Thursday, September 13, 2001

Judaism in the Foxhole

The Jewish Week, Sept. 13, 2001 (Written before 9/11)

Through the horrors of the past year and the forecast of an uncertain future, increasing numbers of secular Israelis are finding comfort in the most unusual of places: the synagogue. At a satellite teleconference arranged for rabbis last week by the United Jewish Communities, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Jerusalem’s congregation Kol Haneshama, spoke of the phenomenon. His synagogue, typically a magnet for liberal Jewish tourists, has seen a jump in attendance over the past year. With the hotels empty and the tourism industry suffering terribly, it is clear that the seats are being filled by an increasing number of Israelis. I have heard similar reports from other Israeli colleagues.

Periods of great stress typically lead to an increase in religiosity. Life in Israel never has been stress-free, but even in the most difficult times, rarely have Israelis looked to the synagogue for solace. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, for example, new mourning rituals were spontaneously improvised in public squares, with groups gathered around clusters of candles singing melancholy songs. But now, candles and songs aren’t enough. People are seeking a refuge for comfort and protection.

Seldom before has the synagogue so fulfilled its role as a sanctuary in the most literal sense. Although the terrorists have not been averse to attacking religious sites (most infamously the tomb of Joseph and the Western Wall), synagogues on the whole have served as oases from the storm. Exhausted, fearful and battle-weary, Israelis have found a safe haven of community far from the more vulnerable cafes and malls downtown.

They’ve also had the chance to rediscover the healing power of communal prayer. . The Masorti movement is running an ad in Israeli newspapers this week, “Ha’yamim Be’emet Nora’im.” It’s a play on words, since the expression for “Days of Awe,” literally means “days of fear.” This year, the prayers of the Machzor will take on terrifying overtones of realism. “Who shall live and who shall die?” is no longer a rhetorical question, but one that haunts every Israeli on a daily basis, while deciding whether to head to the market for milk or waiting for the school bus to carry a child safely home. The wail of the shofar sounds eerily like the sirens, bombs and mortar fire routinely piercing the tranquillity that once was Jerusalem; or like the cry of a child huddled in a Gilo shelter, fearful of the next attack.

That is how it will be in Israel this year on the Days of Awe. Israelis are discovering that Judaism is at its best in a foxhole. The question for every rabbi outside of Israel is, how can we coax people out of their supposedly impenetrable fortresses and into the same foxhole? A century ago, Rabbi Israel Salanter said, "A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man." I offer the corollary to that challenge: “A rabbi unable to move congregants to tears this year is no rabbi. And any congregant not moved to tears this year, with or without the help of a rabbi, is no Jew.”

We shouldn’t need a rabbi’s guidance to hear that crying child with each shofar blast. These need to be “days of fear” for us too, no matter how safe we think we are. Our prayers should remind us, this year more than ever, that all of life is precarious, and that any semblance of control is illusory. There simply is no excuse for boredom this year. Angry at God? Fine. Despondent? Understandable. We’ll all be struggling to find meaning in the words we utter. But if you are bored, you’re on another planet.

The uncertainties of the moment do test our faith, but the Jewish spirit has always soared highest when put to such a test. As if to remind us of that, out of the depths of the Durban fiasco arose perhaps the most eloquent, uplifting statement made on behalf of the Jewish people since Abba Eban’s days at the UN, and the author, Rabbi Michael Melchior, wasn’t even there to deliver it. But his Churchillian words reminded us of why we love Israel so much, and, even within a sea of xenophobia, how compassionate and universal Judaism can be. Despite the vicious attacks Israel endured at the conference, Rabbi Melchior still found it within himself to demonstrate the Jewish vision at its noblest, reaching outward, emphasizing its aversion to slavery for all peoples. He singled out Herzl’s concern for blacks, and later Martin Luther King’s concern for Zionism and the Jews, drawing a perfect parallel between those two prophets of liberation.

Melchior’s speech is a masterful visionary statement, caring yet condemning, sort of a Jeremiah meets Isaiah II. What glows above all is the absolute confidence that the Jewish people will persevere. The speech concludes with a stinging indictment of the conference: “We are here as representatives of states, and states of their nature have political interests and agendas. But we are also human beings, all of us brothers and sisters created in the divine image. And in those quiet moments when we recognize our common humanity, and look into our soul, let us consider what we came here to do - and what we have in fact done.”

I’ll make a deal with you. Go to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s web site and download Melchior’s speech, at Slip it in with your tallis bag and bring it to services. When you sense a lull coming on, read it. Pray it. Imagine how incredibly difficult it must be for someone to recognize common humanity while the bombs are exploding around him. Imagine also the poets of the Machzor, who endured similar traumas when composing their masterworks. Hear the shofar. Hear the bombs. Hear the cries.
Then maybe, just perhaps, from the pit of the foxhole, you’ll hear yourself praying.

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