Rabbis During Wartime

As of this date, in mid-February of 2024, I receive an update every day, Monday through Friday, from the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast U.S. Its title is “Israel at War.” It provides updates from the consulate about the status of the war effort, along with talking points for conversations about the war.

“One of the best ways to support the State of Israel during this time,” reads the refrain at the end of each email, “is to stay updated with accurate information about the war against Hamas.”

The sharing of public relations materials from the Israeli government is nothing new. When I was first a student rabbi, I can remember that the senior rabbi of my congregation would receive talking points by fax machine. The assumption, clearly, has been that rabbis serve their congregations best by sharing these arguments from the bimah, equipping congregants with ammunition to help fight the war for American hearts and minds.

Israel is not alone in its desire to influence public opinion. “If a country is lost to communism through propaganda and subversion,” George Gallup wrote in 1962 in the midst of the Cold War, “it is lost to our side as irretrievably as if we had lost it in actual warfare.” What is unique to Israel is the assumed relationship between its national interests and the interests of Jews in the diaspora. U.S. expats in, say, Europe are not expected to attempt to persuade their host country of American valor. Conversely, we don’t expect Chinese immigrants to the United States to defend Chinese trade policy. Implicit in the distribution of talking points and other PR material is the expectation that Israeli and Jewish diaspora interests align.

Today, this formulation is far from obvious to all American Jews. In the current moments, Jews are still processing the trauma engendered by the Hamas butchery the world witnessed on Oct. 7. As has been repeated numerous times: The scale of the attacks resulted in the largest death toll suffered by Jews since the Holocaust. At the same time, the Israeli military response has resulted in the deaths of almost 30,000 Palestinians. I am no historian, but I suspect this may represent the largest number of people killed by Jews in all of Jewish history.

Some congregations have focused primarily on the Jewish suffering experienced on Oct. 7, both in the brutality of the bloodshed and the brutal plight of the hostages. They rally behind slogans like Am Yisrael Hai (“The Jewish people lives”) and Be’yakhad Nenatze’akh (“Together we will win”). At the other end of the spectrum, some congregations are explicitly committed to “Palestinian liberation” or advocate a Jewish presence in the “Palestine solidarity movement,” focusing their attention on the stratospheric death toll and destruction of homes and infrastructure within the Gaza Strip.

I suspect most congregations, even those who identify as progressive, find themselves somewhere in between those poles. In our community, a 300-family Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta, we are blessed to include a broad diversity of Jewish families. We pride ourselves on serving as a proverbial “big tent” in all aspects of Jewish life. Yet, in the midst of war, we have found that the issue of Israel-Palestine has tested the strength of that big tent.

My troubled reaction to the scale of Palestinian suffering has caused some congregants to end their memberships. At a concert in which a congregant delivered a kavanah that included their opinion that the Israeli government was “committing atrocities,” at least one couple walked out. Conversely, other congregants have criticized me — or quit — because our congregation was “too Zionist.”

I’m happy to say that the majority of responses I’ve received have expressed gratitude and appreciation for my presence in the congregation since Oct. 7. Still, given the grim reality on the ground in Israel-Palestine, as well as the complicated landscape of synagogue relationships in the age of social media, we wonder: In this moment, what exactly is the role of the congregational rabbi?

Given our track-record, I clearly do not have a comprehensive list of answers — if such a list could be created. To be sure, our rabbinic education did not prepare us for a moment like this. We have been hired to serve congregations, demanding work that makes it difficult to keep up with daily developments in an international conflict, let alone formulate comprehensive political positions or solutions. And yet, there are aspects of rabbinic training and experience upon which we can call to address this moment.

In the spirit of mutual support and collaboration, I offer these guiding principles and best practices in the hope that it can open a conversation, providing encouragement to those of us who are finding this moment particularly difficult to navigate.

Acknowledge and address trauma. With the obvious exception of the attacks on Sept. 11, most Jews simply have not encountered this level of collective trauma in our lifetimes. Wherever we find ourselves politically, we share in soul-deep pain, an existential destabilization.

The killing of 1,200 Jews in one day has triggers a host of trauma responses. Some congregants immediately recall stories told by Holocaust survivor relatives. For others, the attack brings to mind synagogue shootings or other terror attacks. We are still confronted by images and personal narratives from hostages and other victims of the Hamas attacks. Conversely, we continue to see images from the Israeli response in Gaza that are deeply disturbing and may shake our trust in the righteousness of Israel’s actions. It’s been helpful for me to remind myself that this is an evolving situation that serves as a chronic disrupting factor underlying all our conversations.

To fully serve our communities, acknowledging and helping to process that trauma must be a key element of our work. Even almost five months into the war, I’m seeing reactions both individual and collective that reflect that trauma. Whether through powerful experiences of fear, anger or anxiety, or even in unexpected crying or laughing, we do well to remind ourselves that our communities continue to process experiences they may not feel equipped to handle.

Given this reality, I have tried to practice extra patience in responding to congregant feedback (though not always successfully). When I am at my best, I lead with compassion, knowing that people aren’t at their best when they are actively dealing with trauma. I have tried to rely on mental-health resources in our community to help congregants who are feeling the acute pain in these days.

One additional note on this topic. Rabbis, of course, are not immune to these trauma responses. It’s key for our own mental and spiritual health to be compassionate with ourselves in these unprecedented times.

See political conversations as pastoral moments. Given the powerful reactions we’ve had to the events of the last few months, it’s unsurprising that our brains look for ways to process and understand the tragedies that continue to unfold. Naturally, we often turn to political analysis of the situation.

I believe that Jewish values can be authentically expressed through politics, and so I often feel compelled to argue a political point when I believe Jewish values are at stake. But political viewpoints are invariably informed by our past experiences. Before leaning in to a political conversation, I’ve learned to ask questions. Someone who takes a more right-leaning position on the war may have Israeli family, or may have lost friends or loved ones in terror attacks. Conversely, congregants who are argue on behalf of the cause of Gaza or Palestine may have had experiences connecting them personally to Palestinian liberation. I spoke with one congregant for a half-hour, for instance, before discovering that she had formed personal friendships working alongside Palestinians in the West Bank as a young adult.

Regardless of the viewpoint expressed, the point remains relevant: Underneath political arguments are often powerful and evocative personal experiences. I have had deep and meaningful interactions with congregants when I explored the experiences behind the political viewpoints. By asking questions, I’ve learned about profound moments that have shaped their worldviews. Treating these arguments as opportunities for pastoral connection have deepened my relation to congregants in ways that political arguments would likely have missed.

Makhloket Leshem Shamayim (“Arguing for the Sake of Heaven”). Some commentators and activists see these days as a test. Say the right words, sign the right letter, post the right picture. Will you or won’t you use the word terrorist, genocide, ISIS, apartheid? How you respond indicates whether you’ve passed or failed.

For proponents of this discourse, the choice seems obvious. But in diverse communities like ours, there’s not only political disagreement. In some cases, we can’t even agree on the definitions of words we speak naturally as breath. I have reminded my community that to be part of a synagogue is a declaration that despite the odds, despite our differences, we are committed to coming together, to singing and praying and wrestling together, in holy community.

Even when they have merit, insisting on fidelity to particular words or slogans is often a barrier to the cultivation of community. I believe part of the job of a rabbi is to invite people to dig deeper, underneath the catchwords, to identify our core values and ethics.

It is our blessing as Jews that our rabbinic tradition offers values that assist us in having these kinds of exploratory conversations. The Talmudic text Pirkei Avot, “Sayings of the Ancestors,” teaches kol makhloket she-hi leshem shamayim, sofah lehitkayem; “Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven, in the end will be sustained.” Conversely, kol makhloket she-lo leshem shamayim, eino sofah lehitkayem; “Any argument not for the sake of Heaven, in the end will not be sustained.”

Underneath political arguments are often powerful and evocative personal experiences.

When congregants say to one another, “Why can’t you support Israel in its time of crisis?”— or, conversely, “When will you call for a ceasefire?” — they cut off the possibility of learning more about other people in the community, as well as themselves. At my best, I’ve encouraged community members to be curious about their fellow congregants, inquiring not just about formative experiences in their lives but about the ethics they value most.

What we’ve learned is that complexity is not the enemy of morality. That Hebrew word for “argument,” makhloket, elegantly encapsulates a lot of this. Makhloket comes from the word helek. Helek means “portion” or “part.” In a makhloket, in an argument, I have a helek, and you have a helek. I have a portion of the truth, and you have a portion of the truth. We only have the whole truth when we bring our portions together. In conversational encounter, we try to make space for the holiness in the words of the other.

Finally, I also have invited our congregants to allow for the evolution of thought—both in others and in themselves. As someone with ADHD, I’ve learned that the first thing I say is not always the last thing I believe! A key element of rabbinic leadership is clearing space for that kind of evolution, even in the midst of pain, sadness and anger. As vulnerable people subject to trauma, we do our best to understand that thinking evolves, especially in the context of supportive community.

Turn and return to our storehouses of spiritual practice. In our efforts to create opportunities for dialogue, we sometimes forget that we have spiritual practices which can be centering and grounding. We’ve explored a number of creative prayers written for this war, and continue to seek out new texts and songs.

But, perhaps more importantly, we have looked for ways to invite congregants to recommit to prayer, to bring their hopes and fears into their prayer space. In messages to our synagogue, we have tried to reinforce the idea that prayer can be expansive, aspirational — in Heschel’s words, revolutionary.

To be part of a synagogue is a declaration: despite the odds, despite our differences, we are committed to coming together, to singing and praying and wrestling together, in holy community.

For congregants who would be inclined to pray for Israel but not necessarily for peace, we have refocused on prayer, both from the Kol Haneshamah siddur and from outside sources, that holds all human life as precious, including the lives of Palestinians. For those who might be alienated by traditional prayer for Israel, we have tried to feature prayer that holds the unique suffering experienced by Israelis. Some of these prayers have featured specific language focusing on children, on redeeming the hostages, on memory or simply on connection.

As rabbis, we can draw an explicit connection between hearts constricted by grief and anger, and hearts constricted from feeling compassion. Min hameitzar karati Yah, anani bamerkhav Yah (“Out of the constricted place I called out to You”). You answered me expansively.) Psalms 118:5. In the midst of constriction, we hold out faith for expansiveness. In our teaching, we can reinforce the conviction that we are capable of expanding our constricted hearts. Our words can serve that holy project.

Rabbis, of course, are not immune to trauma responses. It’s key for our own mental and spiritual health to be compassionate with ourselves in these unprecedented times.

One way we’ve tried to cultivate this expansiveness is via embodied prayer and conversational experiences. Working with Rebekka Goldsmith, our music director, we have invited congregants to focus on their somatic experiences of conflict, noticing where the difficulty of these days shows up in our bodies. Exploring middot like ometz lev (courage), anavah (anavah), rakhamim (compassion) and savlanut (patience), we’ve invited congregants to bring these experiences into interactions with individuals outside of our synagogue community.

In times of deep disagreement, return to shared experience. Regardless of differences in political viewpoint, there are responses we all share. In one form or another, most of us are grieving loss of life, feeling sadness, experiencing anger and helplessness. In moments of difficulty or disconnection, rabbis can help return the community to those shared feelings and experiences. When we do so, we can remind ourselves of our shared humanity, and what’s at stake in the arguments and conversations that are weighing so heavily on our hearts. These points of connection can reinforce our sense of community and help us recommit to what is best within our communities.

In times of crisis, our community members cry out for something more meaningful than talking points. In the midst of war — indeed, in a world characterized by economic stress and increased alienation — rabbis must balance competing spiritual needs. On the one hand, we’re tasked with providing comfort and sanctuary. Congregants bring fear, anger and grief to us, expecting succor and soothing. At the same time, we know that government actions can be crass or cynical, even in a place like Israel that evokes powerful affection. Even as we offer comfort and mutual support, we are called on to inspire and activate our communities in the name of compassion and justice. In providing venues for both consolation of suffering and the arousal of activism, we lead our synagogues toward becoming communities of deep meaning. It is this type of meaning that Jews increasingly tell us move them to cast their lot with Jewish community.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh. “All Israel are responsible, one for another.” This timeless Talmudic teaching (Shavuot 39a) will outlast the current war. We pray that the awesome challenge of serving as rabbis in wartime will teach us the most profound lessons within the Talmud’s words, helping us to inspire our communities to uphold and support one another, even as we insist on teaching and living a Torah of justice, dignity and — we pray — peace.

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