The Israel That Is Still To Be

by Rabbi Gordon Tucker

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Rabbi Gordon Tucker's Remarks

Hanging over the entrance to Temple Israel Center, in White Plains, New York, is a banner pro-claiming, “Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel.”

It was meant as an expression, in our local community, of a profound unity that underlies a healthy pluralism. Synagogues of four different movements subscribed to this slogan. We all worship differently. We all study Torah differently. We provide Jewish education for our children with different emphases. We interpret Jewish texts and Jewish history differently. And still, we are able to recognize that we shared a deep commitment to, and love for, the State of Israel. For all of the challenges that American Jewry faces today it is one of the glories of the American Jewish community that such things can happen.

But what the banner is about goes further than just a shared concern for a place that we love to visit, and in which so many of us have family. After all, we could also have a banner that says “Wherever We Stand, We Stand Against Anti-Semitism.” But such a banner would say little more about Judaism and our relationship to it than that we have common enemies whom we will resist together.

There is, in fact, a Zionism of fear. And it is not at all illegitimate. Let me emphasize that unequivocally. It is not at all illegitimate because it is about Israel’s role as a provider of safety for Jewish people in a world in which it is still not always safe to be a Jew. Zionism of fear is really a minimalist Zionism that does not say much about the positive things that a Jewish state could do for the furtherance and the flowering of Jewish culture. It is about safety. And a Zionism of fear – please note – need not be only about physical dangers. Do you remember that ill-conceived and (thankfully) short lived advertising campaign fashioned in Israel almost four years ago, which aimed to convince Israeli ex-pats in the U.S. that their children would soon have no connection to Judaism? It was just another example of a Zionism of fear. And while something like this is not the motivation of every North American family that makes aliyah, it surely is for many. “My kids will be Jewish.” Or, “I will be able to practice Judaism as I wish to, without always being a minority.” It is not an illegitimate sentiment. But it is hardly sufficient.

What our banner represents is something far deeper than a Zionism of fear. It is about a Zionism of love. Because all who are represented by that banner under-stand that Zionism is, at its core, about this: making it possible for Jews to give the fullest and most creative expression to the Jewish values and ideals that animate them. In other words, it is precisely because the Jewishness we share in our Westchester, New York, shtetl is enriched by its diversity, and by the respect we maintain for one another, that we stand with Israel. Because Israel is the place, and Zionism is the ideology, in which that diversification and flowering of Judaism can most fully take place. We share a love of that kind of Zionism, which means that we share a Zionism of love. And that is also why there are supporters of Masorti in the modern Orthodox community of our town as well.

Now, if it is one of the glories of American Judaism that such things can happen, it is also one of the most pressing aspirations for Israel that it become a routine and unexceptional reality there, as well. Why pressing? Because of the obvious fact that a severe insistence on the pre-emptive supremacy of centuries-old religious laws and customs will not speak to the spiritual urgings and longings of most modern Israeli Jews. And I immediately add, as we should, that acknowledging this plain fact takes nothing away from the legitimacy of the private practice of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It simply maintains that the continued dominance of that form of Jewish practice in publicly endorsed and enforced expressions of Judaism in Israel has long put us onto twin roads: one, losing many Israeli Jews to Judaism, and two, seeing Judaism’s own growth potential stifled by a state-sanctioned freezing of Jewish development.

And it is pressing on our shores as well. For the estrangement of young, and not so young, Jewish Americans from Israel is badly exacerbated by the fact that the Zionist vision of a hundred Jewish flowers blooming is still unfulfilled. Let me put this in somewhat more universal terms. You have all loved. And so you know that love always desires to be requited, not for what we can do for the one we love, but for what and who we are.

I love Israel. And I want it to love me back, not for what I can do for it. Israel has always been pretty good at that kind of love. But for what and who I am. As I love Israel, I believe – and as a rabbi, I preach – that we all should. But we should not have to feel that our love is heroic, offered in the face of unrequited feelings. It should be natural and joyful. And one more thing about why this is pressing: The estrangement of young Jewish Americans from Judaism is not at all unrelated to that estrangement from Israel. Because as Israel inexorably becomes home to the majority of the world’s Jews – perhaps in as little as ten years – Israel will not only be a definer of Zionism. Israeli Judaism will be a definer of Judaism itself. And that is something whose implications we must all seriously consider, and bring to the attention of everyone we know.

As I said from the outset, I came to this, and have devoted time, money, and effort to it, out of the same motives that I think we all must. Out of deep love for Israel. Out of a Zionism of love. Out of a Zionism of hope. Out of a Zionism that wishes to contribute to Israel, and thus is willing to work for exactly those conditions that will allow us to contribute.

I know none of you will ever ignore the significant dangers that face Israel both from other nations and from sub-state actors in its very harsh neighborhood. But while it is true that Jewish law always taught that piku’ah nefesh – danger to life – must set aside other considerations, it never made the obviously false and self-defeating assertion that when there is one danger to life, other critical factors that are also vital for sustaining life somehow become unimportant. And so, threats from Iran have not made the high-tech economy in Israel any less important. Threats from Hamas have never made Israeli medical research that benefits the entire world less important. So how could anyone believe that the existence of those threats allows us to play dangerously with one of the very cornerstones of Zionism – the creation of conditions for the flowering of Jewish expression, and thus for the fully requited love of all Jews?

Republicans and Democrats alike, Likudniks and Laborites alike, as much as they express their patriotism differently, all depend on the same air. And so, the effort to keep a Zionism of love alive, the effort to prevent the suffocation of the Jewish diversity we have yearned to see rooted in its own soil for 2,000 years – these efforts must proceed simultaneously with all the things we conscientiously do to guard the physical security of the State. On this, we can and should all agree. We must agree. Because there is no other way to fulfill Zionism’s great vision, a vision in which I deeply believe. I exhort you to take as a life-long mission, Z’khor, al tishkah. Remember. Do not forget this call to work for an even truer love, for the Israel that is still to be.

Gordon Tucker is the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York Last spring, he, along with Susan and William Yarmuth, of Louisville, Kentucky, and Yizhar Hess, Masorti’s CEO in Israel, were honored by the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel at a gala dinner. This essay is adapted from Rabbi Tucker’s speech.