Parashat Tetzaveh 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Tetzaveh 5776

I want to share with you a story that appeared in the Miami Herald. It’s disturbing on many levels. Michael Andron, a former teacher at Hillel School in North Miami, and also the most commonly used Mohel in town, is a man of great integrity. He is also a creative person, and is involved in drama and theater. He was directing a play – a difficult and challenging play – at the JCC’s Cultural Arts Theatre in Miami. The name of the play is Crossing Jerusalem.

The Herald reported:
“It was meant to start a conversation about a politically fraught topic — a way to “build a culture in which complicated questions are ones we can openly discuss.” But in South Florida, like much of the world, good intentions can veer off the tracks.

And so Crossing Jerusalem, which was supposed to end Sunday, has been cut short, in deference to members of the Jewish community who felt the play, set in a time of turmoil in Israel, warped the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with anti-Jewish stereotypes and an oversimplification of the conflict’s historical roots.

“It was not an easy decision, but when you have a program that is causing pain, you just stop it before it gets worse,” Gary Bomzer, president and CEO of the JCC, said Thursday. The decision to close the show, which focuses on 24 hours in the life of an Israeli family in 2002 during the Intifada, and the bloody escalation of Palestinian resistance, has left raw feelings among those who call the cancellation a capitulation to politics, and those who say the play was deeply and needlessly hurtful.

“The play is a powerful story about flawed and traumatized people living in a complex, real-life situation,” Adam Schwartzbaum, an actor in the show, wrote on Facebook. “It dramatizes the struggle and heartache that both Jews and Arabs experience in the face of war and terror.” But those who opposed the play say the Jewish Community Center was not the appropriate showcase.
“It counters the mission of a Jewish Community Center,” said Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance. “To express this unfair and even dangerous hate of Israel is not what a Jewish community center should be doing.”

Michael Andron, who directed the show, wrote in the playbill: “This play is designed to move the audience to discuss its subject matter when the play ends.” He added: “It may not change your mind.”

Avi Goldwasser, a member of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said that given the one-sided nature of the play, he pushed for discussion sessions after the play because it was not part of the original plan. “The problem lies in the politics of the play,” he said during the talk-back sessions.

The playwright, Julia Pascal, said in an e-mail that “the intent of the play was to show the complexity of Israeli life.” She said she was “amazed” at the early closure, which she called “censorship.”

South Florida is a place where politics and culture have clashed before, occasionally with far less cordial consequences. In 1988, the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture in Little Havana was bombed following an auction that included works by Cuban artists, and bombed again in 1990.

In 2014, the Metropolitan Opera in New York faced protests directed at The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera exploring the 1985 hijacking of a cruise liner by Palestine Liberation Front militants, who murdered and threw overboard 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish-American passenger. “The First Amendment applies to everyone — on all sides of this controversy” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.”

Why do I raise this issue?

The story from Miami is deeply disturbing to me. It says that rather than being a place of open dialogue and freedom of expression, this particular JCC sees its mission as primarily an advocacy organization for Israel’s status quo. And so discussions of difficult topics cannot take place.

This is a serious question for the American Jewish community. And as I ponder the issues here, I realize that the question is even larger. It is a question that we are facing in the larger political realm in the United States in this election. It’s a question that we are seeing in our governing bodies – here and throughout the world.

At our local Federation, there is JCRC where there sits representation of the major Jewish organizations. One organization is not allowed to sit at that table. And that is JStreet.

Now, I raise this because of some questions. It is not the questions as to whether or not one likes the play, agrees with the intent of the playwright or agrees with JStreet.

The questions are: Do we allow for the conversation? Can we tolerate push back, disagreement, and alternate voices? If the answer is no, then we ask: What are we?

My step-daughter, Emily Flitter, is a journalist for Reuters online. She has been covering the presidential campaign. And she has travelled with one particular campaign. And the candidate continually bashes the press. He calls them worthless…the cause of our problems. The press is penned in at these rallies. And people start heckling and booing and even throwing things at them. She has heard, “Kill them all.”

And we have to wonder, what will be of our freedom, if the press is silenced?

This is a serious question.

And it’s not just our question as Jews in a Jewish community. It is our question as citizens of America, as citizens of the world, and as lovers of Zion.

We were outraged – and rightfully so – when the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris were bombed by the diabolical, evil, Islamic terrorists. And we may not have agreed with one thing that came from that office. Yet, we all believe that the freedom of expression is critical.

One of the hallmarks of the rabbinic tradition is that we agree to disagree. We want it to be civil. We can’t learn, we can’t grow, and we can’t understand if we only allow for one voice, one opinion, or one attitude. It is simply wrong, and it’s not reflective of the rights that humanity has struggled for to achieve democracy.

And democracy is an essential dimension of the Jewish value system. Our ancestors came here to be free, our ancestors fought for the rights of workers and the oppressed. Our people have been disproportionately engaged in the rights of workers, women, gay people and all people…I could almost say no opinion should be silenced.

And we have grown by virtue of our willingness to engage in tough conversations and to be challenged by them; to allow our minds to be opened by them. We need to hear voices – all voices. It is the weak and the fearful and the hostile that silence others.

This week Micah Goodman, a leading philosopher of Judaism, was at FAU. There he presented a lecture about two great challenges to the people of Israel and their impact on our young and the many young who are disturbed by dimensions of Israeli society.

He framed it in relation to the occupation or the “matzav” (the situation) as it is said in Israel. There he believes there is no immediate solution. There are no partners for peace.

