Sermon: Tazria – Metzora: A Tale of Two Chazans

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 10 June 2012

A few years ago Proffessor Barry Chazan, Professor of Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem wrote a challenging article about the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel (Struggling for Israel in The Sovereign and Situated Self, 2003).   The context of his article was the rapid downturn of engagement with Israel in Synagogues and Jewish communities worldwide that began with the Second Intifada of 2000 and which ended with the building of the separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel.

He began his article with this challenge:  “We have lost the authentic narrative of Israel in the lives of the Jewish people.”  What he was saying was that in the melee of politics, opposition to the policies of a particular Israeli government, horror at the effects of the struggle between radical Palestinians and the State of Israel and the risk of disdain from our neighbours who are not connected to Israel, we have failed to teach and pass on to our future generations the continuation of the centuries old link between Israel the place and Jewish culture, Jewish civilisation and our ethnic religion.  He stated that this is an indispensible element of being Jewish and of Jewish peoplehood.

I feel that he was absolutely right.  Connection to Israel in the meta historical sense is as indispensible an element of being Jewish as is connection to our Jewish festivals, our Jewish texts, our responsibility for Tikkun olam, the improvement of the world in our lifetime, care for others and all else that we understand as the Mitzvot, the Jewish duties which God commands.  It is not optional.

This connection is not and cannot be conditional on how Israel acts at a particular time in history.  Our Bible, particularly our Haftarah portions, are full of documenting Israel under the monarchs acting dreadfully – with King Ahab supporting the prophets of Baal to bring the Israelite people into idolotary, with Isaiah describing a society where the rights of the stranger, the widow and the orphan are trampled upon by a falsely pious wealthy few, with Amos saying the there were people in power in Israel who would sell the needy for a pair of shoes.  None of these great prophets said – so since you have to disagree with Israel’s actions you should sever the continuation of the link of the Jewish people with the land.  They all advocated a continuing connection with Israel and a duty to improve her.

Nor does a woman who is something of an Israelite prophet of our time – another Professor Chazan – Naomi Chazan who is President of the New Israel Fund.  Speaking a month ago at the conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism she said that “the most patriotic thing you can do as a Jew is to fight for a decent and just Israel.”

Our link with Israel – cultural, religious, and people hood based is not conditional on how Israel acts.

Barry Chazan sets out six ways in which we can ensure that we here in the Diaspora and our children will build our span in the bridge to Israel for now and the future.   First we should teach our core Jewish texts with Israel intertwined.  Our Torah portion today is about a house built in the Land of Israel which is rotting but can be fixed.  Our torah texts will continue for most of the year with the introductory words “when you come into the land of Israel”  – they will establish values which will make the place of Jewish connection special.

Second, we should not dumb down our engagement with Israel – rather in what we do in our Diaspora communities we should emphasise the realities of the contemporary State of Israel with all of its confusions.  As Naomi Chazan says “we have to distinguish between dissenters and destroyers”.  This past year on one night at the height of the Rothschild Boulevard Israeli Spring one in seven of the entire population of Israel were on the streets protesting for social justice in the State.  Could you image a protest in Britain including 9 million of us?  These, our brothers and sisters were not destroying Israel – they were painting a necessary alternative picture of how our Jewish State might be for the future.   So too when we Diaspora Jews consider a different way for Israel to be than how it is today, which is what we do when we hear different ideas here at Alyth, when we host speakers from Yachad as well as the Israeli Ambassador, when we experience the passion of the Bereaved Parents’ Circle as well as hearing the pain of wounded IDF soldiers, when we support New Israel Fund as well as the UJIA, we are supporting Israel in its non-dumbed down fullness.

Thirdly Barry Chazan recommends we must use the Hebrew language. This is our unique possession by which we best express Jewish ideas and, spoken, written in, sung in, it conveys the culture and civilisation of our people better than you could ever do in English.

Fourthly we must create multiple Israel experiences throughout the year – chances to celebrate, times to learn, opportunities to enjoy Israeli food, music, film, art – just woven into what it means to be a Jew anywhere in the world in 2012.

Fifthly, Barry Chazan says, make sure that there is plenty of access to Israelis as he writes “we should use real human beings.  One of the best texts we have in teaching Israel is real Israelis.  ….  By giving the Jewish people access to all kinds of Israelis, we are offering them an opportunity to view Israel as the diverse textbook of Jewishness that it is.”

Finally we should go to Israel – Barry Chazan concentrates on children going to Israel but I feel that it is just as important for adults to go.  Israel is a living organism – it changes rapidly and only by seeing with your own eyes can you experience the potential for our Jewish state, see its struggles, experience how it is to live just a few miles from a place where there are people who have tried to destroy your country, experience the determination of Israelis who campaign for co-existence, find yourself right in the middle of the debate about how Israel will be.

Alyth does a pretty good job of following all of Barry Chazan’s recommendations.  Ever since the revitalisation of our Israel Committee under Leslie Michael’s chairmanship around the time that Chazan was writing, and then led by Greg Rack and now John Cohen, our Israel committee has ensured that Alyth and Israel are intertwined.   They have set up our twinning with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa so that we have a continuous stake in Israel as a community.  They have helped to ensure that every Bar and Bat Mitzvah child in this community gets to go to Israel and have their eyes opened to our State as the cross the line into adulthood.  They have brought Israeli speakers and teachers here.   They have ensured that we celebrate Israel at Yom HaAtzmaut and recognise the cost of winning and preserving our own State at Yom HaZicaron.   If you are passionate about ensuring that Israel matters in this community then please join this committee and volunteer your time to help. – speak to me or to John Cohen if you would like to try it.

I am very proud that here at Alyth we do not shy away from a full understanding of Israel.  We join in the struggles of the Israel Movement for Reform Judaism to ensure that the Jewish choices open to us are equally open to all Jews in Israel.  We expect Israel to be a great Jewish state where men and women and treated equally and gender segregation in public places comes to an end.  We are willing to hear from Israelis and Palestinians alike new ideas for how to enable Arabs and Jews to live together in peace and equality – for the change that will be necessary for that to happen.   We are fortunate, as Naomi Chazan says, to be among the 99% of Jews who for the first time in Jewish history live in free societies where pluralism and tolerance are key values to aspire to.  We support Israel remaining and in spaces where it is not yet, becoming fully part of that world.  We recognise that the lack of equality for Arabs in Israel is not something we would ever tolerate for Jews and so we are part of the campaign to fix it.

This is the week in Alyth’s life where we demonstrate and celebrate our commitment to Israel as a Jewish State.  We demonstrate it by being together on Tuesday night for Yom HaZikaron, when we will remember the fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism in Israel, hearing testimony from two of our Synagogues Israeli members.  We celebrate it by enjoying this years Yom HaAtzmaut party on Wednesday night, dancing or listening to Israeli music, savouring Israeli food, perhaps joining the Gatweay to Israel discussion or watching the heart-warming film about Israel’s efforts to integrate the children of foreign workers in the State.  As Israel turns sixty four the majority of Alyth’s members cannot remember a time when there was no Jewish state – but our duty to keep connecting ourselves remains as strong as it ever was.   See you on Tuesday and Wednesday!