Thoughts on the Meaning of “A Jewish State”

This morning, I read with great interest Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times concerning “Israel’s Big Question”. It brought to mind a sermon I gave in 2010 and I wanted to reprint that sermon here. I believe it is long since time that this question is discussed openly and honestly.

Two years ago, we participated in the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program which touched on many of these questions and, ultimately, the question of how Israel can best reflect the meaning of a “Jewish State”. That was a very powerful experience and I believe the discussions must continue in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Sermon for Kol Nidre 5771

Rabbi Robert Dobrusin

Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor, MI

Yom Kippur is a time for questions: questions that must be asked and that demand thoughtful, serious answers.

Here is one question you could think about over Yom Kippur and probably for months after: “What does it mean to me when I call myself a Jew?”

I want you to take a couple of moments to consider how you would go about answering that question and form the beginning of an answer in your mind. What does it mean to me when I call myself a Jew?

        Tonight, I want to discuss a different question, an essential question which every Jew throughout the world should be asking. As you will see, I believe this question is very closely related to my first question.  It too is not an easy question to answer. In fact, you should know that you are about to hear version 9.0 of my sermon this evening.

        I do not expect my answer will be the same as your answer. I hope you will listen to my answer, and naturally I hope it will influence your thinking; but I want my answer to be part of a larger conversation on this issue, a conversation I would like to begin here at Beth Israel, but one which needs to be taking place throughout our community and throughout the Jewish world.

Before I tell you what the question is and before I give you my answer, I want to tell you something about who I am.  I am the child of parents born in this country. No one in my close family suffered in the Holocaust. I was raised in a moderately liberal home, my parents were both Roosevelt Democrats. I grew up in Boston in a traditional Jewish community focused much more on study and ritual observance than on concerns for Jewish identity and “peoplehood”. My parents were active members of our Conservative shul and I was active in our youth group and religious school, and spent most every free hour at the shul or with my shul friends.

        Still, I went to public schools. I was taught at home to respect diversity – even though we didn’t call it that yet – and my parents always stressed that we were part of a bigger world which would respect us and include us as long as we were mentsches, and that being a mentsch was the most important Jewish value of all.

        I grew up under the influence of the anti war movement and heard my older brother singing protest songs for years before I really understood them. I saw him and his contemporaries heartsick over Vietnam; and when I turned 18, although there was no draft, I filed an application as a Conscientious Objector. It seemed natural to me then, as an extension of everything I had been taught. I could not do it today.

        As I’ve grown I’ve held on to my ideals and perspectives, not giving up on my idealism and my faith in this world.  But to be sure, over the years, I have had experiences that have changed me: a few harrowing days in the former Soviet Union while visiting Refuseniks taught me about the reality of anti-Semitism and the need to fight for what we hold dear.

Six years living in a delightful community in Pennsylvania farm country, where many pastors were willing to tell me to my face quite often that I was going to Hell, taught me the sad truth that not everyone wants to be your friend.

Of course, my world and my idealism – and, frankly, my naivete – were rocked by September 11th.   And, lihavdeel – which is a word we use when we make a separation between events which are of such different magnitude that they should not in any way be mentioned one after the other – the past 7 years of harassment here in Ann Arbor have made me a bit more cynical and much more cautious.

These experiences have dimmed a bit of my innate idealism but haven’t destroyed it.  And I still stand here week after week believing and teaching from my heart that being Jewish means more than just being part of a community of Jewish people needing to fight for our lives, constantly endangered by those around us.

I believe that what makes us unique as Jews and makes our people’s survival essential is the perspective we bring to the world, our faith in God, our commitment to tradition, our passion for education, our dedication to helping to bring this world closer to redemption and our belief that that day can come to pass.

        So, that is who I am. And with that in mind, here is the question that I believe each of us must answer and we will no doubt answer it based on who we are and from where we have come and what we think it means to be Jew.

        My question is about Israel. What should and what shouldn’t it mean when Israel calls itself a Jewish State? That question is not asked nearly enough in Israel or throughout the Jewish world, and it really needs to be.

Some may wonder: Is this really the time to talk about this? With so much anti-Israel feeling in the world, with Israel being so alone and so isolated? Who cares what a “Jewish State” means?”

