July 6th: Call Your Knesset Members

Last week, the Israeli government suspended plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in so doing ostracizing a large portion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel and abroad. After plans were put aside, Jews around the world, most notably American Reform Jews, voiced their significant displeasure, noting their feelings that Israel is willfully hostile toward the interests of liberal Jewish communities globally. Some even went so far as to claim that Israeli Jews “hate” Jews living in the Diaspora.

The problem comes in the idea that Israeli Judaism is in any way concerned with what is happening in the rest of the Jewish world, or that it is considerate of us one way or the other. Apathy seems more appropriate than hostility. While Jews across the globe send money to our “homeland,” there has been very little that leads anyone to believe that there is any significant influence exerted by Jews outside of Israel.

As long as Israel is going to wear the mantle of being the Jewish homeland, they have an obligation to represent the interests of all jews. That is a tall order for a people that so rarely agree unilaterally on much of anything. But Israel’s representation of global Judaism only works so long as we continue to allow it to be the case.

What that means is that a certain level of knowledge and involvement is required that hasn’t been seen from Americans concerned with Israeli affairs. We can’t sit in our congregations and our homes thousands of miles away and criticize Israel while ignorant of the politics and demographics that make up the country. If we want to be truly involved and engaged, we have to go out and invest ourselves in the realities that Israelis are dealing with on a regular basis.

To do this, we have to deepen our involvement through grappling with the tough questions. Jewish educational institutions across America have done a great disservice to American Jews by over-simplifying the relationship with Israel. We need to know more than hummus and falafel. We need to know more than Israeli dancing and IDF simulations. We even need to know more than just conflict and war. We need to know what it is like to be an Israeli, right now, today, what it truly means to be a Jew living in the homeland of our people.

Birthright poses as a solution to this problem. Send people to Israel for 10 days at a point in their identity formation that they will learn to love and support Israel, and that love will endure beyond their experience. Well, the values of caring for Israel are certainly established, but Birthright does preciously little to meaningfully educate or engage students about the politics or conflicts or ideologies of the region, and certainly not enough about what a young person can do to get involved in the many organizations and nonprofits that exist in the country for exerting influence as a Jew.

Moreso than at any time that I can remember, American Jews can identify with living in a country with a conflict of ideology. We know what it’s like to experience the kind of philosophical differences that Israel politics involves. We need not shy away from really engaging with these political and ideological questions: in fact, we have an obligation to involve ourselves thoughtfully with those challenges.

There are a multitude of ways that American Jews can make their voices heard in Israel. There are organizations and institutions that all are attempting to create meaningful change that American Jews can believe in. Taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the real issues will allow us the opportunity to get involved in ways that we can’t do by donating to “Israel”. Israelis don’t care what American Jews have to say, because, for all intents and purposes, Jewish Americans aren’t saying much of substance in a consistent and powerful way.

The American Jewish population is in control of enough man-power and enough financial discretion that we could be a powerful force in telling Israel how we want the Jewish state to represent us. To this point, we have been operating under the assumption of good faith, something that was fairly loudly declared false a week ago. As long as Israel continues to call itself the homeland of the Jews, it is our obligation to get involved and make our voices heard. That is the only way that we will have a strong, meaningful Jewish state in the land of Israel.


May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

October 5th: Forgiving Abraham

The following is a transcript of the Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah morning by Austin Zoot at his student pulpit in Kokomo, Indiana.

We just read one of the most intriguing passages of the Hebrew Bible, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac. In this episode, Abraham is told to take Isaac, his son, and sacrifice him before God. So the next day, Abraham gets to work. They journey to Mount Moriah, where Abraham binds Isaac and begins to ritual of sacrifice, only to be stopped by an angel of God, telling him that he has demonstrated his faith and that Isaac is not actually to be sacrificed.

When I was in Sunday school as a child, we discussed this narrative as the ultimate test of faith. Abraham believed so completely in the notion that God would look out for him and for his family that he was willing to do whatever he was asked, regardless of the gravity of the situation. Imagine that for a moment: a man who was willing to sacrifice his only son to a God who had promised him offspring as numerous as the stars.

This level of faith, unyielding and blind faith, seems foreign to many of us. And that’s because it should. A willingness to throw away even one’s own family for a belief in God is something that, today, would seem outrageous, too dramatic to be stomached comfortably. And there is evidence that while God was pleased with Abraham’s faith, God was also disturbed by it. According to the text, this was the last time that Abraham and God conversed, and the divine relationship passed to Isaac from that moment on. God asked Abraham to do something as a test, and seems almost disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to follow through with it.

