Rabbi Charley Baginsky’s powerful sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Erev Shavuot service
On Erev Shavuot, Liberal Judaism held a joint online service for all its communities. The sermon was given by Liberal Judaism’s CEO Rabbi Charley Baginsky and we are pleased to share it with you here – a passionate and personal reflection on the current situation in Israel/Palestine.
I WISH [after IF I WERE KING]
I often wish that I were dead,
Instead of lying here in bed
And torturing my silly head
With everything from A to Z:
With germs and poisons being spread,
And all that blood so freely shed,
And why we’re all so badly led,
And who should do the job instead,
And what it was my wife/hubs once said
About what’s in the garden shed,
And what became of poor old Ted,
And, while I think about it, Fred,
And why I am not better read,
And should I move to Leatherhead?
I often wish that I were dead,
And free from mortal fear and dread.
But here I am, tucked up in bed,
Hanging by a tiny thread.
One High Holydays, when I was the rabbi of Kingston Liberal Synagogue, I began each of my sermons with a poem from AA Milne, ending on Yom Kippur with this one. I probably do not need to tell you that this poem is not from ‘When we are Six’ or indeed from any of the poetry of AA Milne, but is rather a parody by the more modern poet Christopher Matthew in ‘If I Were King’. He has several volumes of poetry all based around the poems from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six but now entitled Now We are Sixty and When We Were Fifty. They are very clever and they embody the difficult to replicate rhythm and feel of the AA Milne genre. But their content is updated for the now older audience who, he feels, are thinking more about Alka-Seltzer than rice pudding and more about the Queen’s purse than the King’s breakfast!
That last sermon on Yom Kippur was about Israel…. I said at the time it was the sermon I had been avoiding, but that at the season of confronting ourselves truthfully then this had to be the moment to give this sermon. When Rabbi Keren asked me to give this sermon tonight none of us had any idea that the news from Israel would be dominating tonight and all the nights leading up to it in the way it has been. But at this season of Shavuot, in this moment of revelation, and tikkun – repair – there is no way for me to talk about anything else.
I came back to this poem on Friday morning as I tried to find some space to write this sermon. I had just got off the phone to a friend who also leads a Jewish organisation and their words were echoing around my head, for they had voiced out loud the words that I know so many of us have felt in the last week. They spoke of the deep fear and pain they felt at saying anything on the situation in Israel and Palestine. They are a really exceptional leader, brave and articulate and yet they felt paralysed. Not because they did not have something really important to offer, but because something is happening within our community and outside it which is silencing leadership. I have heard the same thing from our rabbis and other lay leaders this week – within Liberal Judaism and other denominations. The level of abuse that is levelled at anyone who says something that is considered to be wrong by the other side is nothing short of frightening. While I understand that many feel they own the moral high ground, the deliberate attempts to shame, humiliate and intimidate others is not acceptable.
As we enter into this period of Shavuot, Jews around the world gather together in any way that is possible this year, to study through the night. This practice of all night Torah study is known as tikkun leil Shavuot and the tradition dates back to 16th century Tzfat. It’s said that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (more commonly known as the Ari) instituted the practice as a ‘tikkun’ – correction or repair – for an ancient error.
We know this word well, the first half of the phrase Tikkun Olam – repairing or healing the world through acts of social justice. So what is the breach that we are repairing tonight?
As we know Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. One Midrash tells us that the Israelites prepared for the giving of the Torah by getting a good night sleep, but the next day they slept in and the base of Mount Sinai was left empty. The Midrash says that Moses ended up having to wake them up with a Shofar blast, leading God to say – ‘why have I come and no one is here to receive me?’.
In order to rectify this mistake the Ari instituted an all night learning to show that we are indeed ready to receive both the Torah and God. Many of us do not like the idea of inheriting our ancestors’ errors but it is more than that…. On Shavuot it is customary to turn not to Torah but to the Oral Torah – Mishnah and Talmud, to focus instead on the additional voices and to add our own to the mix. Reminding ourselves that we must value this multi vocal tradition that values new pathways to wisdom is the reparation I want us to commit to this Shavuot.
Three things have brought me hope this week, firstly the two hundred progressive Jews who came together to share their feelings and emotions at a Havdalah gathering we organised and were able to listen and talk to each other with all their pain and frustration and fear. Secondly, the fact that so many people both in Israel and here have been sharing their co-existence pictures, their demonstrations and actions that show that people still believe they want to and can live side by side and lastly, the number of people from other faiths and none who have reached out to me and wanted to talk, who have not shot to post their opinions but have wanted to listen and think what we can do together.
But before we move to action, we need to deal with our own conflicted selves. I am a Religious Progressive Zionist who supports a two-state solution with a free and prosperous Palestine, one which could be a good neighbour to Israel. I want to say no to rockets and no to airstrikes, no to occupation and racism, no to settlements and no to hatred…. But I also know that there is no easy solution and that I do not know the exact pathway to peace and I know as someone who has lost people to terror that it does not make you want to react with a rational and cool head.