It must be asked and we should care because Israel faces critical decisions which will affect not only those who live within Israel but which will affect, as well, how all of us as Jews, in this generation and beyond, view the State. And, because of Israel’s prominent role in the consciousness of our people, these decisions may well shape how future generations understand what it means to be a Jew.

I believe that as important as it is that we recognize, embrace and support Israel’s role reflecting our national aspirations,  providing a haven for Jews in distress and demonstrating our acceptance of active responsibility for insuring our survival as a people, that is not enough in and of itself to live up to the title of a “Jewish State”.

I want to see Israel always reflect what we consider important about being a Jew. And while I certainly recognize that on political matters the voices of those who live in Israel and put their lives on the line matter more than what I have to say, as a Jew I have a vested interest in hoping that Israel continues to reflect what that word means to me and how I have taught Judaism from this bima.

        Each of us has a different understanding of what it means to be a Jew and that is why a conversation on this question is so important. So let me begin the conversation this evening.

On Rosh Hashana, I presented two texts which portrayed our focus as Jews in completely different ways: one very much centering on God, one very much centering on our human lives. I stressed the fact that these aren’t conflicting principles, rather we need to find a balance between the two. That is often my starting point when I speak and teach about Judaism: that as Jews we are supposed to always be wrestling, trying to find our place between conflicting legitimate priorities.

The structure and the content of my thoughts about Israel will reflect that perspective on life we share as Jews, namely that we recognize – not deny, but accept – and work with the tensions that exist in our lives.

        I am going to discuss three such tensions, although clearly there could be more.

        The first tension is a tension as old as Hillel and probably much older. Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Each of us wrestles between the commitment and responsibility we feel towards fellow Jews and the recognition of the absolute principle in Judaism that each human being is of equal importance and value in the eyes of God. We have to find our place as part of a Jewish community and as part of a larger diverse world. And that prompts me to ask: How should Israel conduct itself regarding Jews and non-Jews living in the State?


To be meaningful as a Jewish State, Israel must continue to nurture its special relationship with the Jewish people at home and throughout the world. It should continue to be a “Jewish” State in its symbols, in its calendar and in the commitment it expresses to standing up for Jews at home and abroad. The Law of Return, guaranteeing Israel as a haven, must always be in place and must be extended to all who are considered Jews in the eyes of their community. We need to know that Israel is there for all of us as a “Jewish State”.

But Israel must stand for more.

In the Declaration of Independence, the founders declared that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”.

        There can be no compromising between these two values. Israel must find a way to be both dedicated to Jews and the Jewish people and completely reflect democracy and equality for all of its citizens.

        In many ways, Israel has lived up to that lofty goal especially in comparison to other nations.  Citizens can vote and hold office regardless of faith or ethnic background. People do have equal rights to be heard in the court system or to sit as judges. And, the efforts at coexistence between Jews and Israeli Arabs are models that the entire world could watch and learn from.  As  I have said time and time again from this bima, I am so proud that our community – led by our Jewish Federation – has supported so many of these co-existence efforts. We should be proud of these facts in a region and in a world in which such equality is rare.

        But the reality on the ground is that there is not equality within Israel’s borders. One trip into an Arab village or neighborhood will demonstrate that there are vast gaps in the services offered and opportunities presented. This is not right and not reflective of Jewish values.

        In addition to the “on the ground” reality, we hear statements and proposals made by government officials, and notably as well by Rabbis, in Israel which are not reflective of such equality and which, in fact, fly in the face of it – statements stereotyping all Arabs or statements of exclusion against those who aren’t Jews, or even, occasionally, those who aren’t a particular type of Jew. These ought to infuriate all of us who have been taught to believe – as I was, and as most of you were, and as most of you teach your children and grandchildren today – that all are equal in the eyes of God and should be equal in the eyes of the law.

        This principle needs to guide Israel as it makes decisions for its future. As surely as a Jewish State must stand for us as Jews, it must stand for equality and democracy for all. It must condemn statements of racism or exclusivity made in its name by leaders of any kind as surely as it condemns violence and terror against the State, and it must seek to provide equally for all within its borders and under its control. Otherwise, it might be a State for Jews but it would not be a Jewish State.

The second tension needs to be addressed differently because one can’t simply say, as in the last case, that both priorities need to be observed at all times.  This tension is addressed by finding a place on a continuum between two legitimate concerns, and I am fully aware that there are many, many different points on this line.

