Kol Nidre 5784
September 25, 2023
Troubled Committed
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


A well-worn aphorism states that it is the role of journalism to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”[1] Perhaps the same could be said of High Holiday sermons.

I’m going to make use of a term that I know from experience is likely to make a few of you uncomfortable. It’s a word that a number of North American Jewish congregations have tended to avoid in recent years, and some have argued that it is so polarizing that it has no place in polite conversation, especially on Yom Kippur, our holiest day of the year.

The word is Israel. As I said, I understand that my mention of the Jewish state bothers some of you. Perhaps you grew up steeped in a classical Reform tradition, which rejected Zionism in all forms, preferring to focus upon issues facing Jews domestically. Maybe your discomfort is predicated on concern for the Palestinian people who also reside within that region, and the challenges of their lives. It could be that you are distrustful of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet threatening the institutions of democracy within the country. Or there may be other, more personal reasons that cause you to have a negative reaction when I say, “Israel.” My remarks over these next few minutes ultimately may not change your mind. But I ask that you not dismiss them out of hand.

Lma’an Tziyon lo echesheh—for the sake of Zion, I shall not be silent.”[2] Please hear me out on why I believe American Jews’ continued engagement with Israel is not only warranted, not only worthy of a sermon on this holiest of nights, but actually essential to our existence.

In contrast to Marc Antony speaking after Caesar’s death, I come tonight neither to bury Israel nor to blindly praise her,[3] but rather to attempt to unpack her many intricacies. For I believe that despite her flaws and imperfections, despite the heartache that she occasionally arouses among individuals who seek to love her, despite what has been noted as “a gap between Israel as it [is] and Israel as I [believe] it should be,”[4] despite the misguided and often willfully destructive behaviors of her elected officials– Ein li eretz acheret[5] I have no other land. I have no other land so dedicated to Jewish hopes and promises, no other land that calls me to be a member of this community called Yisrael and to wrestle with these myriad contradictions and complexities. On her 75th birthday; on the 50th anniversary of the war waged on this holy day by enemies bent on her destruction, I think it is fitting that we talk a bit about Israel, and how American Jews engage with her.

Thomas Friedman noted in an essay last year that “The Israel We Knew is Gone.”[6] Whether you are a fan or a critic of Mr. Friedman and his journalism, it is true, as Friedman writes, that “a fundamental question [is roiling] synagogues in America and across the globe: ‘Do I support this Israel or not support it?’”[7] And Friedman posited this question even before the so-called judicial reforms were proposed earlier this year, further exposing widening fissures within Israeli society, and raising further questions regarding allegiance from Jews in the diaspora watching the situation unfold from afar.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, plots engagement with Israel into four quadrants. One can be “untroubled uncommitted,” that is, not troubled by any of Israel’s actions or policies, and not at all engaged with any emotional connection to the nation. One can be “troubled uncommitted,” meaning that you are deeply disturbed by her policies, but, feeling no visceral connection to Israel, you rarely, if ever, engage. One can be “untroubled committed,” finding oneself fully invested in the future and well-being of the country yet wholly unbothered by the actions her leaders take in pursuit of securing her future. Or, one can be “troubled committed,” as Hartman personally identifies. Hartman states that he is “unconditionally committed to Israel’s survival,” and “troubled because Israel, however committed to peace, is no longer resolute in pursuing it.”[8] Hartman notes that “The dominant discourse in response to criticism of Israel’s behavior and policies [within diaspora Judaism] is still shaped by the ‘untroubled committed.’” Further, he points out, “’Troubled committed’ ought only to be a temporary status. If it becomes permanent, it puts the moral seriousness of one’s troubledness into question.”[9]

