took root in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land, together with seven neighboring nations, sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day.9

While considerably shorter than the original version, the Conservative movement Al Hanisim retains many of its central themes – particularly the Biblical concept of return and kibbutz galuyot. It also deletes the dated references to British Mandate authorities, firmly identifying Palestinians (“enemies from within the land”) and “seven neighboring nations” as the primary enemies of the Jewish people.

Given the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment, it’s not difficult to understand why Al Hanisim became a popular prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The traditional version for Purim recalls the account in the Book of Esther in which ancient Persia “rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all of the Jews, young and old…” On Hanukkah, the prayer extols how God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure…” In a sense, the Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut combines both of these narratives. Indeed, Israel’s “miraculous” victory over its Arab foes would become central to Zionist mythology following 1948 – and even more so after the Six Day War in 1967.

While the American Reform movement did not originally include prayers for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its Union Prayer Book (almost certainly due to that denomination’s historically anti-Zionist orientation), the Central Conference of American Rabbis eventually established Yom Ha’atzmaut as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism” in 1970. Five years later, the movement’s prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” included an extensive service for the holiday, including a partial Hallel.10 The most recent Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (2007), contains a seven-candle lighting ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, featuring a variety of prayers, poems and songs (including Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem). The service also references kibbutz galuyot with this passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah 23:3, 8: “And Myself will gather the remnants of the flock from all the lands…And I will bring them back to their pasture. And they will dwell upon their own soil.” 11

The Reconstructionist movement prayer book, Kol Haneshama includes a similar Yom Ha’atzmaut service12 that includes Hatikvah as well as the famous “valley of the dry bones” prophecy from Ezekiel 37:13-14. Here, Israel’s founding is juxtaposed with God’s promise to “resurrect” and restore the Israelites to the land of Israel following their exile in Babylonia: “Behold, I am opening your graves, and I shall raise you up from where you lie, my people, and shall bring you to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am The Eternal One, I who open up your graves and raise you up, my people, from your place of burial!” 13

In addition to these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies, many prominent American Jewish scholars and leaders frame the day as a sanctification of sovereign state power. In his popular book “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests, “as our religious perspective on Israel deepens, Yom Ha’atzmaut will become more and more a reflection of a vision rather than the simple birthday party of a nation.” 14

For Strassfeld, that vision involves a dialectic between the “Torah of Sinai” and the “Torah of Jerusalem.” The former, he posits, reflects the revelation that “took place outside of the land of Israel at Sinai” that has become “familiar to us as the life of our people during the 2,000 years of the Diaspora.” The latter emphasizes “sovereignty and independence” and “finds its symbols in the place itself – the site of the ancient temple of sacrifices and the political capital of King David.” 15 As Strassfeld explains:

We need both, for with only Israel and its Torah, it would be easy to make an idolatry of nationalism. We would end up reveling in earth, blood, and power. But with only the Torah of Sinai, we could continue to revel in abstractness and powerlessness, constructing worlds, as the Talmud does, made of oxen that fall into pits and gore each other.16

In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg goes even farther, suggesting that Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates “a new Exodus” and represents “a call to power to end the tradition of suffering, to serve God in the joy of victory.” 17 Noting Israel’s early tradition of military parades on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Greenberg writes,

Diaspora Jews who still live with the ideals and illusions of powerlessness are often embarrassed by this phenomenon. Yet a military parade is a most appropriate symbol for an era whose central theme, set in motion by the Holocaust and the creation of the state, is the emergence of Jews from powerlessness.18

Among other things, these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies and commentaries attest to the deep influence of Religious Zionist ideology on American Jewish life. It is indeed troubling to consider: the prayers of every American Jewish denomination frame Israel’s military dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in the context of holy war and ascribe explicitly messianic meaning to Zionist colonization of the land.

Thus, to return to the questions I asked in my 2009 blog post, I ask again: how should we reckon with the knowledge that Jewish communities the world over offer prayers of joy and praise that essentially celebrate the Palestinian people’s collective tragedy? Might it be possible, to use Edward Said’s term, to view Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims?” If so, what might a Jewish ritual acknowledgement of this event actually look like? 

“Beyond Fear and Omnipotence, Beyond Innocence and Militarism”

American Jews – and young American Jews in particular – are starting to ask this very question. In 2013 New Voices, a journal published by the Jewish Student Press Service, published an article that featured Jewish student essays debating whether to “celebrate, commemorate or mourn” on Yom Ha’atzmaut. More recently, the relatively mainstream Jewish newspaper, the Forward featured a debate between two of its regular columnists entitled “Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?” As one writer observed:

It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday…is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.

As well, some liberal quarters of the American Jewish community now make a point of acknowledging the Nakba in relation to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Reconstructionist volume, “Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays,” for instance, includes the following commentary:

The creation of Israel came with a real cost of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homes. Yom Ha’atzmaut may be a joyous day for us, but the Nakba reminds us that this joy, as on Passover, has its limits.19

Similarly, in 2015, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, led a session for American rabbis entitled, “Yom Ha’atzmaut: Between Redemption and Nakba.” In his session he noted that the increasing awareness of the Nakba means that Israelis and Jewish Zionists can no longer “control the narrative” of Israel’s establishment, adding tellingly: “If we have to ‘sell’ and get people excited about the redemption narrative, we have to make room for the fact that ‘something happened.’”

