On Sunday, January 28, 2024, our special Ask-the-Rabbi session addressed Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza (you can watch the recording below). We received many questions in advance of the session, some of which were answered and some of which were not. In the spirit of transparency, and of our Roadmap which guides us to tackle tough conversations head on, we’ve decided to share and address more of the unanswered questions.
As you read through our responses, note that each question was addressed by an individual rabbi or rabbis, which means that these responses do not necessarily represent the views of our entire clergy team. Some questions have more than one answer, which merely reflects a desire to share multiple views on that particular question; we do not intend to suggest that other questions do not or could not have multiple answers. Further, some questions were grouped together with a single answer.
We recognize that many of the questions demand further exploration, and the provided answers only mark the beginning of an ongoing conversation. The clergy team earnestly desires a meaningful dialogue with you and among congregants. We hope to navigate these discussions collectively, acknowledging that full consensus may be elusive. “Od lo avdah tikva tenu” – “We have not yet lost our hope.”
Here’s to a strong community here at Micah, sustained dialogue, and peace for all.
Rabbi Zemel: I believe that we have offered prayers and deep expressions of empathy for the horror unfolding in Gaza at nearly every Shabbat service over the last couple of months. We have also tried to include readings that acknowledge this tragedy in our Monday emails. As we communicated to the congregation, we did investigate ways to support people in Gaza. We were in touch with our partner organizations in Israel about how to do this. They were sympathetic to our request but were unable to point us toward anything useful. We therefore followed their advice and have sent money from our Israel Fund to support Palestinian communities on the West Bank which are being harmed by the violence of the Settler community.
Rabbi Zemel: I am unable to weigh human value in numbers. The notion that this would be different if the body count were more even does not figure into my moral calculus in any way. I think that you are suggesting such in the way you phrased the question. The pertinent Jewish text values every life with infinite worth. It simply magnifies the scope of this tragedy.
Rabbi Zemel: I do not know how to answer this question. Prayer?
I will say this. I do regard this war as a war of self-defense. Israel was attacked. Citizens were tortured, raped, brutalized, taken hostage, and put on public show for the reason of intimidation and humiliation. The enemy left Israel with little choice but to respond knowing it’s only defense was putting civilian non-combatants in harms way. In recognizing all of this, as long as Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel, it is extremely difficult for me to have total confidence in Israel’s conduct of this war or to see any real thought from the Israeli government for how it ends and what happens to Gaza next. That is also extremely disturbing.
I think that what I am trying to say is that in Jewish thinking, there is inevitably a davar acher—a further thought. I think we have to always look for that bit of uncertainty.
Rabbi Crawley: I deeply appreciate the honesty of this question. And I urge you to not let their hate determine your heart. We’ve lost too much already. I am reminded of the Talmudic text which asks if God prays, what God prays for. The Rabbis answer that God prays for God’s compassion to overcome God’s anger. We are not commanded not to feel - it is our actions that matter. So if we can’t get our hearts to soften quite yet, we can at least make sure our actions emerge from our better angels, however inaccessible.
Rabbi Slakman: On October 7, Jewish Voices for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization with over a million followers on social media, released a statement titled, “The Root of Violence Is Oppression.” On October 7, this justification of violence filled me with gaping dread and anger. As the war has raged on and the inconceivable death toll in Gaza mounts, I don't understand why the same bewildering generosity isn't granted to Israel, a country of people who have gone through so much trauma and hardship, so many varied seasons of oppression. I think during this time, we must be extra gentle to ourselves, and gentle to the people we love most. If we are not gentle to ourselves, I don't know who will be. Every day brings new feelings.
Rabbi Zemel: My initial response is to quote Amos Oz, one of modern Israel’s greatest writers and a passionate spokesperson, while he was alive, for the Israeli left.
“I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flag, no emblem, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.
“But the Jewish people has already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the “tools of statehood.” For me this drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler.
“I am forced to take it upon myself to play the “game of nations,” with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel (as George Steiner put it) like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point.”
Oz is pointing out here, that for Jews, nationalism is a last resort, a necessity for survival. I firmly believe that and have said many times that were it not for Israel, I believe that there would be Jews to this day living in refugee camps. I do regard the current war as an existential one for Israel. HAMAS has made its aims clear. As long as HAMAS governs Gaza, Israel has no southern border and no Israeli can be expected to live there. A country with no borders is no longer a country. My hope is for HAMAS out of Gaza (at least the leadership) and a new, sane, honest, moral government in Israel. Only then can there be progress toward something better.
The national anthem and flag of Israel are, for me, symbols of Jewish hope and resilience. They evoke an emotional connection in me as they reflect my upbringing. Having said that, I fully understand your sentiments.
Rabbi Zemel: This question feels more about discourse and semantics than about the moral and political realities of Israel and Palestine in the last one hundred plus days.
Anyone who closely follows the work of organizations like Breaking the Silence in Israel (an organization comprised totally of IDF soldiers who served on the West Bank) will know that Israeli soldiers and settlers have committed atrocities against Palestinians long before October 7. This reality haunts me and informs the last twenty years of my speaking about Israel. This is one of the reasons that the Temple Micah Israel Fund financially supports Breaking the Silence.
My moral evaluation of the current war is not related to the technical definitions of war crime or the violation of international law. There are certain things that I believe must happen in order for there to be peace in the region. Step one is a new government in both Israel and Gaza.
In terms of what we can do, it is a sad reality that we are largely powerless to do anything to change the current situation in Israel-Palestine. It is a very hard feeling to live with.
Rabbi Crawley: There is a humanitarian crisis going on in Gaza. This is one of the terrible outcomes of war. It should break our hearts. And, as we have outlined before, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to give aid that does not somehow make its way back to Hamas. There will be significant work to be done after this war to rebuild Gaza, and a Palestinian economy that does not allow for terrorism to thrive. I hope that we will find a way into that work, as humans, and as Jews.
Rabbi Beraha: You are correct in pointing out the ways in which certain progressive groups, whom we thought were our allies, have turned their backs on the Jews. This became particularly evident in the aftermath of October 7th when institutions and individuals, quick to condemn various other atrocities around the world, failed to offer support to the Jewish community.
One particularly troubling instance was the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter, which, just days after the attack on Israel, tweeted a picture of a Hamas operative paragliding next to a Palestinian flag with a caption that read “I stand with Palestine.”
I believe that Black-Jewish relations – if such a broad concept can even capture such a complex, layered relationship – were not in a good place to begin with before October 7th. As Terrence L. Johnson writes in Blacks and Jews in America (2022), “Black folks have long given up on an alliance with white Jews…Their experiences are informed by Jewish assimilation into white, middle-class social groups and by Jewish flight from communities of color.” He says further that “white Jews have benefited from liberalism in ways unimaginable to African Americans.”
As a solution, Johnson suggests that “Blacks and Jews must confront this tragic history,” and later in the book says, “Both groups need to turn inward before imagining any partnerships or conversations with each other. Truth telling within our respective communities behind closed doors is fundamental and necessary.” I find a possible way forward in Johnson’s words and hope that some of the work Micah has been doing through its Racial Justice Initiative is a start, but I know we have ways to go.
Rabbi Crawley: The loneliness of this moment has been significant. For me, and many in our community, we’ve experienced alienation as progressive allies have either been silent or made outright antisemitic statements.
Our job right now is to continue to do our work - advocate for our values, and build the society that we wish to see. We do not do racial justice work, refugee resettlement work, or other social justice work in order that the Jewish people will be well liked. We do it because it is Torah’s mandate for us. And I have to believe that this sort of work is bridge-building. We just haven’t figured out how to make the bridges strong enough to hold our disagreements yet. We haven’t figured out how to be honest enough with each other yet. But now is not the time to abandon building them. This also keeps us from being pawns in someone else’s political game. We always have to ask who our division serves.
Rabbi Beraha, with input from the Education team: Machon Micah employs various approaches to teach about the experiences of Jews, Arabs, and others in Israel, adapting the content based on grade level. For our students in K-3, Israel is primarily explored through biblical stories and discussions about Jewish holidays, often with connections to Israel. Additionally, we introduce them to Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah.
In the regular 5-7 curriculum, we teach about the origins of Zionism as a response to political antisemitism. We avoid politicizing any of this because our middle school students do not have the full context. As these students are young and our time limited, we speak in broad strokes from a perspective that as Jews, our connections with Israel are integral to modern Jewish life and that we support the people of Israel. We also make cultural connections whenever possible. We talk about music, Israeli innovation, food culture, and other positive connections with Israel.
This year, following October 7, we have created spaces for our 5-7th graders to ask questions of our rabbis, teachers, and Machon Micah staff. We also had a Zoom session with Rabbi Slakman’s younger brother, who shared insights into his experience living in Jerusalem at the time of the Hamas attack.
Our high school students have participated in a more in-depth, five-part series on Israel this year, planned and taught by our Machon Micah staff after October 7. The classes have been led by Mckinley Edelman, who is in the middle of a year-long ‘Israel in Depth Fellowship’, hosted by the Jewish Education Project in partnership with the Hartman Institute.
Rabbi Beraha: To me, the flag is an expression of our Jewish identity and our ties to Israel, however nuanced those ties are. It is also an expression of our American identity and underscores the importance of religious liberty. Especially in a climate where some may hesitate to outwardly display their Jewish identity, I believe all the more that it's crucial to defy that apprehension and boldly declare that we are a Jewish community.
And to the question of what it conveys, I want the national symbol of Israel, like the American flag, to be inclusive and embraced by all groups. Otherwise, it risks representing only a specific strand of nationalism. While this may not be immediately evident to someone passing by our building – I’m sure it’s not – I am dedicated to actively shaping the flag's representation to at least in part align with this deeply held value.
We've chosen to display the Israeli flag outside our building as a demonstration of support for the State of Israel. Unfortunately, it has been torn down and stolen multiple times and so we're trying to find a secure method for hanging it back up in a place that will prevent further incidents. But even as it's been ripped down, it is important for our community to know that we are in regular communication with the FBI, local police, and the Secure Community Network, and presently, there are no credible threats of violence to the Washington Jewish community.
Rabbi Slakman: The common belief that Judaism and Jewish culture supports fervent conversation, arguments, and questioning goes all the way to the Talmud – our foundational text structured around disagreements, expansions and explorations of disagreements, disagreements about what other people are disagreeing about, etc. Our intellectual traditions teach us to process ideas in community and to lean into ambiguity and debate, even to the point of relying on division to expose additional layers of meaning clarity, complexity, and maybe even truth. In recognition of this pillar of Jewish self understanding, our Roadmap identifies “tackling tough conversations” as crucial in sorting out what we think and believe on difficult issues. We are committed to creating spaces for difficult conversations, discussions, and disagreements from before October 7th and onward.
And yes, we must argue over what we should do next especially when it comes to disagreements about Israel and Palestine that force us to confront our deepest held moral beliefs and most complex self understandings.
That being said, the sages speak of two kinds of arguments: Arguments l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven, and lo l’shem shamayim, not for the sake of heaven. To clarify the distinction between these two types of arguments the sages identify arguments between Hillel and Shammai l’shem shamayim because parties commit to identifying and confronting the root of the disagreement to gain expansive, applicable, and nuanced understandings (not necessarily agreeing!). On the other hand, the argument between Korach and Moses in Numbers is indicative of a disagreement lo l’shem shamayim because Korach focuses on himself and centers his ego. He fails to engage the roots of the Israelites discomfort in the desert and instead assigns blame to those who he perceives as having the most power.
During these times, when I find myself shutting down because an opposing viewpoint upsets my deepest sensibilities or even my feelings of safety, I am trying to remember that I can only discover the truth that exists beyond my assumptions and fears by engaging in conversation.
Rabbi Crawley: A note on the role of the sermon. Temple Micah has always believed that its rabbis have freedom of the pulpit. There have been many moments when community members have disagreed with what has been shared from a rabbi or in a sermon. We view every sermon as the start of a conversation, not the end of one.