A bit of background, necessarily abbreviated because this is a sermon in a worship service and not a political science treatise: Since late 2018, Israel has faced a bit of a political crisis. Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his fourth term as Prime Minister, saw his coalition collapse. An election in April of 2019 concluded with no party being able to form a government. Netanyahu’s Likud party was given a mandate to form a government, but when they failed to do so, they refused to relinquish that opportunity to any other parties, and instead forced another election. A similar impasse occurred after that election in September 2019. Two additional elections were held in March 2020 and March 2021, each of which formed governments that dissolved in less than a year. In November of last year, a fifth election in the span of only four years, saw Netanyahu finally able to form a coalition by aligning himself with far-right religious parties. Though those in the majority only received an aggregated 48% of the popular vote, they acquired a sufficient number of seats to form a majority in the Knesset and take power. They then saw themselves as having a mandate to enact a nationalist agenda.[10]

Netanyahu first served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999 and took office again in 2009, serving nearly continuously since then. There is an entire generation of young Jews who have never known an Israel without Netanyahu as Prime Minister, or at the very least, a major power broker. For them, Israel and her policies are inextricably linked to the platforms of Netanyahu and his allies. For these young people, as essayist Sophie Balmagiya notes,

Israel today looks nothing like the Israel that was described, upon its inception, within the original proclamation of independence. Israel was originally meant to be a safe haven for Jews that strived for peace with its neighbors. […]

I want to see myself represented within the only country in the world that I can ethnically align myself with; however, I shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice ethics for ethnicity. As someone who, according to all demographic information, should be a strong-willed and passionate Zionist, I find myself with a weak and conditional sense of Zionism and a yearning for a nation of the past that I was never even alive to see.[11]

The nature of relationships between Israel and the Palestinian population, and the way that this impacts the prospects for peace in the region, is not the only issue creating angst and causing some to question their relationship to the state. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to align himself with deeply nationalist right-wing politicians has threatened the democratic nature of Israeli society in other deeply troublesome ways. Inroads that had been made in recent years to protect the interests of progressive and Masorti Jews in Israel (the Israeli equivalents of Reform and Conservative Judaism) have been steadily eroded. Egalitarian measures that ensured rights for Israeli women are being undermined. Rights extended to members of the LGBTQ+ community have been curtailed. Social programs such as pensions for the elderly are being mishandled, with accusations that funds for these causes are being misappropriated.

Even with the Knesset on recess until after the High Holidays, some actions have continued that underscore the ideas and goals of the current government. Two weeks ago, for instance, National Security Minister Itamar Ben G’vir gleefully oversaw the destruction of a Bedouin village in the Negev, calling it “holy work.”[12]

Let me say this: as much as I feel my Jewish pride deeply; as much as I embrace Israel as a homeland for our people; as much as I long for peace and security and democracy to flourish in the Middle East, I vehemently reject any notion of “holiness” that is predicated on doing violence toward others. This is not the Israel I love.

Rabbi Dr. Hartman reminds us, “Israel does not have to be perfect; no nation is. Individuals are also capable of distinguishing between a country and its current government.”[13] For those of us in the “troubled committed” camp—where I’ll include myself—and even, I’d argue, for those who find themselves in the other camps, this is a significant reminder. If we are displeased with the way the leaders of the country (or any country, for that matter) are steering national policy, our qualms cannot be resolved through disengagement. Rather, we have been taught “al tifrosh min ha-tizbbur- do not separate yourself from the community.”[14] We have a moral and civic responsibility to speak and act to let these officials know that we expect Israeli policy to align with the values its founders espoused in its Declaration of Independence, which reads in part:

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.[15]

Toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy, we read [in Parashat Nitzavim/ in our reading for Yom Kippur morning] Moses’ explanation to the Israelite community that they need not rely on an intermediary to bring them closer to Torah and mitzvot. “Lo bashamayim hi,” he proclaims, “It is not in the heavens.”[16] Throughout Jewish history, this has been understood to emphasize that humans have the opportunity and the obligation to take action; we cannot and should not sit back and wait for God to intervene when things trouble us.

Since January of this year, large-scale protests against the Israeli government have taken place regularly in most major cities in Israel. They are driven by outrage over judicial reforms promoted by the ruling parties, which would, among other things, change the way judges are appointed; prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on the validity of certain laws, and eliminate the “unreasonableness” of a law as grounds for judicial review of it. The reforms are being promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his justice minister Yariv Levin, and are seen in part as Netanyahu’s retaliation against many corruption charges brought against him by the courts. Already, one of the so-called reform measures has passed a vote in the Knesset; the Israeli Supreme Court began meeting last week to determine whether that reform may legally stand. The aftermath of any decision emerging from these hearings undoubtedly will roil Israeli society, and could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Many of you know that I visited Israel in February for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization for Reform rabbis. I am grateful to Sinai’s Board of Trustees, and to the Miles and Barbara Klein Fund at the Champaign Urbana Jewish Endowment Foundation for their logistic and financial support of this trip. On the Saturday evening that I was there, I stood among hundreds of colleagues, and more than 100,000 residents of Tel Aviv, as they listened to speakers from various segments of Israeli society and chanted vociferously “Democratzia!” (Democracy!). To see these citizens exercising their democratic privilege, which they have continued to do in the ensuing months since my visit, should serve as a reminder to us all: when you care about something, you can’t turn away from it.

I also had the opportunity, one month after my convention visit, to chaperone the IsraelNow eighth grade trip to Israel; four of Sinai Temple’s students were participants. Dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, eating falafel and k’nafeh, visiting sites and nature preserves, and immersing ourselves in the land and its culture and traditions, I experienced the country through their eyes. As much as we may be politically inclined to process Israel’s complexities on an intellectual and geopolitical level, it is also significant to engage with her personally, emotionally, and spiritually.[17]

I do not know that I have made any converts to my mindset in the time that I’ve been speaking. But I’ll make the ask anyway: if you are currently untroubled, I urge you to reconsider, to look inside yourself and try to experience compassion and empathy for all peoples who find themselves in the midst of this difficult situation. Try to shake yourself from your personal comfort a bit and recall that we have been given the responsibility to care for all peoples—not just the ones who look, act, pray the same way we do.

And if you are currently uncommitted, I’d also ask that you examine what we would lose if the Jews of the world did not have Israel, and what the world would lose without a strong democracy in the Middle East. I’d ask that you think not merely of our emotional and historic ties to the region, but also what it means for a people to have a place to call home.

I, for one, plan to keep doing my part, as one who is troubled about the status quo, to push for peaceful resolution of these troubles. Because I love Israel, because I am committed to her, I take this as my sacred obligation. “Lma’an Tziyon lo echesheh—for the sake of Zion, I shall not be silent.”

In this New Year 5784, may Israel and all the nations of the world know peace. May every person sit beneath their own vine and fig tree, and may none be afraid.[18]

[1] Attributed to journalist Finley Peter Dunne in 1902. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/02/01/comfort/ . Retrieved June 9, 2023.

[2] Isaiah 62:1

[3] See Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

[4] Donniel Hartman, “Liberal Zionism and the Troubled Committed,” in Sources Journal, Fall 2021. Retrieved from https://www.sourcesjournal.org/articles/liberal-zionism-and-the-troubled-committed?fbclid=IwAR3WF0aoA2q12j_8raWt2pY-Hvz498Z5e-hyoG1D4em-y5tTaSlojTgOtvw , August 28, 2023

[5] Title of a song by the prolific Israeli composer Ehud Manor, written in 1982 at the height of the first Lebanon War.

[6] Published in the New York Times, November 4, 2022.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hartman, “Liberal Zionism and the Troubled Committed.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] For further details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022_Israeli_legislative_election Retrieved August 31, 2023

[11] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/dear-israel-end-the-occupation-or-force-a-generation-of-jews-to-abandon-zionism/ Retrieved August 31, 2023

[12] Jerusalem Post, August 29, 2023. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-756720 Retrieved September 6, 2023.

[13] Hartman, “Liberal Zionism and the Troubled Committed.”

[14] Hillel, in Pirke Avot 2:4

[15] The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948. Retrieved from https://www.gov.il/en/departments/general/declaration-of-establishment-state-of-israel#:~:text=WE%20DECLARE%20that%2C%20with%20effect,by%20the%20Elected%20Constituent%20Assembly

[16] Deuteronomy 30:12

[17] Thank you to Rabbi Neal Katz for comments that helped me to frame this paragraph.

[18] Based on Micah 4:4