American Rabbis, These High Holidays, Talk About Jewish Texts, Not the Jewish State

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't the biggest crisis in American Jewish life. Illiteracy about Judaism is.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A synagogue in Kfar Yehezkel
A synagogue in Kfar YehezkelCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Across America, rabbis are deciding what to say to their congregants during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’d like to offer them a suggestion: Don’t talk about Israel.

The reason is simple: Rabbis have no comparative advantage. American Jews are inundated with commentary about Israel. They read about it in newspapers and websites. They hear about it on TV and radio. They attend lectures about it at their local universities and Jewish Community Centers. There’s not much rabbis can say that the people attending High Holiday services won’t have already heard. That’s especially true because although American rabbis may feel deeply about the politics and foreign policy of the Jewish state, it’s not their area of expertise. And by becoming B-grade pundits, they undermine their authority.

The temptation to talk about Israel is understandable: It’s something American Jews care about. American Jews sometimes say that in their communities, Israel is the hardest issue to discuss. But in most places, that’s not true. The week’s Torah portion is harder. That’s because while Israel is controversial, it’s also accessible. Most American Jews feel comfortable venturing an opinion. When it comes to Jewish texts, by contrast, many of the American Jews who only come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don’t feel competent to offer any opinion at all.

Which is precisely why, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis should ground their remarks in Jewish texts, not the New York Times. The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy. The American Jewish community represents an unprecedented experiment in what happens when you combine mass ignorance of Jewish law and tradition with radical acceptance by the gentile world. The result is tragic. It’s not tragic because more than seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry. People should grab love where they can. It’s tragic because so many of the young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding. They can’t make an informed choice because their parents, rabbis and community leaders haven’t given them a strong enough foundation in what Judaism is. They’ve never been challenged or inspired or touched by a Jewish text. They’ve never encountered something in the Tanakh or Talmud that helped them understand how to live.

That’s the spark rabbis should try to ignite when they have their largest captive audiences of the year. Instead of asking Jews to look out at the world, they should ask them to look down at the Mazhors sitting on their laps. They should try to convince those Jews who regard their High Holiday Prayer books as a compendium of the dull and the obscure that they hold in their hands an anthology of immense beauty and power. After all, from the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael to the almost-murder of Isaac to the flight of Jonah and the redemption of Nineveh, the snippets of Tanakh that Jews read on the Days of Awe have inspired some of the world’s greatest art and literature. They have preoccupied the greatest minds in Jewish history. They contain lessons for anyone who has seen their family ravaged by conflict or felt torn between external authority and their own moral sense or fled responsibilities they felt they could not bear or realized they were on the wrong path. Summoning every ounce of creativity they have, America’s rabbis should try to bring those texts alive.

Does this mean rabbis should abandon their moral responsibility to Israel, and the people who live under its control? No. But they can do so on days other than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and from places other than the bimah. Besides, over the long term, the best way to ensure that American Jews stay connected to Israel is to ensure that they stay connected to Judaism. The data is clear: For American Jews, especially younger ones, Israel is just another Jewish thing. If you care deeply about Jewish tradition, you’re likely to care deeply about Israel: the place where much of Jewish history occurred and where roughly half the Jewish people on earth now live. If, on the other hand, you’re indifferent to the Mahzor and the Tanakh and the chagim, you’re likely to be indifferent to Israel too.

It’s that deeper indifference that American rabbis should challenge in the sacred days that lie ahead.

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