What are we supposed to do with this? Abraham is our very first patriarch, a figure of honor and respect from which all of Jewish tradition derives. What do we do with a flawed patriarch? How do we come to terms with an individual who we know has flaws, who we know has tendencies of extremism, and yet is supposed to be a role model for us?

First, we are asked to look at what it means to be asked for actions based on faith. During the High Holidays, a time when we talk about who shall live, who shall die, who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, it is easy to say that blind faith is the way to go. Let go of the wheel and let God take over, so to speak. And yet, this story tells us to stop, to reconsider. We are told that, in this instance, Abraham’s willingness to do what is asked of him is acknowledged with a promise for a rich and blessed future, but it also comes with it the departure of God’s connection, a loss of direct communication with the almighty. The Torah is, in essence, warning us about the potential ramifications of what a total and blind commitment to divine decree can lead to if it goes unchecked by reason and understanding of context.

This is especially complicated when we take a look at an earlier story in the Bible. When God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God, negotiating exactly how many good people need to be present in the cities in order for God to spare them from destruction. In this case, Abraham isn’t blindly trusting in God’s decree; he is demanding that God do what is right, even if that means being willing to put his own standing as God’s chosen emissary at stake. Why is it that Abraham was so willing to compromise in one narrative, while so singularly focused in another?

We read this text on Rosh Hashanah for a number of reasons. One is to show us what it means to have faith in God’s plan, to know that, as we are about to be inscribed in the book of Life, that there is some notion of faith in what God has assigned to us. Another is the notion of coming to terms with a flawed character in our lives. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we set out to ask forgiveness from those in our lives against whom we have sinned, those who we have hurt and those who we have not fully appreciated. At the same time, we are asked to forgive others, allowing them the full repentance that we ourselves seek in our own work to be better than we were a year ago.

In that regard, Abraham continues to be a role model for us, although in a decidedly different way. Abraham as a flawed character allows us to see what it means to both be the best we can be, as well as to struggle in certain areas. We are able to see Abraham in a moment of faith, doing what God has asked him to do without question and without compromise. That is a huge act of commitment, and a worthy virtue for us to embody. And yet, his unyielding determination, and his refusal in that moment to look thoughtfully at the consequences of the matter show to us the humanity of our ancestors, of our leaders, and to remind us that if Abraham was able to make this kind of mistake, then certainly we, too, may err and make a full return to goodness.

As we begin the ten days of awe, we first are asked to forgive Abraham for his blind faith. We see what it means to believe in God, what it means to be willing to go to great lengths to do what is asked of us, and yet we are forced to come to terms with what happens when we get carried away, when we go too far in our pursuit of our own selfish desires. Once we have started the process with Abraham, we turn our attention to those in our own lives, those far more complicated situations of virtue and sin.

It can be difficult to forgive those in our lives who have made mistakes. We are hurt, we are angry, we are struggling to figure out how to find those values of forgiveness and understanding in ourselves. Sometimes it is loved ones who hurt us. Sometimes, we struggle to forgive ourselves, to let ourselves off the hook for the mistakes we have made. The Torah gives us Abraham as a guide, a model by which we are to understand our own inclination to extreme behavior. If we have it within ourselves to forgive our patriarch for his actions, and still see the virtue in him, then so too must we be able to find within ourselves the values and good intentions that sometimes lead us to misdeeds and mistakes.

Over the next ten days, it is our responsibility to go through our lives and take stock of the moments where we missed the mark. We are meant to improve ourselves as people, to ensure that we learn something from where we messed up, and to find the places where we can improve ourselves the next time around. But I am not a believer in the wrath of God, the notion that humans are inherently sinners. I’m not a believer in T’shuvah as a forced admission of guilt. It is, rather, an opportunity, a chance to look back and discover parts of ourselves that we like, and that we cherish, and to ensure that our misdeeds do not overshadow the good things that we do for ourselves and for the world.

The Torah portion gives us the chance to see this in action. We are able to see what happens when our virtues go to extremes, to see when we go beyond what is healthy in terms of devotion. It helps us to establish the line, to learn where goodness begins and ends. And, as a result, it also teaches us a valuable lesson about what it means to forgive, to overcome character flaws and continue to serve as a role model, as a leader. If we can learn this morning from Abraham, learn to forgive him and to understand him, we have already begun the process of forgiving one another and ourselves.

Shana Tova.