The second issue, however, is the issue of religious freedom. The Jewish State does not accord full rights to all religions…not to mention us. Your rabbis (I assume we have visitors reading) cannot perform weddings or do conversions. We have finally – after years and years – been given a side piece next to the Kotel to daven at. Our institutions of learning are not supported equally, and our rabbis do not receive funding as the orthodox do.

Goodman stated that this is because the formation of governments has been done with a nod to the religious parties in order to create the coalitions that allow parties to win.

And so, the defense arguments which have separated the parties have created a situation where religious freedoms have been ignored. And this has been corrosive to the soul of Israel. It has impacted civil rights and the work of NGO’s…and the work of authors and artists.

We love Israel. But it is facing challenges to its democracy. Like our democracy, it is troubled. But it is fixable.

Yesterday I read pieces by Tomer Applebaum and Avraham Burg, a journalist and a former Israeli MK and member of the cabinet. They spoke about these challenges to Democracy.

Rosenbaum wrote:

“We must return to the ABCs of democracy to shape a shared space where activists and intellectuals from all parts of society can gather to explore and resist the spirit of the times. Call it the ‘Ministry for Democratic Security.’

Avraham Burg wrote:

Each tribe is imprisoned within itself, incapable of transcending the differences to create a formula for the common Israeli good. The greatest threats to Israel in its first decades had to do with its economic resilience and defensive capabilities. Today, despite military and economic might, scientific achievements, a flourishing Hebrew culture and the absorption of millions of immigrants who guarantee the Jewish majority into the next generation, a sense of impermanence hovers.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks of Israel’s four tribes and the need for a common civil language. But no one tribe can offer a solution to all of Israel. Each tribe is imprisoned within itself, incapable of transcending the differences to create a formula for the common Israeli good: An engaged media mediated between the political act and the public. Above these was academia, which took on the Israeli project, influencing and being influenced by it.

The following can also be said about America. The introduction of party primaries and a ratings culture eliminated the politics of ideas; elevating celebrity over content. The Internet revolution has caused the “thinking press” to be replaced by the new media, which shrinks from values and painful topics, settling for gossip. Locked in its ivory towers, academia barely uses its amazing abilities to affect the foundations of our lives.

The first step is to acknowledge that the end of Israeli democracy is a clear and present danger. Democratic security is an essential component of Israel’s new future.

So that’s from Applebaum and Burg…but it is true here also.

Listen to their proposal…

The struggle for the soul of democracy demands moving from ideas to deeds and from competition to cooperation, uniting political egos, cooperating with civil society organizations and those with shared concerns. Thinking among those who are different, but concerned.

Israel has many democracy-focused projects, activities and organizations, but no joint action to make the weak influential. We must return to the ABCs of democracy to shape a shared space where activists and intellectuals from all parts of society can gather to explore and resist the spirit of the times.
This space will pool intellectual capabilities, research, experience and the determination of anyone who is committed to Israel’s democratic resilience. It will nurture healthy debate that will give rise to agreement in the next generation and a new civil ideology. That will include a current understanding of the essence of democracy, a critical examination of past visions, and a map of existing and of needed social institutions. Problems will be raised and possible solutions suggested. Leaders from all the tribes will receive training: clergy and Knesset members, diplomats and activists, artists and educators. It will be a hothouse for ideas and actions within an expanding range of social, ideological and political circles; a fountain of democratic entrepreneurship.

It will be Israel’s “Ministry of Democratic Security.” Its purpose will be known to all: To achieve democracy and the freedoms that are at its foundations; to guarantee differing and even contradictory opinions. It will be a cabinet of and for the people, which is committed to the sacredness of democracy as the only idea that is shared by all Israelis.

And I stand here, not only bringing their ideas to all of us…but also sharing my sense that this is our issue too.

We hear that horrific ideological and substanceless debates of candidates.

We see a media that is running from substance in all but rare exceptions.

And we have allowed our communities to be shaped by the organizations that only serve as advocates and not principled and valued facilitators of meaningful conversation.

And so that is our challenge…right here.

And that is what I am so proud of about our B’nai Torah! Because we know we are at a place of open ideas.

So now, a little Torah to strengthen this idea.

This is a parsha, right in the center of the Torah. It deals with the workers who preside over the holy – their dress and their responsibilities – but no mention of Moses. Is it intentional? You bet it is. Because the greatest leader is not so great that he can do it all.

And the system needs a division of powers. Their judicial cannot be ruined by the congressional nor the administrative powers.

Moses we are seeing over and again is learning his lesson. From his
non-Jewish father-in-law, to his brother, and even the omission by God. It speaks to limitation of power.

If we don’t know the limitation, then we ultimately lose it all.

We need to be proud of a tradition that allows for the voice of everyone. That’s the whole rabbinic mission. We are chosen, we know, because we are small.
We are liberated together with all – men, women and children, strangers, wood choppers and water drawers.

This is why we survived. It’s because our strength has always been in our ideas and ideals; and our values and willingness to speak for them…even against power.

You know the expression freedoms not free. I’ll add to that democracy is not easy. It takes an open mind, a willingness to tolerate difference, and a desire to be fully engaged. If we tolerate censor and if we allow ourselves to be reduced to advocacy groups, we will lose.

But, thankfully, we have two great traditions and rabbinic tradition where Rabbis were willing to stand up to a Bat-Kol – a voice of God – and say NO. Democracy wins the day. And an American tradition of freedom and democracy.

Freedom of peace. Freedom of religion. Freedom of expression. Those must win the day.

Shabbat Shalom