Sunday, June 5, 2011

Read this Article. Shavuot is Coming

Last week, I wrote a long article critiquing Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz's short piece on why not to make aliyah. (I didn't realize just how widely that piece made the rounds. What in the world was it doing in the Florida Sun-Sentinel?) Then, a few people pointed me to this really important article by Daniel Gordis that's now making its way around the Interwebs. (the rest of this post will make much more sense to you if you read Gordis' article first) and it dawned on me that the two are in some ways connected.
Looking back, I think what bothered me most about Rabbi Yanklowitz's article was a subtle tone that while Israel is clearly important, there are more important things in Judaism, most specifically, acts of kindness.
While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice; to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l'goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d'être.
I already addressed his specific article extensively, but I think what worries me most is the underlying discomfort with Jewish particularism.  The sense that I get is that, "It can't just be about Israel. It can't just be about the Jewish people. There must be more. I don't want to just care about the Jews. I want to fix the world."
Last month, Rabbi Michael Broyde penned a powerful piece about his sense of pride upon his son's graduation from his officer training course in the IDF. (On a personal and unrelated note, I identified strongly with his wistful lament about his inability to share in his son's accomplishments in person. His lament was one of a number of different emotions that contributed to my decision to make aliyah. I didn't want that to be me.) His article expressed a sense of pride in his son's desire to serve the Jewish people through his service in the IDF, which elicited the following comment:

Why is this man happy that his kid is joining a foreign army? It sounds like a lack of loyalty and hakarat hatov to the country which actually does protect the flourishing of Jewish life. I would of course have no problem with an Israeli child fighting Israels wars. If he needs to kill a Palestinian child to protect himself, its regrettable but it may happen. But what business does an American child have pulling the trigger on a Palestinian one? Is an abundance of feeling now enough to justify entering someone else’s fight?
In truth, I should not allow comments on a blog to surprise me or upset me. But where have we come to when Jews (ostensibly) consider the IDF a "foreign" army, and see a true disconnect between themselves and the citizens of the State of Isreal?

I get the sense that this tendency underlies the unwillingness of some liberal rabbinical students to embrace Jewish particularism and peoplehood described so eloquently by Daniel Gordis. They don't identify with the ideas that we are a unique people; that we are a persecuted nation with enemies; and that we must care first and foremost for each other.
This week Jews around the world will celebrate Shavout. Most people think that Shavuot marks the day that we received the Torah - and they're correct, but only partially. On that day on Sinai we didn't just get a book or a guide or a way of life. Rather, by accepting the Torah we entered into an eternal covenant with God. It's actually an explicit passage in the Torah:
ועַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 
Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak unto the children of Israel.'(Shemot 19:5-6)

It's not just about receiving the law and tradition of the Torah. On Shavuot, far more than on Pesach, we became a nation - God's nation - with all that this implies: a fealty first and foremost to each-other; a Land; a way of life; an obligation to create a place that reflects God's dominion in the world.
I marvel at times how easily we forget the first blessing of the Birchot Hatorah - the blessings that we recite on the Torah. Even before we read a word, we bless God,
אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו
Who chose us from among the nations and gave us the Torah.
We need to refocus on this specific point. With all the freedoms that the United States has granted the Jewish people and the universal equality championed by the West, Judaism isn't just about a way of life. It's about belonging to a nation. It's about putting our Land and our people first, and doing our best to ensure that all of us live our lives in a manner that reflects the will of God.
Only when we do that do we possibly have the chance to truly repair the world.