A House Divided by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

Sep 21, 2015 Published under Israel, Religion

For the remainder of my days, I will remember exactly where I was when I heard these words spoken. It was twenty years ago this fall, and the voice was that of Eitan Haber, the Prime Minister’s bureau chief, outside the gates of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital just a short time after Rabin was declared dead on the operating table. I was living in Israel that year as part of my JTS rabbinical training; it was a charged time marked by the Oslo Accords, bus bombings, and demonstrations for and against the peace process. On the night of November 4, 1995, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Malkhei Yisrael for a massive pro-peace rally. “I was a soldier for 27 years,” boomed Rabin’s voice. “I believe there is a chance for peace. A great chance which must be seized. Violence is undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy . . . it must be rejected and condemned, and it must be contained. It is not the way of the State of Israel. Democracy is our way. There may be differences but they will be resolved in democratic elections . . .” (David Horowitz, Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, p. 16) Rabin’s final remarks would become immediately and horrifically prophetic as he was shot minutes later by an ultranationalist Jewish terrorist. On an otherwise festive Saturday evening, word quickly spread throughout Israel, a nation forever changed by the update Haber would bring.

In the hours and days and months that followed, I witnessed a dazed nation gasping for air, coming to grips not only with the murder of their Prime Minister, not only with the loss of a statesman whose very being was tied to the establishment of the nation, but with the knowledge that it was another Jew who had shed his blood. I remember standing in the streets as Rabin’s funeral procession passed by from the Knesset to Har Herzl. I remember the piercing siren that sounded as a nation came to attention and was called to account. In the months to come, investigative panels reported that the assassination resulted from a complete collapse of security. But what we all understood then, all the more so now, was that Rabin’s murder reflected the breakdown of something far more substantive than security protocol. How could it be that our people, so small and so surrounded by external threats, should discover our greatest enemy to lurk within? How did we not see it coming? The inflammatory rhetoric of the months leading up to the assassination, the shrill chants and bumper stickers of Rabin boged, “Rabin is a traitor.” The leaflets depicting Rabin dressed as a Nazi SS officer, and the deliberations in the right-wing religious community as to whether Rabin’s actions were such a threat to Jewish life that the taking of his life could find justification within Jewish law. (Horowitz, pp. 198-217). Rabin’s murder signaled Israel’s inability to house internal dissent, democratically and civilly. It was a moment when one Jew became so unshakably convinced of the rightness of his own convictions that he denied the right of another Jew to hold otherwise, and in so doing, denied him of his very life.

It is twenty years later, and in the months ahead both our synagogue and the Jewish world at large will undoubtedly reflect back on that dark day. Formative as Rabin’s assassination was for me, today my focus is not on the past, not on the retrospective. Today my focus is on the present and the prospective. A nausea-producing feeling of déjà vu has gripped me of late as I have witnessed the divisive and venomous debates regarding Iran. My personal point of reference is Rabin, but students of Jewish history know that 1995 was not the first time one Jew raised a hand against another. Thirteenth-century Barcelona, fourteenth-century Strasbourg, Chaim Arlosoroff in 1933, Rudolf Kasztner in 1957, Jewish history is replete with eerie parallels to Rabin’s assassination. In fact, today, Rosh Hashanah itself, bears the most weight of this sin of fratricide. It was on this very day, explains the book of Kings, in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple, that Gedaliah Ben Ahikam was slain by another Jew, Yishmael ben Netaniah. With most of the Jews exiled to Babylonia, Gedaliah was installed by King Nebuchadnezzar as the Judean governor, an appointment that provoked such animosity against Gedaliah that it led to his murder. We memorialize Gedaliah on the day after Rosh Hashanah with a minor fast day – a dawn-to-dusk fast – but the assassination itself took place on this very day. (Commentary of Radak on Zechariah 8:5) – the first but not the last time the Jewish people have proven themselves unable to resolve their differences without resorting to violence. So I ask myself: Are we not living again through such a time? Are we, once more, not seeing the writing on the wall? Is it at all farfetched to think that someday soon, the vitriol will once again turn to violence?

I have my opinions regarding the Iran deal, as I am sure everyone in this room does. There is no question we are living through a time of tectonic shifts in world politics, the Middle East, and the safety and security of Israel. And though the landscape continues to change, what is clear to me is that it will be the Jewish community itself which, barring a massive course correction, will prove to be both the immediate and the long term casualty of this debate. Nine hundred rabbis signing one letter, 400 rabbis signing another one – all of them using words like “centrifuges,” “uranium enrichment,” and other terminology for which rabbinical training provides no competency, never mind authority. More than once, publicly and privately, I have heard one side using the language of “betrayal” to describe the other side. We have all witnessed the gross misuse of Holocaust memory for political purposes. More than once this summer, I received hate-filled emails – interestingly, from both sides – blasting me for positions which, to the best of my knowledge, I have never taken. My teachers, the ones who taught me how to love Israel, have been accused of being anti-Israel and self-hating Jews. Our elected officials have been subjected to charges of “dual loyalty,” “treason against Israel,” and much, much worse. Death threats have been leveled against the US Ambassador to Israel. There is a radicalized climate of religious violence in Israel and a culture of incitement here in America. Twenty years ago there was no social media, and look what happened! In today’s toxic world of instant and irrevocable accusations, the zealotries within have been given an environment to take root, fester and spread.

So before history repeats itself, let’s dial it down.

If there is one message to be had in this season of repentance it is that you may not be as right as you think you are. Year round, we carry ourselves assured of our certitude. It is undoubtedly one of life’s great pleasures to be right, and conversely, an attack on our very being when someone suggests otherwise. Who has time for doubt and uncertainty and all those other meddlesome sentiments that stand between us and what we know to be the truth? But here’s the thing, and it holds true whether we are negotiating geopolitics or family politics: Extreme insistence on our own certitude inevitably comes at the expense of another’s humanity. The very essence of our humanity is self-expression, enshrined not just in the founding documents of our country, but in our very faith. In the opening chapters of the Bible, the text tells of the creation of the first human being, “And God blew the breath of life into Adam;” rendered in the ancient Aramaic translation “and it became in Adam the power of speech.” The corollary is that our words have the power to create life or take it away, the Talmud famously equating slanderous speech with the shedding of blood. For any relationship to survive, for civil society to survive, space must be made for the airing of speech and truths that another holds dear, truths that may very well run contrary to our own. It is what philosophers call epistemological humility, the notion that none of us is in possession of the whole truth, that we all harbor doubts – even about our most cherished beliefs – but it is only by way of these doubts that a house divided, Jewish or otherwise, can stand.

Think about the hero of Rosh Hashanah: Abraham. More often than not we associate Abraham with his faith, the philosopher Kierkegaard dubbing him a “Knight of Faith.” The truth is that what differentiated Abraham’s faith was not that it was absolute or unconditional, but just the opposite, that it was a faith achieved by way of doubts. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Abraham openly expresses doubts over Sarah’s command to cast Hagar out of his home. And then, on the second day, he contests the binding and near sacrifice of his son Isaac. From the very beginning, the rabbis interpolate a back-and-forth between Abraham and God:

“Take your son.” God commands.
“Which son?” Abraham replies.
“Your only son.”
“But I have two,” he answers.
“The one you love.”
“But I love both.”

At every juncture, Abraham hedges. No differently than when he stood before God at Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham wonders if this could really be God’s will? Step by step on his way to Mount Moriah, the Midrash explains, Abraham struggled with his doubts, conflicted by his inner turmoil in fulfilling God’s command. The nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi Mordecai Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, contended that the point of the test was not for God to see whether Abraham would sacrifice Isaac, but for Abraham to learn to negotiate his faith alongside his doubts. By this reading, Abraham’s heroism comes not by way of blind faith but just the opposite. It was because he was able to progress forward, all the while harboring doubts, that he proved worthy of God’s blessing.

It is this faith of Abraham that we need so desperately today. There is nothing wrong – in fact there is everything right – with standing up for what you believe in. But there is a way to disagree without being disagreeable. Not just on this issue, but throughout the holidays, we must admit to ourselves that we only ever see the world from one vantage point: our own. Don’t believe everything you think. As we seek to make amends with our loved ones in these days between now and Yom Kippur, every conversation must begin with the explicit or implicit concession that you have only your side of the tale – and the other side must be heard. To do so is not a sign of weakness. To admit to doubt signals that you have considered the range of opinion, you can see the alternatives, and your conclusion is neither flip nor easily come by. You still may disagree, but by hearing the other side, by allowing for another to hold an opinion that is not your own, you leave open the possibility for another’s humanity to be maintained and the relationship to bridge the impasse. Think of Hillel and Shammai, the two greatest Mishnaic scholars of their day, whose disputes covered the full range of Jewish life, from matters of practice, Jewish identity to metaphysics. Both sides, we are told, were the words of the living God. It was nevertheless the opinion of Hillel that prevailed. Why? Hillel’s views were neither methodologically nor materially superior. Rather, the Talmud explains, Hillel and his students were congenial and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Shammai, and would always, prior to stating their opinion, first state that of Shammai. Elsewhere the Talmud explains that despite their differences, truth and peace prevailed between them, the children of the two schools marrying each other.

