Four angles on Yom Kippur and American Jews' eyes on Israel

This Yom Kippur was the first that has felt meaningful since childhood. We shared a little, and mostly turned inwards, a small community on a quiet retreat in nature.

I haven’t felt comfortable in my Jewish community for a long time.

I grew up with Zionism and Judaism deeply entangled.
There was no way to differ on politics without hearing accusations of self-hating-Jew.

As kids we'd hear that the Six Day War was a miracle, by people who would never pray for the miracle of a mutual peace, who refused even to imagine a reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

The world that called me a self-hating Jew put religion in service to politics. In that flavor of Judaism both political agreement and turning a blind eye have been made the price of admission. I left that world.

In Berkeley I’ve found two new flavors of Judaism. One is very political. The Occupation is a sin, we should atone. The Wall is a sin, it must come down. This is a central message, I can’t really do anything while I sit in my seat and listen, and it’s often presented in an overwhelming way; I don’t find myself connecting with my own spiritual growth, I merely connect with the politics. I couldn’t comfortably bring someone whose political views didn’t already match the rabbi’s. And Yom Kippur, again, has been in service to politics, political end-goals driving religion rather than religious values inspiring new thoughts about politics. I think a lot of these people are doing wonderful work, if we ever have peace in the Middle East they are likely to be part of the cause, but to me personally the services feel political instead of spiritual.

Another flavor of Judaism erases the politics entirely. Like last week’s wilderness hike, meditating on at-one-ment. It was beautiful, restorative, and yet missing something. We carefully create a world where the Israel-Palestine issue doesn’t exist, and we can safely enjoy each others' company here in America.

It’s ducking a central challenge of being part of a community, putting comfort at the top, skirting challenges that should be faced. Both of the political approaches duck the challenge too: they each chase the variety of opinions out of the community, and so you’re safe with people who you agree with.

Yom Kippur should be a release from guilt by going to the heart of it first; a release that allows you to be more proactive, but also a release. None of these approaches has worked for me, neither looking away nor being stuck in politics.

How else can we balance the relationship between politics and religion? How do we get rid of the litmus test of “agree with my politics” without erasing that we are a community, and without just closing our eyes?

On Passover we spill drops of wine for long lost Egyptians who suffered so we could have our freedom. There is no question on the one-sided politics: the Egyptians enslaved us, as nations they violated and we were victims. Yet we mourn the individuals -- it is non-controversial and considered an important expression of what Judaism is, to mourn the individuals.

Years ago I asked people in my family and community if they knew one Palestinian author they could recommend, if they had any source of news or voices that wasn’t specifically a Zionist group trying to show Palestinians in a bad light. No, not one had. Not one. This not-looking made me far angrier than any of the final conclusions people make about whether to make risks or trades for peace.

I grew up knowing that Germans had murdered my great-grandparents, but Germans were never dehumanized the way Palestinians are. It’s more than just political conclusions about what must be done in difficult times: the world I grew up in treats Palestinians as sub-humans, not just Hamas, but all the millions of human beings, not one of whom is worth listening to, none are worth trying to make peace with.

So, if some of us can’t trust politics to create a solution where everyone has a home, where anyone can live where their grandparents lived, can we even pray for it? On Yom Kippur are we capable even of an imagination exercise that we find a path to peace? Are we allowed to ask God for this?

What would parallel the spilling of ten drops of wine at Passover? What questions and witnessing would bend our politics to atonement, rather than the other way around? To demand of ourselves, to atone and grieve when we haven't, to listen to other voices.

To atone for the failure to continue to dream of, to ask for, to pray for peace.

To meditate: do we welcome our current opponents to stop being opponents? Are our hearts open to this? Are today's enemies so much worse than Nazis that we can't even pray to reconcile with their children?

These aren't questions about whether we trust a particular political process, but whether our hearts have hardened.

Surely among the millions of Palestinians there are some who are righteous. If you cannot see those human beings, will not look for them, that is something to atone for, we are still in the realms of integrity and have not stepped into politics. You can believe that politics has given us no other choice than the path we’ve taken, but if you can’t see those people, that is something to silently consider.

Surely among the millions of Palestinians there are some who are righteous, and yet also want to live where their grandparents lived.

We need to atone for the sin of looking away. We need to atone for pretending that the Palestinians people are not caught up in the winds of a world of crazy politics just as the Jewish people have been caught, pretending that they are each individually to blame. Pretending that individual people and families are completely responsible for all the world’s politics. Even for those of us who believe that the Palestinian people are so infused with terrorism that Israel must hold them and their lands as conquered territories, we can not mix our politics and religion to the point that we wouldn’t take drops of wine out of our cup.

Congregations need to be asked: do you fantasize about a miracle of reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Jews? Or is this beyond God’s power for you? If we could get along with Palestinians as well as we today get along with Germans, and the exchange we had to make was to let people back into their grandparents’ homes, would this be a miracle? It is important for each of us opposed to political choices around these questions to know in our hearts: do we think, do we assess, that the political situation will make this impossible and dangerous, or do we not believe in it, have we hardened our hearts?

And this seems like one of the first changes for a bending politics to atonement. To demand of ourselves, to atone and grieve when we haven't, to listen to other voices.

This fourth path, taking neither side nor closing our eyes, feels like a real community response. I think it is much harder to argue with -- we might spread this beyond Berkeley -- and might also plant the seeds that would get many more American Jews looking deeply. When we ask people to switch sides, we just hit resistance, and that's not really the healthy role of religion either. Asking the right questions, getting us to find our blind spots and question where our feelings come from, might be both more achievable and effective.

If you think this is a good idea and want to work on it before next Yom Kippur, to create more of a plan for witnessing, develop it into meditations, prayers or sermons, I'd love to talk with you.