As Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah next week, the divisive political conflict in Israel and its very future as a democratic state will be the focus of a number of sermons in North Shore synagogues, even as many rabbis are sensitive to balancing their concern for Israel with keeping politics out of the pulpit.
Protests in Israel and the United States have decried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stripping the Supreme Court of the power to block government decisions as a threat to democracy in the Jewish state.
“We have to speak out about the importance of Israel to us and we shouldn’t hide our feelings about our views of the situation there, but we are not going to tell them how to run their country,” said Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.
“I’m going to be talking about relationships with God and each other to please God. People come to temple to learn and to hear things that calm them down, for a spiritual getaway, and to remember who we are as a people. Not to listen to what they can hear on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.”
While his views are shared by others, the political situation and what it means for the future of the country will be the focus of a number of sermons in the region.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, who lived in Israel for 20 years and participated in some of the recent demonstrations in the country, said he will talk about how the current situation in Israel is “among the most crucial events in Jewish history” and what it means to “Judaism’s future and the future of the Jewish people.”
“The unity of the Jewish people is being tested as never before. The judicial reforms being enacted in Israel are opposed – both in spirit and in practice – to the Judaism that we know and which coalesced following the Roman conquest in 70 CE.
“Or are we in danger of again choosing the path of hate, a corrupt and power-intoxicated blindness to the rigors of establishing justice in our gates, and falling prey to the lure of misinformation and demagoguery that the radical agenda of the reformers is pushing?”
Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly will also talk about the impact of the proposed judicial reforms as part of her sermon.
“Yes, the judiciary needed some changes – but not what is being done. Democracy is being destroyed. As American Jews, I think we need to understand what is happening.
“It is anathema that a certain kind of Judaism is being held up as the only authentic and true Judaism, delegitimizing the plurality of voice of world Jewry. [Israel’s far-right defense minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir[’s] interpretation of Judaism is not mine. It is not what we want to teach our children,” she plans to say.
“This year is different. Our [Israeli] friends, family, and colleagues are protesting for the survival of the Israel they – and we – love.”
The challenge of how to address the situation from the pulpit is so concerning that Adler joined some 25 other rabbis recently at a special program at Hebrew College to share thoughts on the issue.
“The rabbis who attended were very upset with Israel’s government and their position on the judiciary,” said Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline, one of the event organizers. “They felt it is important to provide leadership to their communities, share ideas, and learn from each other.”
At Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover, Rabbi Idan Irelander said he plans to provide an update on the current situation in Israel, offer a suggested solution, and “express hope for a brighter future” during either one or two sermons. Irelander, who grew up in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, was not ready to discuss his ideas for a solution.
“I make a conscious effort to minimize the introduction of politics into my pulpit,” the rabbi said. But he does plan to discuss the judiciary crisis and present viewpoints “from various sides, highlight the issues raised, and suggest possible solutions.
“My view of Israel is of a family. Like any family, disagreements and discord may arise, but above all, there is love and respect. We encourage our members to share their beliefs, thoughts, and points of view without fear of judgment.”
At Temple Emanuel of Andover – where Rabbi Max Chaiken will be leading a congregational trip to Israel in February – he plans to speak about the country on Yom Kippur morning and express his concern for what he sees as “a scary time for Israeli democracy.” He won’t mince his words.
“I find it hard to fathom how like-minded people might support the current government’s so-called ‘reform’ against the voices of millions of Israelis taking to the streets to decry the shame, lying, and corruption of the current administration,” he said.
Chaiken said he is hopeful “that we might still one day be a ‘free’ people in our ancestral homeland, a beacon of democracy and justice for the world. I hope that my community will reengage with what it means to be a Zionist today.”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, leader of Chabad of Peabody, called it “painful” to observe the internal disagreements in Israel, but called the debates “part of a healthy democracy.” He said he would focus on the idea that “Jews are there for one another always and forever.”
Schusterman plans to cite a recent incident in the religious neighborhood of Bnei Brak where, he said, there were plans to agitate the local community. “But instead, the locals came out with steaming bowls of cholent [slow-cooked stew] and then they sang and danced together rather than fight.
“As long as we live in exile,” he said, and the Moshiach [Messiah] has not yet come, the world won’t be perfect, and that includes disagreements. The trick is to emulate the style of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory, and to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.”