In the end, however, these mild interventions fail to address the heart of the conceptual/ethical issue at hand, as they ultimately seek to strengthen and uphold the Jewish redemption narrative. Is it possible to commemorate this occasion with a fundamentally different Jewish narrative? One that stands down this redemptive view of militarism and state power?

In my own search for answers to this question, the work of several Jewish scholars has become particularly important to me. One such figure is Marc Ellis who has written extensively about the theological dynamics of Jewish empowerment in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel:

In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.

For Ellis, the onset of Jewish state power has resulted in an era of “Constantinian Judaism,” comparable to the elevation of Christianity to the religion of empire in the 4th century. In the current age, Ellis suggests, “dissenting Jews must learn how to practice their Judaism in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism.” 20 He refers to these dissenting Jews as “Jews of Conscience” who, he writes, “are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.”

Likewise, Sara Roy, whose work has detailed the devastating effect of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza on Palestinians, has written, in an essay entitled “A Jewish Plea:”

I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent, and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and Judaism.

Roy then asks, powerfully:

As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane, something that still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to envision something different, even if uncertain?

“A Full Accounting of the Wrongdoing that was Committed in Our Name.”

In response to challenges such as these, we are now witnessing the tentative emergence of new alternative approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba Day as an occasion for reckoning and remembrance rather than joy and celebration. One such example is the “Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Israeli organization Combatants for Peace and co-sponsored by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. According to organizers, this ceremony seeks

to bring attention to the Nakba and acknowledge the great pain it brings, through the understanding of the Nakba’s importance in the Palestinian collective memory and in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ceremony’s message is that we must face our past with honesty, integrity, and empathy in order to bring a future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides.

My own synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, has been exploring ways to develop a Jewish observance of Nakba Day with a service of combining prayer, readings, poetry and survivor testimonies. Here, for instance, is my “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day,” which I wrote to be a centerpiece of our ritual:

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 this prayer, I use the Hebrew word “teshuvah” according to two of its meanings: both “return” and “repentance.” The first half of the prayer acknowledges the historical reality of the Nakba. The phrase “gather them from the four corners of the earth” is an explicit reference to kibbutz galuyot – “the ingathering of the exiled,” applying it here to the Palestinian right of return. The second half of the prayer uses the word teshuvah/repentance in the context of the collective Jewish responsibility to confess Jewish complicity in the depopulation, destruction and replacement of Palestine, looking forward to a future of “reparation and reconciliation.”

It should be noted that as as Jewish community in the diaspora, our service differs in crucial ways from the Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Ceremony noted above. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in a Jewish nation-state, the vision of a “future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides” has a very specific political meaning. For Jews who seek liberation in a diasporic context, this goal must necessarily exist within the vision of a greater transformation.

In the end, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. From a Jewish diasporist perspective, the aspiration for a just future in Israel/Palestine cannot help but be bound up with the prophetic vision of justice and liberation for marginalized and colonized communities everywhere.

In the words of scholar Susannah Heschel:

The diasporic position … is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime.

My own personal struggle with the legacy of Yom Ha’atzmaut has led me to explorations I could never have imagined when I wrote that blog post in 2009. While these new Jewish approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut are obviously in a nascent stage, we may reasonably expect them to develop and evolve, particularly as demographic studies of the American Jewish community indicate an increasing detachment of American Jewish connection to the state of Israel. As the Forward article cited above notes: “When you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why.”

As the American Jewish community continues to transform, we can only hope we will witness the further transformation of this festival as well: from a day celebrating political nationalism and colonial dispossession to a Jewish observance rooted in solidarity, memory and repentance.

 Footnotes:

1 This day corresponded to May 15, 1948 – the date the state of Israel was declared one year earlier. As Yom Ha’atzmaut is determined according to the lunar Jewish calendar, it falls on different days during the months of April or May.

2  Katz, Shmuel, “Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Yom HaAtzma’ut,” in The Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016  p. 188.

3 IBID, p. 190.

4 Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati, 1969, p. 101, (translation mine).

5 There were actually five – not seven – Arab nations involved in the 1948-49 war. The number seven seems to be used here to directly equate them with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations.

6  See Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29:14 and Ezekiel 20:41-42. Kibbutz galuyot would later come to be understood in messianic terms – see for instance, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1-2.

7 This precept is also cited in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel,” written in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbis, which described the establishment of the state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

8 Weekday Prayer Book, New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1961, pp.64-65.

9 Siddur Sim Shalom, Harlow, Jules, ed., New York: Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue of America, 1985, p. 183.

10 Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Stern, Chaim, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 1975, pp. 590-611.

11 Mishkan T’filah: Services for Shabbat, Frishman, Elyse D., ed., New York: CCAR Press,  2007, p. 542.

12 Kol Haneshamah: Limot Hol, Teutsch, David, ed., Pennsylvania: The Reconstructionist Press. 1996, pp. 456-471.

13  IBID, p. 460.

14  Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 66.

15  IBID, p. 65.

16  IBID

17  Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Summit Books, p. 387.

18  IBID 396.

19  A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 2: Shabbat and Holidays, Pennsylvania: RRC Press, 2014, p. 693.

20 Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, Waco:Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 206.

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 is 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 what kind of Judaism we will 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

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.