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“Israel, Repair the Breech,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

July 28, 2023 | 10 Av 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Tonight, at Qabbalat Shabbat Services, I am going to speak about my experience in Israel this summer as part of the Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Institute. I will share with you what we studied and how we might understand our relationship to Israel. I will tell you here how I plan to conclude what I going to say: Israel remains worthy of our attention and commitment, despite its very imperfect democracy. I feel the same way about the United States. I hope to see you tonight, onsite or online.

In this Shabbat Awakenings, I also will focus on Israel as it has to do with the judicial reforms that place Israel’s democracy in peril. As worried and disturbed as I feel about this Knesset’s power grab and illegal behavior with regard to the settlements and unreasonable legislation, in particular, I still believe we must not give up on the state of Israel.

But, it does not mean that we cannot lament. Earlier this week, we observed Tisha B’Av, a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century and again by the Romans in the first century. We read from Lamentations, words that feel apt in the face of this week’s governmental decisions:

How she sits alone, the city which was once great!

אֵיכָ֣ה יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה

The destruction of the Temples not only fell because of outside empires but also because of inner self destruction caused by baseless hate and zealots in their midst.

On Monday, the Knesset voted to take power away from the Supreme Court and give it to themselves. The entire opposition abstained. Destruction from within threatens Israel again. The majority rules the Knesset. Many are motivated by self serving reasons and messianic beliefs in their self righteous determination to rule by fiat.  They have the majority. There is no motivation to compromise.

The current coalition want to decide what is reasonable.

The Supreme Court, before Monday, had the power to decide whether certain laws were unreasonable. For Israel, the additional burden is that Israel has no constitution. It has a Declaration of Independence which states important principles and it has Basic Laws. The law passed by this Knesset about the definition of reasonableness and who decides is attached to the Basic laws which give it some constitutional power and make it harder for the Supreme Court to challenge it. The Court can decide to thwart the law from being enacted while it is under consideration.

Why no constitution? At the beginning of statehood, as the government pushed forward, the religious voice focused on Torah and rabbinic Judaism as the guiding documents along with the Prime Minister at that time, David Ben Gurion. It was shortsighted, but they didn’t ask me. They were establishing a country while fighting a war on all fronts.

Maybe that war has turned in on itself. There is a big fear of a civil unrest even larger than the past weeks of protests have demonstrated. On one side are the religious and nationalists while on the other are the secular and pluralists. The centrists lean more toward the secular and pluralists. Those who protest come from the center. They are raising their voices in ways not seen before.

In every country, there are those who take sides, who represent particular ideologies. The parliamentary system of government was supposed to reflect the various factions that make up Israel. The problem is when those factions rupture other points of view as this Knesset has succeeded in doing. It seeks no balance of power.

With all our imperfections and complexities in the United States, the founders established our legislative, judicial, and executive branches as foundational to the checks and balances in the rule of law. It forms the basis of our constitution which Israel lacks.

But they do have the Talmud, and from my vantage point and others, it would be informative to reflect on Talmudic decisions which take into account the majority and minority opinion. In addition, the rabbis of the Talmud value what the opposing perspective has to say. Two rabbis, Yohanan and Reish Lakish argued incessantly. This is how the former described the latter:

“In my discussions with Lakish,
when I would state a matter,
he would raise 24 difficulties against me
in an attempt to disprove my claim,
and I would answer him with 24 answers,
and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified.”
— Bava Metzia 84a

Israel’s governmental decisions regarding the Supreme Court halts and impedes the ability to broaden and clarify the law. This is the first of more attempts to squelch rights and prosper their own echo chamber of decisions.

The protests have shown that there are other strong voices proclaiming justice. The Knesset goes on break at the end of July and does not readjourn until after the Fall holidays. There will much time to consider the impact and whether, as the prophet Isaiah invokes in our Yom Kippur afternoon inspirational reading: “repair the breach.”

It is possible. And hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom!

More on this topic tonight at Qabbalat Shabbat.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and responses. All comments go directly to me here.

  • We gather tonight at 6:00 p.m. for Qabbalat Shabbat. Join us onsite INDOORS or online on ZoomFacebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together!
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Rabbi Elaine Zecher