Less than a week before Rosh Hashanah the Palestinians made a bit at the UN for statehood. This will almost certainly lead to unrest and renewed tension in the Middle East. The Israel-Palestine issue will be in the minds of many Jews attending synagogues this festival season of Tishrei. It will be very difficult for any pulpit rabbi to avoid talking about the situation in at least some sermons.
What realistically can a rabbi hope to achieve by giving a sermon about the Middle East?
The Israel-Palestine conflict has three dimensions; historical, political and religious and each feeds off the other in a vicious cycle. Rabbis can do very little to contribute to the historical and political aspects but that can make a great contribution to the religious one; and that is in the way they talk about God.
Judaism has a complex and nuanced theology. Some scriptural and rabbinic sources see God as a particularistic, tribal God of Israel who is ‘on our side’ while other scriptural and rabbinic sources depict God as a Universal God who is the God of all humanity.
Which of these two images Jews Historically invoked depended on what they were experiencing at the time. During periods in which Jews felt threatened or marginalised they tended to conceive of God as particularistic, during periods of relative calm and social integration the Universal God was brought to the fore.
The temptation for many rabbis this festival season will be to invoke the particularistic tribal God of Israel who is on the side of the Israelis and who will defend His chosen people from the machinations of the Palestinians.
I believe that this is the most unhelpful thing rabbis could do at this tense and sensitive time. Instead Rabbis should have the courage to invoke the universal God before whom all lives are precious and worthy of dignity and before whom the tears of a Palestinian child are as distressing as those of a Jewish child.
Each of the festivals in this month of Tishrei contains sources that portray both the particularistic and Universal God.
Rabbis can focus on the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah that tells the story about the banishment of Ishmael or they can focus on the verses in the story that tell of God’s mercy to Hagar and her son.
On Yom Kippur they can discuss the story contained in the afternoon service about the ten Jewish sages tortured and murdered by Rome and use that as a springboard to portray Jewish victimhood and its contemporary parallels or they can discuss the story of Jonah which speaks of God’s deep love and concern for all His creatures.
On Sukot they can draw on the well known Tamudic story that portrays gentiles as unworthy of sitting in the Sukah, or they can teach the Talmudic passage that explains how on sukot 70 bulls were offered as sacrifices so as to extend God’s blessing to the 70 nations.
Rabbis cannot change the political or historical realities but that can play a major role in framing the way Jews will think about the conflict in the crucial months ahead.
The easy option is for rabbis to play to the gallery by reinforcing our sense of victimhood, righteous indignation and moral superiority. They can do this by invoking the tribal God of Israel who listens to our prayers alone. Such sermons will garner compliments and comments like ‘rabbi excellent sermon, you told it like it is.’ But they will do little to pave the way for any meaningful peace.
That leaves the difficult option and that is for rabbis to challenge their listener’s particularistic tendencies by forcing them to think of God in a universalistic way. It will certainly upset some and unsettle many. But it is only through thinking of God in this way that we can begin to appreciate the divine in the other and that is the crucial first step towards peace.
This short essay appeared in the Jewish Chronicle as a letter on 29 September