“Zionism is a Verb”: Rabbi Eli Freedman Sermon 1/20/2023

The most misquoted verse in the entire Torah appears in this week’s portion. “Let My people go!”

Maybe it’s because of Charleton Heston, but when we think of Moses approaching Pharaoh and asking for his people to be released, he says, “Let My people go!”

Or maybe it’s the old spiritual that we all sing on Passover, “Let My people go!”

The problem is, nowhere in Torah, in the entire Exodus narrative does Moses only say, “Let My people go”

Rather, he says numerous times, ““Let My people go… that they may worship God…” or “Let My people go… that they may celebrate a festival to God in the wilderness.”

It is never simply, “Let My people go.” Because there is a reason for their freedom, there is always a second half to the sentence. We did not achieve freedom for freedom’s sake alone. We were redeemed to be God’s people, God’s partners, to worship, to celebrate, and, in the words of Isaiah, “To be a light unto the nations,” a moral force for good in this world. 

This year, we are celebrating 75 years since the creation of the modern State of Israel. Our people did not achieve the unthinkable, the miraculous return to our homeland after almost 2000 years of exile, for its sake alone. Just as with the Exodus, we were redeemed 75 years ago, to be God’s people, God’s partners, to worship, to celebrate, to be a light unto the nations. 

Israel was created to be a Jewish State not just a state of Jews. Israel was founded on Jewish values. To quote the Israeli Declaration of Independence:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.”

Last weekend, 80,000 protesters gathered in Tel Aviv with grave concerns about the future of Israel’s democracy. Like us, they too want to see Israel be a ‘Light unto the Nations’. A country that is defined by peace, justice, and equality. 

However, we are all witnessing the many proposed policies of the new hardline government that appear to contradict our Jewish values and we are concerned that some of them may even go against the clear vision of Israel’s founders.  

I recently spoke with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Tamir Nir, of our partner congregation in Jerusalem, Achva BaKerem. He expressed real concern for the future of his congregation. There is a very real chance that they will lose what little funding they currently receive from the Israeli government and that only congregations that fall into the narrow category as defined by the ultra-orthodox will receive government support.

In addition, we see a threat to the rights of women, LGBTQ+ citizens, and Israeli Arab citizens being carried out by government ministers and officials. We are concerned about the erosion of democracy as the government seeks to weaken the supreme court in a blatant power grab. We also have concerns for the Palestinian people as well and their aspirations for self determination.

Perhaps the most frightening to us Reform Jews in the diaspora is the proposals to change the Law of Return and canceling reform conversions. The Law of Return is the law which allows any Jew, child of a Jew, or grandchild of a Jew to make aliyah to Israel. Reform conversions have been recognized in Israel for the purpose of the Law of Return for many years, so the decision to cancel these conversions is actually canceling the Law of Return and surrendering to extremist ultra-Orthodox views regarding the question of “who is a Jew?”  The meaning is that the State of Israel will cease to be the state of the Jewish people. 

Canceling the recognition of Reform conversion will not only lead to an irreversible rift with diaspora Jewry, but also to a decrease in the motivation of immigrants, and cause irreversible damage to the LGBTQ+ community in Israel – since almost all surrogate children in the community are Reform converts.  The government of Israel must open its gates to all Jews who wish to align themselves with the State of Israel. It must not exclude entire communities from Israel.  This would be an immoral and un-Jewish act, and it would distance Jews and Judaism from Israel, instead of bringing everyone closer together.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of our Reform Movements Zionist organization, ARZA, recently wrote about how Israel has a positive mission to fulfill beyond the value of its own survival. He writes:

As a Jewish people, we have been forced to justify our Zionism since its inception. “Why do the Jews need a State?” We were challenged: “How do we justify our existence and right to self-determination?” For so long we were so focused on justifying our Zionism that we paid insufficient attention to whether or not our Zionism was Just.

What is needed now is a Just Zionism.

Weinberg explains that a Just Zionism is committed to (but not limited to) the following principles:

  • Security in the Region: The pursuit of peace, security, and stability for Israel, the Palestinians, and the surrounding region.
  • Religious Equality and Pluralism: We envision and will work for an Israeli society in which all Jewish denominations are treated fairly and with respect – a society in which all of us are seen as Jews, regardless of our diverse interpretation of Jewish texts and traditions. We seek an Israel in which people of all genders can pray, work, and live together as equals.
  • Combatting Racism, Discrimination, and Hatred: Religious and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, those seeking political asylum, and all other members of Israeli society deserve to be treated with full equality under the law.
  • Two States for Two Peoples: Although the road seems long, we are committed to building and supporting a path to peace based on two states for two peoples because justice requires it and it is essential for the security and stability of both Israelis and Palestinians.

This may seem impossible. It may look right now, that the intractable forces of extremists on all sides have won and that there is little hope. Yet, the Israeli National Anthem, HaTikva/The Hope, reminds us that our hope, the two-thousand-year-old hope, will not be lost. 

So what do we do? Throw up our arms in disgust and leave the table? Boycott Israel, refuse to travel there or do business there? No! I would encourage us to do the exact opposite. We must engage. I refuse to give up on a country that I love and believe in. I refuse to give up on a country that is just as much my heritage and birthright as any other Jew in this world. I refuse to give up on a country that saved my wife’s family from the Holocaust, a country that has the ability to be a shining star of democracy and peace in the Middle East. I refuse to give up on Israel. I have hope. 

I find that hope through supporting the organizations that are doing the work in Israel that align with our values. Organizations like the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism and our partner congregation. Organizations like the Jaffa Institute that foster dialogue between Arab and Israeli youth in South Tel Aviv. Or Women of the Wall, which work for gender equality at the Western Wall – the holiest site for ALL Jews. 

We as a congregation are not disengaging either. With the leadership of our Israel ConnectRS group, we have been engaging with Israel more than ever this year.

So here’s what we have coming up – I hope one of these opportunities to engage with Israel will speak to each of you. 

  • On Sunday, February 5, we will be screening a film about the Ayalon Institute, a secret ammunition factory disguised as a kibbutz to fool the British in the 1940s. The producer will be here to speak about her film. 
  • We are going to Israel! In fact, we are hoping to take two trips to Israel this year. We are sending our teens over winter break and if you are a teen or know one, please reach out to Jennifer James for more information. And we are taking a congregational trip in November. We are having an interest meeting, February 7 to learn more about the trip. Feel free to reach out to Jordan Marks for more information.
  • Partner synagogue – Rabbi Tamir Nir/Achva BaKerem – Passover study session
  • Class with Rick Berkman – Hartman, iEngage
  • Book Club ReadRS – Noa Tishby – March 1st, Israel: A simple guide to the most misunderstood country on earth

In her book, Noa Tishby writes: “Zionism is a verb, something that is still in action, It is afterall a movement, and as such, always on the go. Much like the Jewish tradition that answers a question with a question and encourages humans, regardless of religion, to debate each other and philosophize from dusk till dawn, Zionism is still here to learn, to debate within itself, and to transform.”

Israel, like much of the world, is at a crossroads. The modern state of Israel, the 2000 years old dream, is still a young nation  – only 75 years old. I believe in Israel, and I believe Israel can be a Jewish State, not just a state of Jews – a nation that lives by our Jewish values of democracy, protecting the most vulnerable among us, and treating everyone as created in the Divine image. 

Ken Yhi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will

And may we partner with God in helping to bring it to pass

Shabbat Shalom