I can admit to all of you today that just as I find it difficult to be objective about my family due to my weighty emotional connection to them, so do I regarding Israel. While I am perfectly willing to criticise my family, as they will no doubt concur, to their faces were someone outside our small family grouping to do so, I would find this immensely difficult to hear or to be party to. Once again the same is true of Israel. In Israel I am happy to critique her policies, berate her politicians, join demonstrations objecting to her plans and actions – but I find this much harder to do here in the UK. Why? Because it feels so very personal!
But here we are in 2021, 73 years after the declaration of the State of Israel and Israel finds herself continually berated and often friendless. She is the subject of constant discussion, UN resolutions and media speculation. While many seem to ignore the tragic plight of other peoples across the globe they find time to focus on Israel, while ignorance prevents many from commenting on the political situation in other counties they seem happy to act as experts on Israel and any defence we offer seems to fall on deaf ears. It is frustrating, upsetting, demoralising and ultimately exhausting. I am regularly tempted to just avoid discussions about Israel as it is just too hard work. If you have ever wondered to yourself as you get pulled into a debate about Israel, why bother they are never going to listen to me anyway… well you are not alone, I have been there too – many times. It is for all these reasons and more that I understand why there are some people who argue that Israel has enough distractors that we, as Jews, must instead give Israel our unequivocal support. I get it, I really do.
And yet this move to try and prevent those Jews who want to criticise Israel from feeling comfortable in doing so, who try to silence even those who speak from a position of love and support but feel unable to say I agree with everything Israel does. – is not the way. I am saddened that too often I have heard genuine thoughtful Jewish critiques’ of Israel being labelled as self-hating Jews and Israel bashers. There is a new label of choice which is perpetrating our horizon and that is the idea that criticism of Israel is in and of itself an act of de-legitimisation of the State and must therefore be silenced. And it happens the other way as well with shaming and name calling, and accusations of racism and lack of morality when other views are shared. I cannot believe that threats and shaming do anything to change another’s mind, rather it entrenches some and buries others in fear and silence.
Any discussion of Israel is for many of us like a raw critique of our own selves. Whatever we or others say about Israel it is as though we were talking about our own very deep personal hopes and fears, values and sense of self. The writer Jay Michaelson wrote an article over a decade ago now called “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel.” There is one part of the article which still stays with me: My love of Israel has turned into a series of equivocations: “I do not support the expansion of settlements, but the Palestinians bear primary responsibility for the collapse of the peace process in 1999.” “The Israelis acted overzealously in Gaza, but they must be entitled to defend themselves against rocket attacks.” “Yes, the separation wall is odious, but it is also effective and necessary.” Yes, but; no, but; defend, but. At some point, the complexity and ambiguity wears one out…”
Of course we know that the fairy-tale Israel of the Yishuv postcards does not exist, people are not dancing the hora in the streets while eating Jaffa oranges. We need a new picture, a real picture, no more slogans. But we also we need a little more honesty with ourselves and with others. Let us not be afraid to tell people we love Israel, but equally let us not be afraid to say that sometimes that love is very hard to give. I know that those of you with kids love them unconditionally, but that love does not stop you from telling them when they go wrong, we would shift heaven and earth to help them get back on track – the same must be true for Israel.
I am begging you all to lead the reparation from here, tonight – it is not about right or left, or who is right and who is wrong it is about talking, acting and letting others have their say too – learning from each other. We must share our conflicted selves. This is not the time to be silenced by those who say who are you to have an opinion about Israel, you do not live there or by those who say that unless we unequivocally support one way we are in the moral swamp and should be shut down.
We don’t live there, but our lives are forever bound up in its future.
In a response to the Michaelson piece the director of the Shalom Institute, Daniel Gordis wrote: “The real question, I think, is not whether we’re exhausted, but rather what we do with our exhaustion…Like you, Jay, I know that I was raised on an image of Israel that doesn’t really exist. Maybe it never did. Like you, there were open fields in Jerusalem that I used to love…that are now filled by large apartment buildings. But when we lived in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, our older neighbors used to reminisce about the days when our neighborhood had been all orange groves. Did they stop loving America because fields got built on? I didn’t sense that. When we live in America and watch fields get built up, we sense progress. But when it’s a field in the Israel of our youth that’s now gone, we feel betrayed. What’s that about? Maybe it’s time we all moved beyond puppy love and ventured into something more mature, a sort of love that knows that the object of our love cannot, and should not, remain unchanged year after year, decade after decade.”
I agree with Gordis, his response reminds me of that of Joseph Soloveitchik’s theology it is all about how we respond to our conflicted selves. I believe we must be the Jacobs who wrestle with their selves and the Abraham’s who continue, even in the hardest of times to answer hineni – here I am and do our upmost to not allow ourselves and others to become Isaac, traumatised into silence.
Arundhati Roy, the author of the God of Small Things of writes: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way you are accountable.” We have all seen and heard so much from all sides and perspectives we must try and keep telling the whole story for the sake of justice and for the sake of peace, for the sake of Israel and Palestine and for the sake of ourselves and we must for the sake of our relationships with each other and thus for the sake of Israel and klal yisrael find a way to model dialogue for the sake of heaven and believe that someone else’s voice has a space. We cannot talk the words of peace and expect it of others, while we ourselves cannot show that we really believe it.
You can watch Rabbi Charley deliver her sermon here – from 36 mins: