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Israel and Other Broken Relationships

We can draw lessons from Rosh Hashanah about our relationship with Israel, says Rabbi Jeremy Gordon in an extract from his book Spiritual Vagabondry and the Making of a Rabbi, Jeremy Gordon. (The article was originally delivered as Rosh Hashanah sermon at the New London Synagogue in 2008)

Spiritual Vagabondry and the Making of a Rabbi, Masorti Publications, £6.99

    There is something broken at the heart of our love of Israel and our Jewish identity, and that's why I feel I have to speak about Israel today.

    And for those of you who will disagree with every word I say on the subject, I want to say this as clearly as I am able - we are a community, and I am a rabbi, who value debate more deeply than we value dogma This is a community which has always looked at the possibility of speaking in bland, easy-going generalisations and preferred instead to speak about that which is difficult and potentially divisive.

    I want to share, today, three Rosh Hashanah lessons that I hope will help us mend a relationship with Israel. And, actually, this isn't just a sermon about Israel, it's about all our broken relationships and the possibility of rebuilding them.

    The first Rosh Hashanah lesson - the first religious response to broken relationships - is this: change is possible.

    There is an incredible optimism at the heart of Rosh Hashanah.

    Like many of us here, I am sure I'm dealing with my own issues that go back years, and seem intractable, and my yetzer hara, my evil inclination encourages me not to bother trying to change. But the message of the season is that that pessimism and the attitude of resignation have to be fought back at every turn. We are called upon to believe that things can get better, we must refuse to accept things must always be as they are today. I believe this is a response weneed to feel desperately deeply when it comes to Israel.

    Believing in the possibility of change isn't the same as being hopelessly naive. Opening a door in hope to a cousin we have never really got on well with risks the door being slammed back in our face. And when that cousin has a history of violent aggression, the risk is very real.

    But if we don't believe change is possible we are doomed to repeat only the same old, same old. And the same old, same old is not only not good enough, it's getting worse.

    And to those who think that change - peace - is an entirely unreasonable dream, know that at least Bibi Netanyahu, Labour leader Ehud Barak, and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni are all united in making the claim that things can be better. This is Livni, speaking just this week in Israel: "I say to [the naysayers] that they have no right to take hope away from the citizens o fIsrael. An end to the conflict is achievable. There is no such thing as 'I can't'.

    They are being very frum by trying again, and again.

    The first Rosh Hashanah lesson is that despair is forbidden and change is possible.

    The second Rosh Hashanah lesson is even harder to accept.

    It involves letting go a little of what we know is right to admit our own fault.

    It's so tempting to think that we become stronger by conceding nothing. But that's not a very Rosh Hashanah attitude.

    I don't mean to suggest that the Palestinians and Hamas in particular are blameless. Far, far from it. And on every other day in the year we are absolutely justified in pointing out all the offensive failures of everyone else. But on Rosh Hashanah we are commanded to turn that gaze inward.

    On every other day of the year it's possible to construct every occasion when we reached out a hand in friendship as utterly genuine, and every failure of the other to shake our hand as their perfidy. But on Rosh Hashanah we are called to stand before the One who knows our inner thoughts and our hidden actions and makes us doubt ourselves. What else we could have done?

    On Rosh Hashanah we are encouraged to focus on what else WE can do, rather than focus, always, on the shortcomings of the other.This is a necessary focus because it's rarely possible to heal, or even normalise, relationships with others by increasing our focus on how right we are. To heal relationships we must increase our focus on what we can do to encourage that healing. And that might require us to reduce our focus on matters of strict legalist accuracy and instead pursue paths that create a rapprochement.

    An example, drawn from the Talmud (Gittin 55a).

    Suppose someone stole a beam and uses it in a building. Shammai says we should compel the person to give back the beam, even if they need to tear down the building to do so. A thief has no right to the beam. But Hillel says the thief ought to pay off the owner of the beam. They don't have to give back that specific beam.

    And the law follows Hillel's position. It's supposed to make it easier for people to achieve a rapprochement.

    Now here is a call, for both Netanyahu and Abbas - what can you do to focus on paths that create rapprochement?

    And here is a call for any of us living in broken relationships - the sort of relationship which has, for years, floundered over accusations and counter-accusations, where we too readily blame the other and too rarely have been prepared to look inside and double-and triple-check ourselves.