        The tension is one presented constantly in Jewish law: at what point do the demands of survival obviate the ethical demands of Judaism? This prompts me to ask: How does Israel balance between the conflicting priorities of survival and the demand Judaism places on us to act according to the highest ethical standards?

        It is important to say right from the start that from the perspective of Judaism, there is no value in doing good if the inevitable result of doing good is your own demise. Jewish law permits us to do almost anything necessary when survival is at stake, since life is the ultimate value in Judaism and no one else’s life take precedence over our own.

        But to claim, as some do, that ethics do not matter or that they don’t matter as much as they once did – since Israel lives in a tough, threatening neighborhood – is inconsistent with what Judaism demands of us.

A Jewish State must constantly be engaged in self-evaluation and teshuva, showing unending concern for its ethical standards, not because Jews have to be better than anyone else, but because any State which calls itself in the name of Judaism must answer to those ethical requirements of our faith.

        Time and time again Israel has proven itself to be dedicated to ethics and morals, and there is so much in this area to be proud of: Israel’s quick and immediate response to disasters elsewhere in the world, Haiti for instance; or the policies of Israeli hospitals to treat people regardless of their religion, nationality or political views or activity. Israel’s Supreme Court has often ruled against government policies which were deemed unethical: the route of the separation barrier or punitive home demolitions, for example.

And, just this summer, a former brigadier general of Tzahal spoke to a group in Ann Arbor and showed us video evidence of Israel’s decisions during wartime to try to fight as ethically as possible. But, more important than the video was his statement: “We have to do this because there is a ‘Jewish way’ to fight a war.” Imagine, using the word “Jewish” to refer to ethics. What a concept!

        I am proud of Israel for these stands. They have to continue if Israel is to live up to its responsibility as a Jewish State. Of course, survival is the greatest ethical responsibility of all; but it is becoming more frequent for Israel and its supporters to be too quick to respond to criticism from within or without with a claim that security trumps ethical issues or that any criticism is unfair and reveals an anti-Semitic intention.

Those knee-jerk reactions are wrong and they are damaging to Israel, and threats we hear from some within Israel that the country should limit the activities of human rights groups or limit freedom of the press or expression cannot be allowed to become reality in a Jewish State.

        I am proud to be a member of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights North America (author’s note: now called T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) , which supports the work of those fighting for human rights in Israel. I am proud of the work done by Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and am a strong supporter of that organization. I believe that Rabbis need to lead the way in expressing the hope that Israel always considers the ethical implications of its policies even as it seeks to defend its citizens and insure its future.

There are so many areas in which a greater concern for ethics must be applied. Some cannot be argued away by concerns for security such as the absolute shanda – the absolute disgrace – that there are so many poor and hungry in the Jewish State with no plans to address this problem. This must be addressed and there can be no excuses.

In contrast, there are areas where, I will admit, security concerns do come into play, such as in the way in which Israel acts with regard to Palestinians in the West Bank.

But those security concerns do not excuse unnecessarily extreme security measures. They do not excuse the support of unnecessary provocations in Palestinian neighborhoods disregarding the sanctity of a home. They do not excuse police turning a blind eye when there is violence perpetrated against people engaged in legal protest or simply trying to harvest their olives in their own groves. They do not excuse excessive disruption of daily life.

I want to see Israel continue to appropriately balance the ethical concerns with the demands for survival. That is what any nation should do. Of course, there are nations whose violations of human rights deserve far greater condemnation but a nation which calls itself a Jewish State needs to be sure to continue to live by ethical principles to the greatest extent possible.

It is only when Israel shows itself to be truly committed to protecting the human rights of all people under its control to the greatest extent possible – given the reality of life in the Middle East – that the name “Jewish State” can be comfortably used. That goal will never ultimately be achieved until the occupation ends and a true mutually negotiated secure peace is achieved and God willing it will happen this year.

        Then we have a third tension, and it is different from each of the first two. My discussion on Rosh Hashana about Ma’oz Tsur and Mi Yimallel and the respective role of a divine-centered and human-centered perspective in our lives prompts me to ask: How can Israel manage to remain a secular state while calling itself by the name of a religion? What should be the role of religion in the Jewish State?

