D’var Torah delivered at Kehilat Moreshet Avraham, Jerusalem, on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana 5768.
To see the original D’var Torah (in Hebrew) click on the following link:
I learned a new word in ulpan last week: l’hidamot, to become similar. The teacher gave us an example: Yisrael midameh l’Artzot Habrit, Israel is becoming similar to the United States. I have to admit, when I heard that my immediate reaction was “chas v’shalom!” “God Forbid! I didn’t move to Israel to live in the 51st state of America!”
However, after a few minutes I regained my composure, and I realized that there are in fact several ways in which it would be good for Israel to imitate the US. Despite what we sing when we take the Torah out of the ark on Shabbat and holidays – ki mitzion tetze Torah – for Torah shall go forth from Zion (Jerusalem) – I realized that there is also “Torah from Toledo.”
I made aliyah just two months ago. Certainly, Torah has gone out from Israel to the whole world. In the Midrash (Eicha Rabah) it is taught “Should a person tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it; as it is written, Shall I not in that day, saith the Lord, destroy the wise men out of Edom, and discernment out of the mount of Esau? (Obad. 8). But if he tells you that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it; because it is written, HER KING AND HER PRINCES ARE AMONG THE NATIONS [WHERE] TORAH IS NO MORE.”
Even though the Midrash says that there is wisdom, but no Torah among the nations, sometimes we find that people in other nations succeed in bringing out the values we learn from the Torah to reality better than we manage to do here in Israel. Our dream – our vision – is to be, as the prophet Isaiah said, “a light to the nations.” However, so far we are only a 25 watt bulb – we’re not burning so brightly as a light to the nations. There are some important values that other nations, in particular the US, do a better job of bringing to fruition.
I know that many of you are, like me, immigrants from the United States – or Canada, or England, or other developed nations. What are the moral messages we brought with us when we came to Israel? When I arrived from America, what is the “Torah from Toledo” that I brought with me?
First of all, pluralism. In Israel’s declaration of independence it is written “the state of Israel…will be founded on the principles liberty, justice, and peace, actualizing the vision of the prophets of Israel; equal rights for all citizens will be established, without regard to religion, race, or gender; it promises freedom of religion, conscience, and language, education, and culture.” However, so far there certainly is no freedom of religion in Israel.
I’m a Conservative rabbi. I’ve had the honor of officiating at many marriages in the US and Canada. Yet if one of you here today were to ask me to fulfill this role for you, the first thing you would have to do is go to Cyprus for a civil marriage. I cannot conduct a legally recognized wedding within the state of Israel – although the state recognizes marriages that I performed overseas. Surely this is NOT freedom of religion!
And this idea of pluralism is not just some liberal day dream – it is found in the Torah and Talmud. In the Torah, parshat Re’eh, it is written “you are children of the Lord God; lo titgodedu, do not cut yourselves, and do not create a bald spot between your eyes for your dead.” The Talmud explains: “lo titgodedu – do not cut yourselves, meaning do not cut yourselves into factions.”
Now one might say that we are great transgressors of this commandment from the rabbis – after all, not only do we have Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, we have Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrachi, Charedi, etc., etc. During this shmittah (Sabbatical) year in Israel (when we don’t do agricultural work) we have people who won’t eat in other people’s houses because they disagree on which approach to shmittah to follow. However, our generation is not the first generation to have serious disagreements in matters of halacha, philosophy, and theology. For example, it is well known that there are many differences in the approaches of Hillel and Shammai, our great rabbis of 2,000 years ago. There are some very significant issues where one said “forbidden!” and the other said “permitted!” Despite this, there was respect between both sides – as the Talmud says, “these and those are the words of the living God.” Proof is brought from the fact that the children of students of Hillel would still continue to marry the daughters of the students of Shammai and vice verse.
In Toledo there is but one Jewish day school. A few months ago we had a “mock wedding,” conducted to teach the kids something about the wedding ceremony. It’s called the “q and u wedding” because the letters q and u are inseperable. Mr. Q was the son of the cantor at the Conservative synagogue; Miss U was my youngest daughter. The Orthodox rabbi in Toledo conducted the ceremony, which was held in the Reform synagogue. It would be miraculous to find a typical Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem willing to participate in such a ceremony (although there are admittedly a few “liberal” ones who probably would).
If a minority such as ourselves – Conservative Jews – face discrimination, one can assume, kal v’chomer, all the more so, an ex fortiori argument – that other minorities, such as Arabs, Christians, and Druze face even worse discrimination.
What’s the essential, underlying problem? Lack of respect. Here’s another example. The Torah instructs us to be honest in our business dealings. “You shall have a true and honest measure.” And we are further commanded, in parshat Mishpatim, “you shall not oppress or pressure the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Talmud explains that “do not oppress” means do not oppress monetarily: do not engage in fraud. The Mishnah explains that a business transaction is considered fraudulent – and therefore oppressive – if the difference between the real value and the price paid is greater 15%. And fraud works in both directions – the seller is forbidden to overcharge, but buyers are also forbidden from underpaying. With that as background, the following report from the Jerusalem Post is especially troubling:
"Many new olim get very upset when they come face to face with what passes for “service” among some tradesmen, retailers, or service providers in this country. It’s appalling, sometimes, the way “they” take your money, and then provide you with a substandard product/service, without blinking an eye. “It wasn’t like this in the US/UK/Canada” or wherever it is they come from."
When we arrived from North America, we brought with us our not unreasonable expectation that we will receive what we pay for. The Jewish tradition teaches us that it is forbidden to sell one thing and to deliver another. The Mishnah in fact brings a curse down on the head of people who do not stand by their word: “The one who condemned the generation of the Flood and the generation of Babel will condemn one who does not stand by his words.”
In a group such as this – a congregation of many immigrants from America – I don’t’ think I need to give any examples. We’ve all seen plenty, and we all understand the huge difference between Israel and America in this regard. Here in Israel, if you’re not ready to “bust heads” and complain loudly to get what you’ve paid for, you’re a friar, a sucker, and you