    Rosh Hashanah demands we admit that we have made mistakes.

    There is another problem with this over-reliance on proving that we are right, and the other is wrong. It is that this kind of approach to life - right versus wrong, black versus white - is more Greek than Jewish. A Greek philosopher would say that if I'm right and you disagree with me, you must therefore be wrong and I must prove you are wrong. We live in a Greek world massively influenced by this Greek approach.

    We grow up thinking that our winning means that the other person loses. We are schooled to think that being strong means standing firm. But Judaism is more subtle, more willing to admit the presence of conflicting alternate rights.

    It's hard to explain this to someone who has never studied the Talmud, but a talmudic argument that seems to pitch Rabbi X against Rabbi Y doesn't tend to end with Rabbi X winning and Rabbi Y losing. It ends up, often some pages later, agreeing that Rabbi X can indeed feel one way and Rabbi Y can indeed feel another way.

    Judaism would suggest that we need to find ways where both parties to an argument can be right. Judaism is willing to admit that we may disagree, and yet we must both be acknowledged, recognised, given something that can make us feel at peace. This is an important insight, because beating the other in argument might make us feel better, but it doesn't stop making the other feel worse. And that alone makes peace harder to find.

    Eizeh hu gibor, asks the Mishnah - who is mighty? Ben Zoma answers, hakovesh et yitzro -one who conquers their evil inclination. He doesn't say, one who wins every battle.

    I wonder if he means that a real hero realises that other people need to be allowed to win also.

    I wonder if he means that a real hero doesn't allow himself to be puffed up by his own rhetorical prowess to the point where he insists on defeating everyone he meets.

    I wonder if the really heroic way is to pull back from being convinced of our exclusive right to be right in search of ways to compromise and heal.

    This is the opening o fthe Mishnah in Baba Metzia 4; two people come before the court grabbing hold of the same tallit. One says, it's all mine. The other says, it's all mine.

    You see the problem. Intractable. They both claim the whole tallit. They both want to be acknowledged as right, but their claims are mutually exclusive.

    So, continues the Mishnah, "You get both of them to swear an oath that not less than half of the tallit is theirs, and then you split it in half."

    You find a solution, a solution that appeases both claims even as they are both forced to compromise. Both make an oath on which they can agree. Then both get something. Less than they hoped to gain, but more than they feared losing.

    Peace, in this dispute over a tallit, comes at the moment when the disputants accept that the other has a claim, or rather when the disputants acknowledge that their own claim is not total. That's a huge spiritual, not to mention political, achievement, but it is a necessary precursor to finding peace.

    This is the third Rosh Hashanah lesson I wish to share today; If we wish forpeace we must acknowledge our own claim cannot be total.

    This is the challenge for the Netanyahus and Abbases and all of us.

    Can we find the way to acknowledge that our own claim is not total, and what is claimed by both of us will need to be split if we are both to find peace?

    Of course I'm not living in Israel, I'm not serving in the army or at a checkpoint. I don't expect to get a vote to the same degree as an Israeli. But I'm a Jew and a Zionist.

    Israel is at the heart of my Jewish identity and I pray daily for its peace.

    And that, especially now, means that I feel the need to share these Jewish truths, these messages for Abbas and Netanyahu, and the rest of us.

    Change is possible.

    I have made mistakes.

    My own claim cannot be total.

    I know the Palestinians have made lousy partners for a lasting peace for decades.
    But I believe change is possible.

    I know that sick Palestinians have received world-class treatment at Israeli hospitals, but, today, I don't claim that Israel has done everything it should have done to encourage an economically self-sustaining Palestinian state where trade, not violence, would bethe centra lconcern of its leaders.We have our share of guilt to carry also.

    I believe that Jews have a right to live in a Jewish state in the land we have loved for thousands of years. But I believe in the right of Palestinians to self-determination in the land of their forefathers also. I believe the tallit needs to be divided.

    To everyone involved in the negotiations, I pray for your heroic strength.

    May this at last be the year when Micah's vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares comes true - a time when every man or woman, be they Jew or Palestinian, will sit under their fig tree with no-one to make them afraid.

    To all of us living with long-term broken relationships, I hope these insights help. And that Micah's vision of secure, restful peace be granted to us all in the year to come.

    Shanah Tovah.

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