There has to be some role. But Israel cannot be allowed to become a theocracy. Believe me, you don’t want Rabbis running the country. As in any free country, Israelis must be able to choose which, if any, approach to Jewish law and tradition they want to follow; and there should be no pressure of any kind placed on anyone to observe Jewish tradition in any particular way or at all.

Israel was founded as a secular State and should remain so. But one of the greatest resources Israel has to define its future is found in the spiritual yearnings of so many of its people and the abundance of serious Jewish observance and study taking place throughout the country are evidence of such yearning.

This is important for us, as Diaspora Jews, to recognize. It disappoints me deeply that almost all of the conversations we have about Israel center on politics. We rarely talk about Israel as a center of Jewish religion; and when we do talk about religion in Israel, it seems always in the negative, notably, our absolutely legitimate anger as Rabbinic leaders in Israel viciously condemn non-Orthodox Judaism and women who wish to participate equally in Jewish life.

These attitudes are horrendous. But, the fact is, there is positive reason to talk about religious faith in Israel. There are many expressions of Jewish faith and practice, as well as serious, contemporary Torah study evident in the country, and we, as Diaspora Jews, need to better acquaint ourselves with these efforts and support them more strongly. Whether it is in secular communities like our own partnership community of Nahallal with its thriving Friday evening Shabbat celebration or in serious intellectually-based Torah study bringing together secular and religious Jews, or in different types of minyanim flourishing throughout Israel, there is evidence everywhere of Israelis trying to find something more meaningful in Judaism.  We should be constantly keeping that in mind and feeding off that spiritual energy.

         In that spirit, I wish to propose an idea for our next Congregation trip to Israel. This trip will not focus on politics, not on history, not on beautiful scenery, but will focus on matters of the spirit and matters of faith, bring us into contact with the spiritual yearnings within the land. We will go to Israel to study Torah, pray in synagogues and among communities of all different types, and learn more about communities of all kinds – Jewish and non-Jewish, as well – which are studying and praying and observing faith in ways which can inspire us here at home. If you are interested in such a trip, please let me know. I think it would be a phenomenal experience and would be a way of sending a different message about the potential Israel has to improve and enhance our lives as Jews.

I hope and pray that Israel, in the years to come, will find the right balance between being the secular State it was created to be – and must remain – while continuing to be a place of great and varied spiritual yearning which can continue to inspire us.

        This, then, is my answer to what a Jewish State should be: committed to the Jewish people but unquestionably democratic and respectful of all, committed to ethical behavior even as it seeks to insure its survival, and committed to more deeply meaningful Jewish life at all levels as it remains a secular institution. These reflect the wrestling with priorities that is an absolute foundation of our lives as Jews.

        Talk about wrestling … I began to write this sermon almost 31 years ago. As a 3rd year Rabbinical student in November, 1979,  one month after arriving in Israel for the first time, I wrote a long letter to my father which I still have. It was one of the most heartfelt things I have ever written.

The upshot of the letter was: “What am I doing here? I cannot figure out what this place has to do with me. It’s militaristic. It’s arrogant. There’s no baseball. Why can’t I just come home and go back to work at Camp Ramah, my promised land?”

Well I stayed, thank God; and over the year, my thoughts began to change as I got to know Israel and Israelis better.  And with each successive visit – I now have been to Israel 13 times – I found more and more to connect with.

I found people that thought like I did or challenged me respectfully to re-consider my priorities. I encountered organizations that saw Judaism like I did. I found great places to daven and to study and, sure enough, I became more attached to a sense of history and to a sense of peoplehood that had not been a focus of my upbringing. I became more aware and respectful of the obligation which Israel fulfills.

I hope, for my children’s and grandchildren’s sakes and for Israel’s sake, that my voice and voices of all of us who love Israel, even from afar, will be heard to lead the country to further reflect what it truly means to be a Jew.

In that way, I believe it will always be a Jewish State in the truest sense of the word, and one which future generations of serious and committed Jews will not only find connection with but one which they will love and believe in deeply and see as a reflection of their commitment to the principles of our faith.

        We pray for a year of health and life for ourselves. We pray no less for Israel’s physical well being. And, as we pray for a year in which our lives will reflect the values of our faith, we pray for that for Israel as well.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Thoughts on the Meaning of “A Jewish State”

  1. L Wardle

    Thank you for posting your Sermon from Kol Nidre 5771,
    it was so good to hear it once more, to actually have the
    text itself, and what a timely message it is!!!

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