When it comes to Israel’s safety and security, we need to give voice to our concerns, and I, for one, believe that we should be able to discuss our differences both in private and in public. But if we are interested not just in being right, but in the long term health of our people, we must adopt the posture of Hillel. We cannot let the Israel conversation become toxically personalized. We cannot allow the litmus test of someone’s pro-Israel bona fides be whether they agree with our own stated position or write checks to the same advocacy organization. We must engage earnestly and civilly both with those with whom we agree and disagree. We must do so because we may convince that person to adopt our point of view. We must do so because we may be convinced to adopt another point of view. We must do so, because to do otherwise lacks integrity. As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg once stated: “One cannot affirm one’s own certainties without encountering the counter-certainties of the other.” We must do so, because to believe that only you can be right is tantamount to idolatry. Truth, as Solomon Schechter wrote, is the seal of the Holy One alone.

Most of all, we must do so because our love for Israel and each other must extend well beyond any one policy point or presidential term. Five hundred days from now, fifteen years from now, we need to be able to work together, fight together, and live together. Our community, Park Avenue Synagogue, has an opportunity and responsibility to model to the world how such a civil conversation can occur. If you were for this deal, do not clap too loudly or raise your victory flag too high. If you were against it, do not rake your opponent over the coals. Don’t call each other names, don’t impugn each other’s character or motives, don’t say anything from which the pro-Israel community can’t recover. Israel may be the home front, but in this debate we are the front line, and we must be and must be perceived to be strong. We have to look long, we have to reduce the decibels, we have to sit together at future planning tables, and we have to stand together in a world that is, quite frankly, looking less stable and more scary with every passing day. The Jewish people and Israel do not lack for enemies, but we should remember that according to the rabbis, the Second Temple was destroyed not because of the Romans, but because of sinat hinam, because of baseless hatred amongst the Jewish people. The prophet Jeremiah warned the Jewish people of the danger of our destroyers coming from within. Our people cannot afford to be further splintered. We are a community, not a lobby, and it is a mistake to let our identity become overly partisan and politicized. Think what you want, argue and advocate with passion, but do not contribute to the fraying of the fabric of our people. There is so much we need to do together in the years ahead; we dare not let this single moment eclipse our shared future.

Depending on when we were born, we all have certain images which we will forever associate with Yitzhak Rabin. For some it was his heroics in the Palmach, for others, the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 – marching in triumphantly with Narkiss and Dayan. For others, Rabin as Ambassador to the US, and still others, as Prime Minister at the time of Entebbe. For me, the iconic image I will always remember is that September day in 1993 on the front lawn of the White House. As Yehuda Avner explained, Rabin agreed only reluctantly to the Oslo Accords owing to an awareness of the greater and rising threat of Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism, an awareness that has proven prophetic. (Avner, The Prime Ministers, pp. 706-8) Rabin’s discomfort that day was palpable. He was constitutionally against countenancing his lifelong sworn enemy Yasser Arafat. After too many victims of PLO terrorism, with the world watching, with victim’s families watching, could he really be expected to shake Arafat’s bloodstained hands, or even worse, allow for a hug? He tried to defer President Clinton’s invitation for a public signing, his heart pleading with him not to do it. The image I remember is very specific. It was that split second that felt like an eternity when Arafat’s hand extended to Rabin, and Rabin, with a pained expression and nudge from President Clinton, limply extended his own hand. Rabin’s place in history had been assured long before that day. But it was that doubt-filled gesture, when he announced “enough” to blood and tears, that I will always remember.

The hands extended our way during these Days of Awe are not those of our sworn enemies. There is, please God, no blood on anyone’s hands. Just the opposite: the extended hands are those of our own flesh and blood. Nevertheless, we too must decide whether we are willing to reach out and engage with that person whose narrative and truth are not our own. It is a gesture that is both modest and majestic, and it is to this effort that we must be committed – at all times, and especially during this sacred season. Adonai oz l’amo yiten, Adonai y’varekh et amo b’shalom. May God grant our people strength, may God bless our people with peace, and may we stand as one people facing our shared destiny together.

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